On a perfect hike you have all the right gear, you have the skills to find your way out and back, the trail is the right length and degree of difficulty for your level of fitness, you know how to pace yourself, and you know when to turn back.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Sure, if you’ve been hiking for years. But what if you’re new to this type of outdoor adventure?
Find the right trail
If you’re an avid hiker, you can probably pull out a topo map and size up a trail (or route) – from elevation gain to length. New hikers might want to start with a guidebook that breaks down potential hikes by distance, elevation gain/loss and approximate time to complete.
Why is time important?
If you have three hours ‘til sunset and you set off on a 9-mile hike – even without breaks or any elevation – you’ll likely be stumbling back in the dark. Times listed in guidebooks are averages, not everyone hikes at the same rate.
Naismith’s rule suggests three miles per hour plus 1/2 hour for every 1000 feet of elevation gain. That’s a brisk pace (established by a Scottish mountaineer in 1892).
Most current models suggest Naismith’s time plus another 25-50% of the number obtained from this rule. Rougher terrain, rest and snack breaks, photo ops and slower hiking partners need to be considered as well.
Pacing and turning back
Your pace on the trail can also be affected by environmental factors such as fallen logs, unbridged stream crossings swollen with meltwater, lingering deep patches of spring snow, even wildlife encounters.
A successful hike also means knowing when it’s time to turn back. Remember to set an agreed upon turn-around time before you set off.