I can remember with complete clarity the first time I hiked 20 miles in one day. I remember because it was agony. I was not accustomed to walking this distance with weight on my back, and quite simply it ruined me.
So, can you hike 20 miles a day? Yes, you can hike 20 miles a day, but you need the right kind of fitness in order to back it up day after day. It is possible to hike 20 miles without being super fit, although you most likely will be quite sore the next day.
Remember, not all hikes are created equally – it may be possible to hike for 20 miles in a day over good ground on flat terrain. A different 20-mile hike over mountainous terrain involving thousands of vertical feet in elevation change may not be possible in a 24-hour period.
How far can the average person hike in a day?
The distance an average person can hike in a day will vary a great deal. The average person will hike between 2 – 3 miles per hour. This will depend on several different factors, including; fitness levels, terrain, elevation, weather and pack weight.
Taking this average pace and applying it to an 8-hour hiking day (not including rest breaks), it is possible for an average person to hike between 16 – 24 miles per day. There are some people in the “super fit” category that are capable of hiking between 30 – 50 miles per day.
Low mile days:
I have hiked many high-altitude trails in places like the Himalayas and Andes, in elevations where oxygen levels are 50% lower than that of sea level. It is energy-sapping stuff to hike at these altitudes, where wandering higher than 18,000 feet is not uncommon.
Throw on a 50-pound pack and give the hiker 6,000 vertical feet in elevation gains. Add rough terrain that varies between rocky scree fields and knee-deep snow. Include narrow passes that must be taken carefully due to dangerous and dizzying drops to the valley floor below.
Throw in some bad weather – low visibility and a head wind with the snow coming in horizontal – and you can see how in some circumstances it would not be possible to average more than one mile per hour throughout the day. I have hiked 8 miles in one day on some trails that were infinitely more difficult than hiking for 30 miles over easier terrain. On such trails, 8 – 12 miles per day is a decent undertaking.
High mile days:
Conversely, hiking with little weight, in good conditions, on a flat or descending gradient with good trail underfoot, a hiker could reasonably average 3.5 miles per hour. With this in mind, the hiker would average 28 miles per day in the same 8-hour hiking day.
Preparing your body for 20 miles a day of backpacking
I have always found the best way to prepare my body for backpacking is by getting out on the trail and actually hiking. For me this involves a number of short hikes to get my body accustomed to walking. I then look to add weight in the form of a backpack to my day hikes, adding more and more weight the stronger I get.
On a side note, it is important to build up as much leg strength as possible. I would look to incorporate one or two sessions per week dedicated purely to leg strengthening exercises. Exercises such as lunges, squats, the farmers walk, calf raises and the slalom are going to do exactly that, while also providing you with the necessary cardio required to power up slopes with a full pack on your back.
For more of an in-depth look at the exercises mentioned here, please read: How to get in Shape for Hiking: Training Tips and Exercises.
I also find cycling to be a useful tool for backpacking preparation. Not only is it an enjoyable hobby, it also strengthens a lot of the muscles required for backpacking. It also improves cardio and increases impact-free movement of your knee joints.
Thru-hiking the PCT, AT, CDT – is 20 miles a day a good pace?
Collectively known as the Triple Crown, the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail are the three famous thru hikes of the United States. Below we detail each hike, their distance and average miles per day of hikers that complete the thru hikes in their entirety. We also examine how much faster it would be if thru-hikers averaged 20 miles per day.
Hugging the eastern side of the nation, the AT stretches through 15 states from Georgia to Maine. It is the most famous thru hike on earth, and has been the scene of many a book and movie. In fact, Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods is a wonderful read if you are looking for something funny and adventurous.
Being so famous, there is actually quite a lot of data available to us on those that complete the hike. We can even deduce how average hiking speed changes over time, as hikers gain fitness throughout their trip. Interestingly, most hikers begin the Appalachian Trail walking 8 – 10 miles per day.
As their fitness progresses, the hikers can walk further and further, until by the end of the trip they are fit and comfortably covering between 20 – 25 miles per day.
Length: 2,200 miles
Average pace: 16 miles per day
To complete at average pace: 137 days or 4 and a half months
To complete at 20 miles per day: 110 days or 3 and a half months
Pacific Crest Trail
This thru hike stretches the entire north-to-south length of the US, beginning at the Mexican border – just south of Campo, California. It goes all the way to Manning Park in British Columbia on the border with Canada.
Length: 2,650 miles
Average pace: 18 miles per day
To complete at average pace: 147 days or 5 months
To complete at 20 miles per day: 133 days or 4 and a half months
Continental Divide Trail
This is another hike that goes from the Mexican to the Canadian border. It follows the Rocky Mountains and takes in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.
Length: 3,100 miles
Average pace: 17 miles per day
To complete at average pace: 182 days or 6 months
To complete at 20 miles per day: 155 days or 5 months
Tips for hiking 20+ miles a day
Have everything ready:
Do not wake up with gear scattered everywhere and an unpacked backpack. 20 miles will probably be beyond your grasp. Preparation is key. Have everything packed and ready to go. Have your clothes laid out ready to put on. Put your socks ready in your boots. Make your lunch and prepare your water bottles and snacks the night before so that you can…
If 20 miles is your goal for the day, then an early start is crucial. Getting some early miles out of the way boosts your morale. I like to get myself more than halfway before I stop for lunch. This allows me to relax while I eat, knowing that most of the days’ exertions are behind me. It is all downhill from here…
This comes with a little bit of practice and experience. You only want to have the bare necessities with you when backpacking. The right amount (and type) of food and clothing, as well as a sufficient sleeping system to keep you both warm and dry. Every item you take with you, however light, has an accumulative effect on the overall weight, and believe me, it all adds up! (49 Ways to Lighten Your Backpacking Load)
If you find yourself exhausted on the trail, then have some rest. This is going to be far more beneficial than pushing yourself to your limits and overdoing it. Sometimes just a 15-minute break with a bit of morale-boosting chocolate is enough to put you back on your feet for hours.
Take care of your feet:
And speaking of feet, take good care of them. They are something that we always take for granted until it is too late. Blisters or plantar fasciitis (a common foot injury) can be exceedingly painful and have the potential to ruin your backpacking trip.
Make sure your boots are fully broken in before heading out on a multi-day hike, and do yourself a favor and cut your toe nails. Take your boots off when you arrive at camp in the evenings. This dries out your feet and helps stop skin from blistering.
Keeping your muscles in good working order is just as important as the initial strengthening stage. It is a good idea to stretch out your quadriceps, hamstrings, groin and calf muscles at the end of every day. This literally keeps your muscles stretchier and therefore more resistant to injury. Your legs are all you have out in the wilderness to carry you to safety, so take good care of them as well.
It may not be everyone’s favorite two words, but cardio training is important. It will literally make you stronger. It could be the difference between finishing those 20 miles, and not getting anywhere near it. At first I would suggest taking up jogging once per week to kick things off. Interval training can also be useful to build the kind of fitness required to ascend the steeper slopes on the trail.
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As a travel writer and photographer, Gordon spent the better part of 2018 visiting 13 different countries as far apart as Chile, Morocco and Vietnam. He is in New Zealand in 2019, writing a third travel book, while exploring pretty much anything that forms a bump on the Earth’s surface.