Estimating Distance in the Backcountry

Western North Carolina

Most guidebooks and many hiking maps provide mile markers to important points and trail intersections. If you have a smart phone or GPS you can easily track how far you have hiked, but what if you don't have these tools? Or in the case of your phone, what if you need to conserve its battery? How do you track mileage without an electronic device?

It is easy to approximate distance in the backcountry and almost never necessary to track it with extreme accuracy. You just need to be aware of the time. As a rule, most experienced hikers travel at about 2 miles per hour over easy to moderate ground. If you are out of hiking shape, carrying substantial weight and/or moving over very strenuous terrain you may adjust this to 1.5 miles per hour. Once you know this, it becomes easy to calculate distances just by hiking at a steady pace and keeping track of the time.

For instance, suppose you are hiking into your camp and the guidebook tells you it is 4 miles. You have been hiking for 30 minutes and you want to know how far you have come and how much farther you have to go. At an average speed of 2 miles per hour, you have covered approximately 1 mile and you have 3 miles left to go.

This information is also useful in the other direction. Suppose you have hiked for 2 hours and reached your camp. Now you want to know if you have time to hike over to that cool waterfall before dark. Just apply the formula in reverse. If the guidebook says it is 1 mile to the waterfall, figure it will take you about half an hour to get there and half an hour to get back unless the terrain is exceptionally rugged.

You should also know what time the sun will set to help you make decisions about when you need to leave in order to travel safely. I have done plenty of hiking in the dark over the years, with and without a headlamp. If you are out in the wide open spaces of Wyoming or Utah you may be able to navigate by moonlight, but here in the South the dense canopy can often create pitch darkness on all but the brightest of nights. You don't want to get caught hiking out of one of these strenuous, treacherous river gorges in the dark, especially without a headlamp.

My Waterfalls of Western North Carolina iPhone and iPad guidebooks have offline maps and GPS, which means you can see your current location on a topographic map at any time. Even with this information readily available, it still helps to know the area where you will be traveling and keep track of time and distances to help you avoid getting lost.

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