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Trip Planning: How Long Will It Take Me to Backpack XX Miles?

230 Mile Bacpacking Route over 48 Mountains
230 Mile backpacking Route over 48 Mountains

I’ve been getting a lot of emails this year from beginner backpackers who want guidance about how to estimate that time it takes to backpack a long section of trail.

Here are some examples:

I plan to hike the Presidential Range and the Maine Appalachian Trail this summer. How long should it take me? I’m a moderate hiker.

We plan to hike a 66 mile section of the Long Trail in 5 days. Do you think this is too ambitious?

My son and I are going to hike for 30 days (heading north from Springer) on the Appalachian Trail this summer. How far will we get?

I couldn’t give any of these hikers an answer because I didn’t know how many miles a day they were comfortable hiking, their level of physical fitness, or whether they had any experience hiking in the intended terrain for days on end.

Hiking Time Estimation

The best predictor of hiking speed is past performance. Which is why I recommend that people go on several shorter backpacking trips before they plan one that’s longer than 3-4 days.

hate to say it, but planning a longer trip without any experience going on shorter ones is usually a recipe for failure. Inexperienced backpackers tend to bail out after a few days when they come to grips with the fact that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. Way more. 

For example, I know that I can comfortably hike 15 miles per day on a backpacking trip and that I’ll need a rest day once a week to get off my feet, clean up, and resupply. Then I add in a day to get to the beginning of my hike and a day to get home and can get a pretty good estimate of how long my trip will take me.

For hikes longer than a week, I’ll probably add in a few contingency days, in case I need to get off the trail to avoid bad weather or I get sick and want to stay in town to recover.

Thru-hiker Style Section Hiking and Food Plan that documents likely resupply points and how many days of food to buy at each one.
Thru-hiker Style Section Hiking and Food Plan that documents likely resupply points and how many days of food to buy at each one.

Terrain Difficulty

However, I also know that my pace slows down considerably if I have to hike in very difficult terrain which requires hiking over steep mountains, through snow fields, or desert areas. For example, when I backpack through the Presidential Range or along parts of the Maine Appalachian Trail, I might reduce my daily expected mileage by a few miles a day to account for the added effort level. The reverse is true if I need to do a lot of road walking, since I can hike 3 miles per hour over paved roads and cover a lot of distance quite quickly.

Flexible Scheduling

When planning a multi-week backpacking trip, you want to build a lot of flexibility into your schedule if you can. In other words, I wouldn’t recommend locking yourself into fixed travel arrangements at the end if you can avoid it, since you might not be able to stick to your schedule. It’s almost guaranteed that you won’t. This is particularly true for remote destinations, where the transportation you plan on using to get back to civilization might be a bit sketchy and haphazard (You learn to go with the flow more and improvise.)

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30 comments

  1. I found a minimum speed of 1mph works for me and my GF for planning purposes in Maine and New Hampshire. That accounts for rest breaks. Seems to be fairly accurate over multiday trips and allows for built in fudge factor. If we hike something like the Eastern Trail, we can do 14 miles in 5 hours, but that is nice and flat.

    It really would be impossible to estimate someone else’ speed without knowing the condition they were in or the terrain they were hiking.

  2. I figure it sort of like this. and since most hikers try to get in in shape at the gym first…In the City at the Gym on a Treadmill at a 10% incline I walk an average of 3.5 miles an hour without getting winded or huffing and puffing. I divide that by two for the Trail since the unknown elevations and gains are not that predictable. So 1.75 miles an hour on the trail. Then I subject time for Photo’s, admiring the view, catching my breath and waiting for those slower than I. So about 1.25 mph. and when I do better than that, well that is a good thing….. In a group of 4, I Subtract again, So about 1 mph… When hiking Solo, I never keep track of the time or the mileage I just Hike…But I have been doing this for over 40 years so I generally know what to expect.

    • Would you believe that my cardio workout (the days I’m in town) is walking on a 11.5% incline on a treadmill for an hour at 3mph? But I can’t fault your logic – 1 mph is a pretty good all round estimation for a group of less-determined hikers.

  3. Most of my backpacking is desert hiking in the mountains of the Southwest and starts with an onerous climb for several hours hauling water. Typically, I average 1 MPH.

    A few years ago, I think I could have gotten up to about 1.5 MPH, but I was breaking my grandson into backpacking at the time and I managed only 1 MPH then. Now, I have to keep up with him.

    When I was younger and in much better shape, I didn’t have lightweight gear and I averaged 1 MPH. I aged, got out of shape, got better gear and averaged 1 MPH. I got myself back in better shape, introduced grandkids to backpacking and helped to haul their gear and averaged 1 MPH. Now, with back issues and a grandson who can carry his own gear, I average 1 MPH. So, for my planning purposes, it’s… 1 MPH!

    I also take plenty of photo stops.

  4. Phil- I’ve gotten a lot of benefit from your prior post about time-control plans. I think they’re a great building block for folks looking to plan backpacking trips. Start with the standard time-control estimates and compare vs. real-world day hiking results. And adjust for differences in elevation gain/loss, terrain, and the amount of weight being carried on such test hikes vs. planned weights for the backpacking (although it seems obvious one would want to train with the weight that’s going to be carried on the big trip). http://sectionhiker.com/time-control-plan-for-a-presidential-traverse/

  5. Another reason for starting on smaller, more manageable trips is that backpacking is a learning experience, especially at the beginning. Necessary things will be forgotten, items of limited usefulness will be brought along, unprepared for contingencies will happen. If the first trips are overnighters, usually the worst that happens is being uncomfortable for a day or two. If starting with a week long 70 mile hike, you’re stuck with your gear and uncomfortable morphs into an endurance situation or maybe worse. It’s best to start with some short trips to work the kinks out.

  6. Wow, this question is really unanswerable except by actually doing it. Just last weekend we did part of the JMT with four experienced backpackers, one of whom is known to be slow and it took us 8 hours to cover 11 miles. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, my Marine Corps son and I were in the Peruvian Andes two years ago and did 34 miles in 11 hours, including a very scary traversal of a huge washout in a steep valley down in the rain forest. It depends soooo much on who you are and what you are carrying and the terrain and the weather and altitude and every little thing…

    • Worst thing I ever forgot was my spoon. Last trip I took, I found 3 spoons in my pack. My GF laughed at me and commented on “packing my fears”

      But yeah, its a learning experience on what to pack and how long a trip is going to take. Only way to learn is to do it.

    • That’s why establishing a track record for yourself and what you know you can do is the basis for any good time estimate, especially if it’s spread out over more than a few days of hiking.

  7. I guess I take an alternate approach and go almost entirely by elevation gain. I know 4,000 feet of gain per day is going to be a solid day, 5,000 will be tough and 6,000 will start approaching death march territory. I back calculate the mileage from there, assuming some kind of maximum mileage based on what I’ve been doing recently.

    If there are sections with a lot of bushwacking I’ll take that into consideration and just assume 1 mph for those parts.

  8. I thought you gave an excellent and comprehensive answer Philip to beginning backpackers on how to estimate time covered in miles. Any answer given must be targeted to an “individualized” backpacker. Each of us are different in our physical capacities, chronological age, our gaits, trail encounter experiences, and then there is the geographic terrain one plans to cover, on and on. One soon learns from days of trail experience hiking on a diversity of geographic terrain a logical estimate of how many miles he or she may expect to cover per hour. I do hope that they are experienced in the reading of topographical maps and if they are traveling over terrain where trails are not well defined, that they also have good orienteering and navigational skills. Many factors weigh in making that determination of how many miles one may expect to cover daily on a specific trail. One caveat I advise folk that I always find good use for myself. Whatever the number of miles I estimate to cover daily, I always to be on the safe side, subtract 10% from that estimate. With this formula the worse that may happen is that you reach your destination quicker. The most positive that may happen is you still reach your destination “timely” should you encounter uncertainties along the trail, which often can happen. Hope sharing my personal experience with folk is informative.

  9. 2.25 mph and 8 hours of walking per day seems to work well for estimating distance on the mid atlantic sections of the AT (rolling hills with rocky terrain) – for groups of boy scouts and their parents.

    For the younger boys and parents in their 50’s backpack at an average speed of 2 mph.

    Almost all of the 15-16 year old boys and fit parents in their 30’s backpack at a 2.5 mph average speed.

    Some of the boys can go 2.75 mph all day with a pack that is 20-25% of their body weight. Some can hump that pack over rolling rocky terrain for 10 hours a day, for 4-5 days straight.
    But not most :)

  10. I’d have to agree with some of the other posts, figuring in breaks for food, views and other miscellaneous stops, I generally estimate my travel speed along the trails in the NY Hudson Valley and northern New Jersey area to be between 1 to 1.25 mph.

  11. Wise words of advice. I would only add; avoid what I would call ‘armchair ambition’ at the planning stage. Try to plan an easy day to start with, and avoid tasking yourself with over ambitious goals on future days, if you’re inexperienced. If you like tech analysis, look at this…https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naismith%27s_rule

    • I’d echo the Naismith recommendation. I’ve used a variant of Naismith’s rule very successfully for hikes in many countries for over 30 years now. Any time you have to climb any significant amount, it’s really good.

      The variant I use is:
      – If walking with a day pack, allow 1 hour for each 3 miles (5 km, near enough), plus 1 hour for each 2,000 ft (600 m) climbed. That should cover short breaks, but you need to add time for longer breaks.
      – If walking with overnight gear, allow 1 hour for each 2.5 miles (4 km) plus 1 hour for each 1,500 ft (450 m) climbed.

      That gives a good basic estimate. From there I adjust it based on my fitness, the weight I’m carrying, and track difficulty. For example, I just did a hike where I started with 12 kg (26 lb, including 9 days food) – Naismith’s overnight gear figure was about right for the first few days, but by the end my pack was down to 6 kg (13 lb), and I was walking about 15% faster.

  12. Awesome post. There are trips where I’ve calculated my pace ~ 3mph, but my average is closer to 2.3 mph on tougher trails/terrain (with altitude thrown in, usually drops to 2), and my bf usually hikes about 2.5-3 mph consistently. That said, pacing for off trail/mountaineering/canyoneering is a whole different beast. Basically, I assume 1mph for for anything scrambly.

  13. The #1 tip is practicing on short trips in similar elevations, footing, and weather. Also – how distracted are you going to get? Photography or natural history stops eat up time. I am the original ADHDer for trails.

  14. Excellent advice! I typically only do day hikes, but eventually will start working up to backpacking (I currently hike with a backpack, but it is only loaded down for day hikes) longer distances.

  15. Thanks for posting this! I’ve fairly new to backpacking and don’t get out more than one night at a time but I’m going to take your advice and start keeping track of my time and distance covered. There’s a 2-3 day trip in my future this year and this will help!

  16. I am a slow backpacker who is comfortable at five-7 miles a day. I first started backpacking 2.5-5 miles daily, but now find that 5-7 is it for me and I need a day off every week. I backpack the Grand Canyon every January and while many do it much quicker, I could never go by their speed ! It takes me 9 days for the 45 miles and I like my speed because that allows me extra time for poor weather conditions like a lot of fresh snow or a tired hiking buddy ! Course being under five feet tall makes my steps much smaller than most!!! It just seems I am always slow, but I get there in the end!

  17. Traditionally, 3.5 mph has been the stated speed. Ascents, descents, terrain, weather conditions and your varying energy level will obviously reduce or increase results. Ascending time can be saved applying two techniques: Semi-hyperventilate as you rise to increase energy burn providing increased speed and use a lower to the ground body position for a longer stride. A side skipping technique that I developed in 1970 can substantially increase descending speed and reduce time, but should be limited to safe terrain with tolerable slope. Both techniques are better described along with about eight other techniques to increase endurance, speed and comfort on the web by searching my “Performance Hiking” article.

  18. Very interesting read – especially since my hubby and I (ages 60 and 56) are planning our first long distance hike on the Superior Hiking Trail. We’ve consistently done 3-4 day/night hikes before, but never anything of this length. We’ve got the gear, a pretty good idea of our pace, and have a good history of our meals/food needs; so, we’re prepared.

    However, planning our distances, food and camps generally falls into my lap. My biggest issue is, we can’t just hike “whatever” distance in a day and call it quits! You have to hike to the next campsite! So, we find we either have to cut a day short (stop at mile 6.3, for example) or stretch it beyond our comfort zone (12.8 miles, for example, on a resupply day). It frustrates me that I have to determine which campsite we’re heading for, and plan around that. How do you deal with that???

    • Where I hike, you don’t have to camp at designated campsites, but can set up a backcountry site as long as you adhere to the local camping rules, which usually require hiking away from the trail a ways, out of site. This is common on the AT for instance. I would check the SHT regulations to see if that’s permitted.

  19. Those who through-hike the AT cover 2200 miles in 5-6 months. That’s about 12 miles/day on average. But they take days off (“zeros”), go off-trail to resupply, are in better shape (than me) for nearly all of their miles, and already have their “legs” after their first 3 weeks on the trail. I’m 62, prepare pretty aggressively for my 50-mile section hikes, hike only in good weather, stop to take many photos, hike 8-10 hours/day – and average 12-14 miles/day. Most section hikers like to stay in or near shelters, so the distance between them may dictate your daily travel. I’m very reluctant to plan any day that covers more than 15 miles. “The A.T. Guide” includes all kinds of info to help you plan your days’ hikes, including distance between shelters, water sources and their reliability, and elevation gain and loss (but not terrain difficulty). It is updated every year; I always get the latest edition before I hike, and study it very carefully. For me, 50 miles in 4 days usually is a safe bet.

    • I hear ya. My problem comes with the wide variation in spacing of designated sites. We may like to hike 10 miles per day – give or take a mile – but if the campsites are either 6 miles or 16 miles apart, it makes for a tough decision….and tough planning! :( Just wondered how others’ dealt with that.

      • There are often free or pay campgrounds between shelters that are widely spaced. The A.T. Guide identifies them. And if there are 16 miles between shelters, that usually signals an easy hike between them. If you want to hike 10 miles/day, you’ll have to stay off-trail some days. On most of the Appalachian Trail, that means staying at least 200 feet from the trail and 200 feet from any water source. I hike with a hammock (only) so I can usually find two suitable trees, but it is more difficult to find nice spots for tenting. It’s good to be close to a water source.

  20. Philip,
    You may disagree with 3.5 mph, however it was listed a number of decades ago probably in Backpacker magazine, I’m confident of recalling the speed number. I don’t agree with it either as my normal treadmill speed is 3.7 to 3.9 mph, a speed probably only achieved in the back-country on a dry hard soil surface or flat bedrock.

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