When you start hiking, come across a trail you love, and have the perfect gear, you will want to hike every day. But how many miles should you hike a day?
Hiking is an addiction for some, spiking their adrenaline whenever they see a trail. As hikers love the refreshing experience and the overall aura of hiking, they just want to keep going. However, too much hiking can result in fatigue and poor health. Unfortunately, there are no defined miles you can hike every day. How much you should hike a day is a bit more complicated.
When calculating the miles you should cover in a day, many factors come into play. These include your experience and fitness level, speed, terrain, trail elevation, trail altitude, backpack weight, weather, body weight, etc.
An average hiker (considering an average amount for all the factors mentioned above) is expected to hike at 2.5-3.5 miles per hour. So you can cover 18-25 miles if you hike for eight hours. However, the factors can vary greatly for you, significantly changing these numbers.
As hiking enthusiasts, we have heard many beginners and amateurs asking how much they should hike daily. We can conclude a close estimate that suits you by helping you comprehensively understand all factors.
What Factors Affect Your Hiking Capabilities?
Experience and Fitness Level
Your trail experience is the first variable that determines the miles you can hike a day. It doesn’t matter if you want to hike more, but if your experience and fitness level don’t allow it, you will probably put your body under a severe test. If you are a beginner to an amateur, you won’t have the experience to hike extended miles.
Your fitness level determines how fast you can move on a trail. The fitter you are, the fast you will be able to move. Besides that, you will also be able to handle tougher trails with elevation changes, rigid patches filled with rocks and boulder fields, etc. However, these challenges will tire you quickly if you are not that fit.
The fitness level goes hand in hand with experience. If you are fit, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can hike for more miles. As hiking presents different challenges and asks for an extra fitness level, you might lack it a bit. However, if you have gained fitness through hiking, nothing stops you from achieving the target you set for yourself.
On the other hand, your daily hiking capacity will be much lower if you are new to the hiking game. Given the weight of your backpack, you should focus on hiking two miles per hour over an eight-hour hike. This will help you achieve a healthy target of 15-16 miles for a day - a good starting point and not too much to exhaust your mind and body to return with refreshed enthusiasm.
However, you should aim to increase your hiking limit. Try to cover 18 miles after a hike or two. Gradually, you should be able to hike for 30 miles in a day, which is the average hiking distance for an experienced hiker. Remember that extended hiking can damage your feet with blisters that can occur on challenging terrain. But when you have the experience, you can deal with them without having to cut your hike short.
According to Naismith's rule, the terrain type you hike on plays a vital role in the distance you can cover. Easy terrains are usually level fields with minimum rocks and a smooth terrain to walk on. This is quicker to hike, and you can hike for extended periods at a reasonable speed. However, more demanding terrains can be filled with jagged rocks, boulder fields, and cutbacks that strain your feet and tire your muscles quicker. If the trail consists of water crossing and muddy patches, it will be harder to keep up the speed and cover more distance.
Another angle that makes terrain a variable is steepness. Understandably, your speed will be slower if you are climbing uphill. The steeper and rougher terrain, the slower you will climb. Some people might think the return journey compensates for the extra time used for uphill hiking, as you will be walking downward, and it takes less effort.
However, you need to move slowly while going down to maintain your balance and prevent falling over. Therefore, walking downhill also slows you down, reducing the distance you can cover in a given time.
Time on the Trail
The time you spend on the trail is another variable that impacts the mile you should hike in a day. Extended hikes can result in burnout, increasing your time on the trail. For example, if you are hiking for a full day and have the stamina to keep up for the first eight hours, you can hike more distance. However, you might need to push yourself for the next mile or two if you start feeling tired.
If you hike the same trail for the same time every day, your ability to hike longer distances will decrease as your body is not getting the rest it needs. If you want to hike frequently for extended distances, it is best to rest for a day or two so your muscles loosen up and relieve the stress. That way, you can also work on gradually increasing your speed as your body gets familiar with the hiking nature and the stress it bears each time.
In the hiking world, this is known as “getting your mountain legs in the hiking world.” The human body is not naturally adaptive to hiking trails with varying terrains and steep or inclined paths. Especially since most of us live in urban areas, we are used to the paved and flat roads. As you get the mountain lugs, the muscle memory builds along the way, and we start feeling relaxed and less stressed when hiking.
The weather is the next factor that directly affects your performance on the trail. A perfect day with 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit temperature with no rain or high winds is a hiker’s heaven. You are in for great luck if there is partial cloud cover blocking the sunlight. These conditions will let you hike for hours or even go back at a greater pace. So you are likely to hike extended distances in the perfect weather.
However, not-so-perfect weather can be a significant blockage in your experience. The searing sun will dehydrate you quickly, so you need to go back earlier since you can only carry so much water. Besides that, rain and harsh winds in your direction make it difficult to move forward and will put more strain on your body. Neither muddy puddles nor wet clothing is ideal for hiking long distances.
Like the weather, you should also consider the seasons that play a heavy part in determining the miles you should hike in a day. The first thing that changes with the season is the amount and duration of sunlight you will get on the hike. Summers typically see more sun, allowing more daylight for hiking.
As we transition towards winters, the sunlight duration decreases, giving you only eight to ten hours before dark. Unless you want to be out in the dark, you need to cut your hiking shorter.
Peak summers can be too hot to handle, depending on the area you choose to hike. If the trail has a water source that you can drink from directly or after filtering, it can be worth the risk of hiking more miles.
On the other hand, peak winters can be equally challenging to trail in since most of the country receives abundant snow. The snow can be knee-deep and wet, which slows you down. The best months for hiking are late spring to early summers and fall to early winters. The pleasant weather during these months offers a more effortless hiking experience.
Are you in the habit of walking while carrying a heavy bag to your work? If yes, we are sure it is a huge relief when you don’t have to carry that weight on a lucky day. The same goes for backpacking. The more weight you carry when hiking, the slower you will go and the more tired you will get.
The weight you carry is a matter of preference. You might carry more weight if going on a multi-day hike. However, increased weight means you will cover less distance as your body will tire quickly, and your stamina will wear out. If you strive to keep going, you might burn extra calories, but it won’t be long before you get exhausted.
The essence of backpacking lies in finding the balance between your capabilities and distributing the weight you carry so you can hike for as long as you want to. The more you hike with the weight on your back, it will stop feeling like a burden as your body gets used to it. If someday you go on a short hike without a backpack, it will surprise you how quick you are on your feet.
Elevation and Altitude on the Trail
The elevation is the angle you are moving forward on the trail. If the elevation is little to none, you can walk more distance without feeling tired. However, turn up the angle a little more, and you will find yourself struggling quicker to move forward, and gravity pulls you the other way. As we talked about earlier, elevation also slows you down when walking downhill, and you need to keep your balance.
Altitude is the level of the ground above the sea. The oxygen levels drop the higher you go on a trail. So you won’t be able to progress as effortlessly on trails over 3000 ft as you would on less than that. This doesn’t stop you from conquering higher altitude trails but surely limits the miles you can hike in a day. According to Naismith, increase your time by one hour per 2000 of altitude.
Ultimately, it all comes down to the hiker’s desire to cover a certain distance. Even if all the factors above create the perfect hiking opportunity, you won’t hit your target if you are not hungry for it. Hiking with a partner usually helps them stay motivated. If you have the “hikers high,” nothing will stop you from achieving the miles you target for your day.
About THE AUTHOR
I’m a hiker, backpacker, and general outdoor enthusiast. I started hiking out of college while working for the National Forest Service, and have been hiking ever since. I’ve been solo hiking and leading hiking groups for two decades and have completed hundreds of small hikes and some majorones such as the Appalachian Train and the Pacific Crest Trail, and hiked on four continents. I’d love to share some of my insight with you.Read More About Peter Brooks