The secret is not hiking at a faster speed, but hiking for more hours.
This article is reprinted here with permission from Backpacking Light Magazine.
During the summer before my senior year of college, when I probably should have had an internship that could be leveraged into a “real” job after graduation, I instead opted to hike the Appalachian Trail. I do not recall being too concerned that I was a novice backpacker or, more importantly, that I would need to reach Katahdin in about half the time it takes most hikers, in order to return to school before classes resumed. I knew that I would just have to quickly learn how to become both a backpacker and “fast” thru-hiker.
Four years and about 15,000 miles of backpacking later, I am still improving in both areas, though certainly now the learning curve is less steep and the performance gains are less significant. My perception of what constitutes a “fast” hike has changed accordingly. During my AT hike in 2002 I averaged almost 23 miles per day, whereas this past summer I averaged over 38 miles per day throughout the California section of the Pacific Crest Trail (over the last 700 miles I averaged over 43 miles per day). Defining “fast” is determined not just by personal perception and abilities, but by the terrain, trail quality, season, and trail culture.
Pros and cons
My initial motivation for doing a fast thru-hike was to gain the satisfaction of completing the entire AT in the limited time I had off. But I have found that there are other good reasons to go fast as well. First, it makes for a more challenging experience, both physically and mentally, and I learn more about my mind and body as a result. Second, I need shorter blocks of time in order to gain a desired experience, which leaves me time leftover to do something else (like work, spend time with family, or go on another hike). And, third, it opens up new trip opportunities because I can overcome traditional logistical difficulties (i.e. a 380-mile stretch of trail with a feasible resupply point) and because I can get to and through areas that have short hiking seasons.
A fast thru-hike is not devoid of drawbacks. I have not formed many lifelong friendships with other thru-hikers; I don’t take as much time to recognize the unique cultures and histories of trail towns; I often miss the “can’t miss” hostels and burger joints; and I’ve been criticized by other hikers for not doing it the “right” (read: their) way. Before you choose to do a fast hike, make sure that you’ll be comfortable with the experience that you’ll get.
In talking about specific ways to complete a fast thru-hike, I find it helpful to reference the equation, Distance = Rate x Time, which can be rearranged as Time = Distance/Rate, where Time is measured in days, Distance is measured in miles, and Rate is measured in miles per day.
The thru-hiker has direct control over only one variable, their Rate: Distance is a pre-determined constant, and Time is a function of the other two variables. Rate is equal to Miles_Hiked_Per_Hour x Hours_Hiked. Thus, there are two ways to increase Rate: by hiking faster or by hiking more hours.
Hiking “fast” in the Indian Peaks Wilderness-still cranking at Hour 14, just before sunset.
There is only one way to hike faster:
1. Go light, of course. A lighter load is the only way to increase Miles_Hiked_Per_Hour (and, therefore, Rate), besides the more obvious technique of increasing energy expenditure. This means: more miles without additional hours or output. It’s likely, however, that you’ll hike additional hours anyway because you will still be fairly fresh at the end of a traditional day. There are three areas in which you can lighten up: your gear, your consumables (food, water, fuel, TP, etc.), and your body. To lighten your pack: educate yourself on the matter with printed and online resources, research the environmental conditions you will encounter, develop a set of appropriate lightweight gear lists for those conditions, and have the gear kits mailed to you at designated points along your route. To lighten your consumables: keep the average caloric density of your food to around 125 calories/ounce, hydrate more at water sources so you can carry less water between them while still staying hydrated, and try to never pack “contingency food” that will weigh you down and not motivate you to hurry up like the prospect of an empty stomach will. The benefits of reducing your body weight are not so clearly advantageous: you’ll have less natural insulation, you might not be able to carry as much weight if you lose muscle mass, and you may have to carry more food if your body fat percentage gets too low. Nevertheless, being leaner will generally lead to greater comfort and more miles.
But there are at least six ways to hike more hours:
2. Expect to challenge yourself. All thru-hikes are challenging, without a doubt. But fast hikes are even more physically taxing and mentally exhausting—they entail longer days, more miles, fewer breaks, shorter town stops, less companionship, more limited scheduling flexibility, and greater scrutiny by other hikers. Fast hikes are definitely not “vacations”; words like “rewarding” and “satisfying” more accurately describe the experience than “fun” (unless you’re a full-blown masochist). Be prepared for the additional difficulties you will bring on yourself; and embrace them as an integral part of your trip, as much as the wildlife encounters and scenic vistas.
3. Hit the ground running. Many hikers get in shape “on the trail” by starting with 5-10 miles per day and slowly building up. Do not take this approach—instead, train beforehand and be ready to put in long days immediately. There is no better training for a backpacking trip than by going backpacking—it’s the only activity that will work the right muscles, help you develop the necessary skills, and get you familiar with your gear. If your training is limited by your lack of access or free time (e.g. if you live in a city or among cornfields, or if you have commitments to work, family, and trip planning), I would recommend that you: increase the intensity of your workouts (e.g. run for 30 minutes instead of walking for 2 hours), be resourceful with what you do have (e.g. stadium stairs, indoor treadmills, your backyard), and simulate the “real thing” whenever you can (i.e. during a free weekend go backpacking in a nearby park).
4. Be a tortoise, not a hare. The more influential variable in determining Rate is Hours_Hiked, not Hours_Hiked_Per_Hour. A fast rate of travel leads to faster fatigue, more discomfort (because it’s not as natural a stride), and increased stress and strain; plus, time savings can be easily offset by the need to take longer and more frequent breaks. I will hike fast when I really want to get somewhere—like a campsite before dark or a PO before 4pm—but I avoid it otherwise. When I need to put in a long day, I find it more effective to walk at a comfortable, controlled, constant speed—simply for more hours. If you routinely hike 15+ hours per day you may find the limitation of this approach, as sleep deprivation can become an issue.
5. Minimize the number and length of town stops. Those who have failed a class can probably attest to the damage it does to a GPA, regardless of their other grades. It’s no different for a thru-hike, where Modern Civilization 101 is the class that can destroy your chances of making magna cum laude. When you’re in town, you’re not hiking; and when you’re not hiking, you’re not getting to your destination—and, sorry, you don’t get “bonus miles” for staying in hostels, drinking beer, or hanging out on the town green. Some tips to avoid these time-sucking vortexes: try to only stop at towns that are on or close to the trail, and that have all vital services; set a limit beforehand on how much time you will allow yourself to stay in town; and develop a list of “to do” items beforehand, accomplish them quickly, and then leave. That said, do not discount the mental boost that you can gain from a restaurant meal or motel room, which may leave you refreshed and reenergized.
6. Increase the efficiency with which you do routine tasks. Nearly every day you will brush your teeth, break down your camp, pack your pack, go to the bathroom, collect and purify water, eat, make journal entries, take photos, set up your campsite, stretch, and prepare dinner. Every few days you will head into town, where you’ll resupply, call family and friends, do your laundry, and enjoy a “real” meal. If you can find ways to minimize the time it takes you to perform these tasks, or the frequency with which you do them, you will have more time for actually hiking. A sampling of my techniques: I use a digital voice recorder so that I can journal on-the-go; I receive maildrops so I can avoid the grocery store; I store my water bottles in the side pockets for easy access, and I don’t purify my water if I am confident in the source; and I even urinate while walking. Individually, these techniques save a marginal amount of time; but cumulatively they can save an hour or more every day.
7. Optimize the morning hoursa. On the trail most days seem like a Saturday—you do not really need to be anywhere, and you have all day to cut the lawn or rake the leaves. So you hit ‘snooze’ and roll back over, enjoying another hour or two of Z’s. Admittedly, I do this every now and then. But usually experience prevails: I know that if I don’t seize the morning hours, then I’ll be playing catch-up all day (which makes the day feel rushed and not enjoyable) and I’ll be hiking past bedtime, thus cutting into that night’s sleep. Everyday I have targets for myself—ideally “20 (miles) by 12 (pm),” at least “12 by 10″—with the goal of completing a chunk of miles early in the day, so that I have the option of either enjoying the evening hours or putting in a big day.