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Road Walk Tips for Hikers and Backpackers

Road Walk Tips for Hikers and Backpackers

Road walking is often an unavoidable part of long-distance hikes, section hikes, weekend backpacking trips, and even day hikes. Maybe the trail you’re hiking is still under development and you need to hike a stretch of roads, maybe a bridge has been washed out and you need to detour around it, or maybe you need to walk into town for a resupply.

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 toward the oncoming traffic. You’ll be safer because you can be seen when approaching vehicles are trying to avoid you or if 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 forested or wilderness areas. You don’t want to be mistakingly identified as a deer in their truck headlights.
  • Natural water sources can be scarce 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 try hitchhiking.
  • 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 a 20-mile road walk 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 also 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 dehydrated fast.

 Got any other tips and lessons learned for road walking?

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18 comments

  1. We use a bicycle blinking red light strapped to our poles for road walks .

  2. Did a loop hike a few years back from Pine Bend Brook over the Tripyramids, Whiteface and Passaconaway. Ending at the Oliverian Brook Trailhead. Myself, hiking partner and dog walked back to my vehicle at PBB. In hindsight what we should have done was drop packs at Oliverian and had one person stay with the gear and the other walk back to the car unecumbered by a pck and then driven back to pick everything up. Would have made the walk much easier and quicker.

  3. I’m mostly a day hiker but often need to road walk to connect a traverse/loop.

    My preference is to do the road walk at the start of the hike/morning since traffic tends to be less at that point, it provides for a nice warm-up for what’s to come and road walking at the end of the trail hike when you might be tired is a complete drag.

  4. Cars seem to give you more room if you are carrying or using trekking poles. I keep mine in my hand even when not using.

  5. “Filter the water before drinking it to remove chemical impurities.”

    There’s a big difference between water filtration and purification. Water filters only filter out particles, not dissolved chemicals.
    Most filters used by hikers these days contain a ceramic core which functions like a fine sieve that removes particles down to a specific size, which includes most bacteria and tiny organisms such as giardia and cryptosporidia. These filters are generally lightweight and can often be cleaned by back-flushing.

    To remove toxic chemicals and heavy metals, a more elaborate carbon filter is required, similar to what is used in home faucets and pitchers. There are still a few carbon-containing water backpacking filters available on the market but the need to replace those filters and their heavier weight make them impractical for most distance backpackers.

    • Actually, most water filters used by hikers are not ceramic. But the point is well taken, you can’t get chemicals out very easily with a Sawyer or any other hollow fiber filter. Your best bet is to avoid drinking the stuff altogether, although an electrostatic filter like a Grayl can get some dissolved chemicals out of the water and so can a charcoal filter when used after one that’s designed to remove organisms. Neither of the latter are full proof though and may not cover the chemicals found in all sources.

  6. Actually, I like road walking. My feet tolerate it well.
    For one, you don’t have to constantly look down at your feet to make sure you don’t roll your ankle.
    You can actually look around. Usually it’s not in a green tunnel like the AT was.
    You have the possibility of coming across a McDonalds or gas station for hot coffee and a burger.
    You pass by cute little farms with baby goats or horses
    The CDT had a lot of “roads” which I would consider just ‘very wide trails’ (they were 4WD roads)
    If there’s a rattlesnake on a road, you can see it well in advance.
    About 30% of the California Coastal Trail and Oregon Coastal Trail are on the road (Pacific Coast Hwy)
    Yeah, water (and a place to pee or poop) can be a consideration, but usually there’s a campground or gas station you can stop in.

    • I agree! I e seen some really interesting things on road hikes, especially little graveyards (including one that was only two graves, one of which was a Rev War vet). Plus, grades are always manageable (if sometimes very long) whether going up or down.

  7. Put your cell phone away when you’re crossing a road. Keep your pet on a short leash and on your right, out of the way of others who may want to pass you. ALWAYS wear bright clothing so drivers can see you. I have to drive on a road at 30mph and stop for hikers, runners, and bicyclists who may want to cross. I can’t see them if they’re wearing black or dark brown colors. Otherwise, I always stop. Many drivers speed at this location and don’t stop even when someone wants to cross. It’s no wonder we have pedestrian and bicycle hit and runs in the city. I always thank a driver for stopping for me when I want to cross a road and I always thank a bicyclist for saying, “On your left!” when they want to pass me when I’m on foot. On the B&O trail the park people have loud equipment to blow leaves and remove branches off the trail. Wait until they stop and see you before continuing.

  8. I agree completely with your statement to cross the road before approaching a blind curve. I also believe this applies to walking up hills that don’t afford oncoming drivers the benefit of seeing you until they crest. By then it may be too late.

  9. I have a bright orange mesh hunters vest w/ reflective stripe, I through on my pack when road walking. It weighs about 2oz. and cost me 3 bucks from Walmart. Works great. You definitely can’t miss me looking like I am caring a day glow pumpkin.

  10. Also, if you do need to hitchhike, having a sign with your destination on it will increase your chances by a hundred fold.

  11. watch for snakes along roadways. They will warm themselves on the pavement and feed in tall grass

  12. Welcome the road walk. Don’t dread it. Many I’ve been on—with New England Trail, Monadnock Sunapee Greenway etc—have been very pleasant back roads, gravel roads, and quiet country lanes. You get to see a little slice of life, with a pace relatively slow compared to vehicular travel, as you walk past someone’s home or a tiny town square. The road allows you to get into a walking stride that many trails won’t allow, and this can feel great after a long day. Taking the Link from Jewell to Cog Base Station gives you an easy last mile down to the Ammo TH lot, after a long day on Washington of Jefferson for instance.

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