Calculating Average Hiking Speed And Why It Matters

a man walking along a hiking trail with trekking poles

When I first picked up hiking as a hobby, I thought that measuring how long it takes me to finish the trail was a waste of time.

Needless to say, I was wrong.

Knowing your average hiking speed is not just for bragging. It lets you estimate the length of your trip, so you can plan everything in advance.

But that’s not all there is to it.

In this article, you can find everything you need to know about hiking speed – what the average is, why knowing your speed matters, and how you can calculate it.

So without further ado, let’s begin!

How Fast Does The Average Person Hike?

a man hiking in the mountains

On average, hikers cover between 2 to 3 miles per hour. Those practicing speed hiking walk 4 to 5 miles on average, while trail runners top the list, with 6 to 10 mph.

There are two factors that contribute to the difference in numbers.

First off, average hiking speed changes with age. Research conducted in 2011 shows that your average walking speed decreases every year. Let’s see this in numbers.

There’s a difference of 1.2 minutes, when walking a distance of 1 km aged 20 compared to when you’re 60 years old.

Now, if you regularly work out, you’ll have a lesser decline in your walking speed.

The other factor that affects average hiking speed is sex. In most cases, men appear to be faster than women when it comes to hiking. Although there’s very little difference in their numbers.

Why Knowing Your Pace Is Important

hikers walking a trail through a green hilly landscape

It’s important to know your pace when planning your trail. If you don’t know how fast you can go, you can easily end up burning the candle at both ends.

Here’s why this is such a problem.

If you’re hiking through the mountains, then you probably know afternoon rainstorms are a thing. In some areas, like in the Rocky Mountains, you know when to expect them. And you don’t want to get caught in the rain in the middle of a hike with no shelter, do you?

Knowing how fast you go allows you to calculate the time it will take you to a place where you can take a break and hide from the storm.

There’s another thing that knowing your average hiking speed prevents. You can do the math and pack just the right amount of food.

Only one thing is worse than packing too much food – packing too little. Trust me, you don’t want to find yourself in the middle of the trail with only one granola bar left.

Different Ways Of Calculating Your Hiking Speed

a man looking at a hiking watch

Here are the four ways you can keep track of your hiking speed:

The Good Ol’ Pen-And-Paper Method

Nowadays technology does everything we’re too lazy to do ourselves. But back in the day, you had to manually measure the time it takes you to get from point A to point B.

It’s still a method worth knowing, in case you forget your tracking gadgets at home. And you need three things – pen, paper and a watch.

But don’t just divide the distance by the time it took you to cross it. Split your hiking trail into different sections, depending on whether it’s flat ground, an incline or a decline. That way, aside from the overall average, you can see how much your speed changes going uphill and downhill.

Why is this important?

Well, your average speed over a mostly flat terrain can’t be your guideline when you’re on a trail with a lot of elevation gain that goes uphill all the way.

Later in the article, I’ll go into more detail about how incline affects your speed.

GPS Apps

a man using his phone to track his hiking speed

If you hate doing math yourself, good news!

You don’t have to – there are applications that can do it for you.

There are many options on the market, both free and for purchase.

These apps can record a variety of parameters. They let you track your speed, distance covered, current location and elevation gain.

Fitness Trackers

Your tracker you use for running can also help with calculating your average speed.

They keep track of different things like your distance and walking pace.

But, when it comes to your location, they’re not as accurate as the next point on the list – GPS watches.

GPS Watches

If you’re looking for the most accurate option, then get a GPS watch. These things do everything a GSP app does, and more.

They can measure temperature, pressure, very precise location, and even how many calories you’ve burned so far!

Factors That Affect Hiking Speed

a hiker's legs and trekking poles

A lot of things have an impact on your hiking speed.

Here are some of them:

Ascent

As you already know, going uphill slows you down.

Sometimes less, sometimes more. This depends on the angle you’re walking at.

If you want to do the math, here’s a guideline:

Your walking speed drops by a third for every 5.5 degrees of the ascent. The steeper the incline, the slower you’ll go.

Same goes the other way – sort of.

You see, as you go downhill, your speed increases. But that doesn’t mean you can walk at the speed of light downhill at extreme angles. In most cases, you’ll need to go slower to navigate your way down steep terrain.

Load

hikers walking along a trail

You can’t expect to walk fast with a heavy tent, two sleeping bags and a bunch of other camping gear on your back.

Of course, you should never pack like that for a hike anyway. But the point is, your load affects your hiking speed.

Here’s a simple calculation:

For every 1% of your own weight that you carry in a backpack, you’re slower by 6 seconds per mile.

Even if this doesn’t seem like that much, combined with other things that affect your speed, it all adds up pretty fast.

On the other hand, you can expect your load to lighten during multi-day hikes. With every meal, you’re eating through your food stock, thus lowering your pack weight.

Physical Condition

We can’t deny that a gym freak is in better condition than a couch potato. Muscles weaken when you don’t actively use them, so going from a lazy bug to a pro hiker can’t be done overnight.

The more fit you are, the faster you can hike. So don’t get frustrated if your hiking speed isn’t up to your expectations. This is something you need to actively work on, and it will improve in time.

Terrain

hikers walking along a rocky trail

You can be as fit as you like, and different terrains will still affect your hiking speed. If a trail is rocky, muddy, snowy or icy, even the most experienced hiker will struggle with keeping a steady pace.

Having to watch your step when walking drastically affects your speed.

So, when planning your hike, you need to take different terrain into consideration to calculate how long it will take you to get to the end of the route.

Weather

Let’s not forget the weather.

Whether it’s strong winds or a heavy rainstorm you’re dealing with, you’re going to be slowed down quite a bit if the weather is not on your side.

Snow makes hiking even more difficult, as you have to adjust your walk to the ground snow height.

Finally, nothing slows you down like high temperatures. Cold weather makes you keep going to stay warm, but if you’re anything like me, heat makes you feel like you’re walking through flames. Plus, heat stroke and hyperthermia are really dangerous.

Breaks

No one can go without breaks, whether it’s to drink water, have a snack, go potty etc.

That’s something you should always consider when calculating how much time it will take you to walk a trail.

But, we all tend to make unexpected breaks too, whether it’s to take a beautiful scenic photo, braid your hair or fix a snapped shoelace. All of these add up and can slow you down by a lot in the end.

Elevation

a man sitting on the edge of a cliff over a lake

Last but definitely not least, altitude is an important factor that affects how fast you can go. High altitude mountain climbs require peak physical condition, but not just because of the length and difficulty of the trail.

At higher altitude the air is thinner. It contains less oxygen, which as you know, fuels the heart. So as you gasp for air, you feel like you’re inhaling way less than you do usually. As a result, you become fatigued rather fast.

What Can You Do To Improve Your Hiking Speed?

Now that you know what affects your hiking speed, here’s what you can do to improve it.

Preparing For Hiking By Improving Your Physical Condition

In general, every physical activity improves your fitness level. But, these are the best two ways you can prepare your body for hiking:

Hit The Gym

To improve your hiking speed, you need to get in shape. And the best way to do that is to finally get a membership at your local gym.

You can specifically work on the most important body parts for hiking, like your glutes, calves and thighs.

All of these exercises are great for reducing fatigue and improving your overall walking speed. Plus, they can also prevent injuries by making you more agile.

Jogging

a pair of legs jogging

The best way to increase stamina is to take up running.

Regular jogs around a local park are ideal for improving your cardiovascular health. A strong heart equals good blood flow, and that’s what keeps you going.

How To Improve Your Speed While Hiking

The type of preparation mentioned above requires time and patience before you see results.

But, there are several things you can do to prepare for a hike that’ll help speed it up.

Pack Only The Absolute Minimum

As we already established, the heavier your load, the slower you’ll go.

Moral of the story – get rid of everything you don’t really need.

This can be difficult, though.

Usually, I have a hard time deciding on what my hiking bare necessities are. To prevent overpacking, here’s a rule of thumb to follow:

  • If you’re going on a day hike, pack no more than 10% of your own body weight
  • If you’re spending the night in the open, you can carry a load up to 20% of your body weight
  • For backpacking thru-hikes, 30% is the absolute maximum

Take Regular Breaks

a man and a woman on a hike taking a break

Not only are breaks necessary, they’re very effective.

These short blocks of time allow you to gather your strength before you proceed with the trail. That way, you don’t strain yourself, which would cause you to become fatigued way faster.

But, you don’t want to take a break for too long, either. They’re counterproductive.

A large pause in your hike can cause your muscles to stiffen up and cool down. Continuing with the trail will just become more difficult.

Eat A Balanced Diet

Hiking is a physically exhausting activity, meaning it burns calories fast. In fact, an average hiker can burn up to 4,000 calories a day.

That’s why you have to eat adequate meals.

During a hike, quick snacks like granola bars, dried fruit and nuts are an easy power meal. You can eat it on the go, without making a huge difference in your walking speed.

On multi-day hikes, on the other hand, you also need to include real meals that are rich in proteins, carbs and healthy fats.

Buy Appropriate Hiking Gear

hiking boots sunglasses and trekking poles

There’s nothing worse than your feet hurting due to a bad choice of footwear.

If you’ve ever worn brand new shoes or ones that are too tight to an all-day event, then you know how that can kill your mood.

High-quality boots really are a game changer.

They allow you to comfortably walk over different types of terrain while the weather doesn’t affect your feet. They breathe during hot days and are warm in winter.

Ideally, get lightweight shoes that still provide decent protection. They should also be water-resistant. And, of course, make sure they fit well.

Asides from shoes, trekking poles are a very useful piece of gear.

They allow you to better distribute the weight you’re carrying between all four of your limbs. This releases some of the pressure off your knees and joints.

How To Choose The Right Hiking Pace For You

This is the question that troubles every hiking newbie.

But just like with any other activity, there’s a simple rule of thumb – go slow.

For beginners, an average hiking pace of a little under 1 mph is perfectly fine.

When it comes to trail length, start with short hikes, under 5 miles and without steep inclines. At a moderate pace, this equals less than 6 hours of hiking. Great way to practice for longer distances.

Tips For Maintaining Energy Levels On The Trail

a snack bar on a hike

How do you keep your “engine” working over such a long distance?

Just like a cellphone, your body needs charging to keep the battery running.

Here are some things you can do to stay energized on the trail.

Eat Power Meals

As I mentioned before, an average hiker spends twice the calories we usually spend on regular days.

You need to make up for lost energy by eating nutritious meals.

So don’t go for just whatever food you enjoy eating. Pick a meal that fulfills your calorie requirements.

Stay Hydrated

Thirst drains your energy out the same way hunger does. And once you start feeling thirsty, it’s already too late – you’re fatigued.

To prevent that, remember to take a sip from time to time. That way, you’ll stay energized without filling your bladder too often.

Keep Going At A Steady Pace

2 hikers walking through the mountains

By keeping a steady tempo, you avoid getting tired way too fast.

Running a quick sprint will get you tired faster than a moderate jog, and this is just like that.

By constantly accelerating, you’re causing calories to burn at a faster rate.

And, as you know, our body needs time to process the food we just ate. This means that regaining lost energy will take a while, and you’ll need a longer break.

Breathe Properly

Proper breathing technique really makes a difference. It improves the rate at which oxygen flows through your body, and we’ve already seen how much this matters.

The ground rule to proper breathing is to take deep breaths, even when agitated. That way, you’re allowing your heart to work to its fullest and keep you from becoming fatigued.

Naismith’s Rule

There’s a rule that a Scottish mountaineer named William W. Naismith developed back in 1892. He tried to help hikers calculate the time it will take them to go over the intended route, with going uphill in mind.

Here’s what he came up with:

It will take you an hour to walk 3 miles, plus an additional hour for every 2,000 feet of incline.

After reading this article, it’s clear to you that this number isn’t a given.

When he came up with these numbers, Naismith didn’t take into consideration things like tough terrain or bad weather conditions. When you add these things into the calculation, the amount of time increases.

To Wrap Things Up

Most hiking beginners don’t know how important knowing your average pace can be. But, measuring the time it takes you to get to your destination allows you to plan the trail route for your hiking trip in advance.

Now you know how to calculate your average hiking speed. So no weather elements, different types of terrain or food supply miscalculation can catch you off guard on the trail from here on out.