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Suppose you need to cover a fairly long distance (e.g. 30 km) in a moderately difficult hiking terrain (no climbing), in 1 day. You can either go alone or with someone, or with a group.

I think (from experience) that alone is always faster. Is it right, and if yes, why? What are the factors that make me waste time? How much time should I expect to waste? Let's eliminate physical fitness differences for the sake of argument.

If the answer is no (i.e. group hiking time is the same or better than alone time): How can I achieve the fastest group hiking time -- which typical time wasters to avoid, and how?

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    I generally find the fastest way to move when I'm with my girlfriend is to confiscate her phone/camera.... :) – user2766 Jun 26 '17 at 7:54
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    To anyone reading the answers: Don't stop at the first. It is very good, but in my opinion the valid answer is a combination of all of the given ones. There is a lot of factors making a group slower, but also many to make a specific individual within a group faster than if they would go alone. Ideally, someone would pick up on all factors and make one succinct answer integrating both sides. – imsodin Jun 26 '17 at 9:38
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    @ims: I see what you're saying, but I took the question to mean comparing a group to a lone hiker that is motivated to get to the destination quickly. I agree that a dawdler can go faster in a group than alone, but that's not what I understand this question to be about. Perhaps the OP can clarify. – Olin Lathrop Jun 26 '17 at 12:01
  • @OlinLathrop I really don't want to take away from your answer, I agree, that in most cases and the one you specified it is true that a group is slower. However there is more to it than just dawdling: I am certainly faster when in company of some of my mountaineering partners, not because I dawdle, but because they "pull" (mostly mentally :P ) quite a bit. The there is the mentioned issue of going at an even, slow pace given by the leader being faster than going fast and making lots of breaks (only true for inexperienced hikers). There is likely even more factors going this direction. – imsodin Jun 26 '17 at 12:13
  • In my experience, hiking alone has always been faster with one exception - doing a mountain marathon paired with someone younger, fitter and more hungry to win than I was. That pushed me to speeds I wouldn't have thought possible (and hence wouldn't have even tried to achieve!) – aucuparia Jun 28 '17 at 7:30
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In my experience, hiking alone is definitely faster if the intent is to get to the destination quickly. I lead organized hikes often (roughly one/month) for the AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) and our local Trails Committee. I'm sure I've led over 100 by now, so have extensive experience with this. Groups go slower than fit individuals. Some reasons:

  1. In a group, there is shared responsibility. That means the you're not going to ditch the slowest person halfway out, as much as you might like to. Instead, the group goes at the speed of the slowest.

  2. Even if multiple people hike the same speed on average, they won't hike the same speed in all conditions. Someone might be faster (relatively) uphill, someone else more confident with balance and be relatively faster downhill. There can be differences due to surface type, weather, length of being out (tortoise versus hare), etc.

    Any time there is a difference, the group goes at the pace of the slowest.

  3. There is more time wasted in a group. Different people take relatively different amounts of time stopping and drinking, tying their shoes, checking the map frequently/infrequently, etc. Just getting a group organized and making sure everyone knows what's going to happen, what to expect, etc, takes time. None of that applies to a single person.

  4. General strategies like frequent fast breaks versus infrequent long breaks don't always mesh, even if each strategy in isolation would yield the same average speed. Different people also have to go pee at different times, want to add/remove layers at different times. Ideal eating schedule rarely mesh, etc.

    While good leadership can reign in some of these, there will inevitably be occasions where some people are standing around that are ready and willing to hike on while others are doing something else.

  5. There are tasks in a group that don't apply to individuals. If it's just you, you don't waste time deciding who carries the first aid kit, the emergency locator beacon, the bacon grease to smear on that annoying whiner you want a bear to eat, etc. There is no coordinating the group, listening to what the leader is trying to say, etc.

  6. A group outing usually has a goal, and that isn't getting from one place to another as fast as possible.

  7. A group is more of a average. Even if you got nearly identical people that all agree to get to the destination quickly, more people means more probability of something going wrong.

    Consider the case where a single person on a particular hike as 20% probability of something coming up that slows them down. That means 4 times out of 5 they make it at top speed. The other time, they may be much slower, or end up turning around and not making it at all.

    With a group of 5 such people, there is a 2/3 chance that something will happen to someone that slows him down, which slows the whole group down. Group resources may allow continuing on and minimizing the problem more than a single hiker, but it's still going to feel like "groups are slower".

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No, hiking alone is not always faster.

I absolutely guarantee that if my wife is hiking alone, she will not get there any faster than a group of average hikers.

Some people dawdle more then others; when they are in a group, they do slow the group some, but the group also gives them reason to start moving again. So a dawdler in a group will move faster being part of the group than hiking alone.

Additionally, two competitive hikers will tend to push each other's limits. You might stop for something when hiking alone, but that would allow your competitive partner to get the lead were you hiking with them.

If you are in a group where everyone else has a more relaxed pace, you will get there later than if you were alone.

If you are in group where everyone else is setting a faster pace, you will get there sooner than if you were alone.

  • As a not-really-sportsy guy, I can only agree. Being slower than many hikers, I do speed up noticeably when keeping up with someone else, so they don't have to wait for me all the time. But I guess this effect only happens on small groups of 2 to 4 hikers - more group members might slow everything down because everyone adds a different reason for yet another stop - one rearranges clothes, one takes photos, one needs to rest,... – Dynat Jul 9 at 11:54
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There are a lot of variables:

  • A minor effect on day hikes but a significant one in backpacking is kit sharing (1 stove/tent/guidebook/first aid kit per group). It's not just the weight but the bulk and finding things at stops.

  • Some individuals are easily sidetracked, or tend not to get up if they sit down for a rest. A friend can keep them on track.

  • If a group stops for one member it's common for another to think "while we're stopped I'll just..." just as the first starts getting ready to go again.

  • Plenty of people charge up hills then have to stop and have a good rest, talking longer than if they'd plodded slowly in the first place. Walking with a buddy, even if you stop chatting for the climb, you don't tend to take it too quick.

  • If someone is struggling, company makes that easier, even if there's little that can be done practically to help.

On balance the optimal group is likely to be about 3 people but only if they work well together. You don't have to be experienced at working in that team, but in a similar team. If one member calls a halt, everyone needs to get on with adjusting layers, having a drink or whatever, then get going again. It's important that this tone is set from the very beginning of the trip - once bad habits set in for the day you're stuck. A good leader helps but can only do so much, and as the group grows the chances of running an efficient trip shrink fast. This group size is also good for safety.

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    On point 4: I usually hike alone, but once hiked with a group of 14 Dutch young people (aged 17-23). The first five minutes of a long, steep climb, 12 of them overtook me. The next 90 minutes, I overtook all of them, one by one, arriving first at the top of the steep segment. My parents taught me from early childhood to choose a pace I can keep up non-stop, and from experience, on any slope with more than 600–800 metre elevation difference, I tend to be fastest overall. It would be highly detrimental if I was forced to join in their far-too-frequent "I-need-to-catch-my-breath" breaks… – gerrit Jun 26 '17 at 8:19
  • @gerrit It all comes down to group dynamics -- if you can get them to take it easy at the start, things may speed up overall. Of course if they think that just because they're younger, they're fitter, you've got no hope of convicning them. Also GRs in France and old guys who take wine with them for a long lunch but otherwise don't stop moving slowly all day. – Chris H Jun 26 '17 at 8:43
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    Another variation of point 4 that I've encountered several times: people who don't know/feel when they should eat and drink something and in consequence "run out of fuel" along the way. If this is someone else and noone realizes this, the group may be slowed down a lot. If this is you, someone in the group realizing may cause you to be much faster overall on your own. – cbeleites Jul 9 at 20:00
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    @cbeleites good point, on the other hand someone trying to keep up with a faster group when they need fuelling can slow themself (and potentially the group) down for the rest of the day. I've done that on a bike. – Chris H Jul 9 at 20:19
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    @ChrisH: yes, I think points 1 and possibly 5 provide genuine advantages for groups, points 2 - 4 can go in both directions, depending on who the single hiker for the comparison is. As for point 5, I've experienced several times that I lent out gear to group members on the way - which made both sides faster, me by not carrying and the other by using (e.g. hiking sticks that I brought "just in case") – cbeleites Jul 9 at 20:26
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When I hike alone, I tend to stop very often, just to take photos or pick some herbs. Hiking with other people motivates me to go on. Of course, the slowest person dictates the pace of the group, and that is often me.

What proved to be a good practice when I am with a bigger group is to split in two: those who want to go faster are not bored because of the slow ones, and the slow people don't get tired too fast because of the unsuitable pace. We agree on a mid-point where the fast guys wait for the slower ones (have lunch there or something), and then we meet at the day's destination. The tendency I noticed is that the slow group is usually delayed with 20-30 minutes, but of course this can vary on people and terrain.

  • We do the slow group, fast group routine too. So anyone who cannot stay with the front group can wait for the back group. Although there are always speedsters and stragglers. – Pooneil Jun 27 '17 at 21:27
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The main thing is stops.

One person alone only stop for his/her own rest needs. When there is more than one person in the group, the group needs to stop for each one of them.

When hiking on my own I often find that I don't stop at all, simply because I go at a pace which is comfortable to me. A group goes at the pace of the slowest person and stops for every person's rest needs.

My experience is that the smaller the group, the faster the pace in general. These kind of "generalisations" always have plenty of exceptions though.

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The fastest hikes I've done are with a small group headed by a guy that has a very fast pace.

My natural pace is about 3.25 MPH. I just fall into that unless I concentrate all the time, which is hard to do once you start to get a bit tired on the trail from going faster than the natural pace.

I often lead hikes of 60 or so people and can keep ahead of most of the group on flat lands. But I'm relatively slow on climbs (struggling to make 1000 feet an hour, breath has always been a problem for me) and many of those who lag behind in the flats will pass me going up hill.

So the real answer is, it depends on your body, the terrain and who you hike with.

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