How to Optimize Your Break Time While Hiking

Break Time Optimization

I have always wondered if longer breaks are better than shorter breaks for long-distance hiking. There are so many variables on the trail it is difficult to determine optimal break time with any accuracy. When you are hiking the terrain changes, you must stop to refill water, the weight of the pack changes… the list can go on.

I decided to test the effect of different break times on the time it takes to hike using a 15.3-mile trail from Humber Park in Idyllwild, California (6,479 feet) to the summit of Mt. San Jacinto (10,833 feet) and back. I chose this trail because of the relative constant elevation change and trail length. This hike can also be completed in a normal day of hiking.

Photo by Paul Bodnar
Photo by Paul Bodnar

For each test hike I carried a backpack with a total weight of 30 pounds and more than enough water, so I did not have to stop to refill water. The weather and departure time were also about the same for each hike. I rested for at least 48 hours between hikes to make sure I was fully recovered for each hike. I decided for this experiment that I would hike exactly 2.5 miles up the trail (12% uphill grade) and the level of tiredness I felt would be the same required to trigger each future rest break.

When I took a break at my pre-determined tiredness level, I rested for that specific day’s experimental break time. For example, during the 5-minute break experiment I took only 5-minute breaks for the entire hike to the summit and back down. For that hike I took a total of sixteen 5-minute breaks: eleven 5-minute breaks going up to the summit and five 5-minute breaks going downhill. I repeated the experiment four more times (on four different days) with 10-minute, 15-minute, 30-minute, and 120-minute breaks.  The 120-minute break took so much time, I had to stop the experiment prior to completing the entire course, so I estimated my completion time. As you might expect, I had to take more breaks the shorter the break-time because I was not able to recover.

I recorded the total hike time for each experiment to see which break-time resulted in the fastest hike. Interestingly, I hiked the fastest during the 5-minute-break experiment even though I had to take a lot more breaks. But 5-minute breaks meant that I was tired almost the entire hike. Hiking with 5-minute breaks was uncomfortable and took almost all the joy out of hiking. The 10-minute-break experiment was almost as fast and was much more enjoyable. 15-minute rest breaks resulted in more enjoyable hiking but started showing a real increase in overall hiking time.

TL;DR — From this experiment I learned:

  1. 10-15-minute breaks result in optimal performance and enjoyment
  2. If I am on any kind of time line, I should avoid 30 minute or longer breaks.

Of course your ideal break time and hiking plan will be a little different than mine, always hike within your own personal limits.

My Big Mile Hiking Plan

  1. Set an alarm and start hiking at first light.
  2. Eat breakfast as I hike.
  3. Only take breaks when I am tired.
  4. Try to keep breaks close to 10 minutes and avoid going over 15-minute breaks.
  5. Plan out where I will get water and use these stops as resting breaks.
  6. Try to get 25% of my daily miles in by 10 AM and over 50% of my daily miles by 2 PM.
  7. Use lunch as a break and keep it under 30 minutes.
  8. Eat a quick, early dinner and use it as a nice late afternoon break.
  9. Get the final miles in after dinner and arrive at camp just before dark.
  10. Plan out my next day hike by reviewing the Guthook app.

TIP: Eating meals away from your camp reduces the chances of rodents visiting.

Photo by Paul Bodnar