That’s a pretty simple guideline for hiking on a trail crew. The National Park Service has a minimum hiking speed for trail crews of 3 miles per hour. This is the minimum under any condition. It doesn’t matter if you’re only going one mile with a daypack or twenty miles with a full backpack plus tools. Of course, once you get in shape you can easily hike faster than that, especially on shorter distances.
Everyone develops their own hiking techniques, too. I developed one that I don’t think I saw anybody else use, but I think it contributed to my bad knees after two seasons.
The one rule that NPS had about hiking technique was “No running”. Running on those steep grades, especially while packing gear, would tear up knees and ankles pretty quickly. People got pretty picky over a definition for ‘running’. We were told we were running if both feet were off the ground at the same time. With that definition of ‘running’ in mind, I used some advice my high school friend Jerry had given me from cross country running.
1. Work hard on the uphill.
2. Let gravity do the work on the downhill while you rest.
I was never a very good uphill hiker. I tried to keep a constant stride. I leaned forward and took as large a stride as was comfortable. I rested my hands on the tops of my thighs, pushing down on my legs as I needed to in order to throw the next step forward. I would get winded fast. My hamstrings would scream in protest. Sweat constantly dripped into my eyes with the salt sting. I was always toward the rear of the pack on the uphill.
Downhill hiking…now that’s where I shined! I would lean back and let gravity do most of the work. I’d pick my feet up and put ‘em down as fast as I could. I’d take as big a stride as I could. On steep downhill grades, large strides would send me so far down with each step that I was always in danger of letting both feet come off the ground. As my foot hit the ground, I would bend my knees slightly to absorb the shock. Many times it didn’t feel like hiking downhill so much as a controlled fall down the hill. It wasn’t a pretty technique, but it was fast. I could gain back all the distance I had lost on the uphill and pass most everybody else on the crew.
The speed eventually came with a price. My second season on Backcountry trails was in Kings Canyon National Park. At the end of the season, especially the last week, my right knee had finally had enough. It started screaming in protest as I hiked out of the backcountry. I rested it over the last weekend and hoped it would be fine on Monday for our last week of the season in the front country. Monday morning it felt fine. It gave out again on the hike home in the afternoon. Our boss asked if I wanted to see as doctor for it, but I insisted it just needed rest. Tuesday through Friday were all the same. It felt fine in the morning but like it was on fire in the afternoon. I still insisted it just needed some rest, which I would be getting plenty of in the off season. It never was the same, though. I never saw a doctor for it, and it kept me from ever working trails again.
So remember…hike fast! (But use good technique!)