A Simple Method to Quantify Hiking Effort

Have you ever found yourself wondering how difficult, in terms of effort, a hike would be?  Or, after finishing the hike, thinking that it was easier or harder than other similar-distance hikes you’d completed?

In this post I want to share a simple empirical method I’ve developed to quantify hiking effort.

There are several variables, in addition to sheer length, that affect the real or perceived effort of completing a hike.  Among them are the following: base elevation, elevation gain/loss, steepness, terrain, and walking surface.  My method makes an attempt to take these into account, though in a fairly simple way.  It does not attempt to take into account temporary conditions such as weather, or factors such as how much weight (food, drink, and emergency supplies) to carry, which might vary from one hiker to another.

My baseline assumption, then, is that the hike is a day hike undertaken in “good” (i.e., reasonable) weather conditions with sufficient snacks and drinks for up to a full-day hike.  I also always carry baseline first aid / safety supplies and a small camera.

In terms of effort, the baseline almost doesn’t even qualify as a hike, but rather a walk: sea level, flat, with a hard-packed and even walking surface.  Under these conditions the effort is simply the distance.  My method represents additional effort as a correction (addition) to the hike distance.  Here are specific examples:

Around the Bay Area elevations are relatively low, and consequently elevation gain and loss tend to be relatively modest.  Most hiking trails are not too steep (say 5-10% grade or less) and generally the terrain and walking surface aren’t very rocky.  In my opinion the primary factor that affects effort is the amount of elevation gain.  The empirical correction I use is 1 mile per 1000 feet of elevation gain.  For a specific example, my most recent hike on the Bay Area Ridge Trail was 11.6 miles with 2250 feet of elevation gain.  Therefore the hiking effort was 11.6 + 2.3, or 13.9 miles.

Around the Lake Tahoe area elevations are mostly above lake level (6200 feet) and the terrain tends to be steeper and rockier.  (Of course the steepness depends a lot on the design of the trail.)  In general, the primary factor that affects effort is again the amount of elevation gain.  However, I use a bigger correction: 1.5 mile per 1000 feet of elevation gain.  Another recent hike went from lake level up to about 8000 feet through the Desolation Wilderness and was 17.0 miles with 2360 feet of elevation gain.  For this hike the hiking effort was 17.0 + 3.5, or 20.5 miles.

A different type of situation is hiking on an informal trail (sometimes called a use trail), rather than an engineered trail, or bushwhacking.  As I discovered on another recent hike this can be much more strenuous than a hike on an engineered trail like the Tahoe Rim Trail.  After I completed this hike I decided that an even bigger correction was warranted: 2.5 miles per 1000 feet of elevation gain.  The actual hike distance was only 10.5 miles with almost 3800 feet of elevation gain.   For this hike the hiking effort was 10.5 + 9.5, or 20.0 miles.  This may seem like a rather extreme correction.  However, the average elevation was high (9500 feet), the higher-elevation portions were very steep (over 20%) and either on use trails or bushwhacking, and the decomposed granite ground surface was extremely challenging to walk on.  The perceived effort was much more than any other 10-mile hike I’ve done in the Lake Tahoe area.  And the effort was reflected in my hiking speed: I averaged only about 1.25 miles/hour hiking pace compared to perhaps 2.25 miles/hour for a typical Tahoe area hike.

In my model elevation gain is the primary factor adding to a hike’s difficulty, once the general terrain (e.g., Bay Area or Lake Tahoe area) has been identified.  The importance of elevation gain is one of the reasons I usually include an elevation profile in my posts about specific hikes.

Here is a summary of how I calculate hiking effort:

hiking effort

Since this is a very simple calculation, of course it could be made more sophisticated if circumstances warranted.  But usually it’s probably not worth the effort!

Finally I want to describe how this type of estimate can be useful when planning a hike.  Often you will have a time constraint, or there is a physical constraint based on your conditioning level or simply how energetic you feel when you are doing the planning.  I often consider both the distance and hiking effort when choosing among alternative potential hikes.  In 2008-2010 I hiked the entire Tahoe Rim Trail as day hikes, mostly solo hikes, and it was important to plan each hike carefully so that I would not get stranded on the trail after dark, or just so that I could be confident of finishing the hike without being so tired I was at risk of an unnecessary injury.  I even categorized each hike segment as S, M, L, or XL based on hiking effort.  I have to say that I found this to be a very helpful planning tool.

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One Response to A Simple Method to Quantify Hiking Effort

  1. darth vapor says:

    I concur with your calculations. I mostly hike an unofficial “use” trail up a steep ridgeline going up about two thousand feet over two miles to the top of the mountain. The trail is mostly uphill, with a couple of flat spots, but the amount of effort required is substantially more than on the 5 mile hike on an official trail and gaining the same elevation.

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