Walking pace


„It isn’t the distance that kills but the speed.” The known phrase emphasizes the importance of speed in every distance sports including the hiking as well. Walking too slow or too fast can both put you in uncomfortable situations or even danger. But there is no absolute scale for pace, it is always compared to your plans, which can be realistic or not, and can be carried out correctly or not. Let’s see some rules and examples.

The scale of paces

There are two commonly used measures for pace. One is the distance per hour that you know well from driving or cycling. The other is the time per kilometer or mile that is used typically by runners.

  • Walking speed on difficult terrain is 3 km/h (2 mi/h) = 20 min/km (32 min/mi).
  • The typical walking speed is 5 km/h (3 mi/h) = 12 min/km (20 min/mi).
  • Fast walking and slow jogging is 8 km/h (5 mi/h) = 7.5 min/km (12 min/mi).
  • The typical running speed is 12 km/h (7.5 mi/h) = 5 min/km (8 min/mi).
  • The best distance runners’ speed is 20 km/h (12 mi/h) = 3 min/km (5 min/mi)

Rule of thumb

Of course there is a rule of thumb for this too, which can be used well until you know your own pace. Average hikers tend to walk with a 5 km/h (3.1 mi/h) pace on an even surface (tarmac, gravel) with a normal backpack (<15kg) and climb 600 m (2000 ft) elevation per hour. This should be corrected for the terrain: while a path on uneven or unstable terrain can slow you down to 4 km/h (2.5 mi/h), walking off the path and following piles or poles should be calculated with around 3 km/h (1.9 mi/h) and the moment you are entering the wilderness with a single direction, and you have to cross muddy, bushy or rocky terrain, your speed will vary somewhere between zero and nothing. There are more sophisticated rules like the Naismith’s rule or the Tobler’s function, but if you are planning for your own hiking, it is the best to know your own pace.

Your walking pace

It takes time to learn your own walking pace, but every hiking adventure is a new data for your function. For analyzing your speed first you will need data of your location at certain time. There are many ways to get this data:

  • Use your photos, they are time-stamped and easy to locate on map.
  • Use a watch during the hiking and record the time at certain points.
  • Use a GPS device and set it to record a track of you move.
  • (Most smart-phones are equipped with GPS too.)

To evaluate your speed you will also need the distance between the measured points. There are many free map software available online and offline starting with Google Maps and Bing Maps both lets you measure distance on the map, you can also use MapMyRide that has many handy functions, but if you have the time to install a software too, I would recommend to use Google Earth, because it can also show you the elevation profile of your route. Either way you have to measure the distance and elevation between the recorded locations and calculate a distance per time and an elevation per time value.  The data has to be binded to the circumnstances like the road type, the weight of your backpack and the weather. Soon you will have your own database that you can use for the planning of your next adventure.

Case study 1: Kiruna, Sweden

Two years ago it was one of my first long-distance hiking tour with my girlfriend (Kata), so it afterwards it is no wonder that I misjudge our speed, but back then it was quite surprising that it almost took the double time to pass the wilderness. Fortunately I already had my good habit to have a large buffer in the program, so we just cancelled another section and reached our plan back to Stockholm. It was not the lack of planning, I spent months with the preparations, checking official websites, blogs and various maps to collect information for the planning, but the lack of experience made me using rules of thumb and the resulted 4km/h average speed was significantly overestimating that we could manage with the large backpacks on the rough terrain along the uncertain route. The variance was striking: on the track of the national park we could simply maintain the 5 km/h, but at the moment we left the frequented road and entered the wilder areas it decreased to 3 km/h, later when we entered the mountain area with multiple 1000 m (3000 ft) elevations up and down, our speed decreased further to 2 km/h, on the most difficult sections our speed was immeasurable, and the same process took place backwards as we gradually left the wilderness. Our tour in Kiruna was a reference for our planning for a very long time.

Case study 2: Bergen, Norway
It was last summer, when I did a heavy solo-hiking with a large backpack over several mountains. During the planning I used the experience from the Kiruna tour and I could make a realistic estimation for my speed, which finally turn out to be correct. Although, I don’t really like to underestimate my speed too, so I put some optional sections in the route, which I completed only partly. In fact, I had planned to reach the top of Gullfjellet in one and a half days and then proceed to a nearby fjord and spend the night there. My speed was fair good (3-4 km/h) considering the rough terrain and large elevations, except when I went off the track, then my speed was below 2 km/h. All in all, I arrived to the top a bit late and I decided to pitch my tent there. As it was mid-summer, and I got rid of my heavy pack I decided to try to reach the fjord, so I started with a light backpack and proceeded well, but a few kilometers before it I had to turn back, because the terrain seemed to hard and it got uncertain that I will be able to return before midnight, which could endanger the completion of the next day’s section. It turned out to be a good decision, because when I started my descend from the mountain in the next morning my route turned out to be much more difficult than I anticipated and it took two hours longer to get to the valley. Fortunately the rest of the route was very easy, so I arrived to Bergen in time and reached my flight.
Case study 3: Zemplén, Hungary
I did a light, long-distance tour this summer in the hilly Zemplén of Hungary with a 6kg (13lb) backpack. The plan was to walk 100 km (62.5 mi) in two days with a 5 km/h average speed, which meant 10 hours walk per day. The area was unknown to me, but it had well marked tourist tracks. I proceeded well, on the plain sections my speed was around 6 km/h, while I could maintain the 5 km/h on the sections with significant elevations too. This shows how much the light backpack means. On the first day I completed 55 km (34 mi) and slept in a small wooden tower for hunters. Unfortunately the place was very uncomfortable and I didn’t sleep much, which made its mark on the second day. I started early in the morning and climbed the Nagy-Milic (Veľký Milič) within two hours, but during the descend I already felt that I won’t be able to finish the tour. I walked another 20 km (12 mi), and I finished the tour in a small village from where I could hitch-hike back to the railway. I completed 80 km (50 mi) in that two days with fair good pace and I learned well how much the sleeping quality means for my performance.
I hope the rules and examples above will help you in the planning. If you have specific questions, do not hesitate to contact me directly.
Take care and never under/overestimate your pace.

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