Alpine, mountaineering & hiking grades

The SAC marks the requirements of hiking trails in colour

Hikers, tour hikers and climbers probably know the coloured markings, that can always be seen on paths and routes in the mountains. These are estimates about the level of difficulty of the path or route.

The classification of the respective levels go back to the SAC scale, which was developed in 2002 by the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC). It is similar to the single trail scale for mountain bikers and describes the trail conditions and the equipment required. The SAC provides scales for hiking trails, climbing routes (UIAA), ski routes and snow shoe routes.

Hiking scale (SAC)

The Swiss hiking scale is divided into six levels that range from T1 to T6 and are mainly based on the characteristics of the trail. T1, for example, indicates a well-tracked path without danger. You can walk it in trainers and it is easy to navigate. The marking is yellow. T4 indicates an Alpine trail, for which walking boots are essential, you have to use your hands to move forward and deal with exposed areas. Here, you will find white-blue-white path markings.

SAC hiking scale
Level Path Terrain Requirements
Well developed, signposted and marked. Somewhat exposed places very well secured. Flat or slightly inclined. No danger of falling with appropriate behaviour. No steady footing necessary. Can be walked in trainers. Navigation without a map possible.
Mountain hiking
Continuous route and passage marking. Steep in parts. Danger of falling not excluded. Some steady footing Trekking shoes recommended. Basic navigation skills.
Challenging mountain hiking
A footpath is usually available. Exposed places mostly secured with ropes or chains. Partially exposed areas with danger of falling, gravel plains, pathless steep terrain. Good steady footing Good trekking shoes. Average navigation skills. Basic Alpine experience.
Alpine walking
Path not necessarily available. Sometimes need to use hands to keep going. Mostly exposed. Tricky grass heaps, rocky slopes, simple firn fields and snow covered glacier passages. Familiarity in exposed terrain. Stable trekking shoes. Terrain assessment and good navigation skills. Alpine experience.
Challenging Alpine walking
Often without a path. Individual, simple climbing sections. Exposed. Challenging terrain, steep rocky slopes, snow covered glaciers and firn fields with danger of slipping. Mountaineering boots. Secure terrain assessment and very good navigation skills. Good Alpine experience also in high Alpine terrain. Elementary knowledge in handling a pickaxe and rope.
Difficult Alpine walking
Mostly without a path and unmarked. Climbing sections up to II. Often very exposed. Tricky rocky slopes, snow covered glaciers with increased danger of slipping. Excellent navigation skills. Proven alpine experience and familiarity with alpine equipment.

Unfortunately, the scales are only partially similar to those of the German, Austrian or Italian hiking associations. There are also regional differences, which is why you should find out in advance which scales are used locally and what they mean.

Marking of walking paths: Comparison of Switzerland and DAV (German Alpine Club)
Level of difficulty Marking
Swiss walking paths (SWW)
German Alpine Club (DAV)
T1  Hiking Yellow Blue
T2  Mountain hiking White-red-white Blue or red
T3  Challenging mountain hiking White-red-white Red
T4  Alpine hiking White-blue-white Red or black
T5  Challenging Alpine walking White-blue-white Black
T6  Difficult Alpine walking Mostly unmarked Mostly unmarked

Mountaineering scale (SAC)

The SAC developed an individual scale especially for alpine rock and ice tours. The reference point for grouping a route is always the corresponding key point. In the case of larger deviations, the areas are indicated directly in the description header. From the second level of difficulty there is a fine gradation via + and - and any climbing sections are described with the UIAA scale.

French terms are also used quite often. For example, the "quite difficult" level is abbreviated with ZS "for ziemlich schwierig" or AD for "assez difficile". From the level AS or ED (äußerst schwierig/extremely difficult/extrêment difficile) you have to be prepared for ice climbing passages that require appropriate equipment such as ice axes or crampons.

A special feature is the help criteria:

  • Challenging navigation
  • Difficult protection
  • Unreliable rock
  • Cancellation of the tour is problematic

If one or more help criteria have to be taken into account when planning the route, the level of difficulty is increased again.

SAC mountaineering scale
French English Rock UIAA level Firn & glaciers
Easy Simple walking terrain (boulder, stone ridge) From I Simple firn slopes, hardly any crevasses
Peu difficile
Not very hard Mostly walking terrain, increased step safety necessary, climbing sections clearly arranged and unproblematic. From II Mostly less steep drops, short passages steep, few crevasses
Assez difficile
Fairly hard Repeated securing necessary, longer and more exposed climbing areas From III Steeper slopes, many crevasses, small Bergschrund (mountain crevasse)
Hard Good navigational sense and efficient rope handling required, long climbing sections, usually belaying From IV Very steep slopes, many crevasses, large Bergschrund
Très difficile
Very hard Continuous belaying in difficult places, persistently challenging climbing From V Continuously steep terrain
Extremement difficile
Extremely hard Wall passages that require great commitment From VI Very steep and vertical places, ice climbing required
Abominable difficle
Incredibly hard Extremely steep, partly overhanging wall passages VII and more Extreme ice climbing

Climbing scale (UIAA)

The original UIAA scale was developed long before the emergence of modern sport climbing and is therefore only partially applicable to today's requirements. It is indicated in Roman numerals and ranges from I to VII. The UIAA scale used today was therefore extended and now reaches up to a difficulty level of 11+, although from the eighth level there is no literal definition any more, but with higher digits there are increased demands on climbing ability, physique and psyche.

A detailed description of common climbing scales can be found in our practical climbing grade converter and via ferrata grade guide.

Level of the UIAA climbing scale
Difficulty Description (rock climbing)
Slight difficulties
Simplest form of rock climbing (not easy walking terrain!) Hands required for balance. Beginners secured to the rope. A head for heights is required.
Moderate difficulties
Movement with simple combinations of steps and handles (three-point-technique).
Medium difficulties
Intermediate securing at exposed points is recommended. Vertical places or overhangs with good grip require physical effort.
Great difficulties
Substantial climbing experience required. Longer climbing sections usually require several intermediate safety devices.
Very great difficulties
Increasing number of intermediate safety devices. Greater physical requirements, climbing technique and experience.
Extreme difficulties
Above-average ability and good level of training required. Great exposure, often combined with small sites. Good conditions are usually a prerequisite for conquerability.
Exceptional difficulties
Only achievable through increased training and improved equipment. Acrobatic climbing ability and command of sophisticated safety technology are essential.
VIII to XI+ A verbal definition is not possible here. This is a further increase in the difficulties to be faced, which place ever greater demands on climbing skills and physical and mental performance.

Ski tours scale (SAC)

The Swiss Alpine Club has now also developed its own scale for ski tours. The terms are similar to the high speed scale and range from "easy" to "extremely difficult". The classification is based on the expected steepness, the exposure, the type of terrain, bottlenecks during the descent and other help criteria such as difficult navigation, non-visible route and unrecoverable route errors.

The help criteria are used for fine adjustment. Further gradations are indicated by a + or -. In addition, the levels only ever relate to the skiing part of the tour and are also based on good weather and snow conditions. Of course, important equipment such as avalanche beacons, shovels and probes should also be included.

SAC ski tours scale
Difficulty Steepness Exposure Terrain (ascent & descent) Bottlenecks (descent)
Up to 30°C No risk of slipping Soft, hilly, smooth ground None
Less difficult
From 30°C Short slippery paths, gently running out Predominantly open slopes with short steep steps, obstacles with alternatives, hairpins bends necessary Short and less steep
Quite difficult
From 35°C Longer slipping distances with braking possibilities (risk of injury) Short steep steps without alternatives, obstacles in moderately steep terrain, safe hairpins bends necessary Short, but steep
From 40°C Long slippery paths, partly breaking off in steep steps (danger to life) Steep slopes without alternatives, many obstacles, perfected and safe techniques required Long and steep, short turns still possible for experts
Very difficult
From 45°C Slippery paths breaking off in steep steps (danger to life) Continuously steep terrain, often interspersed with rock steps, many obstacles in short succession Long and steep, cross jumps and sliding necessary
Extremely difficult
From 50°C Extremely exposed Extremely steep slopes or couloirs, no opportunities for relaxation on the descent Long and very steep, interspersed with steps, only passable with cross jumps and descents
Extremely difficult
From 55°C Extremely exposed Extreme cliffs and couloirs Maybe abseiling over rock steps required

Snowshoe tours scale (SAC)

Oh wow! Since the transition from a ski tours scale to a snowshoes tour scale is of course not a big one, SAC decided to create another scale and developed a snowshoes tour scale. At its core, it resembles the ski tour scale and is also based on the terrain and possible dangers.

Good weather conditions as well as knowledge of appropriate navigation tools such as a compass, altimeter or GPS are required, as well as good weather conditions. Requirements for avalanche knowledge are also defined. The scale ranges from WT1 to WT6 where "WT" stands for "winter trekking".

SAC snowshoe tours scale
Difficulty Steepness Terrain Dangers Requirements
Easy snowshoe hike
Up to 25°C, flat or slightly steep overall No steep slopes in the immediate vicinity No danger of avalanches, slipping or falling Avalanche knowledge not necessary
Snowshoe hiking
Up to 25°C, flat or slightly steep overall Steep slopes in the immediate vicinity Danger of avalanche, no danger of slipping or falling Basic knowledge in assessing the avalanche situation
Challenging snowshoe hiking
Up to 30°C, slightly to moderately steep overall Short passages steeper than the generally indicated steepness Risk of avalanche, low risk of slipping, short and watery slippery paths Basic knowledge in assessing the avalanche situation
Snowshoe tour
Up to 30°C, moderately steep Short passages that are steeper than general steepness and/or crossing of slopes, partly interspersed with rocks; glaciers with few crevasses Danger of avalanches, danger of slipping with risk of injury, low risk of falling Good knowledge in assessing the avalanche situation, good walking technique, basic alpine knowledge
Alpine snowshoe tour
Up to 35°C, steep Short passages that are steeper than general steepness and/or crossing slopes, and/or rock steps, glaciers Danger of avalanches, danger of falling, danger of falling in crevasses, alpine hazards Good knowledge in assessing the avalanche situation, good alpine skills, safe walking
Challenging alpine snowshoe tour
Up to 35°C, very steep Challenging passages and/or crossing of slopes and/or rock steps; glaciers with many crevasses Danger of avalanches, danger of falling, danger of falling in crevasses, alpine hazards Good knowledge in assessing the avalanche situation, very good alpine skills, safe walking in rocks, firn and ice
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