The numbers game

When you talk about some experienced long distance hikers, sometimes the first metric spoken of is the total amount of miles hiked.

Pictured: Mileage!

In our corporate-influenced, metric obsessed culture, this type of counting makes sense. And even expected.

Add up the lettered trails or routes hiked and an easy way is given to gauge a person’s “expertise.”

“Woah! Ramen Wanderer hiked twenty gajillion miles on the Appalachian Trail!”

There are some problems with this metric.

  • Hiking the same or similar long distance hiking trail multiple times gives a person a narrow focus. As an old chestnut goes, the person may be an expert in doing the same, one thing 10,000 times (miles).
  • The metric applies to well-established trails or even routes only. Going off-trail, mixing scrambling or even climbing, skiing, pack rafting, etc. within the confines of backpacking are possibilities. Do these activities “count” for miles?
  • Then we start to get into the silly numbers game. Hiking or running the trail with support adds to the mileage. But it is certainly different than hiking with a pack.  Ditto with trail work, remote car camping, fat biking,  hunting, etc. All time spent in the outdoors. All time spent that can be used to juice mileage numbers.  But all those activities are most useful for indicating the overall outdoor experience base vs. the raw mileage.

Much as with corporate management’s mania with numbers making a fine way to present an impressive PowerPoint, be wary of people who are lauded as “experts” because of their mileage on a set and designated set of routes.    The numbers are meaningless unless the context is known.

There is absolutely no context for this pie chart. Is there? From Wikipedia.

Knowing the actual time spent in the outdoors and the overall types of activity spent in the outdoors is far more useful than a number thrown up on a PowerPoint presentation.   But for the predominantly college-educated outdoors people who have spent time in academia or a corporate environment, the splashy numbers are easy to digest. And look impressive. Selling electronic widgets or juicing numbers for outdoor expertise? Not different, really.

Taking an in-depth look at, and understanding, where those numbers come from and the context behind them? Harder.

The “Ramen Wanderers” of the world may be “experts” on how to hike a particular long trail or even trails.  However, that specialized knowledge may not translate into broader knowledge applicable to the overall outdoor world or even general backpacking.   People such as Andrew Skurka or Cam Honan have experience with different types of travel and outdoor situations. Their advice is worth seeking and reading for overall knowledge.

Pictured: Someone with experience. From Cam Honan’s Twitter Page @TheHikingLife

Just understand that overall mileage hiked on trails is just (sometimes) a quick way to assess a person’s knowledge base and experience. But it does not give all, or even part, of the story many times.

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3 Replies to “The numbers game”

  1. I must admit that the “thru hiking isn’t really so important” schtick sometimes gets a little tiresome, but this post is SPOT-ON.

    If I had to guess, I’d say that the my AT hike comprises about half of my lifetime total backpacking, mileage-wise. But in terms of experience and skills-building, it’s just a small minority. On the AT, I learned perseverance, town-stop logistics, pacing one’s self and trail nutrition. But even after hiking 2k miles, I still wasn’t a very good navigator. I didn’t know the first thing about campsite selection. I had no experience with managing long water carries. These are all basic backpacking skills that all of my 2,000 miles hadn’t taught me.

    I can point to several trips, some as short as a couple days, that taught me just as much about backpacking as the AT did. And a couple afternoons of trail work taught me more about trail work than walking 2,000 miles of trail on the AT.

    Thru hikes are amazing and I wouldn’t trade mine for the world. But if I had never thru-hiked, I’d probably be about where I am now, in terms of skills, knowledge, and expertise. And frankly, I’m a lot more proud of some of those shorter trips than I am of the longer, splashier trips.

      • Apparently I’m not very well versed in trail gossip as I have no idea which hostel is in question. But the solution, for all those involved in the controversy, is obvious – get off the internet and go hiking. Increases their lifetime total mileage AND puts an end to silly arguments. Now if I may be excused, it’s 8am on a beautiful Saturday and I have some mileage-enhancement to do 🙂 Great post again Mags.

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