Speed Hiking: A form of exercise that’s actually fun!
Have you ever considered speed hiking as a hobby or form of fitness?
When I first started hiking, I hiked pretty fast. Once I met Michelle, she explained why I should slow down, stop, and smell the roses. But I still get an itch to hike faster occasionally, especially when going uphill.
It’s my exercise when I’m hiking.
But speed hiking is a wholly different monster than what I always did. It’s where you purposely go faster to cover more ground, work out, and strengthen yourself.
If it’s a type of hiking you might be interested in, I suggest you continue reading this guide as I introduce you to it and talk about the basic recommendations to get you going.
What is Speed Hiking?
Speed hiking can be defined as purposely hiking faster for multiple reasons. Some of these reasons might include the following:
- Exercise and fitness routines
- Covering more ground
- Developing yourself as a better hiker
- And some or all of the above
Speed hiking is a lot like speed walking, but instead of walking, you’re hiking. That’s the best way to look at it. It’s in between trail running and regular hiking. We’ll get into that further in this section of the article.
History, Present, and Future
Speed hiking isn’t anything new. Many people do it today in the form of a challenge called an FKT. FKT stands for Fastest Known Time. An FKT will belong to a hiker who finishes a trail faster than anyone, whether supported or self-supported. FKTs are typically recorded for proof.
A good example of a local FKT holder is Lindsey Roberts, who holds the current FKT for the River to River Trail here in southern Illinois. Other hikers try to get the FKT on other trails, such as the AT and the PCT.
FKTs and speed hiking, in general, are still very popular today. Some people do it to beat an FKT or for competitive reasons. Others do it for fitness or to see more of an area in one hike.
I foresee FKTs and speed hiking courses being emphasized more in the future as competitive events or adventure racing-type challenges. I only hope that something like that will happen as it will increase the likelihood of getting people into hiking.
Speed Hiking vs. Trail Running
There is a difference between speed hiking and trail running. Speed hikers are simply hiking fast. They’re not jogging or running. They’re the equivalent of speed walkers, except they’re on a trail which makes it hiking.
Trail runners are running or jogging and attempting to maintain that pace. Trail running, in my opinion, is way harder than speed hiking. I think it’s harder because you have less chance of reacting to situations when running versus just hiking fast.
But hiking fast might be a great activity for a trail runner as a rest day fitness or just general fitness to get better at running. On that same token, I would also recommend hiking fast to develop yourself as a trail runner. It would almost be like a Couch to 5K type training for turning yourself from hiker to trail runner.
Fastpacking is speed backpacking. Hiking and backpacking are often put in the same pool. But in reality, hiking is mainly for day travel, while backpacking is often coined for multi-day and overnight hiking activities.
Fastpacking is simply when you backpack at a higher rate of speed than normal. This would allow you to cover more ground and do longer days before you get to where you wish to camp.
But fastpacking often requires you to become an ultralight hiker. You’ll need to carry less if you plan to hike faster on trips where you want to stay overnight. I doubt I could ever do that with my 80-liter packed-down overnight backpack.
Speed Hiking Gear Recommendations
Speed hiking means you’re going faster. Going faster means bringing less gear and focusing more on your physical abilities. We’ll get more into the physical conditioning phase of all this later in this article. But for now, let’s talk about gear, clothing, and footwear.
Your backpack is going to be one of your biggest gear decisions. As a speed hiker, you want something lighter than what a regular hiker would carry. I wouldn’t want to pack my current backpack around while trying to hike faster. It would kill me!
I’ve talked about this in another article about ultralight hiking. You should choose a small-liter backpack or use a hydration pack for speed hiking. Your goal should be to carry less than what you would doing regular old hiking.
Weight will be the biggest factor for you as a speed hiker. The more weight you carry, the harder hiking faster will be. More weight can also result in an increased chance of being injured. It is one of your most important tasks at first.
The type and amount of gear you bring for speed hiking do matter. You can bring the 10 essentials if you keep “lightweight” in mind while choosing them.
- Navigation – Your phone app is good enough or a paper map and a working plastic compass. Don’t pack a heavy compass around just because it’s fully featured. A smaller plastic one will do what you need and weigh almost 100% less.
- Light – All you need is a simple headlamp with one extra set of batteries. A headlamp is going to be a lot lighter than a flashlight.
- Sun Protection – Get a travel-size container of sun protection lotion. It’s small and simple and weighs almost nothing. Bring some sunglasses, too. A small bottle of bug spray is good, too.
- First Aid Kit – You don’t need a full kit. Bring the bare necessities in a smaller Ziploc bag or even a pill bottle. Keep it compact.
- Knife and Repair Kit – A small pocket knife is all you need. You need a few zip-ties and duct tape wrapped around your water bottle or trekking pole for a repair kit.
- Fire – Bring a lighter or a few waterproof matches.
- Shelter – In an emergency, you need shelter. I suggest a pocket-size rain poncho with a few feet of paracord. It will give you basic shelter if you need it in a pinch.
- Food – It’s important to stay fueled, especially when speed hiking. Bring plenty of snacks with high cards and protein in them. I like jerky and cheese packs and trail bars with fruit and nuts.
- Water – Make sure you stay hydrated when hiking faster. You’ll need more water intake. A hydration bladder might be ideal with an extra bottle or two of water. Water should be your heaviest item. Bring a small water filter with you, too.
- Extra Clothes – Bring a few extra clothes for laying, especially when the weather is colder. I always pack an extra pair of socks, an insulated running shirt, and a pair of insulated running tights. All these items are extremely lightweight.
- Optional Trekking Poles – This item isn’t for everyone, but since you’re hiking faster, you might consider trekking poles to help you with balance.
When it comes to purchasing your gear, you might consider spending more to get lighter items. Sometimes that type of gear costs more, but the weight reduction typically makes it worth it. However, you might find the alternative gear that isn’t really marketed as hiking gear but can easily serve the same purpose. So be sure to look around when buying your outdoor gear.
Clothing and Footwear
Clothing and footwear are a big part of choosing the best gear for speed hiking. You want to wear stuff that keeps function, weight, and breathability in mind. Hiking faster often requires different clothing and footwear than it would with regular hiking.
You can wear regular hiking pants/shorts and shirts, but I recommend moving to athleticwear. As a cyclist, I understand the exceptional amount of function that cycling apparel provides. I would wear a pair of tights in the colder months and half tights (unpadded bike shorts) in the summer. I would wear athletic material shirts (stay away from cotton!) and athletic socks. This skintight athletic apparel will help wicker moisture and mitigate snags to your clothing from sticks and twigs. Alternatively, you could wear baggy running shorts if you can’t do spandex. Remember, it’s about function and not fashion.
As for footwear, consider trail runners. I wouldn’t want to go speed hiking in my heavy waterproof boots. I would probably sweat a lot on my feet and get blisters. I’d rather wear trail runners, even if that means I’ll get my feet a little wet. You could wear waterproof socks with them in the winter to protect your feet. Trail runners are significantly lighter in weight compared to traditional hiking boots.
Training and Conditioning
Speed hiking is harder than regular hiking. It’s because you’re hiking faster than you normally would. It requires that you be in shape. At first, you might not be in the best of shape, but as you continue hiking faster more and more, you’ll notice that your fitness level will start to change. But speed hiking isn’t going to be your only option to get better at it. You also need to exercise off the trail and focus on some factors while you’re on the trail.
Hiking is very much aerobic and cardio fitness. So. choosing other forms of fitness that provide the same effect can help improve your skills. You just need to make sure you’re focusing on the fitness of the body parts you are using while speed hiking.
Your legs and your feet are all you need to work out, right? Wrong! Sure, your legs and feet are important to maintaining fitness. But you also carry your upper body with your lower body. So, you need to exercise your upper body, too. Fitness and muscle development will only improve your ability to hike faster.
Choose exercises that work but are not too intense. I’m a road cyclist, and when I bike on hilly routes, I find it helps me climb hills better when hiking. Swimming is a great way to exercise all the muscles you’ll require for speed hiking. Plenty of other fitness routines include low-impact weight training, jogging, kayaking, and even dancing.
Weight reduction is going to improve your ability to hike faster. When we think about weight reduction, our attention automatically goes to our backpack and gear. But weight reduction also applies to our physical attributes, too.
You should pack less and go for lighter weighing gear. Your backpack should weigh significantly less than most typical day packs. You should bring minimal gear and almost act like an ultralight hiker. Getting weight off your back and body will help you improve your hiking speed.
But we should also focus on body weight reduction. You probably see many skinny runners. It helps them run more. Shedding weight off your body will help to improve your speed hiking abilities and overall fitness. Luckily for you, hiking fast will help you lose weight. But it takes more than that, too, like proper dieting and further exercise.
Speed Hiking Skills
You should focus on your tactics and skills as a speed hiker. Try to record your sessions using an app that will record your hikes. I have used Strava and have for a long time, but to get the best features, it does cost money. There are plenty of good free apps out there to choose from. The idea is that you want to be able to see your stats and view improvement.
One thing to focus on is your pace and stride as you hike faster. You must integrate ergonomics into your stride to ensure comfort and a hiking position where you won’t injure yourself. If it feels like you’re doing it wrong, you are likely doing it wrong. Walking or hiking quicker than normal shouldn’t feel too awkward.
When advancing your abilities to hike faster, record your stats each time you go speed hiking. Create a stats journal. And then focus on trying to beat those stats a bit more each time you return to the trail. Terrain, length, and trail difficulty will play a factor. Your goal should always be to improve yourself as a fast hiker.
Pros and Cons
There are advantages to being a speed hiker. But speed hiking also comes with some disadvantages. It’s really up to you to decide if hiking fast is for you. Weigh in on the pros and cons below and the ones you might find while experimenting with the activity.
Pros of Speed Hiking
There are a few great pros and advantages of being a speed hiker. These include:
- Speeding hiking will improve your cardio fitness
- It will help you protect your joints by strengthening them
- Hiking fast will improve your overall hiking ability and performance
- Hiking is better than being in a gym. Fresh air is always better than confined spaces.
- Speed hiking lets you see more stuff in a day’s worth of hiking than your normally would
You’ll find many other benefits, pros, and advantages while you’re out hiking fast. What are some additional pros that you have discovered?
Cons of Speed Hiking
There are a few cons and disadvantages of being a speed hiker. These might be:
- You don’t go slow to see the full effects that nature provides
- You might miss something that you wanted to see
- You’ll be moving faster, so you’ll have to be more observant of hazards
- Speed hiking will be a challenge, and it might be hard to do at first
- If you have underlying injuries, hiking faster could irritate them or them worse
Understanding the disadvantages of speed hiking is important to ensure that you consider all the facts before starting it. It might not be for you in the end, and that’s fine.
Safety and Etiquette
Being a speed hiker means taking things more seriously because you’ve increased your moving speed. You need to focus more on safety than you would when hiking slower. You might be moving towards hazards quickly. You also need to think about other trail users, too. It’s important to respect other users and consider their use of the hiking trails.
Speed Hiking Safety
Speed hiking safety contains all the safety tips you’d need to understand for regular hiking but with the additional quicker concern. For example, you need to know to watch for venomous snakes on the trail but also understand that you might be moving toward them faster, so extra attention should be donated to the ground.
Think about all the safety concerns but put some extra emphasis on how you should focus on them. Add a speed factor to every safety tip you follow. Speed is an element that will add additional forms of hazards against something already hazardous.
Hiking faster does add more safety concerns to the bucket. When you move faster, you have an increased chance of pulling muscles, injuring yourself, and tripping. You should take all sorts of additional safety considerations and know that your biggest weapons are always watching where you step and using common sense.
Etiquette on the Trail
Speed hiking also comes with the responsibility of having additional trail etiquette for others. Hiking faster means you’ll intercept other trail users quicker than you normally would. It’s the same with trail runners and mountain bikers.
Runners and mountain bikers should yield to hikers. Speed hikers should slow down at least to regular hikers as they pass them to respect one another. Everyone should yield to horseback riders. There are some more safety tips in dealing with equestrians on the trail that you should consider.
Speed hiking etiquette also integrates with safety. It is not etiquette to put yourself in a position requiring emergency first responders to rescue you. Try to be responsible when choosing a time and location of where you will be hiking and the difficulty rating as to what you can do. You have to think about others you may impact when hiking faster.
Where to go Speed Hiking?
Where do speed hikers go? That’s a great question to ask yourself so that you know where to go.
I would start by NOT going to trails that typically host a lot of users. Around where I live, I wouldn’t consider speed hiking at Garden of the Gods Observation Trail because dozens of users are on that trail most days.
I would also not choose locations with existing hazards that require extra attention to detail. For example, I wouldn’t hike fast at Snake Road during the annual snake migration since the venomous cottonmouth is the most commonly seen snake on the road. That’s a place you want to move slowly at, right?
I would choose trails that offer routine, normally safe hiking conditions. Sure, there will be some hazards, but you need to pay closer attention to your actions.
I would most likely choose a place with much more to see, but it takes longer to see those things. When speed hiking, you can cover more ground because you’re moving faster. So, if you want to see several things in one day, you might speed hike on the trail that day to cover everything.
But if it’s an exercise thing, you could choose other trails solely for just hiking faster.
It’s up to you based on what you want to accomplish from being a speed hiker.
And that sums up my guide to speed hiking. I will say this – it’s good to take it slow and take it all in occasionally. Don’t let being a speed hiker allow you to miss out on smelling the roses here and there. Thanks for reading my article. If you enjoyed it, I recommend you subscribe to my mailing list for more articles like this one.
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Founder, Hiking with Shawn
Howdy folks! My name is Shawn Gossman and I founded Hiking with Shawn. I’m an avid hiker, cyclist and outdoorsman here in the Shawnee National Forest. I was born and raised in Southern Illinois and never want to leave. Click here to learn more about Shawn Gossman