Nothing annoys me more than a Scout who is constantly asking “how many miles until we get to camp?” It is the Boy Scout equivalent of “are we there yet?” which is a developmental stage that most children grow out of before they reach the age of 11. Conscientious hikers should know approximately how long it is going to take them to reach camp before they even start hiking.
The only way to increase time and distance awareness in novice backpackers is to spend time with the map – especially at the beginning of the day. At a minimum, everyone should leave camp understanding their destination, how many miles they are hiking that day, and the approximate elevation gain or loss. Water sources and important trail junctions are also good to know. It is the leader’s job to inform everyone of this information and every hiker’s job to know it.
For planning purposes, boys can generally be expected to hike about two miles per hour. Slower if the terrain is steep, the weather is hot, or if they are carrying backpacks that are very heavy (like on the first day of the 50 miler). You also need to plan on an hour for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain.
So if ten miles need to be covered in the day, including 3,000 feet of elevation gain, then the group should get to camp about eight hours after they start walking – plus the time taken for lunch, swimming, or running away from bears. (The first day of a 50 miler is usually the hardest and slowest, especially if you drive to a trailhead at an elevation higher than where you live. As the hikers get conditioned and the food is consumed, the pace will speed up.)
Check your watch when you leave camp in the morning and then calculate approximately when you should expect to arrive at the next campsite. If you start hiking at nine o’clock in the morning and it is supposed to take eight hours, then you should be setting up your tents around five o’clock in the afternoon, assuming you did not take any long breaks along the way. This calculation is important because you want to get your group to the campsite before dark.
Knowing when the sun will set is relevant because generally you want to arrive at an acceptable campsite, eat, and clean up while it is still light outside. If you are wearing a watch, then there is no problem knowing how many hours of sunlight are left in the day. However, Scouts without a watch can still estimate how much light they have left. Have the Scout hold one hand at arm’s length – with his palm flat and facing himself – toward the western horizon right under the sun. The width of a hand equals about an hour of sunlight left and each finger about 15 minutes. So if there are three palms between the sun and the western horizon, then there are about three hours of sunlight left. In the summer, you might also get an extra hour of sunlight, even after the sun drops below the horizon.
If your group is setting up camp in the dark every night, you probably need to start hiking earlier in the morning. However, each group moves at its own pace and after a day or two, everyone will sync up to some kind of schedule. Most boys don’t like to get going before nine or ten in the morning and that’s fine if they can cover the required distance. However, I have also hiked with boys who were hell bent on hitting the trail at dawn so they could take long lunch breaks and get to camp in time for some swimming. Also fine. But please, don’t keep asking me, “how many miles do we have left?”