Your average hiking speed will vary according to your fitness level, the steepness of the terrain, weather and whether your route requires crossing streams or other obstacles. Paul Tawrell, author of "Wilderness Camping & Hiking," cites an average pace of 2.5 to 4 mph over flat ground. You can use this average to estimate the duration of a particular hike.
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A day hiker carrying only water and a few essentials can travel more quickly than a backpacker loaded down with a week's worth of supplies. REI recommends that you not attempt to carry more than 25 percent to 30 percent of your body weight in a backpack or 15 percent in a daypack due to the insufficient support system. You can adjust this figure up or down according to your fitness level.
Your speed may also be affected by the distribution of your load; a poorly packed load can throw off your balance and make it difficult to move efficiently. A pack that doesn't fit well may chafe and be uncomfortable enough to cause you to move gingerly and slowly. Use a pack that fits comfortably and places most of the weight on your hips. Pack the heaviest items closest to your back -- up high for on-trail travel and lower if you will be hiking cross-country.
Your speed on flat terrain will be considerably faster than when you encounter steep uphill or downhill sections, which may slow you to as little as 1 mph. Beginning hikers may assume downhill hiking is easier and faster than uphill travel, but in reality hiking downhill can be equally difficult and slow due to the need to maintain secure footing. Each step downhill also places increased stress on the ankle, knee and hip joints, particularly for hikers carrying heavy packs. If you have joint problems or are unaccustomed to the forces involved, they may cause discomfort and thus slow your hiking speed. Finally, muddy or sandy conditions will decrease your speed by undermining your ability to propel yourself forward from a firm surface.
Hiking is an aerobic activity that requires considerable cardiovascular fitness. A 160-lb. person can expect to burn more than 400 calories in an hour of hiking and more than 500 if carrying a full backpack -- a level of exertion comparable to that of aerobics or running. Any out-of-shape hiker who has set out to conquer a strenuous trail can tell you about the burning lungs and exhaustion that result from a lack of conditioning. Beginning hikers should start with short trails over level terrain and work up to longer, steeper routes. Allow yourself extra time for slow travel and frequent breaks. If you plan to hike with a dog, this advice applies as well. Dogs require gradual conditioning for backcountry travel and should not be pushed beyond their limits.
A 2000 study in the "International Journal of Sports Medicine" showed that subjects who hiked with trekking poles reported a lower rate of perceived exertion or RPE while exercising at the same intensity. Researchers at California Polytechnic State University theorize that using poles may enable you to travel faster, both by increasing your propulsive force and allowing you to work harder while remaining comfortable. Poles can also facilitate your travel over rough or slippery terrain by providing additional means of balance and traction. Poles also reduce the stress on your joints when hiking downhill, potentially enhancing your comfort and thus increasing your ability to maintain a higher speed.
Carry sufficient water and sip frequently. Dehydration often manifests first as fatigue, slowing your performance and potentially causing additional problems. The same is true of hunger: Carry energy bars and concentrated-calorie snacks such as nuts and dried fruits to keep your glycogen stores replenished and available to fuel your progress.
- "Wilderness Camping & Hiking"; Paul Tawrell; 2008
- REI.com; How to Load a Backpack; Tim Skallerud; April 2010
- "International Journal of Sports Medicine"; Load Carriage Energy Expenditure With and Without Hiking Poles During Inclined Walking; B.H. Jacobsen, et al.; July 21, 2000
- Cal Poly; The Effects of Hiking Pole Use on Physiological Variables and Rate of Perceived Exertion While Hiking Uphill; Sunny Blue Atchison; June 2010
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Physical Activity for a Healthy Weight