I love walking long trails, but with limited time I needed to find a way to make it work: go fast or go long. I have written about the difference between going fast or going long (days) and explained how this connects to the ultrapacking concept. At the core of ultrapacking and completing longer trips in less time is the ability to walk more in a day, with the goal to walk 25 miles (or more) a day. With 25 mile days you can find a comfortable pace yet still cover a serious distance and enjoy the trail. Even a slower walker, walking 2 miles per hour, will be able to walk 25 miles on a long day.
I think most people can walk 25 miles in one day, but most will have a hard time recovering quickly enough to be able to do it daily over long trips. There are a variety of tricks you can use to achieve that, and those tricks can later be used to reach 30 or even 35+ mile days. More than anything, to walk 25 miles a day you need to change your mindset: you can enjoy nature while walking and don’t need frequent breaks to look at each rock – teaching yourself how to walk while enjoying your environment is the first step.
Tips for walking 25 miles a day
This is probably the most obvious, but what does it mean? Before leaving on your trip, know (roughly) sunrise and sunset times. Aim to wake up half an hour before sunrise to allow for that slow morning, and stop for the day when sunset starts. When sunset starts, you usually have another 20-45 minutes of light. In the summer, this approach can get you up to 15 hours of walking time (unless very close to the poles) and in winter it can be 8+ hours.
Learn to set up and break camp quickly
If you are camping, know how to set your tent up and sort sleeping arrangements quickly. Before your trip, be comfortable with all your gear; practice by setting up and breaking camp 5-10 times in a row, and you will become very comfortable with it. If cooking, know how to use your stove, how to maximize efficiency and use a windscreen (and maybe a cosy). When packing your backpack, pack sensibly to allow for fast camp set up and practice getting things out of the bag without making a mess.
This is probably the biggest time waste and most common practice that traditional walkers will not want to give up. The range of reasons for taking breaks is huge, but mainly it is to “stop and look at the view”. It is likely that the main reason you need to stop to look around is because you are putting too much effort in walking either due to being unfit or lacking practice/confidence. Once you are comfortably fit outdoors, work very hard to look around and enjoy the view as you walk, that way you don’t need the breaks and you will get to enjoy the trail all the time.
Eat and drink frequently on the go
If you are cutting down on breaks you will need to learn how to hydrate and fuel on the go. This is actually easier than you think: make sure you have a water source in an easily accessible pocket (or use an hydration bladder) and make sure you have easy-to-consume foods accessible, too. The most recommended foods are: trail mix, energy/oats/protein bars, diced meat/cheese in a bag, crackers etc. Everything that doesn’t need cooking and can be easily packed can be munched while walking.
Easier said than done, but learning to walk more efficiently using ultra running techniques can really increase your daily mileage. Most people can walk 1-1.5 miles an hour, but increasing your speed to 2-2.5 miles an hour will make a huge impact. Practice fast walking in a flat area, just to teach your quads how to deal with the stress, and over time add weight (backpack) and then an incline. Cycling really helps with quad strengthening for faster walking.
Have clear segment goals
Instead of starting the day with 25 miles (or more) ahead of you, break it down to smaller goals: 5 miles to the next peak, 2 miles to the river bend etc. Time yourself on those segment to know if you are keeping up and have small rewards when finishing a segment: a chance to just stand and look for 5 minutes or a snack you are keeping as a special treat.
If you want to go far, you need to be lighter, both with your body and gear. Being healthy and fit does help a lot in moving for longer as you are carrying less weight, but having a lighter pack makes a huge difference. There are many schools of thought about pack weight etc, but if you can get your backpack (before water and food) to be around 10-15% of your body weight, you are in a good place. Aim to have your final carried weight, including food and water, 25% or less of your body weight, any more and it is just to heavy to be comfortable.
Have you heard the saying: 1 pound on your feet is like 5 pounds on your back? Well, it’s true. So start working on using lighter footwear to reduce leg, foot and back fatigue. Despite common conventional wisdom, using lighter, more flexible footwear (like trail running shoes) after practising using will actually reduce injuries outdoors. Make sure you make the adjustment slowly, but using lighter footwear will have a huge impact on your ability to cover 25 miles a day.
Accept wet feet
Very controversial in the UK (or any wet place) is the debate – waterproof shoes or not? As much as I like to keep my feet dry, I’ve learned that trying to keep my feet dry with waterproof footwear takes a lot of effort, time and energy; usually just to find myself with wet feet anyway by the end of the day (from sweat or a leak). Instead of spending 20-30 minutes on each water crossing or boggy area trying to find the best way to cross, just accept your feet will be wet and go for it. You will save a big chunk of time no longer debating water crossings. If it is really cold, you can pair your lightweight trail shoes with some waterproof socks for protection (just pack an extra pair of socks for the dry bits…).
Track time and progress
Have a watch and know your navigation. Knowing how much light you have, how long it has taken to walk each segment and knowing when to speed up or when you can slow down will help you walk 25 miles a day without constantly reaching camp in the dark. Having a GPS watch with tracking ability also helps in telling you some statistics about the walk like how fast you are moving, etc to get an even more efficient walk.
Accommodate challenging conditions
You might be a strong walker or hiker who can easily keep a 3 mph pace, but even strong hikers slow down on a hard ascent or when they cross a snowy pass or a peak. When walking along a route with many variables and big ascents, it is important to accommodate for slower paces to calculate the right timing.
When NOT to walk 25 miles a day
There are times that no matter how hard we try, we just can’t make it through 25 miles a day – I know I have had many times that was true. Despite fitness, gear, skills and motivation, there are certain conditions that make a 25+ mile day practically impossible:
- Too much ascent – this is depends on your ability, but if you have 10-20000 ft of total ascent in your day, it is very hard to walk fast enough to cover 25 miles that day.
- Snowy/icy conditions – usually you need special gear or to stay very cautious in those conditions; speed is very hard to keep (unless cross country skiing) so plan on less distance.
- Short days – unless you are running, fitting 25 miles in 6 hours in very hard; I have never managed to walk fast enough for that. In winter, accept shorter distances if you are too far north from the equator to have enough light (or just walk in the dark!)
- Injury – slow down if injured or when recovering from injury, it really isn’t worth your health.
Most important: enjoy it
Many times it sounds like covering a long distance a bit quicker means not paying attention to the beautiful nature around you while hiking and therefore not enjoying it – this is just wrong! The main reason to walk faster is to be able to enjoy a trail that your limited time would not otherwise allow.
The ability to walk 25 miles a day should be seen as a tool, not a goal, for enjoying trips that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. I love covering long distance each hiking day because I feel that there is more for me to see, because I love the physical and mental challenge and because otherwise I couldn’t have reached the places I want to be with the time I have. No matter what the reason you aim for 25+ mile days, remember to enjoy each one of them!