How Many Miles Can You Hike In a Day? Backpacking Basics

When I first started reading books about thru-hiking and learning about the Pacific Crest Trail I realized how common it was for people to hike 20 miles in a day. As a beginner to multi-day backpacking, I wondered how many miles I’d be able to hike in a day. I think I over-estimated this number as my friend pointed out.

As I started planning my first trip, a 42-mile trail along Lake Superior, I began to plan the number of nights my friend and I would have to spend in our tents. There are videos on Youtube that have people hiking this same trail and them spending two nights camped up. I figured I’d be able to do the same but as I’ve been researching I’ve learned that I should adjust my goal. There are lots of variables that affect how much a person can do in a day. I’ve learned quite a bit.

So how many miles can you hike in a day? On flat terrain 15 to 25 miles for someone in good physical condition. Experts recommend that beginners stick to hikes between 5 and 10 miles per day. When determining how far can you hike in a day consider the following:

  1. Weight of backpack
  2. Elevation
  3. Terrain
  4. Weight of the Person
  5. Physical Condition Of the Person
  6. Physical Condition Of the Person
  7. Trail Conditions
  8. Experience Level

On my trip to Lakeshore Trail, my friend and I will be shooting for 10 miles per day. This trail is rated as moderate and this is our first multi-day backpacking trip. We could probably do more but I did let myself get out of shape during winter—I’d rather play it on the safe side. On most days I’ve been hiking local trails to prepare. The trail we are going to is fairly easy when compared to some, but I’ve never walked with a 30 lb bag on my back.

Determining How Far You Can Hike/Backpack in a day

A rule of thumb for most people is to expect to hike at speeds of 2-3 miles per hour. This depends on a few things and is not true for everyone. I came across an interesting formula for calculating how far a person can hike in a day. It’s called Naismith’s Rule. AllTrails uses this formula to calculate how long a trail will take.

Naismith’s Rule was developed by William W. Naismith, a mountaineer, in 1892. A modern, updated version of this rule says that you should allow 1 hour for every 3 miles (5k) you go. In addition to that, you should add 1 hour for every 2000 ft (or 600 meters) of elevation you will be climbing. The rule assumes that all hikers are in good physical shape and own normal terrain in good weather.  It doesn’t factor in breaks or time in rest areas.

Factors To Consider When Calculating Hiking Distance Per Day

Like I mentioned, I’ve never walked with a 30 lb backpack on my back for miles. It’s will be a new experience for me. I plan to condition myself before I leave the trip. There are other things I am considering to determine my daily mileage.

These factors all affect how far I’ll be able to backpack each day on my trip.

  • Weight of Backpack. The thru-hikers in the stories I’ve read that have done 20-50 miles a day all packed UltraLight gear. For us, regular hikers and backpackers—our backpacks will weigh more. I don’t think it’s reasonable to plan to do 20+ miles with a pack that weight 35 lbs—unless you are conditioned for it.
  • It’s frequent for beginner hikers on the PCT to overpack. They get met with the harsh reality of carrying a full backpack for 2650 miles. Most stories I’ve come across mention how someone they met on the trail would do a “shakedown.”
  • The person doing the shakedown would go through the hiker’s pack and put the items that they truly didn’t need in a big pile. Apparently, it’s common for people to overpack—thinking they will need more then they do. Thru-hikers don’t carry luxury items. They only carry what’s essential to their survival.
  • Elevation. The higher the elevation the thinner the air. Also, when you are at altitudes above 10,000 ft there is a chance of being slowed down by Acute Mountain Sickness.
  • At high altitudes, there will be less oxygen circulating in your blood and to your muscles and organs.
  • According to research conducted at Princeton University, It’s common for 75% of people to experience Acute Mountain Sickles when at elevations above 10,000 ft.
  • Terrain
    Climbing or hiking uphill takes more time and costs more energy. This will affect how far you can go each day. A hike in the mountains will take longer than a hike on flat terrain. It’s important to keep this in mind.
  • Weight of the Person. A person’s body weight will also affect their speed. A 200 lb man in good physical condition will have more weight to carry than a 150 lb man in good physical condition. The heavier a person is the more it will affect their speed.
  • Physical condition of the person. Weight and physical condition may be related but they are different. A person who is active and in good physical shape will be able to handle a longer and more strenuous hike than someone who is mostly sedentary.
  • Weather. The climate and weather is another condition that you should consider when determining how far you can hike in a day. Rain,  thunderstorms, and snow will all affect how far you can go.
  • Trail Conditions. If it’s rained recently there is a chance that parts of the trail are flooded. You can also encounter mud and other conditions that will slow you down.
  • Experience Level. I’ve hiked for many years but when it comes to multi-day backpacking I consider myself a beginner. I’ve never been to Lakeshore Trail. If you, like me, don’t have much experience with multi-days than plan for a slower pace than what an experienced hiker would do.
  • It’s also wise, when calculating speed, to determine your time based on the slowest person in your group—assuming you aren’t on a solo trip.
  • Study the trail map and learn about the trail from other hikers. Getting lost on the trail will slow you down for sure. Do research before you head out to prevent this.

How Many Miles Should a beginner hike in a day?

Many places online recommended trips that are between 3-5 miles for beginners. To me, that is way too short. You have to make the decision for yourself. If a beginner is already in good shape they shouldn’t have a problem hiking 10-15 miles in a day—assuming flat terrain and good weather.  When deciding you should base your daily milage on the factors mentioned above. Backpacking is a bit different than day-hiking of course. Use Naismith’s Rule if you have too.

Average Miles Per Day On PCT (Pacific Crest Trail)

The amount of miles a thru-hiker will walk on a given day depends on several things. Thru-hikers have 3 types of days:

  1. . A zero-day – when no miles are hiked
  2. A near zero-day – when less than 10 miles are hiked
  3. A full day

The average miles hiked per day will depend on the part of the trail they are on that day. It takes a typical thru-hiker between 4-6 months to hike the entire PCT (from south to north.)

Caitlin “LL” Olson hiked 1833.3 miles of the PCT and shared the average miles she hiked each day for each section of the trail. She’s a huge fan of numbers and statistics so she kept a good record of her progress:

  • The desert section of the PCT
    16.9 miles daily average
  • Sierra Mountains section of the PCT
    15.4 miles daily average
    She notes how heavy snowfall slowed her down that year.
  • Northern California section of the PCT
    24 miles daily average
  • Oregon Section of the PCT
    27 miles daily average
  • Washington Section of the PCT
    21.12 miles daily average

As you can see, the miles she was able to hike in a day depended on which section of the trail she was on. During the more difficult sections, her daily average went down. During the easier sections, her daily average went up.

The information I’ve shared here has really helped me plan my trip. I hope it’s helped you too. Use some of this info to determine how many miles you can hike in a day.

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