What Does Out and Back Trail Mean in Hiking? [Defining a Confusing Term]
Hiking is truly one of the best ways to get out into nature and experience the beauty that our world has to offer.
But it’s crucial for your safety to have planned out your hike and ensure that you know what’s going on and what to expect.
And when you’re looking at the trail reports or information about it, you might find yourself wondering, what does out and back trail mean?!
There are tons of terms out there that can be confusing for first-time hikers, including the different types of traiks that you’ll find.
So in this post, I’m going to walk you through what an out-and-back trail is, what to expect on them, and the benefits and negatives of them.
What Does Out and Back Trail Mean in Hiking?
There are a few different types of trails that you might see when doing research for hikes that you’re looking to do.
Out and back is one of them, and happens to be one of the most popular types of trails.
In the simplest terms, an out-and-back trail is a type of trail that starts and ends in the same place.
The starting and ending point is some sort of trailhead or parking lot that you’ll park your car in, complete the hike, and then return to.
Usually, the turnaround point is a viewpoint or attraction such as a waterfall, lake, mountain view, etc.
After you’ve seen the view, you’ll turn back and follow the same path that you took to reach the viewpoint and head back to the trailhead.
Examples of Out and Back Trails
Below I’ve listed a few examples of out-and-back trails to help give you a better idea of what to expect when hiking one.
- A 5-Mile Out and Back Trail: Hike out on the trail for 2.5 miles before reaching the attraction, then turn around and hike 2.5 miles back to the trailhead on the same trail.
- Angels Landing Trail: Hike 2.2 miles to the top of Angels Landing, then turn around and head back to the shuttle stop on the same trail.
- Colchuck Lake Trail: Hike 4.05 miles to Colchuck Lake before retracing your steps back to where your car is parked.
Pros of an Out and Back Trail
There are a lot of awesome benefits that come with out-and-back hikes that make them some of the most popular.
Let’s go over some of the most significant pros of this type of hiking trail.
One of the best parts of an out-and-back trail is that they are fairly easy to navigate, compared to others where you have to turn.
You’ll basically just have to head out straight on the trail until you reach that mid-point where you’re going to turn around.
Sometimes there may be turns, but you’ll be able to pretty easily navigate those using an app such as All Trails or another navigation device.
You also might find it easier to find your way back to the car because you’ll pass landmarks two times.
There’s really just less of a chance of getting lost because when in doubt, just go back the same way that you came.
But, although it may seem easier, you still should plan to follow navigation for your safety and to ensure you don’t get lost.
Out-and-back trails are great because they typically have a pretty epic spot to hang out at in the middle before turning around.
You’ll know exactly where that mountain viewpoint, waterfall, lake, or otherwise will be because it’s typically the turn-around spot.
I always love to stop and eat some lunch or a snack at the mid-point because it allows me some time to take in the beautiful views!
Some other types of trails, such as loops, might have views along the trail, but they usually don’t have one place that you’re trying to get to.
This also gives you better motivation to keep going, because you’ll know what’s waiting for you at the top!
Another pro of hiking this type of trail is that you’ll be familiar with the trail on your way back to the trailhead.
After you’ve passed a funky-looking tree, a beautiful viewpoint, or a patch of wildflowers, you’ll remember that and about how far into the hike you are.
So once you’re headed back to the car, you might see that same tree and think, ‘hey, I remember this! We’re only about 1 mile from the car.’
This also makes it easier and faster to hike back, as you won’t need to rely as heavily on navigation.
Hiking in the dark can also become easier, as you may remember spots that are easy to trip on, where to turn, etc.
Easy to Turn Around
It’s much easier to turn around on an out-and-back trail than others just because of their familiarity.
If someone in your group started to get a blister and needed to head back, it’ll be easier for them to go alone, since they’ll know the way.
You’ll also know exactly how far you have to hike before you get back to your car.
Elevation Might Be Easier
One of my favorite parts of out-and-back trails is that it can sometimes make heading back to the car a breeze!
Many trails, especially in the mountains or hilly regions, require that you climb a bit to reach the viewpoint.
This means that on your way back to the trailhead, you’ll get to hike downhill for pretty much the entire way!
I always find myself out of breath on uphill hikes and then saying, “well at least it’s all downhill on the way back!” 😆
Again, this gives a little more motivation, knowing that you won’t have to make that same climb on the way back.
Easy to Know Location
Lastly, out-and-back trails make it a lot easier to know where you’re at on the trail and how far you have to get back to the car.
However far along you are on the trail is how far you have left to get back to the trailhead.
For example, if I’ve hikes 3 miles out, I have 3 miles to get back to the car.
You can also do some pretty simple math to determine how much total distance you have left.
For example, if I’m hiking a trail that is 4.5 miles long, and I’m 2 miles into the trail, I’ll know that I have 0.25 miles to the turn around and 2.5 miles back to my car.
This is because a 4.5 mile trail will equal out to be 2.25 miles out and 2.25 miles back.
Testing New Gear
Some people enjoy testing out and breaking in new boots or bags on out and back trails before bringing them on other hikes.
This is because it’s so easy to turn around that they can head back to the trailhead if anything were to go wrong with that gear.
Cons of an Out and Back Trail
Although there are tons of pros when it comes to hiking this type of trail, there are also a few cons to consider.
But let’s be honest here, the pros totally outweigh the cons, which is why they are one of the most popular trail types.
Same Views Both Ways
Something that I don’t love about out-and-back trails is the fact that you aren’t going to get any chance of scenery on the way back to the trailhead.
Because you’re just retracing your steps, you’re going to have views of the same things that you had on the way out.
This can be totally fine if those views are epic and you could stare at them all day long.
But if you’re just hiking through the woods, it may get a bit boring to stare at the same thing both directions.
Might Feel Longer Than Other Types
Another potential con of these trails is that it might feel longer when you’re hiking them, compared to loops or other types.
This is because you have to hike the whole distance out, and then remind yourself that you still have that whole distance back.
Especially on long trails, this can be a total bummer.
For example, after I’ve already hiked 5 miles to reach the viewpoint, I remember that I still have 5 more miles to go before I get to the car.
Why Should I Choose an Out and Back Trail?
Sometimes there isn’t really a choice as to what type of trail you embark on, especially if you have your heart set on a certain one.
What I mean by this is that there is typically only one way to get to a location, so if you want to see it, you’ll need to take that route.
But if you’re just looking for a reason to get outside and are choosing which type of trail to take, you may want to choose an out and back!
Now you already read the pros of them up above, so I won’t delve too deep into why you should choose one here.
One of the best reasons to take an out-and-back trail is the simplicity of them.
You don’t have to pay a ton of attention to your navigation, as you’re simply heading straight out on a trail and then straight back.
They also are easy to turn back early if need be, as you simply need to head back the same way.
I also love them because I know when I’m getting close to the car because I’m already familiar with the area.
How is Distance Measured on an Out and Back Trail?
All hiking trails vary in distance, and are measured in different ways, depending on the type of trail.
When it comes to what out and back trail means, the definition of how it’s measured is pretty much in the name!
Out-and-back trails are measured by adding the distance from the trailhead out to the destination with the distance from the destination back to the trailhead.
This measurement is typically called ’roundtrip,’ which just means the total distance of the entire trail.
For example, if the distance from the trailhead to the destination is 3 miles, and from the destination back to the trailhead is 3 miles, the roundtrip distance is 6 miles.
An easier way to measure this is by just seeing how far it is from the trailhead to the destination and then multiplying that number by 2.
Most hiking apps tend to give their distances in round-trip measurements, such as All Trails.
But, when you arrive to the trailhead and look at the sign, it will likely list the distance as just from the trailhead to the destination.
So you’ll need to multiply that distance by 2 to get the roundtrip distance.
Are Out and Back Trails Measured in Round Trip?
When you’re looking at a hiking app such as All Trails, you may be a bit confused on whether the distance they’re showing is round-trip or one-way.
Typically, the distances on these apps are in round-trip.
So for example, if All Trails says that a hike is 6 miles, that means that the total distance is 6 miles, and it will be 3 miles out and 3 miles back.
But, one thing to be aware of is that the signs at the actual trailhead are usually stated for one-way unless otherwise noted.
So be sure to double that distance to ensure you know how far the hike actually is.
Other Types of Hiking Trails
Aside from just out and back, there are a few other types of hiking trails that you might see when planning a trip.
Because there are so many confusing hiking terms out there, I wanted to explain all of the most popular types of trails for you and what you can expect from them.
A loop trail is exactly what the name suggests it is!
Loops start and end in the same place, but bring you around one or multiple trails in a circle.
So you won’t have a mid-point where you turn around, but instead, you’ll just continue on the trail for the entire way.
I personally love loop trails because they allow you to see new scenery for the whole trail, rather than going back in the same direction.
Lollipop trails are kind of like a mixture between an out-and-back and a loop.
You’ll again start and end in the same spot, and head out on what seems to be an out and back.
But you’ll soon come to a point where you’ll need to choose which direction to go!
This is where the “lollipop” term comes in.
Choose whichever direction you’d like (or which is recommended) and then make your way around the loop, before returning to the “stick” to finish.
Point-to-point trails are the most difficult to complete because of the extra few steps that they take to plan out.
On this type of trail, you start at one trailhead, hike the entire trail, and then end at another trailhead.
This becomes tricky because you’ll need to find a way to get back to your car at the starting point.
Most people plan to hike with friends and park one car at each trailhead, while others plan to have someone pick them up.
Some popular trailheads (such as The Enchantments) have a shuttle system that can take you from one trailhead to the other.
These trails are most often completed on multi-day hikes or backpacking trips.
Safety Tips for Hiking
When you’re out on the hiking trail, of course there are some safety tips that you should follow to ensure that you have a safe return to the car.
Here are a few of the top tips for staying safe on the trail.
- Always be prepared when heading out onto the trail. Have enough food, water, clothing, etc.
- Carry at least 1 liter of water for every 1/2 hour on the trail.
- Stay within your limits to make sure that you don’t need SAR or get hurt.
- Be sure to check the weather before heading out to ensure that you’re aware of if it’s supposed to rain, snow, be sunny, etc.
- Use navigation so you don’t get lost.
- Be sure that your phone is charged so you can use maps or call someone if needed.
What Does 5 Miles Out and Back Mean?
When a trail says that it is ‘5 miles out and back’, that means that you will hike 2.5 miles out to the mid-point, and then another 2.5 miles back to the trailhead.
This creates a roundtrip distance of 5 miles.
How Long is an Out and Back Trail?
Out and back trails vary in length and there is no set distance for them.
Although most are done in a single day, so typically under 12-15 miles.
Does Out and Back Mean One Way?
No, out and back does not mean one way.
Out and back means that you will hike a certain distance “out” and then that same distance, on the same trail, “back.”
These trails are able to be traveled two ways on.
Is Out and Back the Same as Round Trip?
No, out and back and round trip do not mean the same thing.
Out and back trail means a type of hiking trail where you hike from the trailhead to a destination, and then return using the same path.
Round-trip is a measurement of a hiking distance that includes the distance of the entire hike from start to finish.
What is a Point-to-Point Trail?
A point-to-point trail is a type of trail that starts at one trailhead and ends at a different trailhead.
What is a Loop Trail?
A loop trail is a trail that starts and ends in the same point, after following a trail that leads in a circle.
Conclusion: What Does Out and Back Trail Mean?
There are many types of trails out there, and it can definitely get confusing if you’re trying to make plans to get out into nature.
So if you’ve found yourself wondering what does out and back trail mean, then you aren’t alone, because it can be a tricky one to figure out!
Basically out and back means that you’ll hike on the same trail from start to finish, and you will end in the same place that you started.
I hope that you’ve learned a bit more about hiking trail types in this post!