Hiking 102: It’s Not [Just] About the Miles

Travel Talk

Making your way down your favorite trail, back to your car there’s one question I guarantee you’ll hear from people on their way up: “How much further is it?” It’s a seemingly fair question, a simple desire to know how much energy is necessary to make it to day’s destination on but unless you’re walking on a flat plateau, almost certainly a flawed way of thinking.

South Kaibab Trail

The Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail covers all of 7 miles as it winds down to the bottom of the canyon — about two and a half hours of hiking, if it was flat.

The idea of hiking is all about getting somewhere and more often than not, that somewhere is above where you started. The bigger the hike, the more elevation it tends to come with, perhaps adding exposure or scrambles, but even just a good set of switchbacks can be enough to tap someone out. That’s why it’s so important to think about hikes as more than miles.

Before you plan your next adventure you should certainly consider how far you have to go, distance takes time afterall, but far more importantly is the climb that gets you there. After all, it’s only 7 miles to the top of Half Dome but with 4,800′ of elevation gain, 4.5 miles and 4,500′ for Mount St. Helens, under 3.5 miles and over 5,200′ for Mount Hood; clearly miles are not everything. And you don’t have to be aiming for a mountain summit for elevation to play a roll either, the PCT and even the AT through-hikes climb up and down as they expose feature after feature along the way. Chances are any trail you’re on goes up.

It’s not just total elevation gain either, the profile of trail makes a drastic impact in what your day looks like, what strength and even what gear is necessary to complete the route. Will there be a couple mile walk in to the base of the mountain or is the elevation all evenly distributed? Is there a radically steep push or even scramble to reach the top? The more the steeply profile rises, the more you may encounter along the way that you need to know about that goes well beyond “it will be a short/medium/long walk.”

Munra Point, Oregon

Munra Point in Oregon has less than 1,900′ of elevation gain in just a few miles — no big deal, so long as you don’t mind the direct path and chimney scramble to reach the top.

So next time you’re out on the trail, feeling good but curious about what’s ahead, don’t ask how far you have to go, 2 miles doesn’t mean much of anything, but what’s left ahead, that’s important information.