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How Many Feet Are in a Mile?
(And why does it matter?)

Note: This is an excerpt from Ultralight Backpacking Secrets


How many feet are in a mile? Why should you know just to go backpacking? Maybe you don't really need to know, but this is actually knowledge that can be helpful, if you are a quirky backpacker like myself. I use math all the time in the wilderness, both to help me know where I am, and to plan the route and the day. These are useful things, right?

There are 5,280 feet in a mile, by the way. Oh, and I am not going to convert all the measurements in this chapter to meters and kilometers. It is the principle that matters, not the particular scale.

What is the principle? It is that you can navigate the trails better and plan the day better if you use a little math. If you know how many feet are in a mile, how long your stride is, and you have a watch, you can apply a little math, and put this knowledge to use. Let me start with an example.

I was recently hiking up one of the mountains around here. I didn't have a map with me, but I knew that I had to watch for a small trail that went up to the summit ridge. It was three and a half miles up the trail I was on, but easy to miss according to the directions I had. There were other small trails once in a while to confuse things more. I needed to know when I had hiked two miles.

First, using my watch, I counted how many steps I took in a minute. I did this a couple times and averaged out the result: 97 steps per minute. I knew from previous experience that my average stride on this rough terrain was about two feet.

2 feet times 97 steps times 60 minutes, meant I was hiking at about 11, 640 feet per hour. How many feet are in a mile? 5,280 - so there are 10,560 in two miles, and I was doing about 10% more than that. In other words, I was walking at about 2.2 miles per hour. How long to go 3.5 miles? An hour for the first 2.2 miles, add half of that (1.1 miles) in half of an hour, and the last .2 miles in about six minutes, so a total of 1 hour, 36 minutes.

It was 8:25 A.M., so I added an hour and 36 minutes to that. I was due to arrive at the trail junction at 10:01. When I stopped for a few minutes, I just added those few minutes to my projected arrival time, which then was 10:05. Allowing for ten minutes either way (this is not a perfect science), I knew to start watching closely for the trail at 9:55, and I knew that if I didn't see it by 10:15, I had probably missed it. As it turns out, I was there within a few minutes of the time I calculated.

 Ultralight Backpacking Quick Tips

You may have seen the scene in the movie "The Edge," where Anthony Hopkin's character rubs a needle on silk to magnetize it, and makes a compass out of it. Well, it not only works, but I have done it without floating the needle on a leaf. Cradled in a couple pieces of thread, a magnetized needle can be slowly lowered onto the surface of a cup of water, and will actually float there due to the surface-tension. Drop the ends of the thread and the needle will turn to align north-south.

Hiking high in the mountains can make you very hot. There are often snow banks that persist through summer above 12,000 feet, so why not use them to cool off. Rub that snow on your arms and put some on your head. The real point here is to lessen your need to sweat, so you can make your drinking water last longer.

If you really must carry a bowl (I eat from the pan), use a plastic margarine tub. They are lighter than anything you can buy from a backpacking gear supplier.

Easier Backpacking Math

Forget how many feet are in a mile. Put the calculator away (actually I do all the math in my head - it makes the miles fly by). Just learn approximately how fast you hike in various terrains. This really is a useful for planning, and for locating yourself on the map.

The next time you hike a known-distance, see how long it took you and do that little bit of math to figure your walking speed. If you know that on level ground you are walking 2.5 miles per hour, you can safely figure it will take you 4 hours (not counting breaks) to hike to that lake which is 10 miles away. If you have hiked for two and a half hours, you can figure roughly where you are on the map: 6.25 miles towards the lake from where you started.

Other little backpacking math facts:

- Hiking up mountain trails, you are unlikely to gain more than 1,500 feet in elevation per hour. 1,000 feet per hour is closer to the average for most people.

- The temperature will normally be about 3 degrees cooler for each 1,000 feet higher that you go. In other words, if the forecast for the nearest town calls for nighttime low of 45 degrees, but you'll be 5,000 feet higher than that town, expect a low of 30 degrees.

- For each 1,000 feet of elevation above sea level, the boiling point of water is about 1.8 degrees less. It is only 194 degrees Fahrenheit at 10,000 feet, for example, so you may want to boil that water a bit longer to kill any bacteria.

- Army studies found that a pound of weight on your feet is the equivalent of five pounds on your back, in terms of energy output. Get those lighter boots or hiking shoes!

Key Points

1. Knowing how many feet are in a mile and doing a bit of math can help you plan and navigate.

2. There are easier ways to use a bit of math than my mental gymnastics.


The Ultralight Backpacking Site | How Many Feet Are in a Mile?