Embarking on a backpacking journey involves careful planning and preparation. The first step is to determine is where you are going and the next step is to figure out how long it will take you to complete the trail. If you are on a limited time frame and have a job to return to, it’s important to have a general understanding of how long it’s going to take you to finish.
There is a common saying in the backpacking community, “hike your own hike”. This means that in order to have the best time out on the trail you shouldn’t worry about what gear other people are taking, how heavy their pack is, what and where they eat, and most importantly how fast they’re going.
The average hiking speed is a general speed used to estimate the time it takes to complete a trail and the most important thing to remember is that there is no 100% accurate average hiking speed. The perfect speed is however long it takes you to get from point A to point B.
The question is: How do you calculate your average hiking speed?
Naismith’s formula: A simple formula to calculate average hiking speed
Naismith’s rule states: you should allow one hour for every three miles on the map and one hour for every 2,000 feet of ascent.
William Naismith was a Scottish mountaineer that came up with this general rule for hiking speed. It takes into account that the hiker has a reasonable fitness level and is hiking on typical terrain under normal circumstances. Basically, you’re walking at a normal pace without scrambling or climbing sections of the trail and the weather is decent.
This rule is generally considered the minimum amount of time that it takes to complete a trail, this number can go up and down depending on trail difficulty, weather, and fitness levels. Keep in mind, this rule is applied to a flat hike without any gear, so if you have 45 pounds on your back the average hiking speed increases.
Real world examples of finding your average hiking speed
Here are a few real-world examples of finding your average hiking speed:
- A flat trail that’s 12 miles long: 4 hours to complete
- A hiking trail that’s 12 miles long and has 4000 feet of elevation gain: 6 hours to complete (4 for length and 2 for elevation gain)
- Hiking 12 miles up a mountain with 6000 feet of elevation gain: 7 hours to complete (4 for length and 3 for elevation gain)
How to calculate trail length and elevation gain
Naismith’s rule is simple enough to calculate, it doesn’t involve any crazy math. Applying it to actual hiking trails is where things get a little bit more complicated. Each trail is different and none of them are straightforward paths with a defined amount of elevation gain listed.
Here are a couple of great resources that when used together give you accurate estimates of trail length and elevation gain.
- Trail length: AllTrails is the most comprehensive resource for hiking trails all over the world. They have trail length, reviews from hikers, and the difficulty of over 50,000 trails.
- Elevation gain: Hiking Project is another great resource that includes the ascent and descent of each hike in feet. They cover the US extensively and also cover popular hikes all over the world. This makes it easy to get the elevation gain for hiking trails all over the world.
How to find your personal average hiking speed
Are you an avid hiker who takes every opportunity to get outdoors? Or, are you a casual hiker who enjoys a hike or two a month?
You personal average hiking speed is a subjective number that is going to be different for everyone depending on their experience and fitness level. The best way to figure out what your personal average hiking speed is simple, measure it.
Head out to a hike close to home, start a timer on your phone and go. If you make any stops along the trail, be sure to stop the timer and start it once you start hiking again. Once you finish the hike you can do some simple math and figure out your personal average hiking speed. This gives you an accurate representation of your personal speed so you can better estimate the time it takes to complete a trail based on actual results.
- Divide your miles hiked by the time in decimals to calculate your personal average hiking speed.
Factors that affect your average hiking speed
Hiking is never a race, the beauty of a hike is the chance to enjoy the world in ways that are often overlooked. That being said, increasing your hiking speed gives you the opportunity to tackle more miles in a shorter period of time. In other words, you get the chance to see even more of the natural world and everything it has to offer.
1. Weight of gear
Naismith’s formula doesn’t take into account any extra weight, including your backpack. If you’re embarking on a week-long trek or trying your hand at the PCT, your hiking time is going to change drastically. Carrying an extra 25-45 pounds on your back is going to drastically affect your average hiking speed.
The best way to measure your hiking speed with a pack is to measure it. Anyone that tells you that you should be hiking at a certain pace with 25 pounds on your back is full of shit, hike your own hike.
2. Fitness level
Everyone’s fitness level is different and there’s no real way to measure it effectively in terms of hiking. If you exercise regularly and hiking is a big part of your life then your pace is going to be faster than a brand new hiker.
Generally speaking, being fit is a benefit to hiking and everyday life. Staying fit has a number of benefits that make a challenging more enjoyable and a little bit easier.
3. The severity of elevation gain
Not all elevation gains are created equally. A 2000 foot elevation gain that is has a steep incline is going to take more energy and longer to navigate. A casual 200o foot elevation gain that is spread out over 3 miles is not going to have a huge impact on your overall average speed.
Elevation gains do make a hike take longer, however, the type and severity of the incline vary greatly depending on the hike. Take the severity of the elevation gain into account before making any assumptions on how fast you can tackle a trail. This is especially important if you are planning the hike in the afternoon when duration makes the difference between finishing the hike at dusk or in the dark.
4. Type of terrain
Are you hiking in the mountains off the beaten path or on a casual walk on an established trail?
The terrain that your hiking on directly affects the time on the trail, plan on giving yourself more time for challenging hikes. Take into account any scrambles, river crossings, or trails that are not well marked. These trails have portions that take longer to navigate and care to not get hurt.
5. Food and drink breaks
No matter how easy or difficult a hike is, you are always going to want to factor in breaks. Water and food are part of the 10 essentials and should be included on each and every hike, regardless of difficulty.
Some of the best time on the trail are reaching the peak and taking it all in. Plan on adding time to enjoy your surroundings, take a few photos, and enjoying a snack. These breaks will add up quickly and for every minute that your taking a break is one less minute spent completing the trail.
Naismith’s formula is a good starting point for determining your average hiking speed. Three miles per hour is a good baseline for estimating the rough time that you’ll spend on the trail. It’s not a hard and fast rule and there are a number of factors in and out of your control that will add time to the trail.
The most important thing to remember is that your average speed isn’t the most important part of the hike. Enjoying yourself and taking in the beauty around every twist and turn of the trail is why your there.