New backpackers want to know several things before they tackle a long-distance trail such as how to pack a backpack and what are the best trekking poles, but one of the most common questions, is: how many miles can I backpack in a day?
The average backpacker can expect to walk at speeds between 2.5 and 3.5 miles per hour. If you trek for 8 hours per day, you'll cover between 18 and 28 miles. However, many factors influence this number and you should consider these when calculating how far you can walk in a day on any particular long-distance trail.
A more scientific answer is found in Naismith's Rule (named after a Scottish mountaineer) that combines flat and hill speeds to give 3 miles per hour on the flat + 1 hour for every 2,000 feet climb.
Naismith's rule and averages hide a lot of variability. Your level of fitness and experience have a massive impact on the distance you can cover in a day's walking, but there are other factors which you may not have considered. In this article, we’ll look at the things that have the biggest impact on how far you can backpack on an average day.
The fitter you are the more comfortable you’ll find it to move faster. That goes hand in glove with experience of walking trails. If you have walked a lot of trails and have experience of some up and down, different terrains and different seasons, then the likelihood is that you’ll be able to move at a faster pace for extended periods of time.
If you’re new to the game of wilderness tracking, assume instead that your daily capability will be much lower (see time on trail below). New walkers carrying backpacks of any serious weight should work on achieving 15 mile days at the most so as not to tire themselves out.
If that’s you, focus more on building your stamina for the long game rather than burning yourself out in a short period of time. Two miles walked every hour over an 8 hour day will be enough to make good progress but not leave you so shattered that you don’t enjoy the walk.
The ground you are walking on can have a significant impact on the distance you can cover in an hour. Level, flat, well-made parts allow you to bounce along quickly and efficiently whereas walking over rocky ground or marsh saps a lot of energy and leaves you making much slower progress.
Of course, there is also the impact of non-level ground. Going uphill is slower than walking on the flat, and going steeply upward is slower still. Contrary to what you might expect if you are new to trekking, going down steep hills can also be slower than walking on the flat as you work to keep your balance and protect your knees!
The next factor which impacts how many miles you can backpack in a day is the time you spent on the trail.
If you’ve walked for 10 hours already your speed for the next two hours is going to be slower as you burn through the energy of the day. Conversely, if you spend a few consecutive days out on the trail, you will likely find that your pace increases as time goes on, provided you don’t burn yourself out on any particular day.
This is known as getting your legs, or getting your mountain legs and describes the sensation of your body getting used to walking many miles with a backpack. Muscle memory kicks in and your body gets more efficient at burning energy for walking. The consequence of all this is your pace is higher after a few days on the trail than it is in the first two or three.
This doesn’t apply if you go crazy in your first days and either injure yourself or tire yourself out by not pacing yourself sensibly.
The weather can have a pretty dramatic effect on how far you can backpack in an hour or on any given day.
On a perfect day with temperatures around 60°, a few small clouds and low winds, you can expect to make significant progress. Turn that temperature dial up to 90° or more, and you will slow down. Likewise, add high winds and heavy rain, and, again you most definitely will move at a slower pace.
If you plan on being a winter walker, snow and ice add another dimension, as do freezing temperatures. You will walk slower and burn more energy in these conditions than on a perfect late spring day.
This one is pretty straightforward: the more weight you carry, the slower you go.
In large part, backpacking is about the balance of comfort on the trail versus weight carried. The price you pay for bringing more is burning more energy to cover the same distance. More energy consumed means a slower pace and fewer miles covered.
It’s for you to work out your personal tolerance for how much you carry in your backpack versus sacrifices to comfort you’re prepared to make in the interests of covering more distance in less time.
There’s not much to say here other than happier people walk faster and further. If you are feeling grumpy, lethargic, tired, depressed then you are going to walk more slowly than when you’re feeling energised, vibrant, excited, happy.
Don’t ruin your mood by tiring yourself out by trying to achieve more miles in a day than your experience or body is capable of doing comfortably.
We’re considering how many miles you can backpack in a day, but a more relevant question might be how far do you want to go in a day?
If you’ve got four days to complete a 70-mile trail that comfortably less than 20 miles a day. In which case, why flog yourself to get to a 30-mile day when 18 is plenty for what you’re trying to achieve?
In many cases, the key to covering miles is having the time to do it. If you want to cover 50 miles a day for a week, that’s just 2 miles an hour for less than eight hours a day which leaves plenty of time to enjoy the view along the way.
There are plenty of states where long-distance trails will throw you high up a mountain. Oxygen levels decrease surprisingly rapidly with height, and that has an impact on how efficiently your body can operate.
As a general rule of thumb, once you get over 8000 feet above sea level expect your speed to drop as your body works harder to get oxygen to burn its energy.
Most walkers don’t want to be walking in the dark and so one of the most significant limits on how many miles you can backpack in a day is the number of daylight hours.
In midsummer, there is no challenge at all to walking for 10 or more hours in brilliant daylight. Conversely, when winter comes around there just aren’t even eight hours of daylight available. Factor in setting up and breaking down camp and you may have only a six-hour walking day available.
What brings you pleasure in long-distance trekking?
If the joy comes from stunning landscapes, wildlife, enjoying camping on the trail and taking the time to eat your food, then you will want to cover less distance on a day than if you’re the kind of backpacker who likes to do miles.
Some of us live for covering distance. If your joy comes from the miles walked then it’s guaranteed that you’ll do more of them than the walkers who want to smell the roses on the journey.
As I said earlier, with a decent level of fitness and experience, and a not-too-heavy backpack, it’s the hours spent walking that bags the miles, rather than the speed.
If you manage your time by waking up early, taking time-limited stops and eating on the move, you will cover a much longer distance each day.
Those of us who like a leisurely cup of coffee before we hit the trail and enjoy setting up camp way before sunset will travel many fewer miles.
Whatever your preferred method of trekking, fitness level or experience, the surest way of finding out how far you can backpack in a day is to give it a go.
Load up your pack, pick a trail and start walking.
As a bare minimum expect to get 12 miles a day under your belt, but don’t be surprised if you find a leisurely pace actually bags you 20 miles by the time you need to set up camp.
Once you really find your stride, you may be one of the many backpackers who regularly push 30 miles or more daily. The key is finding the pace that satisfies your lust for wilderness walking!