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Average hiking speed over level ground is often reckoned around twenty miles per day, assuming hikers in good shape who know what they are doing and where they're going. (As a rough approximation, which is fine, I'm just looking for rough approximations here.)

But I think that assumes either fairly open ground, or a trail through forest. What would a corresponding figure be in the absence of a trail? To be specific, say primeval deciduous forest, as would've been found in northern Europe or parts of North America before the arrival of humans? Assuming the hikers know what they are doing, how to handle the terrain, it will still be at least somewhat slower, right?

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    It depends how thick the forest is and how agile you are. If you have to carry a bulky backpack through dense forest, you are really really slow. My personal experience is that even in lighter forest having simple trail easily doubles the speed – Manziel Jun 4 at 14:04
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    I agree with @Manziel - if you have ever hiked a trail that hadn’t been maintained for a few years you quickly find that navigating around all the downed trees and whatnot slows you down really fast, even with sections of still usable trail. – Jon Custer Jun 4 at 14:25
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    It depends a lot on the "Forrest". In E. TX and warm areas in general , there are many vines and other vegetation with spines plus entangling tendency. I would be impressed by anyone rushing through some bull nettle that did not fall down and weep. – blacksmith37 Jun 4 at 14:57
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    Another vote for it depending on the forest. I'm thinking of the only forested area around here. Level (to the extent it exists) off trail at 7,000' it's substantially impeded, 1 mph with a pack would be a good pace. Same mountain at 10,000' you stay on the trail for ecological reasons and because you trust it to steer around the areas that are problematically non-level, but the vegetation is of minimal hindrance if you do go off trail as the trees are far enough apart there's always a clear path without too much zig-zagging. – Loren Pechtel Jun 5 at 23:09
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    This question is fairly specific to the trail. Many of the popular mountainous trails in New England, even the ones generally considered moderate, have enough inclines, trees, rock, etc. In an area like this even experienced hikers will struggle maintaining 1.5 to 2mph. In these areas I usually plan for 1 to 1.25. – mreff555 Jun 10 at 21:34
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As a CDT through hiker, off-trail ultramarathon runner, and general fan of cross-country travel, I feel somewhat qualified to speak to this question.

Moving off trail tends to be slower than moving on trail. Exactly how much slower depends on many factors.

  • I generally walk 3 mph (~5 km/h) on a well maintained trail with reasonable (less than 1000 ft/mile or 200 m/km) elevation change
  • I generally walk 2-3 mph (~3-5 km/h) off trail in the absence of thick brush, with reasonable elevation change, and easy navigation (obvious landmarks to follow).
  • I generally walk 1 mph (~1.6 km/h) or slower off trail in moderate brush, with extreme elevation change, and difficult navigation.
  • I have moved as slowly as 0.2 mph (~0.3 km/h) in extreme conditions.

Your mileage may vary!

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    Concur - your slow figure matches my experience - 400 metres in an hour on difficult terrain with a load. – Criggie Jun 5 at 5:04
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    Another hiker chiming in to agree, with one caveat - these sound like sustainable speeds. On a day hike, ie. starting from fully rested and knowing that it's just for a day and you can rest again thereafter, you can go faster. On a good easy-going trail, you could push to 4mph or more with light load; as the terrain gets tougher, your ability to increase speed above normal decreases because it's terrain and not stamina that is the main factor limiting speed. In competitive events I've seen teams hold 4mph for ten hours over trails and farmed fields. – anaximander Jun 5 at 9:50
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    I'd relate category 2 to Central European beech forest (naturally quite "naked" soil because of the herbicide in beech leaves) or for North America rocks + pines in the Candian Shield. Category 3-4 in Central Europe: oak forest with soil completely covered in knee deep (3) or more ( -> 4+) brambles. North America/Canadian Shield: crossing a swamp area. Also, the "speed over ground" will fall quite apart from "speed towards desired position" because of detours (e.g. for oak forest: trees fell -> more light -> bramble thicket >2m high. Game trails become tunnels that are not useful for humans) – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jun 5 at 14:29
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    joined this site just to applaud this ironically un-ironic use of "Your mileage may vary!" – Greg Martin Jun 6 at 17:25
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    Obstacles like rivers or crags can cost a lot of time or force you to take detours which slow your forward speed down to 0km/h. – Michael Jun 7 at 13:31
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While I love @Lucas Wojciechowski's answer, I'd also like to answer this from a different direction, as OP is asking about the distance covered in a single day.

I think here the estimate of roughly 20-30 km per day (13-20 miles) is a reasonable base-line assumption given:

  • you know you'll be on decent trails without excessive elevation
  • you won't waste time on navigation (because of obvious landmarks or good trail signage)
  • your goal is to cover ground (i.e. no hours spent fishing, landscape painting, sightseeing, etc...)

This will be sustainable for longer multi-day treks even with reasonable pack weight (15-25kg) and with mediocre stamina & training. Also this assumes that you need to spend time to break camp in the morning, setup camp at night, spend time cooking, collecting/purifying water, getting stuff out of and into your backpacks - in short on an 8-10 hour day you'll hardly do 8-10 hours of actual walking.

--> But, all of this considered, in my experience (of many months and hundreds of kilometers of treks) the 20-30 km/day can be a reasonable assumption to base any route planning on if you want to plan a trek on a well-mainained long-distance hiking trail (e.g. Kungsleden, Appalachian, CDT, Camino de Santiago, ...).[1]

If you ever go off-trail, then all bets are off: as Lucas outlined in his answer, depending on various factors your speed can slow to a crawl. In such situations you either need good beta on the planned route (e.g. from locals, a good guide book, etc.) or you need to plan with very conservative speeds, to ensure they will be sustainable for you and your group.


[1] This is especially true because over multi-day hikes any daily deviations tend to even out over multiple days.

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