Hiking Skills – Is this trail or trip for me? Can I be successful? Will I be the weak link?

How many times have you wondered if you can do a hike based on the description? Many subjective terms are used to describe a hike such as easy, moderate, challenging or difficult. How helpful is it to know the elevation change or beginning and ending elevations?

Would you say YES or NO to this hike?

  • Rating:   Easy, Family Friendly
  • Beginning Elevation:  2,300′
  • Ending Elevation:       2,650′
  • Elevation Change:        350′

Here’s the actual hiking profile, and while it matches the statistical description would your answer be the same?

The below photo details my experience and how all these rolling hills add up to a lot of elevation gain and loss. Spreading nearly 5,000′ of climbing over 15 miles and 7.5 hours is much different than ascending 1,000′ in a mile, especially when it’s on snowy terrain unsuitable for snowshoes or microspikes.

These were both challenging hikes for me, the first for length and cumulative elevation changes, the second for trail conditions and steep ascension. Does this make you think differently about a 3.5 mile hike?

Most hikers are not hiking for competition or necessarily to improve performance like other athletes who meticulously record miles per hour, personal bests, split times, or reps per mile. But in reality, maintaining a log would help us better gauge our abilities and trail suitability.

Below are a few factors you might want to include in your log and/or thought process as you access your condition, abilities and the trail or trip you’re considering.

Factor 1: Hiking Pace

  • What is your average hiking pace?
    • Calculation: mileage hiked divided by time hiked equals pace
    • Example: 4 miles hiked over 2 hours = 2 mph pace
  • How is your pace affected by other conditions?

Factor 2: Elevation Changes

  • Do you need extra time to climb or descend hills?
  • Will there be short or long climbs?
  • Will you be hiking at altitude?

Factor 3: Terrain and Conditions

  • Do you anticipate steep grade?
  • Will there be scrambling or off-trail hiking?
  • Is the tread smooth or rocky?
  • Do you anticipate obstacles on trail such as down trees?
  • Will you need extra time for navigation?
  • How about snow or ice on sections of the trail?
  • Will you be hiking at altitude?
  • How is your pace in extreme temperatures?

Factor 3: Break Time 

  • What is the frequency of your breaks?
  • How long are your breaks?

Factor 4: Lollygagging Time

  • Do you stop frequently to enjoy views?
  • Are you a photographer?
  • Will a swimming hole tempt you?

Factor 5: Pack Weight

  • Will you be carrying a daypack? or multi-day pack?
  • Will this hike require that you carry more water than you’d normally carry?
  • Will you be carrying other items such as bear canister, ice axe or snowshoes?

Factor 6: Length of Hike

  • Will the mileage be a stretch for you?
  • Will you need to maintain this mileage daily?
  • Does your hiking pace change over longer distances?

Factor 7: Solo or Group Hike

  •  Will your pace be determined by a companion?

As a cyclist I kept meticulous records, but somehow that never transferred to hiking. Maybe because of the variables, or infrequent repeated trails or conditions. This knowledge would have helped me set better goals on day hikes or shorter backpack trips. Tracking and recording personal experiences has become more important as I prepare for long-distance pursuits requiring advance food preparation to be mailed to resupply locations.

There are many tools to track your performance. I use the Trimble Outdoors app on my phone. It works well on airplane mode thereby conserving my battery, and I like it’s mapping and tracking GPS functions. I have my app set to pause when I’m not hiking so that I get a better estimate of actual time hiked. At the end of each hike, I take screen shots of the elevation profile and the stats, then maintain those with my hiking photos of the trip making future reference a bit easier.

Do you have other tips?

Link to my other posts on Hiking and Backpacking Skills

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4 thoughts on “Hiking Skills – Is this trail or trip for me? Can I be successful? Will I be the weak link?

  1. This is interesting because I find that most trails are easier than what others report them to be. However, as I found out this weekend, this is not always the case! The trail was as hard as reported. I don’t keep a very detailed log but over the years I have found my pace to be remarkably consistent…I pretty much know how long it will take me and how fast I am going without aid of a GPS. Mary

    • That’s because you’re an animal . . . LOL

      I’m looking forward to having a more consistent pace as my days on trail increase, and most importantly being able to gauge time. With my asthma, steep long climbs seriously slow my pace, as does scrambling and bushwhacking.

      Leading hikes opened my eyes to hiker’s perceptions of the difficulty of a trail, with groups being divided most often by experience and fitness level. I had participants who paid no heed to trail description and found themselves in way over their heads, some able to gut it out and others finding themselves in serious trouble. Many choose not to join group hikes because they don’t know how to gauge pace or difficulty, and feel intimidated by the description. I’m hoping this type of education will help them develop the skills and confidence to hike new trails.

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