Abstract Based on an ensemble of kinetically accessible conformations, we propose a new analytical model for RNA folding kinetics. The model gives populational kinetics, kinetic rates, transition states, and pathways from the rate matrix. Applications of the new kinetic model to mechanical folding of RNA hairpins such as trans-activation-responsive RNA reveal distinct kinetic behaviors in different force regimes, from zero force to forces much stronger than the critical force for the folding-unfolding transition. In the absence of force or a low force, folding can be initiated (nucleated) at any position by forming the first base stack and there exist many pathways for the folding process. In contrast, for a higher force, the folding/unfolding would predominantly proceed along a single zipping/unzipping pathway. Studies for different hairpin-forming sequences indicate that depending on the nucleotide sequence, a kinetic intermediate can emerge in the low force regime but disappear in high force regime, and a new kinetic intermediate, which is absent in the low and high force regimes, can emerge in the medium force range. Variations of the force lead to changes in folding cooperativity and rate-limiting steps. The predicted network of pathways for trans-activation-responsive RNA suggests two parallel dominant pathways. The rate-limiting folding steps (at f = 8 pN) are the formation of specific basepairs that are 2–4 basepairs away from the loop. At a higher force ( f = 11 pN), the folding rate is controlled by the formation of the bulge loop. The predicted rates and transition states are in good agreement with the experimental data for a broad force regime.