How do thru-hikers cover 20 to 30 miles per day? Not only are they in great shape, but they’re also extremely efficient. By optimizng breaks and stoppages, experienced hikers can cut corners over the course of a full day on the move to make more time for what they enjoy most, be it extra hiking, side trips, gourmet cooking, photographing wildflowers or even just lounging at camp. A couple of different techniques can help them do this.
To start, a hiker should distinguish between the two kinds of breaks: mandatory and preventable. Mandatory breaks are stops for something that demands immediate attention, like taping a blister or refilling water. Preventable breaks are stops for dealing with things that could have been prevented with better planning or gear, like pausing to drink from a water bottle instead of sipping from a bladder while hiking. By avoiding preventable breaks or postponing and combining them into future mandatory breaks, time savings will start to add up quickly. Less total breaks will be taken, earning a hiker as much as 20-60 extra minutes of wilderness free time per day (results may vary).
Below, I’ve categorized 15 different reasons a hiker might stop as either preventable or mandatory and given my advice for how best to manage each of those things. Please note that if you aren’t concerned with hiking faster and more efficiently or simply enjoy taking breaks for the sake of taking breaks, this advice may not apply to you.
Preventable Breaks (Avoid or combine these into mandatory breaks)
Rest breaks are largely fitness and pace dependent. A good hiking pace is one that can be maintained for at least an hour without stopping. If you find yourself resting every thirty minutes, try hiking slower until you can go for about an hour. To be optimally efficient, combine rest breaks into any of the mandatory breaks you will already be taking to avoid accidentally taking two breaks in a row. As resting goes, you should generally aim for 5-10 minute breaks with the exception of turning one mandatory break into an extended, midday rest.
Water breaks died with the invention of the hydration bladder. The ability to sip constantly is just so much easier and more efficient than stopping to pull a bottle from an un-reachable side pocket in your pack. With a hydration bladder or an accessible, holstered bottle, you’ll be better hydrated and won’t have to stop for water breaks.
3. Snacking and eating lunch
With a little practice and a slightly slower pace, anyone can eat while they hike. Store snacks in your hip belt or side pockets and eat one or two every hour. This creates a more balanced energy intake and less side aches for anyone prone to face stuffing. If you prefer lunch foods, divide them into small sized portions before you start and treat them just like any other snack. Be sure to refill any of your empty food pouches during mandatory breaks.
4. Digging for miscellaneous gear
Learn what you will and won’t need from your pack over the course of a day and keep those items readily accessible. Good packs have multiple large mesh pockets for storing things on the outside. Having to open your pack to find something forces a complete stop, rather than a quick pause.
5. Waiting for partner to pee
Peeing is quick and constant enough that it shouldn’t justify a group break. Don’t wait for your partner, simply keep hiking at slower pace until they catch back up. Always make sure your partner is aware that you aren’t going to wait for them and be sure stop and allow your partner to catch up at junctions or anywhere the trail becomes faint.
6. Applying sunscreen
Apply sunscreen around breakfast, and reapply every few hours as part of a mandatory break, just like refilling and treating water. Done religiously, you can almost always get away with not taking dedicated sunscreen breaks.
Not much is worse than getting lost and having to retrace your steps. To prevent this, keep your topo map readily accessible and check it frequently. By doing so, you will know exactly where you are and where you should be going at all times. On most trail, this can even be done while you walk. If you only check the map when you’re lost or confused, it will be significantly more difficult to locate yourself or find the correct trail.
As a friend put it, be bold and start cold. When you finish breaking camp in the morning, take off any layer you won't want to wear once you're hiking. This prevents the inevitable over-heating stop after the day’s first 30 minutes of hiking. The same principal applies to adding layers.
Mandatory Breaks (Rest and manage preventable break tasks during these)
1. Reaching a viewpoint or objective
The most intuitive and obvious time to take a break is when you get to the summit, the pass, the waterfall, the lake, or whatever your objective may be. Stop and rest, open a snack and take care of anything else that needs doing while you soak it in. Congratulations, you made it!
2. Refilling water
Filling up empty bladders or bottles is almost always worth stopping for. Hands-off purification systems like drops, squeeze, gravity filters allow you the time to fit in another small chore, like refilling the snack supplies in your hip belt pockets. Look ahead on your topo map and plan out water consumption so that you refill after gaining elevation, not before. Carrying a few extra pounds uphill really does matter.
3. Waiting for partner to poop
If your partner has to go, stop and take a break. The cat hole process alone can take long enough that if you were to keep walking, you would be well separated by the time they’re ready to hike again. Use that break time on other little chores, like checking the map or reapplying sunscreen.
4. Preventing blisters
As soon as you feel a hot spot forming on your foot, it’s critical to stop and prevent it from turning into a blister. Walking an entire day on a blister is painful and much slower in the long run than the time spent stopping to tape it up. By taking preventative measures like wearing comfortable trail runners or applying salve to pruney feet during other mandatory breaks, you can really minimize the threat of blisters.
5. Coming to a junction if not within sight of your partner
As a rule of thumb, it’s good to stop and wait for your partner whenever you come to a junction. This prevents any confusion about going down the wrong trail, and the possibility of getting separated.
6. Applying first aid
It basically goes without saying that you should stop immediately and care for any open wounds, sprained ankles, ticks or injuries. While these breaks are universally horrible, keep in mind that they’re still opportunities to rest your legs, and take care of other chores while you’re already seated with your gear out in front of you.
7. Completing a ford
No matter if you crossed bare foot or in shoes, there is always something wet to take care of after a ford. Remember wet feet are significantly more likely to blister, so do your best to dry off. Use this time to have a snack, dig something out of your pack or apply salve to your feet while your shoes are off. Never take a break before a ford as you’ll just have to stop again after.
Enacted over the course of a full day, these little short cuts can really add up to make a difference, especially once they become habit. Now get out there and start hiking and breaking efficiently! Think about it. How do you plan to use the extra wilderness time?
Photos by Matt Hage (2 & 4) and Dan Patitucci (1 & 3).