Home / Editorials / Why am I in Such a Hurry? A Speed Hiker Learns to Walk More Slowly by Liz Thomas

Why am I in Such a Hurry? A Speed Hiker Learns to Walk More Slowly by Liz Thomas

Katahdin Speed Hike: After completing a record breaking hike of the AT, I sighed in relief and excitement.
Katahdin Speed Hike: After completing a record breaking hike of the AT, I sighed in relief and excitement.

Ever since I first started hiking, I have measured successful hikes by speed. On my first thru-hike, done solo with heavy equipment and almost no knowledge of backpacking, I averaged 28 miles per day. My first long hike on the Appalachian Trail was quick as well, completed in 100 days.  Thru-hike after thru-hike, speed became my measure of success, culminating in 2011 when I broke the women’s unassisted Appalachian Trail speed record. This season, I finally stopped to reflect on why I was in such a hurry. For perhaps the first time, I’ve decided to experiment with different styles of backpacking and see what I could learn from walking the world a little more slowly.

I love hiking because it is challenging and it lets me design increasingly difficult adventures, customized to my growing skill and strength. Yet, this season, I acknowledged that speed is just one way to make a hike challenging. Walks that emphasize navigation, technical skills, capturing awesome photos, or overcoming language barriers can try my skill without a stopwatch.

The season kicked off in the slot canyons and slickrock of Escalante, Utah. With a group of six others, we set off for a week on the Boulder Mail Trail, only 30 miles long—an easy day hike for me solo. I kept an open mind to the relatively low mileage and soon discovered a way to enjoy the outdoors devoid of the number-specific indices I had used before.  Every day we hiked a few miles on the trail, base-camped and then spent most of the day trekking cross-country, exploring the desert free of the go-go-go mentality that drove my thru-hiking. “Constant Forward Progress,” a thru-hiker mantra immortalized by Andrew Skurka, ceased to be our goal, as each day of hiking was about developing and then navigating scenic loops.

Storm Utah: Exploring a nameless formation looking out over the desert Photo by Barefoot Jake Morrison)
Exploring a nameless formation looking out over the desert. Photo by Barefoot Jake Morrison

At the peak of summer, I backpacked on the Tokaido Nature Trail, a 1000 mile long footpath from Tokyo to Osaka, Japan. On this trip, my mental and physical energy went towards overcoming language and cultural barriers—a pursuit even more exhausting than fastpacking. Instead of covering trail swiftly, my goal was to meet people, immerse myself in the culture, and experience pedestrianism in another country.

Hiking can be a cultural and linguistic challenge as well as a physical endeavor.
Hiking can be a cultural and linguistic challenge as well as a physical endeavor.

In September, I hiked the Bailey Range across Olympic National Park with my friend, local expert and minimalist backpacker Barefoot Jake. The Bailey Range is considered by many to be the most difficult route in the park that does not require ropes. The cross-country route spans glaciers, rivers, and semi-technical rock and gullies. To add to the challenge, we tacked on additional difficult traverses to both ends of the traditional route. Although the plan was aggressive, especially given the route-finding requirements, our itinerary allowed for two of our ten days to be spent base-camping.

Taking time to hug the giant old growth trees of the Olympic National Park. Photo by Barefoot Jake Morrison
Taking time to hug the giant old growth trees of the Olympic National Park. Photo by Barefoot Jake Morrison

Initially, the idea that I would be spending 1/5th of my time not making Constant Forward Progress frustrated me. On our first rest day, an uncommon sunny day in coastal Washington, it seemed a waste to spend the afternoon exploring a basin instead of tackling the next tricky part of the traverse while the weather held. Usually when I hike, I’m used to spending every minute eating, sleeping, or walking towards my end goal. Yet the Olympics seemed so massive, so epic in grandeur, that having a bit of time to reflect and think “I’m really here” was a blessing.

A requirement this season was recognizing that it’s OK to set off on a hike with goals other than just finishing in great time. These goals include taking photography, testing out gear, and making new friends—of course, all things I already did on my speed hikes, but also aspects I never thought of as goals unto themselves. By changing my perspective this season, I enjoyed hiking in a more nuanced way than my old style.

This season, I realized that for years l had made the mistake of equating fast hiking with being the best hiker I can be. I was happy to adopt other sports’ metrics for “difficulty,” equating speed—the easiest to quantify measurement—with skill.  Ultramarathoners and running companies are starting to think of long distance hiking as just a longer place to run. I’ve heard old school climbers complain that indoor climbing competitions turn a hobby inherently about a man vs. rock into a sport that is man vs. man. I suspect hiking is headed in a similar direction.

: I met Cimarron, then an 89 year old aiming to be the oldest person to thru-hike the AT, in the Smokies in 2011.
: I met Cimarron, then an 89 year old aiming to be the oldest person to thru-hike the AT, in the Smokies in 2011.

Fastpacking isn’t the only way hikers can challenge themselves. What of Mike “Cimarron” Caetano who keeps long distance hiking at 91? Or of the men who hiked the AT with a cello/cat/tuba? Or the sisters who thru-hiked barefoot? There are numerous people who thru-hike in the winter, which requires a persistence, skill, and determination much greater than my summer speed hike. By boiling hikes down to Fastest Known Times, part of the spunk of our “sport” is lost.

I’m not about to quit speed hiking or trying for Fastest Known Times, but this season made me more aware of the questions we as a hiking community are facing. Does comparing times on the internet steal authenticity from a pastime of communing with nature? Does the challenge of fastpacking allow us to experience nature in a differently intense way? Regardless of our favorite hiking style, when we experiment with new ways of walking, we can become aware of the many joys of being on foot. This season I learned: Hike your own hike, and try out new hikes, too.

About Liz Thomas

Liz Thomas (aka Snorkel) is a thru-hiker most known for breaking the women’s unsupported speed record on the Appalachian Trail in 2011. She has also completed end-to-end thru-hikes of the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail (the so-called “Triple Crown”). Known for backpacking light, fast, and solo, Liz has also walked a bunch of other North American trails including the “Little Triple Crown” (Long Trail, Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail) in one season. In 2013, Liz walked the world’s first urban thru-hike, the Inman 300 in LA. It was surprisingly pretty rad. You can follow Liz’s adventures at eathomas.com, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SnorkelHikes and on Twitter @eathomas.

25 comments

  1. Great write up. I think to many people get caught up in the must make miles mentality and forget why we get out into the wilderness in the first place.

    • One of the problems I’ve encountered with organized hikes is that they are often driven too much by the ego of the organizer, rather than gathering a group of folks together to get out and enjoy the mountains. Some of these hikes are not welcoming to some participants of the group, especially newcomers, and I’ve experienced this first hand. This isn’t to say that all of these hikes are like that, but it’s wise to pick and choose who you wish to go out on the trails with, and do your own research on the hike so you can assess for yourself if it’s something that you will enjoy. Racing through a hike to get to the bar isn’t my idea of a good day out in the hills.

    • Well said, Louis. What are the reasons you get out in the wilderness? I find it’s a great way to clear my mind and remember what is really important in life.

  2. Sometimes I prefer to hike by myself or with a friend because on some organized hikes the leader(s) feel compelled to try and blast through the hike as fast as possible. Feels like you’re part of the Amazing Race instead of a nicely paced hike.

    • There does seem to be a problem in the organized hiking community where no matter what a hike is rated ‘moderate pace.’ This is done to attract people but i ultimately detrimental I suspect.

      I once listed a hike as ‘fast’ and i have 2 participants. I would bet money if I listed it as moderate I would have 5-6.

      • I find the problem (as a participant in organized hikes) to be the varying perceptions of ratings like “fast” or “moderate”. I wish more organizers would include specifics like “you should be able to hike at a steady 2 mph, even on uphill sections” or “we’ll finish the 6 miles in about 4 hours, including breaks” or “we’ll allow plenty of time for enjoyment of overlooks and photography”. These sorts of descriptions mean a lot more to me than words like “moderate” which, as you say, are applied to the point of meaninglessness.

      • That moment when you read comments and are 100% sure you know who wrote it! I miss some of my old hiking buds.

  3. I have never been a fast hiker. My exercised induced asthma keep me a little pokier in the beginning and then my need to look at mushrooms or the sky or smell the bark of a tree or lie on a rock keeps me at a slower pace too. The one time I was hurrying, I was finishing a Washington hike with my dad (who was 78 at the time.) We were slow and it was getting late and I was getting nervous, so in a reversal of our roles from decades ago (when he used to try to hurry his 5 kids of the mountains a little faster) I was trying to make him go faster. He finally said, “This is how fast I am going to walk, I want to spend as much time in the woods with my daughter as I can.” I got it, and I chilled out.
    When I hike, that is all I am doing that day. If I drive 3 hours from south of Boston, and have to drive 3 hours home, I want to spend as much time on the trail as possible, not finish quickly and be back in my car again.
    It’s also why I don’t hike with organized groups much, the speeds they post seem to be much faster than I am comfortable going.

    • That is a great story, Elle. Thanks for sharing it. How long to you usually get to be on trail? You’re totally right that keeping a good drive-to-hike balance is important.

  4. Man, if I’m hiking at 91, that’d be awesome.

  5. I hike to see beautiful country. I’m almost 62 and wish I could hike faster so I can get to the scenic vistas in less time, however, I do hike faster than I did a couple decades ago because I’m carrying half the pack weight I did then. My ten year old grandson is my main backpacking partner and I can still smoke him on the trail. He always wants to really load up his pack, and a mile or so in, we generally offload about thirty to forty percent of his pack into mine.

    A few years ago, I hiked the Grand Canyon with a friend who generally does R2R hikes there as day hikes. He’s younger than me, lives at 8000′, and runs half marathons–so when we’re hiking together, I’m the anchor to his speedboat. He did tell me afterward that he saw much more the two day hike we did than on any of his day R2R hikes because we were going slower and he had time to absorb the scenery.

    I’ll never have the stamina to set any speed records on the trail, but I’m going to enjoy myself out there no matter the pace.

  6. I also wonder wonder if hurrying takes away from my enjoyment on-trail. But I find that even when my pace, mileage goals, and conditions make for a miserable hike, when I look back on my experience I really had a great time and feel very accomplished.

  7. I love Liz’s blog, and I’m glad to see her featured here! The focus of a fast or ‘slow’ hike is ultimately going to be different. If you want to pound out some mileage, come prepared to do that. If it’s a more relaxed, scenic trip, come prepared to do that. What is the goal of the trip? If you can answer that, then you’re set. IMO, as long as you practice LNT and are courteous to other hikers, it doesn’t matter what speed you hike at.

    • I think the fast/slow issue is definitely a Hike Your Own Hike situation. If you are enjoying what you’re doing, not harming the environment or others, it doesn’t matter.

      Some people love to run. I’ve tried to start the habit many times but I don’t enjoy it unless there’s a soccer ball, baseball, basketball, or football as part of it. For me, running for the sake of running is boring, however, if there’s a ball (or a bee) involved, I’m off to the races!

      I’m not very fast on the trail, especially on uphill pitches, but I’m steady and I make sure I enjoy the pace.

    • Thanks, H.D. Lynn! You did a really great job summing up the philosophy and brought up a great point that as long as people practice LNT and are courteous to other hikers and the rules of the trail/area (N’tl Park, wilderness, private land) they are hiking, speed doesn’t matter. To paraphrase a great outdoorsmen, “the person having the most fun wins!”

  8. I remember reading once that the vision of the founders was establishing an environment where “you see what you see” (probably not an exact quote). One doesn’t really see much when the focus is on speed. Also, the guidebooks quote the plaque at Springer Mtn. describing the AT as “a footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness”. I suspect that many of us approach it from our cultural bent toward “conquering” rather than “fellowship”, and I think that the desire for ultimate speed is a symptom of that.

    That being said, I’m as guilty as anyone else. I’m usually slowing myself down to accommodate the needs and desires of my GF (who also likes to take a lot of pictures — which I generally appreciate more AFTER the hike!). My energetic & athletic 70-pound dog (carrying her own 12-pound pack) likes to run ahead, explore off-trail scents, and often either waits for us to (almost) catch up or circles back to check on us. By the time we’ve done 8 – 12 miles she has done more than double that, and she gets to run at top speed AND explore. Four legs are definitely better than two on the trail :-)

  9. I have not hiked much in the past two months and I can feel my whole demeanor is not what it should be. Normally I am the one who organizes and posts hikes, but some of the people who RSVP have sucked the joy out of what used to be a great, relaxing weekend. I actually have some fairly important things to do next weekend, but I have decided to ignore it and get some trail time in instead.

  10. Great article! On point!

  11. Great article Liz, and thanks for posting such quality content Philip!

  12. I enjoyed this article because it says (better than I could) that the speed hiker vs. slow hiker thing doesn’t have to be a rigid categorization, and that one person can enjoy more than one kind of hiking. Exploring different ways of enjoying being out in the wilderness — I like the idea.

    • Thanks, Jester! Means a lot coming from you. I was going to use you and a certain something you used to carry on trail as one of those examples of things hikers can do to challenge themselves (it was practically a tuba!)…

  13. I realize this blog is SectionHiker and not DestinationHiker, but here in Colorado, it seems most people backpack in order to reach a destination. For one thing, it’s really hard to cover 100 miles in three days because most the valleys end in 14,000 peaks and/or cirque lakes with no passes. I subscribe to the “Stop and smell the (wild) roses” philosophy (literally!). The lake is the goal, and a climb up a surrounding peak or an afternoon spent reading a book next to the quiet water (or both!) is the reward!

    A few years ago, I backpacked up Longs Peak with my 27 year old nephew and his buddy, both of whom are fit as a fiddle. I was holding them back, so I told them to go ahead. They weren’t trying to set speed records, but they were soon out of sight, not to be seen again for seven miles! So some people can appear to be hiking quite fast when it’s simply what they’re blessed with, I guess. (Alas, I ran out of water, and since my nephew had the filter, I had no way to replenish. I tried looking really thirsty to passersby, but none of them took the hint, and I was too proud to ask for a drink!)

    I am not competitive, as speed hikers surely are, so I don’t share their motivation. I would not begrudge them their sport as long as they are courteous to other hikers and campers. Since we rarely see them in Colorado, I presume it’s hard for them to slow down and visit with slower hikers, so I’m not sure how they make friends on the trail?

    I have hiked with people who grew impatient when I stopped to enjoy a view or take a picture. I felt like they were missing the joy of “communing with nature.” But to each his own…as long as I don’t have to keep up with them!

  14. Great article! Liz, you very much summed up how I feel about outdoor life. I always regretted when an itinerary even got close to my limits, when my mind said “go, go, go” while my heart just wanted to stop and enjoy. Being immersed in nature is almost a spiritual experience for me. Watching the sunset from the top of a hill over a lake of clouds in the valley is one of my strongest and happiest memories, absolute peace, being in harmony with myself and my surroundings. Any hurry or feeling of competition would ruin that for me. Being outdoors is not a sport for me, it is simply living.

  15. I find hiking at a quick pace to be easier than a slow one. When I’m hiking slow, I’m adding hours spent on the trail, and after eight hours or so, my brain is done hiking (Unless I’m in Yosemite, or some jaw-dropping place). I usually hike alone. If I’m with a group, I will usually wait at a pre-appointed spot, where I set up my hammock, and enjoy a comfortable rest. I know that it’s easy to get into a rut, whereas you burn out on your own challenges. Sometimes it’s a good idea to stop and smell the pine needles. My hammock gives me the incentive to do just that!

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