Exploring the Natural World

How Far and Long to Hike

When I plan a hike, my first consideration is the other members of the hiking party. It does me no good to dream of pushing 10 miles over difficult terrain when I’m taking along two young kids. Nor does it seem likely that a hiking partner of advanced age (perhaps 20 years older than me at any given time) will have my level of stamina. Of course, I’m making generalities that will prove bogus on a case by case basis. It’s certainly possible that once I reach that elusive age I’m calling “advanced,” I may struggle myself to hike 2 miles or less on flat trail, and frustrated youngsters will prod me along with, “Keep moving, Gramps.”

The best advice I can give is to consider the weakest member of the group. Then set your plans to hike neither further nor longer than is realistic for that member.  Beyond that, be prepared to cut the journey short at any time.

Such is life when hiking with others. I have learned through trial and error that pushing people beyond what is comfortable for them only leads to resentment and grumbling on the trail. Often times, inexperienced hikers do not know the difference between 5 miles of flat trail and 5 miles of uphill climb. Add in creek crossings, thorny brambles, and sweltering heat and the neophyte will soon be asking the leader, “how much further is it?” As the leader, you need to recognize when those who follow are truly suffering and be able to adjust sooner rather than later, which might mean abandoning your personal goals to complete the strenuous trek. Turning back early may be the wise and merciful decision.

To plan effectively, we must begin with baseline assumptions. I have field tested a variety of situations, and I use the test results as a guide. Fact 1: a well-conditioned adult can hike no faster than 3 miles per hour on flat terrain. Beyond that, you’re running. Given all the variable factors of terrain, distance, weather, altitude, and members, you should assume that your hiking pace will average less than 3 miles per hour. From there, you might plan a hike with your family using a pace goal of 1 to 2 miles per hour. I have found that healthy kids age 8-12 can hike 3 miles on relatively flat terrain in one and a half hours (I have to push them to keep moving, but they can do it without suffering physically). Most kids this age are ready to stop after 3 miles, which is a reasonable benchmark when hiking with kids this age. Plan for less if the terrain is not flat or if weather conditions are not ideal or if members are not healthy. I lean toward very conservative planning, especially with kids.

Older hikers, whether they admit it or not, begin to slow. Pride may drive them to push against reality, but increased joint pain and reduced lung capacity do, in fact, negatively affect endurance. The older we get, the faster we tire. I’ve certainly noticed it in myself. Adding the weight of a backpack also plays into the equation. By far the most noticeable obstacle for older hikers is steep terrain. Frequent stops are required, and quite often the summit view is just not possible. Many turn around and head back down, especially if time is limited. The key to success in completing the hike is time, patience, and desire. It is excessively cruel to mush older hikers up hills at the teenager’s pace. As we age, we deal with the knowledge of our physical decline with considerable frustration. The most respectful and empathetic way to approach how far and how long to hike with older hikers is to allow their preference to rule.

In general, when we push others to hike beyond their comfort zone, the hike becomes a bitter experience. We go hiking for joy, not for suffering. Too many times I’ve pushed my companions further than they wanted to travel, longer than they wanted to spend. I’ve regretted it every time. Now, my method is always to be less personally ambitious, more open to moderation. I tend to hike a mile or so, then stop to measure the group’s inclination to proceed further and longer. Often I keep my eye on quick routes back, closer destinations, and frequent resting places. With a group, 1 or 2 miles of enjoyable hiking beats 5 miles that take too long.

Whether hiking with others or hiking alone, I commonly try to ascertain whether or not the desired hike can be accomplished before dark. It’s easy enough to calculate the time and distance required when traveling over flat terrain. The safe bet is that I can go 8 miles in 4-8 hours (a pace of 1-2 miles per hour). I simply look at a map, figure the mileage, and plan accordingly. However, the backcountry is rarely flat. Terrain is the sneaky variable that usually catches people off guard.

Hiking involves going from point to point. A good map shows you where you are, where you want to go, and the difficulty in getting there. It’s this difficulty that we sometimes overlook. This is terrain. And terrain can be misleading, especially on maps without topographical details. Furthermore, if you don’t accurately interpret the grades and elevation changes along your chosen route, you’ll end up miscalculating how long the journey will take to complete.

My dad and I made this mistake in Shenandoah National Park. We planned to travel 8 miles from the trailhead to the first camp. We began hiking at 9 a.m. We figured a pace of 1 mile per hour. With our planned lunch stop and breaks (an hour’s worth total), we expected to arrive at camp by 6 p.m. Within our first mile on the trail, we realized our critical error. Due to the steep, up and down terrain, we struggled to hump our loaded packs at 3/4 mile per hour. The second mile, we hiked slower yet. We carried too much weight and had underestimated the difficulty of the terrain. Soon I was recalculating our necessary travel time and realizing we’d never make it to camp before dark. The feeling was one of paranoia. I began telling dad that we needed to hurry up. He understood the problem as well as I did.

Good thing we were two brave men (or so we told ourselves). Had I made such as newbie mistake with my wife and kids, I’d have been panicked beyond my senses. Just imagine how kids would feel hiking through dense forest in total darkness. By dark, the monsters come out, and kids would be very scared.

As it turned out, dad and I became better acclimated to the conditions of the terrain, and we were able to increase our pace on the trail (nervous adrenaline helped). We landed us at our campsite just as dusk was settling fast in the forest. That evening, we trashed our initial hiking plan and agreed on one more realistic for us as a team. Essentially, we reduced the ambitiousness of our adventure, limiting our daily mileage and hiking time. Our revised goal was to enjoy our experience in the forest rather than to suffer a test of endurance. The change proved for the better. Each day thereafter, we pitched our camp by four o’clock, allowing us to lounge around and explore the area with energy and enthusiasm to spare.

When hiking alone, or with my dog, I prefer a daily distance of 3 to 5 miles. On backpacking journeys, I enjoy hiking all day, but most of the time I prefer reaching camp early, unloading my pack, pitching my tent, then exploring the area without concern for the clock.

In most cases, how far and how long I hike is not as important as simply enjoying the trail.

About Bob Ward

In addition to nonfiction, Bob writes a fiction series featuring outdoor travel hero Kip Stone of Epic Adventures, Inc. For details, visit BobWardBooks.com.

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