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Hiking Pace: Mix It Up A Little

Some hikers are what I call "fast starters" in terms of hiking pace.

They practically run up the trail, before their muscles have had a chance to get warmed up.

They are either oblivious to their cold muscles, or determined to get a "head start". Whatever that means.

Unless they actually ARE trail runners!

  • Either way, their muscles can't be happy with a fast pace right out of the gate.


Other people are "slow starters".

They hike for ten minutes, then stop to make multiple adjustments to gear, or look for a snack, or consult the map, or just want to talk.

There's nothing wrong with making adjustments and being attuned to comfort level, but I'm left wondering how muscles will ever get into the proper rhythm for the hike at such an inconsistent hiking pace.


Me?

I'm a "not too fast, not too slow" kind of hiker.

I like to stretch a little.

Then I get started at a slow, reasonable hiking pace and ramp up from there to the optimal speed, given the terrain, weather conditions, and how my legs are feeling that day.


So what's a normal hiking speed?

What a great question!

And there's no answer to give you right here.

If we were on a hiking trail together, I could give you a much more tailored answer. But you can use the information below to help you dial in your own optimal hiking speed.

In general, a conditioned hiker who knows where she is headed can expect to cover between two and three miles per hour (3.2-4.8 km/hour) on an established trail.

  • If you're in the back country, all bets are off on hiking speed.
  • And if you're hiking with a load on your back, your day hike pace will need to be adjusted downward to accommodate the weight in your larger backpack.

Tip: To avoid bitter disappointment and running out of daylight, don't rely upon the mileage stated on trail signs. Some of the signs are old and not reliable.

  • Always double check your distances on your map, and on your GPS unit if you're using one.
  • Knowing how much distance you've covered, divided by the amount of time it took you, gives you an average hiking speed.

If you want to geek out on calculations of hiking pace planning and adjustments, this guy will help you out.


Many factors affect hiking pace,
but pay attention to your body

Ever have one of those days on the trail when your legs feel like cement?

Or your lungs are burning after just 5 minutes of uphill work?

I have learned to give in gracefully on those days and slow my pace to accommodate my aging body.

If I try to ignore the feedback signals and forge ahead at a too-fast pace, my body pays me back later by not wanting to reach the summit, or being cranky and sore the next day.

And I definitely want to avoid inflammation in my muscles and joints.

That's why I check in with myself and pay attention to how I'm feeling after about 30 minutes of hiking.

I use that data to adjust my hiking pace to my internal conditions.

So here's the nugget of wisdom: If your body feels tired, sick, reluctant or drained of energy, re-think your hiking plan. Adjust it, or abandon it altogether. Head home and take care of yourself!

And on days when your legs feel great?

Smile a great big hiker smile! Then pick up your pace until you "hit the wall"*, then back off slightly and maintain that pace.

*Note: Hitting the wall can include:

  • ragged tortured breathing,
  • maybe a stitch in your side,
  • lots of sweat pouring down your back and neck, 
  • feeling like you want to vomit,
  • burning thigh & leg muscles.
  • Every fiber of your hiking being will say STOP, or at least SLOW DOWN.

It's probably obvious, but let's mention it here anyway: Your level of conditioning is also important for trail pace.

  • If you need a few hints about pre-hike conditioning, read this.
Female hiker resting on large boulder on Mt. RainierAnd sometimes you just gotta give in and become one with the rocks! Resting is a hiking pace, isn't it?


Trail conditions will dictate
your hiking pace

Another factor that can affect your pace?

Trail conditions.

It's not possible to know ahead of time if there are downed tree limbs or deep ruts left by dirt bikes or horses on the trail (unless you were lucky enough to hear it through the grape vine or read a current trail report).

What if it rained the night before, leaving deep mud holes to negotiate? That will definitely slow you down.

As will hiking on unstable surfaces like pebbles, sand, or gravel.

There's also the possibility that a stretch of trail is closed or re-routed for maintenance or animal activity such as elk breeding season or grizzly sightings.

Again, I caution you to be philosophical about all of these possibilities.

If you have to go slower, so be it.

Of course, it will eat into your turn around time, but perhaps you can make up the time higher up or farther along the trail.

  • Tip: Always keep a running tab on how much time remains until you reach your hiking objective (waterfall, lake, summit, camp site) so you don't get into a time bind.

Some folks set a timer and when it's turn around time, guess what they do?

Turn around! Brilliant!

And there's one big condition which is non-negotiable: meeting a bear on the trail.

Don't even think twice.

  • Simply backtrack and allow the bear at least 30 minutes to clear out before venturing back for a peek. You are in his/her living room, after all!
  • Be extra cautious if you spot cubs. You know the stories about mama bear bad manners, and they're all true.
  • Here are some bear repellent strategies.


    What terrain is the trail
    taking your through?

    The contours of the terrain dictates pace, too.

    In the Pacific Northwest, most day hikes to a viewpoint involve a big investment of time climbing uphill in order to gain a vista.

    • A vertical gain of three or four thousand feet in a few hours is all in a day's work.
    • As is the mental agony of losing all of that hard work within an hour on the descent; ya gotta be tough if you wanna hike up to the high country!

    So adjusting your mental expectations to account for the fact that you will be spending several hours working hard will spare you some angst.

    If I know that ahead of time (and I do, having read trail reports and descriptions), I don't feel bad about investing the sweat.

    But when I get surprised by unexpected elevation gains and losses, or having to negotiate really steep and unstable footing, I become a bit cranky.

    And guess what?
    Cranky slows me down!

    So knowing the terrain before hand, to whatever extent is possible, allows me to calculate the pace I will need to reach my objective by my turn-around time.

    I recommend spending time with maps and trail descriptions before venturing out on a new trail for this reason.

    Be sure you know what the weather is up to.

    Note the elevation gain and loss along your hiking route, and realize that uphill hiking takes you to areas of lower oxygen. That makes your body work harder, and slows you down.

    Seasonal variations will change your pace, too.

    In the winter, on snowshoes, the pace is slow and steady, slower and steadier if you're breaking trail.

    One foot in front of the other snowshoed foot - a zen like rhythm eats up the miles and works up a sweat.

    More frequent breaks in cool or wet weather make sense when you're burning through calories just to stay warm!

    But in summer conditions you may be able to blast your way through the same terrain more quickly, but with more attention paid to your hydration status.

    woman on snowshoesLooking uphill and calculating the hiking pace I'll need to get to the ridge.


    Setting a hiking pace in groups

    A quick word about pacing rules for hiking in groups:

    The slowest hiker sets the pace for the group.

    If you don't like that rule, don't hike with groups.

    Why?

    Because it's a good idea to stay together, or at least stay in pairs.

    Having hikers strung out along the trail is asking for trouble, unless each of them is a strong, well-equipped hiker with navigating skills and common sense.

    Too much can go wrong in the outdoors to allow an inexperienced slow hiker to remain alone on the trail.

    The trip leader should make the decision about whether the group splits up into smaller groups or not, and how to adjust the hiking pace.

    Putting the slowest hiker at the head of the line works well if the other hikers are able to mentally adjust to a slower pace.

    And if you're the slow hiker, don't feel bad.

    Hiking in groups requires different pacing than hiking solo or with just one hiking buddy.

    Anyone who goes group hiking should be willing to accommodate the slowest hiker, and not get snarky about a slower pace.


    Tools to help you set, and keep, a good hiking pace for your goals

    You're a prepared hiker.

    You've selected an objective, and have determined your route on a map.

    You've got plenty of daylight, and lots of energy.

    Now for the hard part: pacing yourself.

    Why not let technology lend a helping hand? Or, if you prefer, a wrist?

    Back in the day, a watch on your wrist was just a watch: keeping watch on the passage of time.

    Today, you can strap more than just a time keeper onto your wrist.

    This reasonably priced digital hiking watch gives you lots of data to factor into your hiking pace:

    • pressure-based altimeter to check your progress snf location against your topographical map
    • barometer to keep track of changing weather conditions (important when rain is moving in)
    • thermometer (so you know ahead of time when the water in your bottle will freeze)
    • date and time (because it's easy to lose track on the trail)
    • timer, alarms, stopwatch (useful for backpacking meal prep and sticking to your turn around time)
    • backlit display for early morning or late evening hiking
    • water resistance so a foggy day shouldn't affect it.

    To kick things up a few notches, this hiking GPS multifunction watch does even more for you on the trail:

    • programmable routes and breadcrumb trail as you progress along the route
    • locations can be stored (for putting in up to 250 way points, or marking your favorite spots)
    • step and calorie tracker (love this feature!!)
    • compass
    • GPS/satellite detectable
    • visual map display
    • on line app to store your data

    Hint: If you're looking for a fantastic gift for your favorite hiker, or need a few items to put on your own wish list, check out these watches. All of the data they provide will keep you oriented and notify you of your turn around time, hike after hike.


    Your pace is your own. Adjust often!

    So to sum it up (get it? summit up?):

    Pacing on the trail is personal.

    Your approach to the trail depends on many factors you can't control.

    And it varies day to day within your body.

    Be smart enough to avoid injury by being smart enough to allow your brain to listen to the feedback from your joints, muscles, and bones.

    After all, they're doing all of the work!


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