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Sooner or Later You’ll Do Some Road Walking: Tips and Tricks

A 20 Mile Road Walk in Scotland
The Start of a 20 Mile Road Walk in Scotland

Do enough hiking and sooner-or-later you will be forced to hike a substantial distance on a paved road. Maybe the trail you’re hiking is still under development and you need to hike a stretch on roads, maybe a bridge has been washed out or a forest fire is blocking your path and you need to detour around them, or maybe you need to walk into town for a resupply. Road walking is a part of all long distance hikes, section hikes, weekend backpacking trips and even day hikes and can be just as rigorous as trail walking.

Here are some tips to keep you out of jail, safe, and healthy if you need to do a stretch of road walking during a day hike or backpacking trip. These are all based on actual experience.

  • If there’s a sidewalk, walk on it.
  • If there’s a breakdown lane (but no sidewalk), walk on it. 
  • If you need to walk on the road itself, walk towards the oncoming traffic. You’ll be safer because you can seenwhether approaching vehicles are trying to avoid you or you need to get out of the way yourself.
  • Cross over to the other side of the road before you get to a blind curve. You don’t want to be on the inside of the turn when a car pops out of nowhere and is hugging the guardrail. Cross back over to the other side of the road, after the turn, when normal visibility resumes.
  • If you see a trailer truck headed your way, get off the road and stop until it passes. You’ll probably want to close your mouth and eyes to avoid ingesting the dust stirred up from the truck’s passage.
  • Make sure you understand the local laws about walking on roads without sidewalks. For example, many interstate highways prohibit foot travel and the police will give you a hard time or pick you up, issue a fine, and escort you to the next exit if they catch you doing it.
  • Don’t walk on a road at night. Wait until it’s light. Besides the obvious safety issues, it sucks to have to find a campsite next to a road if you need to stop for the night but you haven’t reached your destination yet.
  • Another reason not to walk a backcountry road at night: game poachers hunt along roads at night in forest or wilderness areas. You don’t want to be mis-identfied as a deer in their truck headlights.
  • Natural water sources can be scare next to a paved road. Make sure to fill up with water before you start a long road walk.
  • Water sources next to a paved road can be suspect, especially if the road is treated with salt or chemicals during winter. Filter the water before drinking it to remove chemical impurities.
  •  If you’re not hiking near a National Scenic Trail like the AT or PCT, don’t plan on getting picked up. 
  • If you know you’re going to be doing a very long road walk, consider bringing a wheeled luggage cart to carry your backpack. I met two hikers at the beginning of the 20 mile roadwalk (pictured above) who did this. I thought it was quite clever!
  • If you have trekking poles, bring the rubber tips along to cancel the noise that metal tips make on the surface of the road. Using trekking poles can help you increase your cadence when walking on roads and get it over faster. 
  • Road walking is a lot harder on your feet than walking on a trail and can really chew up your feet. Take breaks just like you do when walking on a trail, air out your socks periodically, and treat any hot spots as soon as you feel them developing.
  • Paved roads absorb a lot of sunlight and heat. Try to avoid walking on them during the hottest part of the day or you’ll get cooked. 

 Got any other tips and lessons learned for Road Walking?

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  1. Road walking is almost never fun. Even as it takes you around a lake, for example, it always seems to take longer. Roads were not designed for the shortest distance between Point A and Point B, but usually the easiest route. Trails are much less concerned with ease of travel and are generally more direct. Modern Trails, those built in the last 100 years or so, were not overly concerned with direction and ease of travel as much as access to towns, villages, and dwellings along the way. The NYS Thruway was built along the old Mohawk Trail route. Many of our roads were laid over the old 17th,18th and 19th century trails(in many cases, pre-Columbus.) Often, you can tell an old trail route by the twists and turns it makes, sometimes it seems for no purpose. You can usually find, if you dig a long ways back, that a tree stood in the way at one time. Vermont, New York, indeed many roads along the eastern side of the USA has good examples of this in places on secondary or tertiary roads.

    The crown of a road is quite anoying. It can be so much as to make you feel you are walking an endless side ridge. While sometimes more dangerous (weigh the risks accordingly,) it helps to alternate sides of the road to keep leg muscles and your feet from cramping up later(due to the continuous crown.) .

    Grades are another problem. Not usually beyond 5-10%, they are long drawn out climbs and descents. Not quite steep enough for a “marching” step with it’s increased leverage and too steep for flat walking.The engineers seek to reduce the amount of grade by trading for increased length. A mile or two grade is not uncommon and they make hiking fairly troublesome in the ADK’s.

    The vehical exhaust can be anoying. On a hot still day, the fumes can be overbearing at times. While much better than it was 20 years ago, it is still noticable if a truck goes by with it’s blast of hot smelly exhaust.

    The roads usually have a good drainage system (this also includes the crown.) But walking on the rocks on the side of the road can be a “witch” at times. Generally the roads are higher than the surrounding ground and have a rock or concrete foundation. Pieces of broken concrete, larger sharp rocks, and broken blacktop often surface on the shoulder. These make road walking a real bear to walk on if you do not have good sole plates or inserts (like the heavy duty Superfeet, orange.)

    I think I will disagree with you on the poles. I find they slow me down a bit. I am guessing this is due to my younger years, playing basketball, football, socker and the like. But I find that my legs and feet are well used to walking on flatter, almost smooth, pavement.I tuck my pole under my arm and simply walk. It saves a small bit of energy, and, my posture tends to correct slightly for my pack. On longer road hikes (10-20mi,) I will strap it onto my pack. I really don’t need it for added footing, or propulsion, and find I am really just carrying it.

  2. Great tips! I just did an excruciating, although only 2 mile road walk on a hike in NY with 90 degree temps…horrible!

  3. I should really add a few more here – all about dealing with unleashed dogs. The gist is yell back viloently if a face to face confrontation is unavoidable.

  4. I almost always walk on the same side of the road as oncoming traffic, no matter how wide the road is, breakdown lane or not. I just don’t trust anyone, even if they have a lot of room to drive around me.

  5. Think twice before answering nature’s call when trekking pavement.

  6. My husband and I thru-hiked the Florida Trail in 2011 and it still has many sections of roadwalking throughout its 1100 miles. While a lot of them are on quieter roads, there were a few that were harrowing, including a seven mile walk along a busy state road in the middle of the state with no paved shoulder and a sloped grassy area. We also walked that section in the rain with morning rush hour zooming past us. It was *not* fun. The trail also took us through Orlando suburbs and we walked through subdivisions, past schools—it was interesting to view the town through a thru-hikers eyes.

    And yes, roads will tear your feet up. During a 31 mile road walk through the panhandle my feet were quite torn up by the end of the day despite having already been used to walking long distances by that time in my hike. Its always good to stop and rest your feet along the way, taking shoes and socks off and nursing any issues before they become worse.

    There’s also something about roadwalks that you didn’t mention: camping accessibility. The bigger chunks of roadwalking on the FT happen to be in the panhandle and with very few public parks for camping opportunities. We were forced several times to stealth in places we probably shouldn’t have (wooded private property). Its a frustrating part of hiking that trail due to some of the lengths of roadwalking involved.

    • Thanks for catching that – I’d planned to mention it. I hate being in a position where you need to stealth in the middle of a long road walk because the light is failing. Absolutely miserable experience and you have to listen to traffic all night,

      • Nope – I did mention it: Don’t walk on a road at night. Wait until it’s light. Besides the obvious safety issues, it sucks to have to find a campsite next to a road if you need to stop for the night but you haven’t reached your destination yet.

        But worth re-emphasizing since it’s such a bummer.

  7. I agree that walking on paved road is a royal pain in the neck. Just a tip, if you’re using hiking boots, remember not to tie them to the top. It will save your ankles a lot of trouble.

  8. Oh, and I once had to camp near a road. Not fun at all.

  9. I personally find road walking tough on my feet. All those little grips on the bottom of my trail runners poke the bottom of my feet. For the first little bit, it is like a massage. Then I just want it to be over :-)

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