Hiking configurations

On a recent trip to the U.S. Southwest, I did a lot of hiking on the trails of the National Parks. Some of the trails are “natural,” in that you’re hiking on the unaltered surface that nature has provided. And other trails include manmade elements like surfacing or steps.

This got me thinking: Does a hiker expend the same amount of energy getting from a low point A to a high point B, regardless of the configuration of the trail? For example, is the energy the same, regardless of whether there are steps or a slope? And does it matter whether you’re going up a series of long steps for a long time, vs. short steps for a short time? And what if the trail has a lot of uphill-downhill stretches? Does the relative ease of the “ups” balance the relative difficulty of the “downs”?

And also, is a straight line (slope or steps) always the most efficient?

I vaguely remember from high school physics that the energy is determined by simply the horizontal distance and the vertical distance. But in real-life situations, don’t the above factors figure into it as well?

I’m not sure of your question. But groomed, maintained trails are much easier to negotiate, since there’s no need to watch every step. I “climbed” Hawaii’s broad, 18 mile slog up Mauna Kea, (or was it Mauna Loa?) and it’s all lava of course, and pure hell relative to a normal mountain trail.

Downhill isn’t all gravy either, it tends to be hard on the knees.

From the (high school) physics point of view, the “potential energy” would be the same acquired regardless of the route, and the uphills and downhills would balance out.

But from the “energy exerted” point of view, I don’t believe the same is true. Taking a simple situation: a hill with a trail, and the trail switchbacks up to the top. One could stay on the trail or one could “cut” the switchbacks and head directly to the top.
Since the elevation change is the same, the difference is the hiking distance required to get to the top. And I think this would account for a greater energy usage. So though they are easier (less grade), switchbacks could be considered “less efficient” because in the long run you use more energy than if you just cut straight up (provided it is possible).

That’s only true if climbing steep grades is more efficient than walking along the switchback. Stolling along is generally a more efficient form of travel, as energy from one stride is converted into the next stride.

For example, a kangaroo’s hopping is extremely efficient. If it could keep it’s hopping stride up the switchbacks that might be much more efficient (even though it is longer in distance) than using a crawling motion to climb the steeps.

Expanding other points, sort of mentioned above: the manicured trails are probably safer, with less loose material to slip on. They’re benched into the side of hills. There are trails with things like handrails at dangerous dropoffs, sometimes even steel cables for helping to climb steep rock faces (I’ve never been, but I think there’s one on the public trail up to Half Dome in Yosemite).

Ah, the major hiking trails are usually marked pretty well.

Sure, the theoretical Work involved may be the same, but us human animals do like us our little conveniences.

Walking on a sidewalk in a city park is easier than hiking the same distance on a trail in a national park. In the city park, you call it taking a stroll. On a trail in nature, you call it taking a *hike[/].
Imagine a simple, flat trail along a stream, vs. a simple path in a city park.The biggest difference is that on the nature trail you have to watch your feet with each and every step because the surface isn’t smooth.

(but instead of trying to calculate configurations, I’d recommend just getting out there and hiking. It’s fun! )