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It’s the vertical, stupid: How many days should I budget for a high route?

In just 2.3 miles, the Pfiffner Traverse climbs Thunderbolt Creek, tops out at Paiute Pass, and drops steeply on the other side to Pawnee Pass Trail. It averages 1,350 vertical feet of change per mile through this section.

Last week on r/Ultralight, member u/TeddyBallgame1999 asked multiple questions about the Wind River High Route, including:

What is a reasonable time estimate for two fit 18-year-olds to complete the route? (I know this is hard to figure out.)

The essence of this question — “How long will it take me?” — has been posed before, in the context of the WRHR and similar routes like the Kings Canyon High Basin Route, Pfiffner Traverse, Glacier Divide Route, and Sierra High Route. I’ve tried to answer it when I see it, but I’m going to finally give this topic a full treatment.

Framework

Backpackers are correct in thinking that a high route will be slower than a conventional itinerary. There are two explanations — on a high route, backpackers will:

  1. Hike at a slower speed (“rate,” e.g. MPH) and
  2. Hike for fewer hours each day (“time,” e.g. hours).

If we momentarily return to high school physics, you may recall that Distance = Rate * Time. So if Rate and/or Time decrease, Distance will as well. In this particular conversation, Distance = Miles per day.

Explanation

Why do backpackers hike slower and hike for fewer hours each day while on a high route? Again, two reasons:

1. Off-trail travel

High routes go where they should go, not necessarily where there are trails. For example, two-thirds of the Wind River High Route and Kings Canyon High Basin Route, and forty percent of the Pfiffner Traverse, is off-trail.

The effect of off-travel travel can be relatively small on backpackers who are exceptionally strong and agile, and/or who are expert navigators. But most hikers will be slower, because they are unable to:

  • Maintain their on-trail walking speed in the face of uneven surfaces and dense vegetation; and/or,
  • Route-find flawlessly (i.e. finding the path of least resistance) without slowing down or stopping to examine closely their topographic map, double-check their compass or GPS, or consult with their hiking partners.

Because most backpackers move more slowly and stop more often (and, sometimes, choose poor routes that are even slower than they should be), their daily mileage drops.

Crawling over car-sized High Sierra talus is slow, although not as slow as you’d think for backpackers who are exceptionally strong and agile.

Navigation breaks eat up time, especially for less competent and confident navigators.

2. Vertical change per distance

The off-trail travel partly explains why high routes are slower. But I believe that another factor has a much greater effect: the exceptional vertical gyrations that are typical of high routes.

By most accounts, the John Muir Trail and Appalachian Trail are arduous undertakings. They seem to be always climbing or descending — on average, about 425 vertical feet per mile, according to a few reasonable-sounding estimates.

In comparison, high routes climb and descend up to 80 percent more over the same horizontal distance. For example:

  • Pfiffner Traverse: 770 vertical feet of change per mile
  • Kings Canyon High Basin Route: 725 vertical feet per mile
  • Wind River High Route: 620 vertical feet per mile

In 2.5 miles, the Wind River High Route climbs 2,000 vertical feet over Blaurock Pass (the low spot on the right skyline) and then drops 2,000 vertical feet to the Glacier Trail and Dinwoody Creek, an average of 1,600 vertical feet of change per mile.

In such mountainous topography, the “physical governor” is not horizontal distance. Instead, the limit is the endurable volume of daily vertical gain and loss. This number varies with individual fitness and trip objectives, i.e. How hard do you want it to be?

Based on data from past trips, I know that my sweet spot when backpacking solo is 7,000 vertical feet of climbing per day (plus 7k vertical feet of loss on average, so 14,000 vertical feet total.). If I pull up for the day having done less than 6k, I still have gas in the tank; and I hold off on doing 8k+ until near the end, because it’s an unsustainable effort.

On the John Muir or Appalachian Trails, I would typically reach this vertical threshold between 30 and 35 miles. But on a high route, my days are over after about 20 miles — or sometimes just 12, if it’s an exceptionally difficult section. Once I hit that 7k number, it’s lights out, however far I’ve gone.

Case studies

Pfiffner Traverse

Last summer I yo-yo’d the Pfiffner Traverse (trip report), which for 75 miles parallels the Continental Divide in Colorado’s Front Range through Rocky Mountain National Park, Indian Peaks Wilderness, and James Peak Wilderness. It took me 8.5 days, finishing in early-afternoon on Day 9 . Each day I hiked to near exhaustion, and each night I camped around where I reached that point.

I recorded my track each day with my Suunto Ambit GPS watch (long-term review). When I plot my horizontal mileage, it’s difficult to see a pattern:

My shortest day was 13.5 miles; my longest was 25.0, or 85 percent longer. My daily average was 19.

When I plot my vertical gain each day, however, the numbers are much more consistent:

My lightest day had 5,500 vertical feet of gain, biggest day had 7,775 (only 40 percent more), and the average was 6,410. My longest day was one climb longer than I would have liked, but necessary so that I could exit the park and camp on National Forest land.

Glacier Divide Route

Dave Chenault and I teamed up in July 2016 to attempt the Glacier Divide Route (trip report). The first three days went well, but Dave bailed at Logan Pass after a very short Day 4 due to an injury.

Our mileage was inconsistent: Days 1 and 3 (which had a large amount of on-trail hiking) were 22 and 23 miles, respectively. But on Day 2, which was entirely off-trail, we covered just 12, or barely more than half of our longest effort.

But our vertical was very stable: 5,400 feet of gain, 5,700 feet, and 6,200 feet.

So, How long will a high route take you?

To predict the number of days necessary to complete a high route, use data from past trips. Consult your GPX tracks, or plot old routes in Caltopo (which can generate a vertical profile).

Then, compare your data against the total amount of vertical of the route. For example, if I can sustain 7k of climbing per day and the Pfiffner Traverse has 29k vertical feet of gain, it’s probably a 4+ day trip for me, or 4 full days if I dig deep and everything goes perfectly (which it rarely does).

When calculating the days you will need, be sure to adjust for:

  • Altitude: High in the Mountain West, there is less oxygen to power muscles and to assist in recovery. And,
  • Off-trail travel: If you’re not a strong and agile hiker, or an expert navigator, give yourself extra cushion.

I can’t provide specific numbers for these adjustments, sorry. Thin air in my normal, and I don’t have good data from ten years ago when I could barely navigate out of a cardboard box. Maybe readers can chime in.

Also, add an extra half- of full-day, to accommodate for uncooperative weather. High routes are, well, high — it’s difficult, unsafe, or impossible to push through some conditions, even in the summer.

Guidelines

Based on what I have observed on my guided trips — on which we often follow high routes or high route-like routes — I will reluctantly offer general guidelines for male backpackers between the ages of 20 and 40. These apply to high routes at altitude. If you are female and/or 40+, subtract by 500 to 1,000 vertical feet.

  • Average fitness: 3,000 vertical feet of gain per day
  • Above-average, recreational fitness: 4,000 vertical feet of gain per day
  • Endurance athlete: 5,000 vertical feet of gain per day
  • Elite endurance athlete: 7,000+ vertical feet of gain per day

Readers: Are these guidelines consistent with your experience? Please leave a comment below. I would appreciate some tweaking and/or validation.

Still not sure? Do a section-hike.

If you have never done a high route before and/or if your schedule is restrictive (e.g. a limited number of vacation days, must catch a Sunday flight for a big Monday meeting, etc), my recommendation is to attempt a section of a high route, starting and finishing at the same trailhead. If the experience was enjoyable, apply the data and your newfound skills to a point-to-point thru-hike the following summer.

Section-hikes have many advantages over thru-hikes. They:

  1. Can be completed in less time, because they are shorter and usually easier.
  2. Can be short-cutted or extended, if your actual progress is slower or faster than expected.
  3. Are logistically simpler: drive a car to the trailhead, do a loop, and drive back. No costly or time-consuming shuttles.

The insistence on completing high routes in their entirety is lost on me. High routes are big step-up for most backpackers, and a section-hike is a more conservative and measured approach until they feel like second nature.

Readers: Please comment! How did you create a timeline for your high route, and how accurate was it?

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15 Responses to It’s the vertical, stupid: How many days should I budget for a high route?

  1. Steve Johnston March 12, 2018 at 3:18 pm #

    Great post and insight in to route planning per day. I’m of average fitness, and I’m gassed after 3-4k vertical feet in a day, with a 30-40lb pack. I can validate your numbers look good for a person of average fitness.

    • Andrew Skurka March 13, 2018 at 2:48 pm #

      What is your age?

      • Steve Johnston March 14, 2018 at 3:47 pm #

        I’m 44 years old.

  2. PW March 12, 2018 at 3:33 pm #

    It is not a perfect comparison, but for the Grand Traverse ski race in CO, my buddy and I have been putting in a lot of training days and logging distance and mileage. To make good time estimates for the race and mid-race cutoffs we break the route into 3 types of segment: 1) steep (over 7% grade) 2) downhill (even if a segment has some uphill segments) and 3) flat (everything else).

    We look at our vertical gain per hour on any training segments over 7% to estimate time on steep. We use an average mph on “flat” segments and a faster mph on downhill. We also add a set amount of time per segment to account for rests/navigation.

    If you can use some free mapping software to break your big high route into segments, you can get the distances and elevations and make a good guess about total time required. For high routes, maybe you add “off trail” as a separate category of segment and assign a slower mph to that.

    You can get as complicated and nerdy as you want…just make sure to bring extra food and fuel for when your final guess is off by a day or so….

    • Andrew Skurka March 12, 2018 at 3:45 pm #

      Skiing is another animal because you have huge variances in speed. Transitions probably take a lot of time, too. It’s similar to using a packraft when backpacking — it needs to be treated separately when making calculations. 50 miles on a river like the Yukon can be completed before lunch if you get an early start. Meanwhile, that’s 2-3 days of hiking.

      In case, I totally see what you’re saying. But I don’t think backpacking high routes need to get so complicated.

  3. Dan March 12, 2018 at 5:59 pm #

    While I haven’t done a high route, I feel like the difficulty of the terrain, talus etc, may make as much difference for some as the vert. On the pct, I recall a few consecutive days with over 8k of gain and I certainly wouldn’t consider myself an elite endurance athlete. I think the reason is that I never had to lift my feet more than 6 inches off the ground and the vert was stretched over a long distance.

    In contrast, when I hike in NY’s Adirondacks which involves some scrambling and boulder hopping, I might be whipped after 5k of gain. Add in some altitude and this would probably stick me in the ‘endurance athlete’ category, so your estimates sound reasonable to me.

    • Andrew Skurka March 13, 2018 at 2:47 pm #

      8k on the PCT, wow, that’s huge. Thru-hikers get so crazy fit.

      Yes, the difficulty of the terrain can be very hard on some people, especially those who are not particuarly strong or agile. As an extreme example, I had a 55 y/o client who was still running sub-3 hours in the marathon (which puts him in a league of about 10 people) and he always struggled on the technical terrain, because he just didn’t have the muscle mass. Another client comes to mind, too — she was a very, very strong trail hiker (20 miles per day at least) but struggled off-trail, especially on talus. A bit of a confidence issue, and not great balance.

      On the opposite end of that spectrum, people like Buzz Burrell and Peter Bakwkin do not slow down in the slightest when they are on technical terrain. It’s like they float above it. I’m sure that slow down at some point, but consider these guys are regularly solo-climbing 5th class and literally racing up the Boulder Flatirons. So what’s the big deal about some talus?

  4. Neil March 12, 2018 at 7:52 pm #

    20-40 year old male here, I averaged 4800ft/day on the SHR. I hiked the PCT two years before, and trained intentionally for it. I feel that my fitness level was similar to 2 months into a thru hike. I think time on trail has more to do with high route speed than general “athletic” fitness level, with an exception for avid trail runners.

    • Andrew Skurka March 13, 2018 at 2:39 pm #

      When you say, “time on trail,” do you mean the simple act of just plodding forward? Most definitely, if you approach a high route with thru-hiker mentality of dawn-to-dusk, that will get you a long way.

      However, I’ve seen plenty of clients who are wiped by early-afternoon because we’ve already reached their vertical threshold. While they could push on for few more hours, they would only dig themselves a hole for the following day, or maybe later in the trip.

  5. David Danylewich March 13, 2018 at 4:59 pm #

    I did KCHBR Loop 1 in 5.5 days as a 46 year old male, and I’m probably between average and above average by Andrew’s standards. Using Andrew’s data tables I made about 3200 feet vertical gain per day. These felt like totally doable, normal days, not killer by any means. But the car sized talus became a total mental drag.

    The next year I did WRHR Loop 4 in 4.5 days (then 47 years old), by Andrew’s data tables I averaged about 2600 feet vertical feet gain per day. This time it felt comparatively easy compared to KCHBR Loop 1. The challenge for me here was mental again, first time on snow fields. No issues at all with vertical gain though, could have done more. Felt very pleasant!

    So being 47, add 500 to 1000 for age discount, I’d say 4000 seems right for above average fitness male 20 to 40.

  6. Matt March 13, 2018 at 8:06 pm #

    Good stuff, appreciate the time taken to compile this. I don’t really consider myself an endurance athlete yet I have yo-yo’d the boulder skyline traverse (approaching 12k gain or so) which I suppose puts me in that category. Perhaps I should try competing in something 🙂 I’ll have to log some of my trips and see how it compares to your charts.

  7. Mark Turner March 13, 2018 at 9:43 pm #

    55 yo male, maybe between recreational and endurance fitness, 3000 ft with a 35 pound pack and 4000 ft with 10 pounds for a day hike. Some of it depends on your willingness to suffer. I need to lighten my pack though…

  8. Drop-N-Roll March 14, 2018 at 1:34 pm #

    I don’t know what what kind of women you hike with, but the women I hike with are just as vertically capable as men.

    • Andrew Skurka March 14, 2018 at 1:41 pm #

      That’s great for you! Based on what I have seen on my guided trips, the men are stronger by about 500 to 1,000 vertical feet per day, all things being equal (e.g. age, BMI, fitness relative to peers). That said, I have had some exceptionally strong women who can keep up with or beat the men. Each individual is unique and should be treated so, but collectively we create averages.

  9. Max March 18, 2018 at 3:00 pm #

    I would consider myself above average fitness and I can confirm the estimate overall. Being from the eastern US, I will add a comment about weighting for altitude. Above and below about 10,000 feet feels very different for me. Below, I can climb more than 4,000, especially well below. Above that altitude, I probably can’t sustain much more than 3,000.

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