Training, Fitness, and Distance Estimation for Backpackers

Training, Fitness, and Distance Estimation for Backpackers

This article is written to help students in Andrew Skurka’s Online Planning Course get physically prepared for a backpacking trip. However, the elements in this article apply to more than just hikers. As an ultramarathon coach and record-setting fastpacker, I recommend these principles for individuals who run or want to holistically maintain fitness and mobility.

Iam often asked by clients, “How do I hike farther and faster?”.  When posed this question, I have two responses:

First, hike longer–not faster. Hiking pace is difficult to control, but hiking more hours of the day and maximizing efficiency during that time is how I set speed records on the Long Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail. I can tell you from many thousands of miles of personal experience that, even with proper training, trying to hike ‘fast’ isn’t the key to unlocking more mileage, rather “time on feet” is the key.

Second, work on improving your endurance fitness. By focusing on training specificity, cardiovascular fitness, and muscular endurance, you will be able to cover more miles with less effort.

These two answers tell you everything you need to know about trail fitness, but in this article we’ll dive deeper into these elements to apply some endurance physiology. Then, we will set hiking goals to be able to anticipate how many miles and vertical feet you should reasonably expect to cover for your goal trip. Throughout the article, I will make training suggestions for low, moderate and high intensity efforts based on Andrew Skurka’s model for his guided trips.

Let’s start by discussing a few key terms: training specificity, cardiovascular fitness, and muscular endurance.


Training Specificity

The adaptation of the body or change in physical fitness is specific to the type of training undertaken.

Simply put, if you train by hiking, you will become a better hiker. Specificity capitalizes on your body’s ability to develop neurological patterns and muscle memory through repetition. Your body instinctively learns to move more efficiently on uneven terrain with a backpack.

To best mimic training specificity, consider conditions and environmental factors like pack weight, temperature, elevation gain, time on feet and energy output. While hiking won’t necessarily provide significant fitness gains, your body will become more efficient as well as adapted to the stresses of backpacking before you hit the trail.

Training for hiking-specific cardiovascular fitness (running/hiking on trails) or muscular endurance (low weight, hiking-related strength training) exercises is like eating vegetables – the more, the better. For all intensity levels, complete a minimum of one multi-hour hike every month with a pack weight and elevation gain per mile similar to that of your goal trip. In an ideal world, you would be hiking 2-3x per week in these conditions.


Cardiovascular Fitness

The heart and blood vessels’ capacity to deliver oxygen to working muscles.

Insane cardiovascular fitness is a defining characteristic of Olympic-quality marathoners. As your cardiovascular fitness builds, your body becomes more efficient at handling fatigue and the miles simply come easier. Your heart rate won’t skyrocket on uphills and you won’t need as many breaks. Compared to someone with a less developed cardio system, your body will have experienced significantly less stress at the end of the day for the same amount of work.

How do you develop your cardiovascular fitness? For a younger and healthier individual, running is most efficient. For an older or aspiring to be healthier individual, walking can deliver adequate training stress to encourage physiological adaptations, although running would still be a superior training method.

Hate running? Not to worry, you’re not alone. Many activities improve cardiovascular fitness including cycling, elliptical, yoga, etc. Fitness activities that increases your heart rate to be above 120 beats per minute for a period of 30+ minutes will do the trick. Speak with a doctor and/or personal trainer about the best approach for you. Walking and running are given specific attention due to the principles of training specificity and muscular endurance.

Improve your cardiovascular fitness by a multi-month training plan with consistent endurance exercise over the course of months. This plan should start at least 3 months before your hike; 6 months is optimal. A hiker planning for a low-intensity trip should exercise for 45 minutes 2 to 3 times per week. A moderate or high-intensity trip warrants 45-60 minute workouts 3 to 5 times per week. For ambitious hikers looking to be at their best, including higher intensity workouts is recommended. 


Muscular Endurance

The ability of a muscle to exert force against resistance over a sustained period of time.

The stronger a muscle is, the easier it is to complete a given task – like hiking uphill. Strong muscles require relatively less oxygen and blood for the same activity, putting less stress on the heart. Trained leg and core muscles resist fatigue, reduce risk of injury and improve power for hikers.

Muscular endurance is different than muscular strength. To develop muscular endurance, you should have a routine of high rep/low weight exercises on targeted muscle groups used in hiking: lower body and core. Light weights provide a more effective workout compared to body weight.

If you don’t typically do strength exercises, expect Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) after your first few sessions. However, these types of strength workout shouldn’t be fully exhausting your muscles. The training is most effective if you can recover to focus on cardiovascular exercise later in the week. Additionally, strength training improves joint, tendon and ligament health, making it particularly important for injury prone and older backpackers.

Low and moderate-intensity trip hikers significantly benefit from one combined leg and core strength workout per week. High-intensity trip hikers should get in two lifting workouts per week. I’d recommend one higher-intensity lower body lifting session combined with either a mobility focused lower body & core session or a running activity that also stimulates muscular endurance like a tempo workout (3 miles at a hard effort or 10k race pace) or hill workout (10×30 second hill sprints).

For students, answer these question in Google Classroom:

  • Describe your current fitness level and routine.
  • Consider the three training principles of backpacking endurance (Hiking Specificity, Cardiovascular Fitness and Muscular Endurance). Of these three, what do you regularly incorporate into your training, and what can you improve?

What are you training for?

We’ve discussed the basic training principles to make you a more prepared backpacker. How can you take these key learnings and put them into place?

First, identify the basic parameters of your goal trip. For our backpacking students, you’ve already identified your goal trip and a conditions report so you can skip this step. A few questions that will help you determine your goal:

  • What is your goal hike?
  • Approximately how many miles and vertical feet per day (elevation gain) are you trying to hike per day?
  • What are other factors (pack weight, altitude, resupplies, past injuries, etc) might affect the difficulty?
  • How would you evaluate your current fitness?

Second, create a fitness plan. Benjamin Franklin once said, ‘failing to plan is planning to fail.’ For any hiker with ambitions to go farther or faster, you need to take a more strategic approach.

Online students are not required to submit a training plan, however here are a few tips:

  • Identify a training period timeline leading up to your trip. I’d recommend 3-6 months prior.
  • Understand your parameters. How much time will you commit to training? How will you balance training with job, family and other commitments? What resources (gym, running track, trails) do you have available?
  • Set an overarching training goal. What factors of my fitness am I going to focus on? How many workouts am I completing each week? How do I assess progressing?
  • Create a training plan for the next two weeks. Plan out 2 weeks of training in a calendar. Identify the type of activity you will be doing and whether they fall into the training specificity, cardiovascular fitness, and muscular endurance-based bucket.
  • Hold yourself accountable. After two weeks, evaluate your performance. Did you complete all your workouts? For the future, what will you keep and what will you change? Use an app like Strava to track workouts and progress.

Estimating Hiking Pace

Brandon on an easy stretch of the Greenstone Track in New Zealand – smooth sailing!

Estimating your goal pace is an important backpacking skill and the most useful part of this exercise. While training allows you to hike more miles, understanding your ability (or lack thereof) to cover a target distance a limited period of time trip is essential. Failure to estimate pace and budget time can mean night hiking, missed resupplies or not enough time jump into that oh-so-blue alpine lake.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, time on feet is the simplest way to hike bigger miles. The other half of the equation is hiking pace, which we will dive into now.

What affects hiking pace?

There is no perfect formula to calculate hiking pace, but the two biggest factors that affect it are the trail conditions and your fitness level.

The most extreme, technical-off trail route typically slows my flat-land hiking pace from 3.5 mph 1 mph, or about 70%. Useful for off-trail routes, Andrew Skurka accurately writes about using elevation as a metric in the succinctly named article, ‘It’s the vertical, stupid.‘ Trail factors that will influence your hiking pace are:

  • Elevation gain
  • Backpack weight
  • Footing: mud, roots, talus, scree, pine duft
  • Environmental factors: Heat, cold, rain, snow, wind
  • Type of trail: maintained trail, unmaintained trail, off trail

Elevation gain is the most challenging statistic to dissect, specifically altitude and vertical gain. I’ve provided two simplified calculations for you to consider when determining pace:

For every 1,000 feet of elevation gain above sea level, assume a 2.5% decrease in hiking pace. This means if you live near sea level like on many parts of the Appalachian Trail and are planning to hike the High Sierras at 10,000ft, expect a 25% increase in difficulty. In this case, a 2 mile-per-hour hiking pace on the East Coast would compare to a 1.5 mph hiking pace out West. In reverse, a High Sierra hiker with a 2 mile-per-hour hiking pace at 10,000ft elevation should expect a 2.5 mph hiking pace near sea level. A 2005 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology examines running performance at different elevations, and is the most scientific metric on the subject. 

For every 100 feet elevation gain per mile, assume a 10% decrease in hiking pace. The Appalachian Trail through Georgia averages 307 of elevation gain ft/mi. The Pennsylvania section averages 135 ft/mi. That is a 172 ft/mi difference and you should assume that your hiking pace will be drastically affected. If you averaged a 2 mph pace through Pennsylvania, assume a 1.66 mph hiking pace in Georgia. 

Estimate your hiking pace

If you have been backpacking experience, the best estimation of your hiking pace is your performance on past trips or, to a lesser extent, your hiking pace on a shakeout trip. Use prior data. Adjust this number for the altitude and average elevation gain for your target trail. 

If you don’t have any past backpacking or hiking experience to draw from or are looking for another approach to estimating hiking pace, your trip intensity expectations are a good start. Assuming a maintained trail at sea level with 200 ft/mi elevation gain, I suggest the below figures:

  • Low: 1.5 miles per hour
  • Medium: 2 miles per hour
  • High: 2.5 miles per hour
  • Extremely High: 3 miles per hour

Adjust the above metrics for altitude and elevation gain to estimate your hiking pace. 

Regardless of the method you use, continue to be attentive to your hiking pace during future events. You’ll likely refine this number.

Using data to set a reliable itinerary

With a hiking pace in hand, trip planning becomes a breeze. You’ll also want to estimate your number of hiking hours per day. Let’s take this info to make your hiking trip a success.

Set a goal for the number of hiking hours per day. When backpacking to cover distance, hiking less than 5 hours per day feels unproductive, hiking between 5-9 hours a day is a ‘sweet spot’ and hiking 10-13 hour per day is a typical practice for thru-hikers. 

Let’s use your hiking pace and number of hiking hours per day for some nifty numbers.

  • Calculate the total hiking hours required to complete the trail. ‘total distance’ / ‘estimated hiking pace’
  • Calculate your estimate mileage per day. ‘estimated hiking pace’ x ‘number of hiking hours per day’

By calculating total hours, you should have clarity on how many days your trip will take, and the overall effort it will require to get you there. You can easily see how adding a few hours of hiking per day can easily shorten/lengthen trip length.

Mileage per day and daily hours hiked is very useful information when considering your daily itinerary. Are you giving yourself a reasonable amount of time to complete your trip? Can you align your schedule to land on a primo campsite? A resupply stop? You can now have the power to manipulate the numbers and understand how those decisions will affect the rest of your trip.

A quick aside– while I find a singular goal pace to be useful, I will generally calculate an “A” and a “B” goal pace. This is because I’m often hiking very logistic-contigent itineraries that have profound impacts if I can’t hit my “A”  pace. I want to have a plan if I come across a particularly challenging section of trail, am caught in a bad storm, or get injured.

This activity is optional for guided trip clients. For Online Planning Course students, answer these question in Google Classroom:

  • What is my estimated hiking pace in mph?
  • Use this information to calculate total hiking hours to complete my trip, daily average mileage and daily average hiking hours.
  • (Optional) What is my B goal pace, total hiking hours, daily average mileage and daily hiking hours?

Example: My Pace on the Appalachian Trail

Below is an example of how I used these strategies to calculate my pace on the 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail when I set the speed record in 2017.  These numbers are extreme and shouldn’t be directly compared to your efforts–hiking is not a competition–but the process is the same. Hopefully, this data shows you a practical application of this approach and the precision at which you can calculate distance. As I said earlier, understanding your ability to cover distance is a skill.

Here’s the information I had before I started:

I knew I would be hiking 14-16 hours a day with 150-300 ft of elevation gain per mile. My pack would weight ~12-25 pounds. Based on a 92 mile, 3 day run/hike on the Massachusetts section of the AT, I averaged a 3.5 mile per hour pace. While I knew I might be faster on flat sections like PA, I could expect a bit slower pace in states like ME, NH and GA. Therefore, I estimated my “A” goal pace was 3.7 mph and my “B” goal pace was 3.2 mph.

In sum:

  • Distance: 2,189 mi
  • Hiking hours per day: 14 hrs (B goal) to 16 hrs (A goal)
  • Estimated hiking pace: 3.2 mph (B goal) to 3.7 mph (A goal)
  • Elevation gain per day: 135-329 ft gain per day (230 average)
  • Pack weight: 12-25 lbs, depending on food and water weight
  • A goal: 59.2 miles per day (16 hr x 3.7 mph) or 39.97 days
  • B goal: 44.8 miles per day (14 hr x 3.2 mph) or 48.86 days

How did my estimates do? Because of the length of the trail, I knew my actual time would fall in between my A and B goals. I achieved my A goal of ~16 hiking hours per day and my B goal of 3.2 mph, mostly due to injuries. I finished in 45.5 days and was never more than a half day off my targeted resupply itinerary, where I had to go into towns to pick up supplies from businesses. Nice.

Final Thoughts

Do you remember my first comment about how time on feet is the best way to hike ‘faster?’ The best way for the majority of people to cover more ground per day is to get out of camp early, reduce rest breaks, and maintain a manageable pace throughout the day and into the evening. Check out Andrew’s article on How to Hike a Fast Thru-Hike for more information on those topics.  

To set yourself up for success you must train your body appropriately for the goals of your trip by considering your timeline, the terrain, and your hiking pace. Once you’ve determined those factors, it’s time to get to work! 

 


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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Kane

    Great article Joe. Pretty rare to find the topic covered in such depth. I’m always surprised to hear how many people can hike at 3 mph… 2 mph definitely seems more realistic!

    1. Joe McConaughy

      Thanks for the feedback, Kane! It is quite a fun topic to write about. A lot of thru hikers on the PCT will nail 3mph, especially in sections like Oregon. But when you compare that with a different type of terrain, like in PA on the AT, hitting that same 3mph pace seems insane. Ultimately, however, fitness and past hiking times are the best baseline that you can establish to understand how quick you will go.

      1. Kane

        Would you normally calculate your actual moving pace or your daily pace? I tend to work with my daily pace in terms of total distance/total hours hiked from camp to camp even though it includes time that I’m not moving. I find it really helps when planning a trip since I know my daily pace is quite consistent at just over 2 mph or 3 km/h. If I want to cover 20 miles I know it’ll take around 10 hrs and 30 miles will be 15 hrs.

        Funny thing about the terrain factor, is that not only does it affect your pace but also how many hours per day you can travel. I find it a lot easier to do long days out west where the views help keep motivation high and the trails are more well graded. In the ADKs, NH, or Quebec where I’m from it’s mentally challenging to stare at your feet all day making sure each step is well placed.

  2. Olga

    That was a really good article, and the link to Skurka’s “vert” break down. I am just going to re-post my comment on his post for vert (this was such a fun math to do!), but as far as miles/hr pace, yep, 2.5 seems to be a golden middle. I remember how Michaela Olsen (CT female FKT last year) mentioned she was not linking her “will I always be a 2.5 mph hiker?” thing. And I am like, girl, it’s just the way in high mountains, it’s the hours you’re willing to hike that make the distance. 3 mph (and even 4, donw that in couple of short stretches in OR on PCT) is fantastic, but unrealistic when it comes to terrain, both vert and footing.
    “2020, Collegiate Loop in CO, 167 miles, 33,400 ft gain. Female, 50, fit (but far from elite). 4 hiking days (technically 3 days 14 hrs 47 min, since it was an FKT after all), pack at the start 30 lbs, unsupported (I am not a light weight backpacker, unfortunately, still using old-er gear that is heavier than newest greatest). I guess it’d make just over 8k/day vert, fascinating. Never look at it this way.
    2018, Colorado Trail, 485 miles, 83k ft vert gain, 15 days. 5,500 ft/gain. Really cool tool, thanks, Andrew!
    I predict my travel time based on experience, what I know about the trail and other people who done it, and how many hours I am willing to hike a day. Generally, 2.5 mph at high altitude sounds about middle ground average, give or take for terrain.”

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