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.
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:
- Hike at a slower speed (“rate,” e.g. MPH) and
- 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
- Can be completed in less time, because they are shorter and usually easier.
- Can be short-cutted or extended, if your actual progress is slower or faster than expected.
- 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.