Learn how to hike faster for more time to adventure

Fast hiking starts before you get to the trail

I prepare in advance so I can be efficient in transitions and get to my destination quickly. If it involves hiking before the climb or ski or canyon, I hike fast. Sometimes I hike for the sake of hiking and in those instances, I may not hike as fast, but preparation for all the stages of the day is key to being fast and efficient with the minimal time we all have.

Organize your pack

Before I even start packing my bag, I like to put all the supplies I’m bringing in a big pile and get it all organized. I pack my pack using good technique, but beyond that, I pack, it based on when throughout the day I plan on using each item. What will the conditions be like at the trail head? Still dark? Have the headlamp ready either right in the car with you or in a front pocket on the pack. Planning to apply sunscreen when you get out of the car? Keep that handy so you’re not rummaging through your pack before you even head out. Music, layers, snacks, chapstick, camera — these things are all things I keep immediately accessible in my clothing or pack pockets so if I need them I don’t even have to stop to get them out.

Tie your shoes

Tie your shoes well so you don’t end up having to stop and re-tie them after the first mile. This also applies to your layering system. If you plan to remove or add layers of clothing throughout the day, have a plan for how you’ll do it so you don’t have to take your pack off and dig through it. I usually have a side pocket on my pack either empty and ready to stash my layers in or full of layers that I may want to add.

Bring easy food

I know some people may struggle to eat while they hike, but if you bring the right food and put it in the right container, it’s easy and makes for faster hiking to pull a protein bar out of your pocket and munch while you walk than it is to need to pull out the jars of peanut butter and jam and make a sandwich on the side of the trail. Store snacks in your hip belt or side pockets and eat small amounts throughout the day. This creates a more balanced energy intake and prevents you from hitting the wall and will keep you hiking fast. If you just can’t enjoy the hike without a PB & J, make one ahead of time and stash it in a quick access pocket.

Navigate quickly

Another practice I can’t imagine not doing before a hike is having my navigation plan and tools prepared and ready for use. There’s no better way to spoil an adventure than getting off track and wasting time backtracking and being lost. To prevent this, study the route in advance and have your map, GPS, or other nav tools at hand throughout the hike. Check it frequently and avoid lengthy stops to orient yourself. By doing so, you will know exactly where you are and where you’re headed at all times. On many trails, this can even be done while you walk.

Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up, it’s hiking time

When I was a Boy Scout, I had a leader who was probably in his mid-fifties. I remember going on a 50 miler with him and being so impatient with him and the other slow leaders. I was fast back then and even faster now and I wanted to get on with it. My leader said, “the ox is slow, but the earth is patient.” I remember thinking, “yeah, but I’m not patient.” Fortunately, I’m a bit more patient now, but I did learn a valuable lesson from my leader. He was steady, he had flow, he wasn’t fast, but he kept a good tempo. A great way to hike fast is to set a tempo to your pace and keep it.

Think like a cat

Another trick is to move with the terrain. I like to try to move like a cat — smooth, quick, and silent. Firm foot placement, but quick steps with a low center of gravity leads to surefootedness while hiking fast.

Be water

If the cat imagery isn’t doing it for you, water is also a good way to think about it. Water always takes the path of least resistance and it moves with the terrain. If you think like water you’ll take efficient steps and be able to move quickly down the path of least resistance. Sometimes that’s not possible, or not safe, but do your best.

Get fit

On the uphill, the way to move faster is the long term game of getting stronger and more fit by trail running. Just regularly trail running will keep you hiking fast. I have a good trail with varied uphill, downhill, sandy, rocky, and wooded terrain that I run on regularly. Each run I focus on speed, flow, and agility. My goal is quick and solid foot placement over rough terrain. This practice makes running more enjoyable, but also helps me keep a strong core and agile feet. When I get out on a more serious trail for a long hike, I naturally fall into a quick pace and often run on the downhills when hiking, but the regular exercise of trail running definitely helps me hike faster on the uphills.

Be efficient in any terrain

It’s one thing to hike fast over a smooth and well packed trail through the woods, but often we find ourselves on more challenging terrain such as sand dunes, snow fields, scree slopes, or marshy wetlands. Varied terrain will surely slow anyone down, but being prepared and having the skill to move efficiently over any type of terrain will allow you hike fast relative to the terrain. In this section, I’ll give some tips on how to move efficiently and safely over a variety of terrain. If you have other experience or thoughts, please share them with us all in the comments. I don’t pretend to know the best tips for every type of terrain.

Sand

I’ve spent plenty of time trudging through sand here in the deserts of Utah. While sand is almost never easy, a good way to prepare for it is to wear the right shoes. A pair of Chacos typically doesn’t work well for me. I don’t like having the sand stuck between my toes and under my heel. I prefer a pair of light trail running shoes like these ones. With a good pair of wool socks, the sand stays off your feet and allows you to keep moving despite being up to your laces in sand.

Snow

How you hike fast over snowbound terrain is dependent on the condition of the snow and the slope of the terrain. I won’t be able to go in depth into snow travel, but in general, when the snow is soft and fresh, stay out of the deep stuff. Keep to the footprints already present or take large steps straight up and down. Wear gaiters and waterproof shoes or snowshoes if needed.

Uphill on snow

When going uphill in snow, use a kickstep to kick your toes into the hillside rather than trying to smear your whole sole out on the slope. It may not seem like it would work, but trust me, a bit of toe buried in the snow is much more stable than trying to grip with your whole foot.

Downhill on snow

On the downhill the same applies, but with your heel. Use your heel to plunge step into the snow to get a solid placement. If the snow is soft as is often the case during spring and early summer hiking in the mountains on a sunny afternoon, you can often make up a ton of time by using glissade steps. This is sliding down the hill on your feet. This takes practice, balance, and can be very hard for beginners to figure out, but if you can learn how to glissade down the snowfields, you can make great time on the downhill. There’s one peak near my house that has a glacier year round that I like to glissade down on my butt. It turns an hour-long descent off the saddle into a 5 minute adrenaline slide.

Ice

If the snow is icy, micro spikes or crampons are usually in order, especially when going up or down slopes. Having some extra traction on slippery or icy surfaces can not only help you hike fast, but can also turn a dangerous trail into a manageable one. My favorite spikes for icy conditions are these ones. They’re great for hiking fast on ice, but also for trail running on ice. Even with spikes, hiking on ice requires steady feet, quick short steps, and a fair bit of confidence in your abilities. If you aren’t sure you can hike fast over ice, don’t try it. Take your time and move as slowly as you feel comfortable with. Better to get to your destination more slowly than to not get there due to a broken tailbone.

Scree

Hiking up or down scree slopes can be brutal. There’s not a great way to be efficient or fast in scree. If it’s small enough, you can do a bit of glissading coming down, but usually the rocks are big enough that this just ends in rocks smashing into your ankle bones. You also have to be careful that nobody is below you because aggressive movements through scree fields can cause falling rocks. On the way up, just try to keep moving and mind your foot placement so you don’t step on sliding rocks. Sometimes that means finding bigger, more stable rocks, but that’s not always possible. If you can, go around the scree. If there’s no other way but through, just know you’re not alone in being slow over scree.

Boulders

Sometimes boulders can be the fastest way through, but often they’re a dangerous place to spend much time. Boulder hopping can quickly end in a sprained ankle, but if you have practiced your cat skills, the best way to move over boulders is with quick hops from one boulder to the next. Occasionally you may find yourself on all fours trying to scramble through, but hopping through with stable footings can be fun and a good change of pace to the plodding along we do on the trail. I usually find myself thinking “be a cat” or “be a mountain goat” when I’m in boulders and it works well for me.

Cross country

When the trail disappears and you find yourself in open terrain, the best way to keep hiking fast is to keep your head up and find a point in the distance that you can focus on to work toward. This helps you avoid meandering through the brush in an inefficient line. You want to move straight toward your target. Looking up will help, but you’ll also have to be good at picking out good lines as you work toward your target. The straight line may lead you to a cliff band or through a thicket. Looking ahead will alow you to see those sorts of obstacles and navigate around them so you can keep hiking fast.

Fast breaks

Fast hiking requires fast breaks. In fact, I rarely take breaks other than a quick photo op, bio break, or to fix something that will slow me down over the long run like putting moleskin on a hot spot. If I do take a break, it’s fast. I don’t take my pack off and linger. This helps keep my muscles warm and not stiffen up. If I have to stop because someone else needs a break, I usually stay on my feet and stretch out my muscles. This helps my partners get back up sooner, but also helps me limber up stiff muscles that have been getting the same range of use for hours on end. This is also where all my trail running comes in handy. While some people will be winded and gassing after just a mile or so, I’m still fresh.

Mental prep

As a summary, I think the most important thing you can do to hike fast and use your trail time more efficiently is to prepare for what you’ll need on the trail, build up your fitness level your trail confidence over mixed terrain, and to consciously hike faster. If you put it in your mind that you want to move fast over any type of terrain and on the uphills and the downhills, you’ll find yourself moving faster automatically. Turn it into a game and see if you can only pass people on the trail and never be passed or see if you can set a time you’ll reach a certain destination. If you are conscious about how quickly you’re moving, you’ll move faster.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Chris Allen

Chris Allen

Hi, I’m Chris. I started Adventure School to help you get out on more adventures. Follow us and learn the skills you need to get out on your next adventure.