Planning a thru-hike is weird: Mileage

This is part of a series of planning a thru-hike on the PCT in 2024

Many aspects, variations, and opinions exist on planning a thru-hike. First, I love to plan; it’s an integral part of the adventure for me. I have also learned that even though your plan isn’t always adhered to, you already know your possible options when making decisions on the trail, which is a compelling feeling.

Today, let’s talk about mileage. I track my walks and hikes to have a good idea of my average pace. Not only do I know what my average pace is, but I know how much time I use when stopped. This is important, but remember that your hiking pace is only one data point.

For example, let’s say that you hike 2 miles an hour. So you expect to hike 20 miles in 10 hours. But you don’t realize you consume 3 hours of stopped time (breaks). If you don’t calculate the stopped time, you will miss your goal by 3 hours.

Stops can happen for many reasons: Water, blister care, chit-chatting with others, breaks (planned and unplanned), eating, etc.

For example, this year, I have achieved a 2.7 mph moving pace and an overall average pace of 2.2 mph. When planning a full day of hiking, I need to use the overall average pace of 2.2 to make my plan more accurate. Multiply the mph by the hours you can walk (i.e., sunrise to sunset); this will be the maximum you can walk, ignoring all other variables.

We have the average pace, and now, we must decide how many hours we wish to hike. Are we going to a destination each night, or will we wing it and stop when tired? Maybe we don’t have a destination each night, but we do after a few days or several days. This is where it starts to get tricky.

We plan to hike for 10 hours, so we should achieve about 22 miles for the day. While that is possible, there are still more variables to figure out. That would be feet. Will your feet hold up? What about the rest of your body?

Planning mileage is hard. Do we reduce the total mileage for a few days and then ramp it up? In my experience on longer hikes, I haven’t had time to ramp it up, as the duration has been 7 days or less. In 2020, my last successful long hike, I was pretty close in mileage each day; however, two days ended up being relatively short because, on days when I reached my destination and felt good, I kept going.

If we take the cautious approach and plan for the minimum mileage per day, we can safely believe that we’ll probably make more miles, but we aren’t required to. In this case, I have a deadline for the thru-hike, so I can only make so many cautious planning assumptions.

What have we learned so far?

  1. Average Overall Pace = 2.2 mph
  2. Determine how many miles you can go without
    1. Creating unrecoverable foot pain or blisters
    2. Causing too much soreness, preventing recovery from occurring overnight.
  3. Determine #2 plus consecutive days of hiking.

In 2020, I was less prepared and fit than I am today (7/2023), so data from 2020 is limited in helpfulness. But if we review that trip, the mileage I did was:

DayPlanned MileageActual (GPS) MileageDifference
Day 12.652.69.04
Day 2 – felt good1415.31.3
Day 3 – hard17.116.6-0.5
Day 4 – Good15.115.7.6
Day 5 – resupply9.6716.66.93
Day 6 – rest day10.86.41-4.39
Day 712.410.3-2.1
Day 819.819.5-0.3
Day 9 – hard10.913.52.6
Day 109.27.98-1.22

As you can see, on Day 5 and Day 9 – I exceeded my planned mileage because I felt good or was ahead of schedule and not tired enough to stop for the night.

Day 4 – I felt excellent; I didn’t travel fast, but the terrain was forgiving. Allowing me to reach camp at an early hour, which then allowed me to rest longer. 

Day 5 – was a resupply day, so when I factored in the time I felt I could hike, I heavily weighted the resupply portion with time. That didn’t turn out to be the case, and I returned to the trail with vigor. When I reached my destination for the day, I wasn’t too happy with it and felt good enough to continue to Hidden Springs.

Day 8 – This was the day that I did the most mileage, and I felt it. The last few miles were a real push, but I still got to camp with plenty of light left.

If looking at this data, you would think that the takeaway was that 15 miles a day would be where to start, which is true if none of the other variables changed. I am in better shape, lighter gear, and without a dog 3 years later (I will be 44 when I start the PCT).

After doing two 20-mile single-day hikes this year, and on both days, I didn’t get a blister, would it be feasible to say that the maximum per day to plan would be in the low 20s, and anything above that is just a bonus?

We have one last weekend trip planned before the week-long section hike. I am hoping this trip will be the determining factor in answering these questions:

  1. Is my foot care routine enough to prevent blisters?
  2. Is my general fitness level enough to do 15-20 (or more) miles daily?