In this speed hiking 101 guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about speed hiking. Also known as fast hiking and power hiking, Beck and I are unashamedly speed hiking enthusiasts. It’s why we’re collectively known as the ‘Speed Hiking Couple‘. We’ve enjoyed this activity on trails all over the globe and want to spread the word about this amazing activity. To that end, in this guide, we’ll also explain the difference between speed hiking, fastpacking and trail running.
Table of Contents
Introducing Speed Hiking
So you still might be thinking, what on earth is speed hiking?
Let’s set the scene. You’ve found yourself on a trail. It doesn’t matter where you are or what the terrain is. No matter the reason, you’re excited to do some walking in nature. As you set off for the adventure, you decide that you want to increase the burn in your lungs and your legs. Or, perhaps you’ve got other things to do later on in the day! Maybe you’re absolutely pumped to get to the top of the mountain or to the end of that coastal trail to enjoy the epic views.
For whatever reason you have picked up the pace, you’ve entered the wonderful world of speed hiking. So, let’s go into more detail about this activity and how it’ll benefit you!
What Is Speed Hiking?
The moment you are moving on a trail at a faster than your usual walking pace, you are technically speed hiking. In essence, this activity is all about walking a trail at an increased speed and intensity for whatever reason.
Actually, speed hiking can be whatever you want it to be! It’s certainly not an exclusive activity for athletes surging up mountains, which tends to be the stereotype. Although there are speed hiking athletes, in a recreational sense, it’s an activity that is suitable for anyone that enjoys walking. This activity can take place on any trail or track that you like. As long as you’re considerate of track limitations and others around you.
As a recreational activity, it can be completed for an entire trail or just in sections. This might be necessary if part of a trail becomes more technical and requires you to move slower to take care. You may also choose to slow down at some parts of a trail to soak in the ambience and nature. Maybe you want to dabble in some photography. Basically, there are no hard and fast rules. Speed hike as you please!
As you can see, it’s nothing too complicated really, which is fantastic, as it’s then an inclusive activity for anyone interested in being active and seeking nature.
Before we dive deeper, let’s look at the difference between speed hiking, fastpacking and trail running.
Speed Hiking vs Trail Running vs Fastpacking
Now you know the difference between walking and speed hiking. But what about fastpacking and trail running? How is speed hiking different from fastpacking and trail running?
Speed Hiking vs Trail Running
Trail running is the easiest one to differentiate, so let’s start there. Simply put, trail running is, well, trail running. Running on a trail. Easy. Well, what defines running then? The most basic definition would be that once both feet are airborne, you’re essentially running. So if you do that on a trail, you’re trail running. In contrast, you’ll usually run when you’re speed hiking. You’ll just be walking quicker than usual. Traditionally, trail runners are those who love running, but want the extra thrill of exploring nature and more challenging trails whilst running.
Speed Hiking vs Fastpacking
Fastpacking is where the lines start to blur with all three of these activities, but there are still key differences. Basically, fastpacking is the combination of trail running and ultralight backpacking to cover a long-distance trail. If you’re fastpacking, you’re running the descents, jogging the flats and hiking the ascents. Fastpacking allows someone to cover traditionally multi-day hikes in fewer days or even a single day. When speed hiking, you may occasionally jog or let momentum carry you downhills, but you wouldn’t run otherwise. So, as you’d expect, a fastpacking pace, is much quicker than a speed hiker’s pace.
So that’s the difference between speed hiking, trail running and fastpacking. Although speed hiking, trail running and fastpacking are different, they certainly have many similarities. The main similarity is exercising in natural settings. And that’s awesome, right?
History of Speed Hiking
Speed hiking is such an easy activity to participate in. Without even knowing, people have been doing this activity for years. Although no one has been calling it speed hiking! But, there are certain people who began choosing to speed hike consciously and purposefully for certain reasons. Traditionally, backcountry skiers would speed hike in the warmer months when the snow had melted off the mountains. It was a way for that group of people to keep fit during the off-season when they couldn’t ski.
So speed hiking didn’t really originate anywhere because people have been doing it for years and years. But it’s likely that cross-country skiers first coined the term to more specifically define this activity. So you could argue that’s where this activity originated.
Where Is Best to Speed Hike?
Some people think speed hiking is reserved for trails that scale epic mountainous landscapes. But the truth is, you can speed hike on any trail you like! Sure, it’s more of a challenge when gaining elevation. We thoroughly enjoyed speed hiking up the mountains of Liechtenstein and Andorra. But, there’s nothing wrong with moving a bit faster on the flat, on any trail or terrain.
Also, in answering this question, we should cover where you shouldn’t speed hike. Well, that one is pretty self-explanatory. You won’t do it on any technical terrain or on slippery surfaces. No one wants to be injured or have an accident on a trail.
Speed Hiking Pros and Cons
Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of this awesome activity.
Pros: What Are the Benefits?
There are quite a few benefits. Without getting overly complicated or scientific, sometimes it just feels good to smash out a trail at a quicker hiking pace. Feeling the wind in your hair, your heart rate increase, beads of sweat trickling down your face. The happy endorphin hormones. Essentially, the great feeling that you get from any exercise is replicated with this activity.
But specifically, what are the benefits of speed hiking over more traditional hiking? First and foremost, it gives you the ability to cover more ground and in turn observe more of your surroundings. Similar to fastpacking, this enables you to cover a greater distance in the time you have.
More Bang For Your Hiking Buck
In fact, one of the reasons Beck and I started speed hiking was because when we were travelling, we always had a huge list of trails we wanted to complete. This activity gave us the opportunity to do more trails in a day when compared to just regular trekking. It was an absolute game-changer.
We could squeeze more out of our itineraries than ever before. For instance, we were able to do the W Trek in Patagonia in four days instead of the usual five days. As a result, we had a whole extra day to play with so we could get even more out of our South America trip. Actually, the ability to get more out of our trips by speed hiking is exemplified in all of our hiking-based guides. And, of course, you could argue fastpacking and trail running could also give you this same benefit of being able to fit more into your itinerary.
Additionally, from a fitness perspective, when compared to regular hiking, the demand and challenge on your cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems are greater. In turn, this can help improve your overall fitness levels. For more information on the benefits of hiking in general, check out 11 reasons why you should hike.
Cons: Are There Any Negatives to Speed Hiking?
A lot of people dismiss speed hiking as rushing through nature. But this activity is perfect for when you want a good workout but also want to do it in beautiful surroundings. Of course, we don’t speed hike through all sections of a trail. We will pick and choose where we do this activity to maximise our time but also allow ourselves to truly appreciate epic scenery and the natural ambience.
After all, if you love photography, you’ll need to occasionally stop to take some shots. Or maybe it’s time for lunch and a rest before you set off again! Remember, it’s mostly a recreational activity, so speed hike whenever you want on whichever part of a trail you want.
How to Be a Considerate Speed Hiker
There needs to be some adjustment and common sense in place when partaking in this activity. Before you speed hike, consider these questions below. It’ll make us all more thoughtful fast hikers!
- Is the trail crowded? If a trail is busy, you may not want to speed hike. Alternatively, if there are just busy sections of the trail, like at lookouts or viewpoints, you’ll just need to slow down or let people pass just as you always would on a trail. Just because you are speed hiking doesn’t give you an excuse to be an arse hole on the trail.
- Is the trail narrow? If the trail you’re on is too narrow, speed hiking may not be practically possible. You may accidentally knock into people or be prevented from moving as quickly as possible. To avoid disappointment, perhaps pick and choose the right trails for this activity.
- What’s the terrain like? Is it slippery or rocky? Is scrambling required? Are you needing to hike close to a cliff’s edge? Under no circumstances is it okay to speed hike on trails that require you to slow down to take care.
Being Prepared For Speed Hiking: Training and Conditioning
By reading this guide so far, you’ve come to realise that speed hiking isn’t an exclusive activity for athletes, but just a recreational activity for anyone to enjoy. Of course, partaking in this activity requires a base level of aerobic capacity. In other words, you’ll need some basic form of fitness to be to walk faster. For most people, this is easy enough. But, if you’ve found yourself out of shape or are recovering from an injury or managing a condition, then simply walking faster may be easier said than done.
For those of you who attempt speed hiking and just don’t feel fit enough or get tired or out of breath too easily, read our tips on how to improve this below.
How to Increase Hiking Speed
Beck and I get asked this all of the time. How can I increase my hiking speed? Well, it’s very simple – practice makes perfect. The more you walk, the better and quicker you’ll become at it!
We also get asked, what is a good hiking pace? The reality is, there is no specific or ideal average hiking speed. Just walk a trail at whichever pace you like! We also get asked questions about what speed constitutes speed hiking. We’ve heard some people try to define speed hiking in km/hr or miles/hr using a hiking speed calculator. But, speed hiking isn’t defined by numbers. Person to person, speed hiking will be so varied. Someone’s speed hiking will be someone else’s slow walk. Basically, you don’t have to hit a certain speed to say that you’re speed hiking. Simply put, we think speed hiking is when you’re hiking at a faster than usual walking pace.
Aerobic Conditioning: Getting Fitter
If you’re unable to practice walking for whatever reason, then try to improve your aerobic fitness in some other way. Maybe you need to start with a lower-impact activity like swimming or cycling. Otherwise, we recommend walking on flat and even trails without much gradient change for short distances. Then, over time, as your fitness improves, go for longer and quicker walks on less sturdy terrain and trails with more elevation gain and loss.
Stride Length and Cadence
Basically, walking or running speed = stride length x cadence. So, in theory, increasing the length of your stride or your cadence (steps per minute) will increase your hiking speed. Being a physiotherapist, I advise injured runners on this sort of thing all the time. Typically, purposefully increasing your stride length feels unnatural. Indeed, overstriding may be a cause of other problems or issues as your body tries and maybe fails to deal with the demands of this new and unnatural movement. Better yet, aim to increase your cadence. By simply taking more steps per minute, you’ll increase your hiking speed without compromising your natural movement patterns.
Streamline What You Pack
Other than the actual walking technique, it’s easy to walk quicker by streamlining what you pack in your backpack! Whether it’s less gear or lighter gear, only you’ll know best. To that end, let’s look at what gear is best for speed hiking and why.
Speed Hiking Gear
As mentioned, speed hiking is mostly a recreational activity. All in all, it’s essentially just faster than usual walking. So if you are unfazed about what time you are completing trails, and just want to speed hike for fun, then we have good news for you! You’re more than welcome to speed hike in your usual hiking gear. There’s no need to go out of your way to buy ‘speed hiking gear’ or specialist equipment. Most people are speed hiking in their usual hiking gear without even knowing!
However, with that being said, speed hikers traditionally travel lighter. That makes sense, as the heavier your gear and the more you carry, the slower you’ll go and the more energy you’ll use. Logically, having lighter and less gear may help you walk faster, so you can accomplish all of the distance or trails that you want to do in a day.
So without going into exact detail about every single piece of hiking equipment, we’re going to just cover the basics that you may want to consider when speed hiking. This includes the following gear.
- Trekking Poles
- GPS technology
So let’s go into a bit more detail about this these bits of kit so you can maximise your speed hiking experience and performance. We’ll compare the main differences between your usual gear and speed hiking gear.
No matter what type of hiking you’re doing, you should be wearing hiking boots. If you’re speed hiking, you’ll want decent traction to avoid slipping as you turn corners and descend trails at an increased speed. Because you’ll be working harder and getting hotter, having breathable footwear is also ideal for comfort. With walking long distances, you’ll want decent waterproofing too. Whilst comfort, in general, is another important factor when choosing the right pair of hiking boots.
So these are all the elements that make up a solid pair of hiking boots. The major difference when we look at footwear for regular hikers versus speed hikers is the weight. The best speed hiking shoes are minimalist in nature, as to have less weight. So you might consider a more traditional trail running shoe or minimalist low-top trekking shoe. Beck speed hikes in The North Face Hedgehog II Fastpack hiking boots. They are relatively lighter than the usual pair of hiking boots I wear (Merrell Men’s Moab 2 Mid Gore-tex Hiking Boots). We’ve also heard the Merrell Moab Speed Mid GTX is a good choice.
When it comes to a backpack for speed hiking (and fastpacking), you’ll want something lightweight, waterproof, and able to store a relatively large supply of water. A Camelbak is certainly a good option. They are lightweight but are designed to have the appropriate chest straps as well for comfort. Honestly though, we think a Camelbak is more appropriate for trail running. Usually when speed hiking, you’ll be on a trail for a long duration. So you’ll need a more spacious backpack to fit in all your trekking equipment.
In that case, consider the Osprey Skarab 30 Hydration Pack. With the Osprey Hydraulics 2.5L Reservoir, it works just like a Camelbak. But you’ll have a lot more space to pack all of your gear. In regards to weight, with its intelligent chest and hip straps design, load and weight are distributed evenly throughout the body. Meaning you feel less of the actual weight of the backpack. For something even smaller, consider the Osprey Skarab 22 Hydration Pack.
Like with all hiking clothing, you’ll want gear that is waterproof and windproof but lightweight and breathable. It’s easier said than done though! One of the major challenges of speed hiking is temperature regulation. Often, you’ll be starting a hike early in the morning in cold temperatures. So you’ll have a few layers on.
But soon enough, the combination of the temperature rising and your high intensity of exercise means you’ll need to start taking all of the layers off. The more layers you take off, the heavier your backpack. Oh, the conundrum! So at the very least, you’ll need high-quality and lightweight waterproof and windproof gear. Without good quality, your clothing may be lightweight but hopeless in keeping you protected from the elements.
Base Layers and Outerwear
Depending on where in the world you’re speed hiking, you may want to consider some base layers to help keep you warm or wick away sweat.
For a waterproof/windproof jacket, consider the Kathmandu Aysen GORE-TEX Jacket. Like all windproof jackets, breathability is the biggest challenge as you work up a sweat. But at least with this jacket, there are nifty zips located throughout the jacket that can help cool you down if needed. Most importantly though, it’ll keep you dry!
For your warming layers, what you’ll be looking for is an outstanding weight:warmth ratio. For a fleece jacket, it’s hard to look past the lightweight but incredibly warm The North Face TKA Glacier Snap Fleece Jacket. Beck has been wearing this jacket for years.
Additionally, if you need a lightweight down jacket, there’s the Patagonia Down Sweater Jacket. But for those willing to spend even more for the optimal weight: warmth ratio, consider the Patagonia Micro Puff or Patagonia Nano Puff down jackets.
What About Hiking Trousers?
In regards to hiking trousers, waterproof ones are generally heavier and non-breathable, unless you invest in a very expensive pair! That’s why a water-resistant pair of trousers may be a better option as it’s lighter and much more breathable. Consider the Columbia Silver Ridge Convertible Trousers. But if it absolutely buckets down, the water-resistant trouser may not suffice. In such a case, carry an emergency Mountain Warehouse Pakka Waterproof Overtrousers. They certainly aren’t breathable but will definitely keep you dry during heavy periods of rain.
Poles are often a contentious piece of equipment for hikers. Some people swear by them. Poles are able to take the weight and load off a person’s legs and trunk when descending trails. Whilst using trekking poles can take a lot of the effort out of surging up hills. The cross-country skiers will obviously be using them.
With their ability to help you hike quicker, they may help increase performance. If you’re wanting to get fitter from trekking, the poles may be lessening the effort and demand on your body, thereby decreasing your maximal exercise output, in turn, slightly reducing your overall improvement in fitness. But you could also argue that by using poles, they will help you conserve energy, so you could speed hike at a greater speed for longer, thereby facilitating the maintenance of a higher intensity of movement output which would help you get fitter!
But, on a longer hike, you may not want to be using trekking poles the entire time. Particularly, if the trail consists of varied terrain where poles are negligible. They will inevitably add extra weight to your backpack if stored there during periods of non-use.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to personal preference.
Although speed hiking (and even fastpacking) is mostly recreational, using some GPS tracking or mapping technology is worthwhile. Some people may use Strava to time their walks or measure other statistics. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But, you may simply want to use your smartphone for GPS maps. When you’re walking at a quicker pace, you often have less time to make decisions when on a trail. This can often lead to losing a trail or going the wrong way. Having a GPS signal or even an old school map will help you navigate to ensure you stay on the trail!
We hope that we have sparked your interest in joining the wonderful world of speed hiking! Or perhaps you’ve come to realise, that you’ve been doing it, all this time, without really knowing. Either way, we hope this guide can either kick-start your fast hiking adventures or help improve them.
For a more comprehensive rundown of gear, check out our 66 Travel Accessories That You Must Travel With. We go more in-depth into what hiking gear we use.
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