Going the distance: How many miles can you hike in a day?

Many hikers over-estimate how much territory can be covered in an average day of hiking. Weather conditions and elevation are some key factors that determine how much distance can be achieved. Pacing, terrain and trail conditions are key in determining how many miles can be hiked in a day.

The Oklahoma sun bore down with a ferocity usually reserved for revenge. The prairie grasses, which had been so soft and green in the spring, now stood like toothpicks from the baked clay. On the horizon, the heat gathered and danced. The atmosphere was boiling.

Half a day rote our three-day hike along the Washita River in the grasslands of western Oklahoma, and at about the same time as my overheated boots started to delaminate, I recognized a sobering fact: In the heat, our pace was much slower. If we didn’t pick it up, we wouldn’t reach camp. We wouldn’t reach water. What was supposed to be a casual backpacking trip would turn into a Survival Situation.

We toiled on in the heat and clawed into camp well after dark. I stuck my head in the creek and drank water until I threw up. The next day we limped out to a phone. Trip over.

“Overestimating the distance you can hike in a day is a common problem,” says Jim German, senior editor for Backpacker magazine. “It’s dismaying to discover how slow you actually go.”

What, then, is a realistic distance you can expect to cover during a backpacking trip?

The 2160-mile Appalachian Trail has been “hiked” in a blistering 54 days, but the average through-hiker takes four months. The difference between those two paces is the result of a host of variables that will affect your mileage.

Pace:

Your goal is to enjoy yourself, and the key to that is striking your natural pace, which, of course, depends on your fitness level. To get a rough idea of your pace, take several one-day or half-day hikes near your home. Carry the load you’ll start with on your big trip and walk at a speed that feels natural–not too slow, but not hurried either. Bring a watch, hike a measured distance, and see how you do. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, which will be either you or your partner. Set the pace of your trip based on that of your slowest member

Terrain:

it’s not rocket science–you’ll make better time crossing the Cimarron National Grasslands in Kansas than pulling the steep grades in Kocky Mountain National Park. “An average person in average shape carrying a 35-pound pack,” says German, “should comfortably make two miles an hour, or 10 to 15 miles a day on flat ground. But figure an extra hour for each 1000 feet of vertical gain.”

Time of Year:

There are more hours of daylight in the summer than in the winter, thus more time to hike. But you aren’t in the military. You won’t hike nonstop dawn to dusk. You’ll roll out of bed, have coffee, take in the view, and then get going. You’ll also break for lunch and will stop hiking–or will want to at least an hour before dark. Set your daily distance goals accordingly.

Elevation:

I live at 8000 feet and am acclimated to that elevation, so it is always a shocker when at 10,000 feet I feel as if I just aged 20 years. Lack of oxygen slows you down. Unless you’re a Sherpa, plan on having your pace drop off radically by at least one-third when you near the treeline or go above 10,000 feet.

Weather:

Rain, snow, sleet, high wind, extreme cold and, as I sadly discovered, heat, will all drag you down. If possible, plan your trip during the season with the most favorable weather, then factor a time-cushion into your schedule to account for the afternoon you might spend holed-up in the tent waiting out a monsoon.

Trail Condition:

Popular trails are typically well maintained and not much more difficult to walk on than a dirt road. Get off the beaten track, however, and your pace will slow to a crawl as you bushwhack through dense brush and slip in loose scree. I figure that I can easily cover 15 miles a day on established trails, but can make as few as five off-road. Plan conservatively, allow for error, and your next trip will leave you begging for more, not mercy.

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