At some point, the bikepacking trip planning process always comes down to this critical question: how many miles should you plan to ride each day?
It is indeed a tough question. Even with many bikepacking trips under my belt, I still sometimes get it wrong and find myself scrambling to keep up with an unexpectedly tough schedule. You’d think I would know better by now.
Planning daily mileage is tough because it depends on so many factors. Getting one little thing wrong – like expecting smooth gravel and finding rough singletrack instead – can knock you off your estimates by a factor of 3 or more.
So how should newer bikepackers plan their itineraries? In the sections that follow I’ll explain how to estimate your bikepacking miles per day based on terrain, elevation, experience, and other factors.
Some will think this post is too detailed. And perhaps it is! There are simpler charts out there, like this one. But they don’t take into account elevation, or daylight hours, or break time, to name a few. Plus, obsessively modifying your estimates is a great way to distract yourself two hours into that four hour climb (or is that just me?).
If your circumstances allow for flexibility, by all means make a SWAG (scientific wild-ass guess) and go ride. But if you’re trying to plan in greater detail, or you’re just curious about the thought process of someone who loves to plan her own routes, this post will dive into the details of deciding how many miles to bikepack each day.
1) Estimate Daily Riding Hours
When trying to estimate your daily bikepacking mileage, you first need to know how many hours you’ll be on the the bike. This will depend on where and when you’re riding, and your own goals and preferences. If you’re not sure where to start, these questions will walk you through it.
How many hours of daylight will you have each day? Look up sunrise and sunset times for the place and time you’ll be riding. Unless you want to ride in the dark, this will be your upper bound. Winter days can be surprisingly short, especially when mornings are cold and it’s hard to get moving at first light.
Subtract two hours for camp: one for setting up camp at night and another for breaking camp in the morning, unless you want to do those in the dark.
Subtract time for lunch and other long breaks. Start with an hour if you’re unsure. A solo roadside lunch might only take 30 minutes, but a group lunch at a restaurant with beers might take 2+ hours. Shopping for food resupplies can take 30-60 minutes, even more if you’re too hungry to think straight.
How many hours remain? That’s your max riding time, including breaks. Write it down somewhere.
Now pause for a minute: do you want to actually spend that many hours riding? Long summer days far from the equator can offer more daylight than many people have the stamina to fill. As a super rough guideline, staying in these ranges will provide some challenge without being totally exhausting:
- Beginner / unconditioned: 3 – 4 hours
- Moderately conditioned (a few short trips under your belt): 4 – 6 hours
- Well conditioned (plenty of training, or a ways into a long trip): 7 – 9 hours
- Fit and eager to cover ground: 10+ hours
Then, consider the difference between the hours you can ride and the hours you want to ride. Be clear about your goal. Do you want to have plenty of time to enjoy camp, or are you pushing to see if you can complete a challenging route in a short period of time? (Side note: make sure any riding partners share your goal.)
Now, go back and adjust your max time, the number you calculated by factoring in daylight and lunch breaks. If that number is larger than the number of daily hours you actually want to ride, lower it! You’ll definitely find some way to enjoy the extra time off the bike.
Finally, subtract some time for short breaks to snack, adjust layers, and stretch your legs. For each hour of riding time, subtract 10 minutes of break time, unless you already know you like to take more or less. More experienced riders can often go longer between breaks, while newer riders prefer them more often.
Now you have your total moving time for the day, which we’ll combine later with estimated speed to get our estimated daily mileage.
Example 1: Arizona in Winter
Say you’re riding the Arizona Trail in February.
Around Tucson, sunrise = 6:45am and sunset = 6pm. That gives about 11 hours of daylight (rounding for simplicity).
Subtract 2 hours because you prefer to set up and break down camp in daylight (thoroughly reasonable). Now you’re at 9 hours.
Subtract an hour for a lunch break, and you’re left with 8 hours. You’d like to take some short breaks too, so let’s subtract 8 times 10 minutes, which gives us 6 hours and 50 minutes of riding time. Let’s just call it 7 hours.
Example 2: Montana in Summer
Now say you’re riding the northern end of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in July.
Around Whitefish, sunrise = ~6am and sunset = 9:30pm. That gives us a whopping 15.5 hours of daylight.
Subtract 2 hours for breaking down and setting up camp, and an hour for lunch: now you’re at 12.5 hours.
That’s actually quite a lot of riding time! If you want 8 hours of sleep each night and a little time to enjoy camp, you’ll want to knock another two hours off. Now you can sleep in until 7am and stop riding before a reasonably timed dinner, still leaving you with an ample 10.5 hours of riding.
Don’t forget breaks! Let’s subtract 10 times 10 minutes, which leaves us with around 9 hours of riding time. This may be perfect for trail-hardened riders, but it may be too much for some folks. Consider subtracting another hour for ice cream or beer (if passing through town) or soaking feet in a cool stream.
2) Estimate Riding Speed
Now let’s switch gears, so to speak, from time to speed. Speed, usually thought of in miles per hour (mph) for us Americans, is the measure of how much time we take to traverse a certain number of miles. If you want to estimate your miles per day while bikepacking, a reasonable speed estimate is essential.
The two biggest factors, in my experience, are elevation profile and roughness of the road/trail. Other factors like fitness and gear load do come into play, but these are usually secondary. A massive climb or rough and rocky trail will slow down even the fittest rider, just a bit less than the next-fittest.
The tricky thing about bikepacking is that speed varies so much based on terrain and surface. It’s far trickier to estimate speed for bikepacking than for, say, hiking. When you’re hiking, a slow pace might be 1 mph and a fast pace might be 4 mph, which is a 4x difference.
But when bikepacking, a slow uphill pace might still be 1 mph (if you’re walking) but a fast downhill pace could be 25 mph! That’s a 25x difference! If you don’t know which one is in store for you today, it’s very hard to say how many miles you’ll cover.
To help you approach this, here are general buckets of speed based on elevation profile and riding surface. These are estimates with an average rider in mind and won’t be true for everyone. The main takeaways are:
- Surface and gradient make a BIG difference in speed.
- Sufficiently steep hills or sufficiently rough trail can slow anyone to a crawl.
- Not all downhills are fast; the rougher the trail, the less time you’ll make up on the downhill.
|Pavement||Gravel or very smooth singletrack||Rough gravel, jeep track, or singletrack||Very rough jeep tracks or trails|
|Steep uphill||5-6 mph||3-5 mph (maybe hike-a-bike)||2-3 mph (likely hike-a-bike)||1-3 mph (hike-a-bike)|
|Gentle uphill||7-8 mph||6-8 mph||3-4 mph||2-4 mph (maybe hike-a-bike)|
|Flat||10-11 mph||9-10 mph||4-5 mph||4-6 mph|
|Gentle downhill||15-20 mph||12-16 mph||6-8 mph||3-6 mph|
|Steep downhill||20-30 mph||16-20 mph||8-12 mph||2-4 mph (maybe hike-a-bike unless you’re a skilled mountain biker)|
- If you’re especially fit or skilled, add 1-2mph on uphills and rough terrain. If you’re a beginner and/or out of your element terrain-wise, subtract 1-2mph in the same cases.
- If you’re carrying an extra-heavy load (full panniers, or tons of water for example) subtract another 1-2 mph on flats and uphills.
- If you love speed and/or your bike + gear + rider combination is fairly heavy, add 5mph or more on smooth descents.
What about hike-a-bike? A sufficiently steep hill can reduce most folks to walking, no matter how smooth the pavement. And a sufficiently rough trail can reduce many to walking, no matter how perfect the gentle downhill grade. Hike-a-bike speed is around 2-3 mph in most cases; a bit faster if you’re really pushing on smooth terrain, and even slower if it’s really a battle.
Too much detail? If you’re looking for rough a daily average mileage on a long trip, you can average all this out into one big estimate. But if you’re trying to plan precise daily distances so you can pin down resupply or lodging plans, you’ll want to break out major climbs, descents, and difficult trails.
- Headwinds: essentially these turn downhill into flat, and flat into uphill.
- Sand: if deep enough and your tires narrow enough, sand can turn any gradient into a mandatory hike-a-bike. You can get away with slightly more on downhills.
- Mud: the adobe “Death Mud” of areas like New Mexico can reduce anyone’s pace to zero. Just stop and wait until it dries; trust me. Regular mud can slow you to walking pace.
- Tricky navigation: unclear routes, faint trails, and frequent turns can slow you down by a couple mph.
One more note about elevation profile: climbing can really be exhausting! Remember the riding hours per day we calculated in step 1 above? If your day includes a TON of climbing, you may end up wanting to ride fewer hours. Many people feel that after a certain amount of vertical gain – say, 6000 feet for the day – their legs are just done, no matter how many hours of daylight are left. You can obviously extend this limit with practice, or push through it by walking as needed.
Example 1: Arizona Trail
The Arizona Trail is, on average, a moderately rough singletrack adventure. Let’s say the area in question has a rolling elevation profile with some rocks and sand. Let’s also say we’re carrying an average load by bikepacking standards, but we’re not super experienced with rough singletrack (good for us for stepping outside our comfort zone).
If I were planning this section of the ride, I’d estimate around 4-5mph on average while on the bike. If I were more experienced with mountain biking, I might say 6-7mph.
Example 2: GDMBR
The Great Divide route is generally a gravel road route, so let’s assume this example section through Montana is typical. The hardest thing about it is the climbing. Imagine we’ve got a 3000 foot climb ahead of us, on gradual gravel road, lasting 25 miles. Then the final 2 miles are so steep we’ll probably have to hike-a-bike it. But on the other side we’re rewarded with a gradual 10 mile descent. The surrounding area is rolling ups and downs, and let’s say all the gravel is relatively smooth and in good condition.
If I were planning this section of the ride, I’d estimate the gradual climb at 7mph, the final steep 2 miles at 2mph, and the descent at 15mph. For the rolling ups and downs I’d estimate an average of 9mph.
3) Estimate Miles Per Day
You’ve already done the hard part, so hang in there: it’s time to calculate miles per day from pace and time. This might feel a bit like a middle school math exam, but stick with me.
It’s this simple: miles per day = total moving time from step 1 multiplied by average pace from step 2.
So for example, if you want to be on the bike for about 8 hours and you estimate a 7mph average pace, expect to cover around 56 miles for the day.
Let’s go back to our two examples.
Example 1: Arizona Trail in Winter
In step 1 we calculated just under 7 hours of moving time, largely limited by daylight hours because it’s winter.
In step 2 we estimated ~4.5 mph for the terrain, because it’s rugged singletrack and we are not experienced mountain bikers.
Here we put them together: 7 hours of pedaling at 4.5mph = 31.5 miles.
Does that sound like a short day? Maybe, but it’s winter and daylight is limited, and we’re still getting used to the terrain. I’d say we’re doing just fine.
Example 2: GDMBR in Montana in Summer
In step 1 we calculated 9 hours of moving time. We have plenty of daylight and we’re fit enough to ride long days, but we want to get plenty of sleep and have time to enjoy camp.
In step 2 we calculated 7mph for the 25 mile climb, 2mph for the final steep 2 mile climb, 15mph for the 10 mile descent, and 9mph for everything else nearby. We’re breaking it into chunks because we want to be more accurate – maybe the restaurant in town at the end of the day closes early – and also to make it a more instructive example.
These are the chunks with dramatically different speeds:
- Gradual climb: 25 miles at 7mph = 3.6 hours
- Steep top of climb: 2 miles at 2mph = 1 hour
- Descent: 10 miles at 15mph = 0.6 hour (that was over way too fast!)
Adding these up, total climb + descent = 3.6 + 1 + 0.6 = 5.2 hours.
We plan to ride for 9 hours total, so that gives us 9 – 5.2 = 3.8 hours left for the nearby terrain that’s mostly rolling and unremarkable. At our estimated average of 9mph, 3.8 hours gets us 34.2 more miles down the road (let’s just call it 34).
So, climb + descent + everything else = 25 miles + 2 miles + 15 miles + 34 miles = 76 miles for the day. Not bad, especially since we tackled a pretty big climb.
Shortcut: Remember, we broke this up into segments because the elevation profile had some major features, in particular a big climb. A rougher estimate might just lump it all together as “very gradual uphill” and guess 8mph on average. Pedaling for 9 hours at 8mph covers 72 miles, which is pretty close to 76. But unless you have experience, it’s harder to be accurate doing it this way.
Despite our best efforts, we still sometimes mess up our estimates. Even the most perfect itinerary can be blown to bits by bad weather or mechanical issues.
As you’re planning, keep an eye out for opportunities to make up time if needed. This might mean diverting to a smoother road, bypassing a big climb, or even catching a ride in town.
You’ll want to have a navigation plan that includes nearby roads and towns (Google Maps and Maps.me both have offline features in their apps). It’s a good idea to spot check potential bail out roads on Google Street View, if available, to know whether traffic might be an issue as you’re making your game-time decision.
Rest or Recovery Days
If you’re thinking through average miles per day for a longer route, don’t forget to factor in rest or recovery days. These may be planned – like when you know you’ll be passing through a town with a great brewery – or unplanned – like when you ran out of chamois cream and now your saddle sores are acting up again.
On average, many people work in a rest day approximately once each week. Some certainly push further without any rest days, and some people take more, so listen to your body.
A few folks feel like their body gets even stiffer after a rest day, so they prefer to ride a very short “active recovery” day every now and then instead of resting completely. You do you!
How to Ride Farther
What if you’d like to build up your daily bikepacking mileage and you’re having trouble fitting more miles in? Obviously it helps to get fitter, carry less weight, and practice bike handling skills for rough terrain. But for the average rider on not-to-technical routes, I think a surprising amount of time gets lost while off the bike.
There’s nothing wrong with spending time off the bike of course, especially in beautiful places! But if you’re trying to be more efficient, here are some tips:
- Be efficient with breaks. Stop less often and do several things at once (snack, remove jacket, put on sunscreen, and take a bathroom break) rather than stopping every time something comes up.
- Get to know your gear setup, so you’re not always digging your jacket out from the innermost corner of your seat bag.
- Streamline camp chores. This often just takes practice.
- Consider not cooking and eating ready-made meals instead (here are some bikepacking food ideas).
- In groups, have structure for how breaks will work. Let people know it’s ok to break off and catch up when needed, instead of having the whole group stop every time anyone needs a break.
The realm of ultra-distance bikepack racing is the ultimate test of endurance and efficiency. In many cases the winners aren’t necessarily moving much faster than those behind them (though it certainly helps to be a beast on the bike), but they are definitely spending more time in the saddle. If you’re really pushing to cover ground, you’ll want to do all the things above, plus:
- Dial in your lighting and charging setup for lots of early morning and late night riding.
- Minimize restaurant or grocery store stops, resupplying mainly from convenience stores and eating on the bike.
- Sleep minimally and strategically, planning sleep around factors like temperature (some people ride when it’s colder and sleep when it’s warmer, so they can get by with a lighter sleep system) and resupply store hours.
I am certainly not an expert racer myself, but I’ve brought up the rear at a few races and watched these folks work their magic. It’s a fun puzzle to work on, and it also makes future leisurely touring-pace rides all the more lovely.
If you’re new to bikepacking, I hope this gave you some ideas (more than you wanted, perhaps?) for how to plan your miles per day on your next trip. If you’re experienced, you likely have your own opinions – let us know in the comments below.
More Bikepacking Resources
If you’re getting into bikepacking, you might find these helpful too:
- How to Pack for Bikepacking
- Creative Gear Ideas for BIkepacking on a Budget
- 4 Epic (Mostly) Non-Technical Bikepacking Routes in the Western US
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