I will never set a speed record for long distance hiking, but I am always looking for ways to improve my overall hiking speed. I will share a few of the things I have learned in my years of backpacking and maybe it will help you, too.
There is only one way to know how far and fast you are able to hike. That is by repeated hiking. I would suggest doing a couple of things when you go hiking. First, know make notes of how many miles an hour you typically hike. This is a great starting point to know how many miles you are able to cover in any given time frame. Second, become comfortable with your skills and gear. This will typically give you the confidence to either know your gear will perform as intended and/or know what items you can live without while you are on the trail. Hopefully during this process you learn what gear works for you and you are able to find shoes, socks, and clothes that are comfortable and prevent/reduce chaffing and blisters. The third thing that hiking does is getting you in “hiking shape.” While working out or going to the gym is great, nothing really prepares you for hiking but going on training hikes.
When planning a trip, research and know the terrain you plan on covering and compare that to mileage covered on similar terrain on past trips. This will be a starting point. Please don’t go hiking blindly without doing your research ahead of time. Climbing uphill or challenging terrain (very rocky, slippery, and going off trail) will require more time, energy, and calories to cover in relation to easier terrain.
How much weight are you carrying? Generally speaking, the less weight you carry, the faster you are able to hike. Less weight makes hiking more enjoyable. More weight makes camping more enjoyable. Decide which is more important before you leave. PLEASE ensure you are carrying the essential items you need to survive. This is different for every person and the conditions, but don’t lighten your pack too much and put yourself in danger or needing to be rescued for the sake of having a lighter pack weight. If you are doing a multiday trip, do you plan on carrying all of your food (more weight) or are there resupply points along the way (require more time)? If there are resupply points, what are the operating hours and what do they offer in resupply options? How far are the resupply points from the trail? All of these will affect how many miles you are able to hike in a day.
Let’s assume you have done all of the things listed above. What else can be done to increase the mileage you cover in a hiking day? To me, it comes down to being efficient. The less time I spend NOT hiking is more time I can be adding miles to my day. Let’s assume you also have your backpack, shoes, clothes, food, and water treatment dialed in to near perfection. What are some practical things you can do to increase the miles per hour (mph) or miles per day (mpd) that you typically cover?
The first thing that will help you put in higher mileage days when backpacking is to get an early start out of camp. Instead of sleeping in and taking your time leaving camp, try to leave as early as possible. For some people this could be before sunrise while others it is midmorning. I prefer to leave camp just after sunrise. This allows me to have more hours of daylight for hiking. By doing this, it is easier to have half (or more) of the mileage completed by lunch instead of being in a rush or reaching camp after dark.
The second thing that will help you put in higher mileage days when backpacking is to plan for efficiency. There are several ways to easily do this. For example, I know where everything is in my backpack (and always pack it the same) so I don’t have to spend time looking (and not hiking) for something. I also pack in a way to avoid taking off my backpack to access something I know I’ll need as I’m hiking. When I put on my backpack every morning, I have access to everything I need throughout the day without requiring assistance or removing my backpack.
Can I access and store my water bottles without assistance? A surprising number of backpacks don’t allow this. I prefer 1 liter water bottles instead of a water bladder. There are several reason but the most important one is that I can easily monitor my water consumption and/or water remaining until the next water source. This is difficult when using a water bladder stored inside the backpack. I also use flip tops on my water bottles. I can drink on the go without worrying about dropping the lid. It seems silly, but I have spent many frustrating minutes looking for a water bottle lid I dropped in the leaves before I converted to the flip tops. My Sawyer Squeeze water filter (gravity system) is also secured on the outside of my pack.
I am also considering using Aqua Mira for hiking and my Sawyer squeeze for camp. I am comfortable with premixing my Aqua Mira for each day and have it easily accessible in a pocket after researching the quality of water and the pros and cons of this method. If I choose to do this, I can easily fill the 1 liter bottles at a water source, treat with liquid Aqua Mira drops and continue hiking without ever taking off my backpack. You will be amazed how much time this can save if you only need water. I have found that when I plan on only filtering water, I end up having a snack, taking off the backpack, etc. A quick water break turns into a much longer than needed break. It may seem unimportant, but any time spent not hiking is mileage not covered.
Another way to be efficient is what and when you eat. All of my snacks and daytime food are easily accessible. Often, I snack and eat while I’m moving. This saves time and fuel because I rarely cook my lunch. Sometimes I plan for a prolonged lunch and I will do a “cold soak” lunch. I’ll add water to whatever I plan on eating for lunch midmorning and continue hiking. A short time later when I’m ready to eat, I will take a short break for lunch and eat the now rehydrated meal. Ensure you have enough liquids and calories for your body to burn. If you are doing a challenging hike, you will need more calories than when you are not hiking. If you don’t eat enough, you can burn out and not have the energy and feel overall too tired to continue.
The last efficiency tip is know the route, the mileage to the next water source, trail intersections or points of interest. I can look at the mileage I have covered and the time it has taken me without taking of my backpack and pulling out my map. I can quickly know if I need to speed up to cover my planned mileage or if I can slow down. This can be done without looking at a map. I should also be aware of how the trail is marked (or blazed), and if there are any reroutes or closures to avoid going down the wrong trail and/or in the wrong direction.
The third thing that will help you put in higher mileage days when backpacking is to keep moving. I know, that seems too obvious, doesn’t it? I have found that when facing a large uphill climb, smaller steps win the war. I “put it in low gear” and take smaller steps and really try not to stop. It is really a mental game. I learned this lesson recently in the Smokey Mountains of Southeastern United States. The uphill climbs were kicking my tail. As long as I was moving (even if it was slow), it was better than stopping. To make up time, I often speed up on the downhill descents. It’s like putting your car in neutral and letting it coast. It was easy walking and I made great time. It also felt good to stretch out the legs.
Not stopping is much easier to type than practice, but go further than you think you can. Your body will whine and complain and it will want you to stop. You didn’t begin this trip to stand in the woods, you are here to walk in the woods! Pick a time interval such as 10 minutes (or more), a landmark, POI, or a point visible in the distance and don’t stop until you pass it. You can slow down, but just don’t stop.
Determine if you want to stop or need to stop. Always ignore the wants. Seek discomfort and challenge yourself to do more. This is one area I’m really challenging myself to improve. When you do stop hiking for whatever reason, pay attention how long you spend on breaks. Several short 5 minute breaks (for a total of 15 minutes) in an hour can cut your hiking time by 25%. I’ll often plan for longer lunch breaks and set an alarm on my watch (or phone if I have it) to help me not stay still too long.
The fourth thing that will help you put in higher mileage days when backpacking is actually done when you are not hiking. On the trail, this is often done after reaching camp. To help recover from the hiking today and to prepare for tomorrow, you must spend some time in recovery. Sure, calories and hydration are important, but so is stretching and addressing any problem areas. Spend some time massaging and stretching out sore muscles and allowing your feet to air out if at all possible. Address any problem areas because the chances are they won’t improve overnight. I stretch at night and in the morning to loosen everything and to help my sore muscles feel better.
Do you want to hike farther than you are currently? Practice makes perfect. Know your gear. Set realistic goals based on terrain. Reduce your pack weight if possible and safe. Leave camp early. Plan for efficiency when packing, drinking, treating water, eating, and navigation. Keep moving and time your breaks. Have a recovery plan to prepare you for sleeping well and hiking far the next day.
What tips do you have to help you hike farther?