Determining how long a hike will take will help you decide if this is the right hike for you. It will also help you plan what time you need to leave the trailhead, how many snacks you’ll need, and if this is appropriate for your 10yo kiddo. When first starting to do these calculations, it’s better to overestimate how long a hike will take. You will become more accurate the more hikes you do.
Naismiths rule is the most common way to estimate hiking times.
In a nutshell, it is this: Hiking Time = (Time for Distance) + (Time for Elevation Gain/Loss)
Time for Distance
Standard hiking speeds are 3-5km/hr
In general, when we are guiding we use 3km/hr for our backpacking trips and 4km/hr for our days trip route plans.
Time for Elevation Gain/Loss
Next, we take elevation into account
Looking at a trail you'll want to take into account all major elevation changes. For example, if the trail to your campground goes through two mountain passes you'll want to include the elevation gain and loss for each pass. This will provide the most accurate estimate.
Add a Buffer
Finally, we need to add time for breaks, and a bit of a buffer or contingency. How big your buffer should be depends on the consequences of being late. If you’re trying to squeeze in a hike prior to picking up your kid from school, a larger buffer might be the best choice. If you are doing a day hike near Banff, Alberta with a good weather forecast and no afternoon commitments, you may not need a buffer at all.
Generally, adding 10min for every hour you're on trail will account for your breaks.
Let’s explore two examples of different hiking teams, Team Decaf and Team Caffeinated.
A group of 5 new hikers plan to hike to Three Isle Lake Campground, in Kananaskis (one of the best overnight hikes in Alberta). They’ve been out hiking several times and just took the Women’s Intro to Backpacking course. They are super excited to put their new skills to work, and this is the first time they are doing all the planning and navigating on their own. They want to be sure they get to camp in time to set up camp and have time to relax.
If Team Decaf wants to get to camp by 4:30pm, and they will be on the trail for 7.8 hours, they should plan to be leaving the trailhead around 8:45am. If all goes well, they will be a bit early and get extra relaxation time. If they hike slower than planned, or take a wrong turn and have to backtrack a little, they will still arrive in time to set up camp and enjoy the area.
A group of 3 experienced hikers plan to hike Prairie View Trail near Canmore, AB. They hike together quite often, have a pretty good idea of their typical speeds, and are only carrying day packs. They have taken a navigation course, and are confident in using a map and compass. They don’t have to be back by a specific time, and they will be starting fairly early in the morning to be sure they get a good parking spot.
If Team Caffinated leaves the trail at 8am, they will probably be back to the car around 1:30om.
After the Hike
How did it go? Take time to reflect on how the hike went. This is key to getting better at planning hikes. Ask yourself:
Safety Tip: Share your trip plan and expected return time with a trusted person, and check in with them when you return.
Use the answers from these questions to help you choose and plan your next hike better. Try keeping a log. After several plans, you will learn what speeds to choose, what length of breaks you prefer, and what size of buffer you are comfortable with.
With every trip you plan, hike, and reflect on, the planning process gets easier, more natural, and more accurate. Soon you will be planning like a pro!
If you’d like more instruction on how to predict how long a hike will take you sign up for our navigation course. We spend the day practicing this in the field.
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