How To Hike Your First 20 Miler: Tips for Long Days on the Trail

This is ostensibly a post about how to hike 20 miles or more in a day. Presumably you’re here because you’d like to take your hiking up a notch and start covering more ground. But perhaps some of you are also thinking, “Why on earth would I want to do that?”

First of all, twenty miles is arbitrary. Though hiking a 20+ mile day is a big milestone for some ambitious hikers, these tips can also help you hike your first fifteen mile day, or ten mile day, or whatever suits your own personal goals. And if you have your sights set on 25 or 30 mile days, the same ideas apply.

Basically, this is a post about how to hike more efficiently and comfortably on both day hikes and backpacking trips. It’s a post about “leveling up” your hiking, so to speak, with a focus on enjoying longer routes and more challenging trails. Use these tips to cover more ground, or enjoy more time at camp, or simply streamline your backpacking routine.

Don’t you sometimes just want to follow a beautiful trail forever?

Why Hike Far?

First a clarification. Why the focus on hiking so far? Shouldn’t we be enjoying nature, taking it slowly, soaking it all in? I’ve seen this argument play out many times, with some “traditional” hikers convinced that it’s impossible to enjoy nature if you’re always staring down at the trail, focused on fast miles.

I have also seen, and occasionally been, that hiker staring down at the trail, pushing through discomfort and too lost in my own world to enjoy my surroundings. Yes, it does happen.

But generally speaking, I believe that hiking long days is totally compatible with enjoying and appreciating nature. It’s true, we may miss some details and breeze past places that could be enjoyed for longer. But there will always be more to notice and enjoy in nature, no matter how slowly we pass through.

Personally I feel that moving fast and light in the wilderness allows me to appreciate nature on both a small and large scale. When you can hike twenty miles a day, you can watch a desert landscape change to alpine mountains between breakfast and dinner. You can cross several high passes and explore several valleys between campsites. You can reach remote places that you might otherwise never see in the time you have, or hike through a long dry stretch to a lovely lakeside campsite instead of dry camping, or complete epic day hikes like Cactus to Clouds that just don’t lend themselves to camping.

And, when long days on the trail inevitably get a bit physically challenging, we can look inside and explore the landscape there as well. The confidence and insight gained from pushing through physical fatigue can touch many corners of our lives both on and off the trail.

So yes, I do think hiking long days is a valid way to enjoy nature. It’s also a rewarding mental challenge, and a lovely way to get in fantastic physical shape and keep our bodies ready for any adventure that calls to us.

So, if you’re curious about how far your body can take you into wild and rugged places, read on for a blueprint to hiking longer days more comfortably.

Hiker on North Coast Ridge Trail
On the North Coast Ridge Trail, long days were essential to reach scarce water sources.

Research and Planning

It’s always important to research and plan for a hike. The longer the hike, the more important this step becomes.

Know the terrain. How much elevation gain will there be? Is the trail at high elevation? Is it smooth and well maintained, or will there be boulder hopping or bush whacking or snow travel? Depending on these answers, a twenty mile day may be reasonable or it may may be a guaranteed disaster.

Twenty miles a day on this terrain (Mount Williamson)? Probably not going to happen unless you’re an extreme badass.

Estimate your pace. Once you know the terrain you can estimate your hiking pace. Fit hikers on relatively easy terrain often hike around three miles per hour, but in difficult terrain this number can drop to 2 or even 1 mph.

Know sunrise and sunset times. Though it’s possible to hike in the dark, long daylight hours make it easier to hike further. The long days of summer at northern or southern latitudes are a great time to push your daily hiking mileage. For a rough idea of how far you’ll get before dark if you start at sunrise, take the number of daylight hours and multiply it by 2 to 3 mph. Don’t forget to factor in time for breaks.

Know the weather forecast. If you’re going to be pushing your physical limits outdoors, preparing for the weather is an absolute must. Hot weather requires careful attention to electrolytes and hydration. Cold weather requires smart gear choices. Mountain thunderstorms require being off high places early in the day, or waiting at lower elevation until they pass.

Thunder storm hiking in Oregon
Worried about a summer thunderstorm in Oregon while approaching an exposed section of trail. Better to take time and wait it out down low.

Have a backup plan. We never grow if we don’t push our limits, but it’s important to do it safely. If the math for your planned hike just isn’t working out, what will you do? If you’re day hiking and not carrying overnight gear, what’s your plan if moving slower than expected? Will you hike into the night, or will you turn around early at a predetermined time regardless of distance? If backpacking and moving behind schedule for resupplies or transportation plans, how will you cut your hike short or communicate a change in schedule?

Training

Though much of this post focuses on the immediate practicalities of long hikes, big days outdoors will come more easily if a consistent training routine is part of your daily life.

Training for a twenty mile hike, or whatever ambitious mileage you’re targeting, doesn’t have to be all-consuming. It simply means that in the midst of everything else going on, we prioritize keeping our bodies strong and moving well.

The kind of endurance-based adaptations needed for long hikes are slow to build and slow to fade, and lend themselves more to lifestyle habits than brief training pushes. Here are a few key elements to mix into your daily life, both for hiking and for general health and well-being.

Strength and resistance training: If I could choose only one thing, this would be it. This could be weightlifting (deadlifts changed my life) or it could be resistance bands, or anything in between. See my post on dealing with knee pain on the trail for some ideas on where to start.

Range of motion and flexibility: Simply put, this is “stretching,” but there are many more effective ways to tackle it. Vinyasa yoga is excellent for building functional strength through full range of motion, and the passive yin style is great for restoring range of motion that naturally gets lost when doing repetitive motions like hiking and running. Here’s the static stretching routine I do in my tent each night. PNF stretching, PAILS and RAILS, and CARS are other techniques worth googling.

Tissue health and release: As a trail runner I learned to value quality time with my foam roller and massage ball. Many hikers benefit from these as well. They help break up adhesion in muscle tissue to keep everything moving smoothly for a strong and stable stride.

Progressive training hikes: Strength and range of motion work will get you far, but to train for hiking it’s still essential to… hike. Certain adaptations to connective tissue and stabilizing muscles are hard to develop any other way (for me, it’s always my feet – they’re the first thing to start hurting when I don’t hike enough). Before tackling a twenty mile hike, work up to the point where ten miles is nothing and fifteen miles is only moderately challenging. At that point you should be able to hammer out a twenty miler on similar terrain with a big push. If it’s hard don’t worry; the more long hikes you do, the easier they get. Your first one will likely be… memorable.

For ideas on where to start with all of this, see my post on dealing with knee pain on the trail (or preventing it if you don’t have it).

Gear For Long Day Hikes

Let’s talk about gear for long hikes. This section covers day hiking, but most of it applies to backpacking too. For backpacking-specific gear considerations on long hikes, see the separate section below.

Here are some important gear essentials for long day hikes:

Headlamp: You may be starting before sunrise, and it’s always possible you’ll be finishing after sunset (even if you didn’t plan on it).

Layered clothing system: When hiking long days it’s important to minimize those constant stops: jacket on, jacket off, too cold, too hot… It helps to have breathable clothes arranged in layers: lightweight base layer, long-sleeve mid layer, and a high-quality breathable waterproof shell if rain is in the picture. Avoid cotton, cheap rain jackets that don’t breathe, and heavy insulated layers that will overheat you quickly on every little uphill.

Lightweight and comfortable footwear: There’s a reason many long-distance hikers wear trail running shoes instead of hiking boots. Many people find them more comfortable over long distances since they are flexible (less chance for blisters) and lightweight (less weight to pick up on every step). If you’re still on the fence, here’s a guide to hiking in trail running shoes. Whatever footwear you choose, make sure you’ve thoroughly tested it and broken it in before attempting a long hike.

Purple trail running shoes with view of hills in background
Trail running shoes are lightweight, breathable, and great for long hikes.

Hiking poles: Especially on trails with a lot of climbing and descending, hiking poles can save a lot of energy. You’ll want lightweight ones and you might need to experiment with technique to find a rhythm that feels right. Here’s a guide to choosing and using hiking poles.

Small water filter or chlorine dioxide tablets: Day hikers often carry all their water from the start, but when hiking long days this can add up to a heavy load. Research water sources and plan to refill along the way, if that’s feasible where you’re hiking (always err on the side of too much water than too little in dry or hot areas). Chlorine dioxide tablets or a Sawyer Micro are my choice for fast and light hikes; for more options see this guide to water filters for hikers.

Satellite beacon: Long trails have a tendency to take us deeper into wild places, and they also offer more chances for plans to go awry. If hiking in places without phone reception I recommend everyone, day hikers included, carry a SPOT or a Garmin InReach (I like the Mini model) as insurance against the unexpected.

Emergency bivy: Along the same lines, an ambitious day hike does occasionally turn into an unexpected night out due to weather, injury, navigation issues, or other issues. To make sure you’ll survive a cold night out (or even just an unexpected storm), throw one of these SOL emergency bivies in your pack. They’re cheap and light and could seriously save your life.

Plenty of food: If you’re used to shorter hikes it can be easy to underestimate the amount of food it takes to fuel a twenty mile day. If you’re backpacking, most people will aim for at least 3000 calories per day, sometimes 3500. Day hikers can get away with less since you can indulge in that epic feast once you’re finished, but keep in mind that if you’re hiking through the whole day you need to cover meals as well as snacks. Pack foods high in protein and fat (nuts, salami, cheese, trail mix, jerky, etc) in addition to quick-burning sweets like dried fruit or candy. A few high-calorie protein bars can help round things out.

Backpacking Considerations

Everything in this post applies to day hiking as well as backpacking. But backpackers attempting long routes with multiple long days, potentially 20 miles or more, will have some extra challenges. Here are some tips for staying efficient on multi-day hikes with ambitious daily mileage.

Pack light. This is huge. Almost no one is going to be happy hiking twenty mile days (or fifteen, or even ten) with a 50 pound backpack! There is a reason the people who hike long days also tend to be the people who obsess over the weight of their gear. It doesn’t need to be an expensive, all-or-nothing endeavor; see these lightweight backpacking tips for some easy ideas.

Example of lightweight backpacking: seven days of backpacking with a 30 liter pack on the Tahoe Rim Trail (with two food resupply stops).

Streamline your camp chores. This one just takes practice. If setting up camp, filtering water, cooking dinner, etc. takes you several hours, that’s several hours less hiking and sleeping time. Personally mornings are hardest for me, and I have to make an effort to be efficient when getting ready and packing up. If chilly mornings and restless nights contribute to that morning sluggishness, these backpacking tips on staying warm and sleeping well might help.

Look for efficient packing shortcuts. The details will depend on your setup, but here’s an example. While hiking 24 miles per day on the Tahoe Rim Trail, my husband and I discovered that we could each roll up our entire sleeping setup – bivy sack, sleeping pad, and sleeping quilt – into a single “bivy burrito” and stuff it into our packs all together. This saved a considerable amount of time spent rolling, folding, and stuffing gear (and unrolling, unstuffing, looking for misplaced stuff sacks, etc…).

Two bivy sacks at mountain campsite at sunrise
Bivy sacks make for a quick way to set up and break down camp
“Bivy burrito,” a great way to pack up an entire sleep system very quickly.

Eat breakfast and dinner on the trail. When backpacking long days it’s possible you’ll be eating breakfast and dinner in the dark at camp. This can be inefficient, not to mention cold and miserable. Instead, hike a few miles in the morning before breakfast and a few miles in the evening after dinner. You’ll get to eat in the warmer daylight hours and punctuate your long day of hiking with more breaks. Plus, it’s great practice for bear avoidance in places where you don’t want your campsite smelling like food.

Consider a stoveless menu. Unless you have a JetBoil (and even then), cooking food can be one of the biggest time sinks of backpacking. A no-cook menu means your food is always ready to eat, or can be prepared while you do other things by simply soaking it in cold water. Here are my favorite stoveless breakfasts to help with efficient morning starts (don’t worry, they still involve coffee).

Let your body adjust. Training and gradual adaptation are especially important for backpackers. We can often get away with an epic single-day push, but being able to wake up and do it again (and again and again, without getting injured) is a whole ‘nother story. Thru hikers on long trails like the PCT and AT typically find that it takes several weeks to really get into a groove and start building up to longer days.

On The Trail

You’ve done your planning, assembled your gear, and are ready to hit the trail. Now, how to fit all those miles into a reasonable amount of time? Here’s how to hike efficiently enough to cover 20+ miles in a single day.

Consider an alpine start. The term comes from climbing but applies equally well to ambitious hikes. If you have a lot of miles to cover, especially in a place where afternoon storms on exposed terrain are an issue, start before sunrise. You’ll have some “free miles” in the bank before you know it; after that boost of energy from the rising sun you’ll feel almost like you’re starting fresh.

Hiker starts Cactus to Clouds in the dark
A 4am start on the infamous Cactus to Clouds to avoid the worst of the desert heat

Prepare to finish after dark. This might be part of your primary plan, but it should always be part of your backup plan when starting a long hike. I’ve finished in the dark more times than I can remember, and night hiking can be both pleasant and exciting when you’re prepared for it. A headlamp is essential, as is a solid navigation plan that you can follow when landmarks aren’t visible (GPS track perhaps). Don’t forget warm layers. Check parking regulations before leaving your car in a gated lot; nothing worse than hiking all day and returning to a car trapped behind a locked gate!

Keep a consistent moderate effort, even if it means varying your pace. Resist the urge to hike faster than is comfortable. It may work for a few miles but you’ll pay for it later in the day with more breaks, a slower pace, and a miserable time. If you’re huffing and puffing on an uphill, slow down. If you’re suddenly feeling tired, slow down (and maybe have a snack). Ups and downs in energy level are expected on a long hike. Try to maintain a pace where you could converse with a hiking buddy without gasping for breath.

Coordinate groups carefully. “Herding cats” is the best way to describe trying to wrangle a big group on the trail. One person needs a snack so everyone stops. Just when that person is ready, someone else needs to use the bathroom. As soon as that person is back, someone else decides to take off a layer… Fast and long hikes are best done solo or with one or two partners. If you must attempt them with a large group, discuss in advance how you’ll handle breaks, bathroom stops, etc. It’s often best, if the group is experienced enough, to separate in these cases and meet back up at predetermined points.

Prevent chafing. If you’ve never hiked long days before, welcome to the party: skin-on-skin friction over many hours can lead to horribly painful abrasions. This often becomes a problem only toward the end of long days, and shows up in different places for all of us: between the inner thighs, under arms, and even between butt cheeks are common places (sounds fun right?). Body Glide is your friend; apply early and often. It works great for blister prevention and hot spots on feet too.

Take fewer unnecessary breaks. Do you need a break every 30 minutes, or do you just want a break? When hiking long days I usually go around 2 hours between breaks when fresh, and around 1 hour toward the end when I’m tired. If you do feel the need to take more frequent breaks try to keep them short. Even just five minutes can be refreshing and doesn’t cause that sluggish feeling when trying to get started again after a long break.

Use breaks efficiently. When you do stop for a longer break, plan it around a meal or water refill and try to take care of everything at once: adding or removing layers, reapplying sunscreen, adjusting gear, or going to the bathroom. If fatigue is setting in, spending 10 minutes with feet elevated or doing a little gentle stretching can be a great use of break time. Whatever you do, resist the urge to take a separate break for every little thing that comes up.

Hiker taking break
Taking an efficient lunch break to eat, filter water, and rest tired feet.

Drink and eat while walking, at least some of the time. On a long hike we typically need to drink water and eat food far more often then we actually need a physical break. For water, I highly recommend a hydration bladder with hose that you can drink from while walking. For snacks, keep some protein bars or trail mix handy in a hip belt pocket and chew while you walk. The best place is usually on flat or gentle downhill, when you’re not working too hard and can easily swallow and digest.

Think in time, not distance. Twenty miles (or however long your hike is) might sound overwhelming at the beginning, so don’t dwell on it. Focus on getting to specific milestones like junctions or peaks, but more than anything else, simply explain to yourself that this is what you’ll be doing today. All day. Accept it and embrace it. If you plan to walk all day long, your focus will shift toward taking care of yourself and moving efficiently, and away from ticking off miles that may pass more slowly than you’d like.

Indulge in distraction. There are times to soak up every little detail and be completely present on the trail. But let’s be honest, on a very long hike there are also times when we need a mental break. Natural beauty, good conversation, and getting lost in thought all help miles pass more quickly. You could even – I know this is heresy to some hikers – pop in an earbud and listen to a podcast, audio book, or music. For safety and courtesy I recommend only using one earbud and saving this for easy terrain and uncrowded trails. It’s not for everyone, but I have greatly enjoyed experiencing interesting books and my favorite music in the context of wild natural places.

Embrace the fatigue. You’ll feel it eventually no matter how carefully you follow the rest of these tips. Be ready for it, welcome it as a sign of your impressive effort, and work with and through it. Often it comes in waves, with a period of renewed energy on the other side. As long as you’re safe, prepared, and able to think clearly, there’s no reason to not push through and find out just how much your body and mind are capable of. It’ll almost certainly be more than you expected.

More Backpacking Resources

If you’re ready to level up your backpacking and tackle longer trails, you might find these helpful:

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa. I’ve had the pleasure of hiking the Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, and countless shorter amazing trails throughout the western US. I love solitude, big views, and a good lightweight gear setup. Learn more or say hi.

Hiking resources in your inbox?

There’s more where this came from! If you’re into exploring the wild outdoors, sign up here for occasional emails with my best tips and inspiration for backpacking, hiking, and more.

Share the Adventure

Was this helpful? If so, please consider sharing so it can help other explorers too:

Are you an experienced backpacker who’s excited to share your knowledge? You can contribute to this site. Learn more here.

Pin For Later

Picture of woman hiking in mountains with text: Tips for Hiking Longer Days
Pictures of hiker and tent with text: how to backpack your first 20 mile day

1 thought on “How To Hike Your First 20 Miler: Tips for Long Days on the Trail”

Leave a Comment

101 Shares
Pin
Share
Tweet