Q&A: How to Calculate Pace

I think I should preface this post with a disclaimer:  Even though I’d been an Environmental Studies major in college, I spent the two years before my thru-hike working as a TA for the local community college’s math department.  Alone, that might not have been hugely problematic.  However, I hiked with Quiver.

Boots McFarland

This Boots McFarland cartoon has been posted by several thru-hiker friends on my Facebook Timeline to tease me. (Incidentally, Boots McFarland is fabulous and totally worth following.)

On the trail, Quiver (my 35yo Austinite hiking partner) and I were two unofficially-appointed resident geeks.  We were some of the go-to hikers for vocabulary questions, plant identification, fact checking, and trivia games.  I’m not entirely sure how we earned these roles, but I suspect it might be due to the overhearing of our pace calculations.

I must admit that it was Quiver who got me addicted to calculating pace.  When he first demonstrated his methods, I was fiercely determined to prove them unnecessary and unwieldy.  You see, like most every other hiker on the Appalachian Trail, I thought of my pace as a flat mile-per-hour rate; however, since I’d noticed that it would often vary with elevation, I expected my time estimates to even out over the course of each day, rather than be accurate each hour.  My preference for my way of doing things wasn’t so much because I preferred a simple way to plan where I would be making camp each night; Quiver and I just had playful competitions going from the beginning, and I didn’t want to be the one to acquiesce and give him another point.

My resistance was futile.  After hiking together less than one week — during which time I found Quiver’s ETAs to be consistently more accurate than those of any airline I’ve every traveled (let alone Greyhound’s!) — I’d gone over to the dark side and become a pace-calculating fiend.

I thought it would be fun to share the magic of our ways.  A word of caution:  Once you’ve tried it, there’s no going back.  When you find that you arrive at a water source, summit, or campsite within three minutes of your projected time, you’ll be won over, too.

The way Quiver and I calculate pace might be familiar to some former Boy Scouts or western hikers.  After asking dozens of East Coast hikers and thru-hikers about pace, I found that this method is virtually unheard of out here; however, Quiver adapted it from an old Boy Scout handbook, and it’s employed by Craig Giffen in his outstanding PCT Planner.

So, here’s how it works.

1) Calculate your flat pace — Hike around on a flat stretch of trail, carrying a pack, and determine how many miles you go each hour.  Remember, we’re talking “Appalachian Trail-flat,” not road-flat or Florida-flat.  Generally, I go 3mph when I’m just hiking along comfortably; I’ll do 3.25mph without much encouragement.

2) Calculate your elevation pace — This is where it gets fun.  Once you have a solid grasp of your flat trail pace, you’ll be able to determine your elevation pace with some simple calculations.  So, go hike a mountain with a measured trail and a good topo map and determine how much elevation slows you down.  I know that I gain 2500 feet in one hour comfortably; when I’m really sweating and feeling good, that figure can easily exceed 3000 feet.

Once you’ve calculated those figures, you can put them to use.  For example, using 3mph/2500ft as my pace, in four hours I could hike 12 miles on flat trail, 9 miles with 2500 feet of elevation gain, or 6 miles with 5000 feet of elevation gain.  And, that is why Quiver and I were often overheard talking about hours rather than miles.  In the summer, we’d plan 8-hour days of, say, 21 miles and 2500 feet, and know that we could take a two-hour siesta in the middle of the day and still make it to the shelter by dinnertime.

That’s all there is to it.  Almost.

I’ve got a couple important caveats:

  • While descents and flat-ish trails generally get the same consideration in the equations, that doesn’t work on trails with exceptionally steep descents, such as the rocky, cliff-side trails of the White Mountains.  Similarly, if you have an injury that slows you down disproportionally on the descents, you’ll have to take elevation loss into account in your calculations.
  • Thru-hikers talk about getting their “trail legs,” and that process can easily be figured into the equation.  While it would be possible to calculate an initial pace and speed it up over 3-6 weeks, it is generally simpler to just start off a backpacking trip doing 5- or 6-hour days and increase the hours over the trip.

And just like that you’ve got a new shelter party trick.

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