How fit are you: estimating hiking times

Planning is a key activity for a hike. Where will you sleep, what will you eat, which backpack to take with you and how much time do you want to spend hiking? And how does this compare with what you want to see or accomplish during that same hike? It all starts with one thing: knowing yourself and your own abilities. And admitting your disabilities.

Hiking is no fun for anybody if you overestimate your own capabilities. This is not only applicable for the distance to be covered, but also the type of path you take and the luggage you carry. On the other side: it’s less fun if you underestimate your own abilities.

In the last weekend of June 2022, we’ve made a 3-day hike in the French Alps. In this blogpost, we will share the distance and elevation gain, and use several methods to estimate the time it would take us to complete the route. Obviously, we will compare this with our own achieved times.

The Situation and the Routes

We started our hike on June 26, from Parkin Notre Dame de la Gorge, at the end of the Les Contamines Valley. We’ve split the hike into 6 individual stages, as they all have their own specific characteristics. The total length was 35.86km and the total elevation gain was 2654m.
We spent the nights bivouacing, meaning we were carrying substantial extra weight for a tent, sleeping mat, cooking gear and about 5kg of food (at the start). The result was a total weight of the backpack of about 17kg at start, including water.
Do bear in mind: Stage 1 was done on Friday, stage 2-4 on Saturday and stage 5 & 6 on Sunday.

Stage 1: Les Contamines (Parking) to Lacs Jovet.
This was the first stage, taking us from the parking lot at 1200 meters to the Lacs Jovet at 2177m. The total elevation gain was 1070 meters (as there is some small sections with descents). The track was partially (off-)road, transitioning to a single hiking track after the Refuge de Balme. Clear marked, easy walking. Total distance: 7.9km.

Lacs Jovet with Col d'Enclave on the right hand side

Stage 2: Lacs Jovet – Glacier d’Enclave
A gruesome stage. After spending the night at almost 2200m (2°C at night), we climbed up the Col d’Enclave (2662m). The first part of the track is a so-called T2-difficulty, transitioning to T3 after a couple of hundred meters. After reaching the col, there was a small descent and we finally pushed the button at the Glacier d’Enclave (or what’s left of it). Total distance: 3.8km and 572m elevation gain.

Stage 3: Glacier d’Enclave to Glacier des Lanchettes
Another tough stage, at times: the final part of the climb to Le Grand Ecaille (2751m), across a field of slate and gravel. Slippery at times, and hardly any markings. Definitely T3-terrain. The descent from Grand Ecaille to Lanchettes-glacier is more easy, although the first part was slate and slippery. Distance: 2.2km, 69m elevation gain.

Stage 4: Glacier des Lanchettes – Ville des Glaciers
Quite literally a walk in the park. All downhill, for about 5.7km. No difficult parts, well-marked and a stunning view.

Stage 5: Les Chapieux – Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme
Climbing from the start, but a “rolling” climb. No difficult parts, not exceptionally steep. 5.6km to gain 863 meters. Crossing some alpine pastures and orchards.

Refuge de la Col de Croix du Bonhomme

Stage 6: Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme – Parking
The first part of the descent from Col de la Croix du Bonhomme to Col du Bonhomme has some technical terrain in it, but not too much. T2 at most. The descent from Col du Bonhomme is quite steep though – but not difficult. We had to cross a major snowfield, but the rest was a walk in the park. Distance was 10.7km, descent almost 1300 meters.

Col du Bonhomme

The times it took us – compared to expectations

As stated: we were hiking with a (large) backpack. However, to place our times further in perspective, we should give more details.
We were with 2 guys, both average weight: roughly 92 and 85kg (length roughly 190cm and 185cm). We did not specifically train for alpine terrain or for hiking. As such, we would estimate ourselves to be quite average in our achievement potential.

In the graph, we have several bars per stage. The first bar is the actual elapsed time (moving time). Then there is “Good”, “Atletic” and “Pro”. These times are the result of calculations in the Komoot-route planner. Then the final bars are the standard German Method and the Swiss method. On the latter, I used the calculator from Bergfreunde, which gives slightly rounded figures.

Walking time comparison between calculated and actual times
Walking time comparison between calculated and actual times

What stands out and what can we conclude?

From the above stages, we can conclude a number of things.
First of all, for us, including the backpack, the Swiss & German Method is almost always widely pessimistic. In all cases, we’ve been considerably faster. That’s good to know for ourselves – but as stated, until you do it and compare it, you simply don’t know.

Secondly: Our elapsed time is comparable with the “good” fitness level as provided by the Komoot Routeplanner. This means that for us, it’s actually too pessimistic too. Considering the fact that a big backpack has an enormous influence on walking speeds – especially on the ascents!

However, the third thing that stands out are Stage 2 & 3. These stages were considerably more technical. Stage 2 had some parts that could be considered rock climbing, with no visible path uphill for some parts of the climb, finding your own route.
This takes time – certainly when your companion is not too comfortable in looking in the void below. The technicality of terrain certainly has an influence. You can see the clear effect of this as we were even slower than the German and Swiss method.
What’s not been considered in any of the calculators though, is the effect of altitude. Although 2500 meters doesn’t sound that high up, the apparent loss of oxygen is quite large. On Stage 2, the average altitude was about 2400 meters. In Stage 3, this was 2550 meters: respectively 29 and 32% less oxygen available in the blood stream.
As we were not acclimatised in such a short time, this loss of oxygen pressure has a direct result on the physical ability to perform. In a descent, this hardly counts. Below 2000 meters, it hardly counts either as your body can compensate significantly by increasing the heart rate and breathing rhythm.
Above 2000 meters, it can no longer do that. When we correct for this altitude, the times were respectively 126 minutes (instead of 173 minutes) and 47 minutes (instead of 72 minutes).
This would result in times that are comparable with the “good” calculation from Komoot.

Conclusion: consider altitude when planning

So for your upcoming route planning: take into account your current abilities if known. If you don’t know them: get to know them. Already after the first day, you can see how well you compare with the several methods. So make sure that you have your first hike planned out and calculated – and then compare the times.

When you go (significantly) above 2000 meters: do make a compensation for it. It will take you roughly 30% more time to achieve the same distance and elevation gain.

However, do not underestimate the still-persisting effect of terrain difficulty. On more technical terrain, the physical abilities count less. More experienced hikers will lose less time on difficult terrain, as you’ve developed a touch and natural feel on where to place your feet or trekking poles.
On descents, specifically technical descents, altitude doesn’t count that much. Fatigue does, and so does experience.

Do not underestimate nor overestimate your abilities. Certainly it’s better to underestimate them! Learn from the experience – and plan better next time!

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