If you spend enough time in the hiking or climbing communities, at some point, you’ll come across the term ‘exposure.’ But what is exposure?
Better yet, what does exposure mean on mountains?
People most commonly use exposure to refer to large drops or cliffs that could be dangerous on a hiking, climbing, or scrambling route. But there are many definitions for the term ‘exposure’ in the mountains. Exposure can also be used to refer to sun exposure, or the compass direction that a slope faces.
Since there are so many potential uses for the term ‘exposure’ in the mountains, it can be hard to keep all these definitions straight. In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at how this term is used so that you can be more knowledgeable during your next adventure.
Definition of Exposure While on Mountains
The term ‘exposure’ is commonly used in hiking and climbing communities, but what does it actually mean? There are a few different definitions of the term ‘exposure,’ including:
Risk of Falling/Injury on a Trail
The most common use of the term ‘exposure’ in the mountains has to do with your risk of falling and becoming injured as you hike, scramble, or climb. A hiking, scrambling, or climbing route can be described as ‘exposed’ if the route poses a large risk of a fall down steep terrain. Most technical climbing routes are exposed due to their steepness.
But even a relatively easy hiking or scrambling route can also be exposed if hikers and scramblers are required to move over terrain where a slip or fall would cause them to tumble down a long distance. Falling on an exposed hiking or scrambling route can lead to a serious or fatal injury, so these types of adventures should only be undertaken by experienced hikers or scramblers.
Geographical Aspect of a Slope
You may also hear people use the term ‘exposure’ to refer to the aspect of a slope relative to compass directions. A slope that faces south can be said to have a southwest aspect or a southwest exposure. This information is important to know in many outdoor pursuits—especially backcountry skiing—because it can have a huge impact on the avalanche risk of a given route.
Climbers are also often interested in slope aspect/exposure because south-facing slopes in the northern hemisphere tend to dry out faster than north-facing slopes due to their position relative to the sun.
Of all these definitions, however, the first one is arguably the most common in the outdoor community.
If you hear someone describe a climbing, hiking, or scrambling route as having a lot of exposure, then they’re probably talking about the consequences of falling/having an accident on that route due to a steep drop, and not to a slope’s aspect. But if you’re confused, it’s always worth clarifying which definition of ‘exposure’ someone is using.
What Are The Different Classes of Hiking?
As you can imagine, not everyone is comfortable with exposure while hiking (or climbing and scrambling, for that matter). To help people determine what kinds of routes are best for their needs and adventure styles there is a grading system for hiking trails in place that splits routes up into different “classes.”
The different classes of hiking routes can be defined in a number of ways, but the most common grading system is as follows:
- Class 1 – Relatively well-marked trails that have little exposure and don’t require much specialized equipment besides your hiking shoes, trekking poles, and the 10 essentials.
- Class 2 – Similar to Class 1 trails but may require the occasional use of your hands for balance or to pull yourself over a small obstacle. May not be very well marked or could require traversing moderately exposed scree slopes or boulder fields.
- Class 3 – More rugged terrain than what you see with Class 2 trails. Usually requires longer sections of scrambling using your hands. There may be substantial exposure on a Class 3 route, so some people choose to climb with a rope to mitigate the risk of a serious fall. Only suitable for very experienced hikers.
- Class 4 – Similar to Class 3 terrain but with even more exposure. Falling on Class 4 terrain could lead to serious or fatal injuries. Many people opt to use a rope and other climbing protection on Class 4 terrain. Only suitable for very experienced hikers.
- Class 5 – Technical rock climbing. In the US and Canada, Class 5 climbing routes are further classified according to the Yosemite Decimal System. Requires the use of technical rock climbing skills and equipment (e.g., ropes, harnesses, belay device, protection). An unprotected fall on a Class 5 route can lead to serious or fatal injuries. Only suitable for experienced rock climbers and mountaineers.
Most hiking is done on Class 1 or Class 2 terrain. Both Class 3 and Class 4 routes can be classified as “scrambling” and come with a heightened level of risk. As such, they are only suitable for experienced hikers. Anyone looking to complete a Class 3, 4, or 5 route is encouraged to seek out specialized training from an experienced climbing guide or instructor before setting out on their own.
Also read: Is Hiking Half Dome Dangerous?
How Do You Deal With Exposure While Hiking?
Dealing with exposure while hiking requires both mental fortitude and physical skill. On routes where the terrain itself isn’t very challenging but there is quite a bit of exposure, most people find that their fear of heights is what holds them back.
There’s no universal way to deal with a fear of heights, but most people find that starting with easier, less exposed routes and working your way up to more exposed routes over time can help.
If you’re really struggling with the mental side of dealing with exposure while hiking, you may want to seek out the help of a professional sports psychologist who can help you deal with the fear that’s holding you back.
But it’s important to recognize that you don’t have to hike on exposed trails if you don’t want to. If you’re not comfortable in that kind of terrain, you can always avoid it altogether and opt for less exposed trails where you feel more confident.
The other side of dealing with exposure while hiking is the physical aspect of moving over exposed terrain. If you’re in an exposed environment, sure-footedness and good technique are really important. People who feel unsteady on their feet or who aren’t confident in their movements should generally avoid exposed terrain as it comes with an increased risk of serious injury during a fall.
Exposure in the Mountains: Is It Just Part of the Adventure?
If you spend enough time hiking, climbing, or scrambling, at some point, you’ll come across exposed terrain in the mountains. But while many people enjoy moving through exposed and dangerous routes, it’s not right for everyone.
Hiking in exposed terrain requires mental fortitude and solid physical technique. If you’re not comfortable with exposure, you should never feel pressured to take on a route that’s not appropriate for your adventure style. There are plenty of great ways to enjoy the mountains, so it’s all about finding what’s best for you.
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David Parnell is the founder and lead editor at Trail and Summit, who enjoys writing on a wide range of topics from travel trailers to trail running. He’s an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.