What Is a Good Hiking Pace?
At some point or another, we’ve all been passed by someone who is hiking at a brisker pace than our own. Or maybe you’re usually the one doing the passing.
Whatever the case may be, we all have our own flow, and that’s totally cool. Subjective terms like “fast” or “slow” aren’t important. What’s important is that you have a good estimate of your hiking pace for your own reference.
The More You Know…
Knowing your average hiking pace is beneficial for a number of reasons. Let’s say you’re planning a week-long backpacking trip. Odds are, you’ll need to put in your time-off request at work so you can go on the trip. Also, how many miles can you complete in one week—will you be able to finish the whole trail in that timeframe? It’s essential to address these types of questions.
It’s good to determine how much time you want to actively spend walking each day and how many miles you can reasonably cover. This way, you can guesstimate when you’ll arrive at waypoints like water sources, break spots, and your campsite at the end of the day. You might need to know when you’ll reach a trailhead or road intersection so you can hitch into town before the post office or store closes.
How To Estimate Your Hiking Pace
As we’ve established, it’s good to know your hiking pace for a few reasons. So, how do you estimate your pace? Luckily for us, Scottish mountaineer William W. Naismith already did the math.
Naismith’s Rule states that on average, without breaks and on mostly flat ground, an adult hiker can walk three miles per hour, or approximately one mile every 20 minutes, plus an additional 30 minutes for every 1000 feet of elevation gain. This is a generalization because we aren’t accounting for any additional factors, but it’s a solid place to start.
Let’s say you’re planning a backpacking trip on level terrain and you know you want to hike 12 miles each day. If you hike at an average of three miles per hour, it will take roughly four hours to cover this distance. But what if the ground isn’t flat or you stop to take breaks along the way (which you should)? Let’s take a look at the following factors.
Factors To Consider When Estimating Hiking Pace
The ground is rarely “flat.”
Most trails aren’t flat: they go up and down. Knowing how much elevation gain there is over a certain distance is an important factor. Naismith’s Rule indicates that we should add on 30 minutes for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain.
Let’s use that 12-mile-per-day itinerary again. Studying your FarOut app, you see that those 12 miles entail a 3,000-foot climb. You originally calculated four hours of hiking time, but now you need to adjust it to reflect the 3,000-foot ascent, which, according to Naismith, will add on 1.5 hours. Now you know that your hike is going to take at least 5.5 hours.
Another aspect that can make a difference is elevation loss. In theory, stretches of downhill could help make up for “lost” time, but this may not apply if you have a heavy pack or bad knees or if the terrain is sketchy.
Take into account the grade (steepness) of THE trail. An example of this is the classic comparison of the Pacific Crest Trail to the Appalachian Trail. The PCT was graded to allow pack animals to use the trail. This means it has more switchbacks that allow one to meander up and around climbs rather than directly up and over (*cough* AT *cough*).
A 1000-foot climb spread over 10 miles ain’t nothin’. A 1000-foot climb over just three-quarters of a mile is a suffer-fest. Assume that it’s going to take even more than that 30 extra minutes per 1,000 feet of gain if the climb is hella steep.
Terrain is another good factor to consider with your hiking pace. Take time to research the area you’ll be hiking in ahead of time. Is the trail wooded, or is much of it above treeline? The trail in the wooded scenario could be nicely padded with pine needles, or it could feature an obstacle course of rocks and roots. On the flip-side, hiking above treeline could have you weaving in and out of boulder fields.
Here’s another one: does the terrain for the day involve the lack of a trail? Think water crossings… is there one or multiple? As with the other scenarios, adjust your pace accordingly.
Climate and Weather Conditions
Weather conditions can have a big impact on pace. One aspect of this is temperature—what season are you hiking in? What kind of climate is typical for the region—arid desert, temperate rainforest? Maybe you’re hiking in Southern California in the summertime, where you’ll most likely be limited to hiking during the earlier and later hours of the day.
If it’s currently raining or rained recently, you might have to tread more carefully to avoid slipping on wet rocks, mud, or roots. You might have to contend with other weather-related factors such as carefully traversing snowy sections (or worse, post-holing), running from lightning, etc.
Deadfall and Overgrown Vegetation
This one has me specifically thinking of a particular section through Glacier Peaks Wilderness on the PCT. The number of downed trees I had to climb over/around was wild—and it absolutely slowed me down.
Additional considerations here are the presence of overgrown vegetation, or worse—poisonous vegetation like poison ivy or oak and poodle-dog bush. You may also need to account for certain wildlife such as rattlesnakes. It might be worth taking your time through a section of overgrown trail if you know that rattlesnakes are typically found in that environment—you wouldn’t want to accidentally step on one.
This goes without saying, but… if you encounter any type of wildlife on the trail, remember to show respect and give it plenty of space, for its sake and yours.
You need breaks, and breaks take time. There are “fun” breaks, which are important for maintaining morale—especially on longer trips—like stopping to eat, rest, or socialize (ideally all three).
Then, there are breaks that aren’t necessarily fun but still have to happen like stopping to use the “facili-trees,” filtering water, or taking your shoes and socks off to air out your feet.
Pro tip 1: Combine various tasks on breaks. This will help you make the best use of your time so you won’t have to stop as often. For instance, try to time your lunch break so it coincides with a water source you need to stop at anyway. While you’re at it, maybe you can also take off your shoes and soak your feet in the cold water or just let them breathe for a bit.
Pro tip 2: Stuff your hip belt pockets or fanny pack with snacks so you can eat on the go.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t stop to take a dip in that beautiful alpine lake or pause to take advantage of a bar of cell service on a ridgeline. You absolutely should. But budget your time wisely. Eventually, you’ll need to get moving again so you can finish your miles for the day.
Moral of the Story
It’s good to have a sense of your hiking pace and some of the factors that play into it so that you can be well-prepared. Beyond that, don’t sweat it too much. “Fast” and “slow” are subjective terms. It’s not a race.
Happy hiking, and be sure to subscribe to The Trek’s newsletter so you never miss an update.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.