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.
I 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.
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.
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.)