How to Estimate Walking Speed
Knowing how to estimate your walking speed is a vital skill in navigation and this tip will explain how you can do it.
A key component of navigation is knowing how far you have travelled. Apart from the slightly more ‘scientific’ techniques (such as accurate timing and pacing), it’s well worth having an intuitive feel for how fast one is walking. This is a vital skill for those progressing through the Mountain Training awards.
One way of making ourselves more conscious of our approximate walking speed is to walk a set distance at a given speed and learn how this ‘feels’ to our body – stride, pace, energy expenditure, breathing, heart rate and so on. We can then use this intuitive feeling to estimate our walking speed on other occasions.
This exercise is always included in my introductory navigation courses, so some of you may recognise it.
Using a measured distance to estimate walking speed
To calibrate your own internal body ‘speedometer’ you first need to find a known distance on the ground. This could be somewhere with a known distance already measured such as an athletics track or football pitch. Or you could measure a distance from your map, for example measuring a distance between two prominent road junctions. A distance of around 100m works well for this exercise.
Calculating times for different walking speeds
Now for some maths. Work out how long 100m would take you to cover if you were walking at 3km/h, 4km/h and 5km/h. You should get the following answers:
- 100m @ 3km/h – 2 minutes
- 100m @ 4km/h – 1 minute 30 seconds
- 100m @ 5km/h – 1 minute 12 seconds
If your measured distance is not exactly 100m then you will have to do a further calculation to know how long that distance should take to walk at those speeds.
Using our senses to estimate walking speeds
Now go and walk your measured distance ensuring that you do it in as close to the calculated time for 4km/h as possible. This will help you to understand what walking at that speeds feels like. If you get it wrong at first, try again until you can walk the set distance in exactly the right time – not faster or slower. You will now know what walking at 4km/h feels like. Repeat this for 5km/h and 3km/h.
Try and peg these sensations to walking speeds that you are already familiar with. For example do they feel the same as when you walk purposefully to catch the train/bus/tube to work? Or do they feel the same as when you walk with an elderly relative, or a small child? Do they feel the same as if you are struggling to carry a heavy object?
Knowing how to estimate your walking speed will help you realise how fast you are walking in km/h and thus know approximately how far you have travelled in a given time.
Examples of sensations at different speeds
Everyone is different. I know how my own body feels when I am walking at different speeds. The examples below therefore apply to me but may not be the same for you. That’s why you need to do this exercise for yourself. However, here are the sensations that I relate to different walking speeds, both in the mountains and around the town.
- Around town – A ‘normal’ purposeful walk but without getting out of breath or sweating; trying to get somewhere on time (but not having to rush because you are already late). Any faster, would require a conscious effort. Any slower would seem a little frustrating.
- In the mountains – Assuming wearing boots and carrying a day-sack, then this feels fine for short distances, or on good surfaces on the flat. It would require some conscious effort to maintain this walking speed uphill or on broken terrain.
- Around town – A gentle walking speed. Definitely no exertion required. (On navigation courses, when forced to walk at this speed on a road or track, most people comment that it feels “too slow” or “annoying”.)
- In the mountains – A relaxed walking speed that I could maintain all day long, carrying a day-sack over almost any terrain, without breaking into a sweat or having to breathe hard. I could carry on a conversation without getting of breath and have time to take in my surroundings without slowing down. It’s no surprise that 4km/h is used as the basis for the classic ‘Naismith’s Formula’ for route planning. This is because it is an average all-day walking speed for most people.
- Around town – A very slow walking speed. This is how it might feel walking with a small child, an elderly relative, or someone with an injury. Sometimes people describe it as their ‘daydreaming’ or ‘thinking’ speed, or walking with a friend for a deep and meaningful chat.
- In the mountains – There would have to be some sort of problem that would cause me to have slowed down from 4km/h because this is a very slow speed. Walking head-on into a strong wind could be a good reason. Crossing extremely rough terrain could be another reason. Or perhaps some soft snow. Or maybe carrying a very heavy pack.
Other tips and courses
You can also read our tips article on how to improve your map reading and navigation skills.