Mountain Skills: Budgeting Time for Success

Do you always carry a headlamp when skiing in the backcountry? Find yourself using it a little too often? Then you might want to figure out why you’re always late.

Understanding how long it takes to travel through the mountains will help you summit more peaks, ski more powder, not be pushing it as darkness looms and get home when your friends and family expect you. Here are some techniques from a hypothetical outing that you can apply to your tours and adapt to your needs.

Day One: Trailhead to the Hut

We’re going to go on a three-day tour, leaving from the trailhead, spending the nights in a remote mountain hut and skiing a variety of terrain each day. The hut is located at the head of a long, flat valley, eight miles from the trailhead with an elevation gain of 2,000 vertical feet. How long will it take us to get there?

[Illustration] Donny Roth

[Illustration] Donny Roth

Consider the following guidelines: On perfectly flat terrain, two miles an hour is comfortable for most people. And on slopes steep enough to ski, most people are capable of gaining 1,000 feet per hour.

Divide the eight miles of distance by two (miles per hour) for a value of four hours. Divide the 2,000 vertical feet by 1,000 feet per hour for a value of two. To account for the fact that you will be traveling horizontally and vertically at the same time, take the smaller of the two values (in this case, two) and divide it in half. Add that to the larger value (four hours), for a good estimate of the time required to arrive to the destination.

In this case, it will take five hours to get to the hut.

Day Two: Ski A Big Peak

This peak has some technical terrain and we want to ski the couloir without exposing the whole group to hazard at the same time. The peak is 4,000 vertical feet above the hut and pretty much straight out the backdoor. If all things were easy—as in we could skin to the summit—we could apply the formula used on the approach to the hut. Bbut let’s say last 1,000 feet is a technical ridge climb, which will require a transition from skins to crampons.

[Illustration] Donny Roth

[Illustration] Donny Roth

The first 3,000 vertical feet go smoothly, and we climb at 1,000 feet per hour. Then we need to transition to crampons, which will mean hunting for a good spot and an eat/drink/layer/pee break of about 15 minutes.

Traveling in technical terrain is usually slower than skinning, and if the terrain dictates roped travel, the ascent rate could slow to as little as 200 feet an hour. Let’s say this final 1,000-foot ridge, only moderately challenging, allows us to estimate 500 feet per hour, for a total of two hours. If we spend 15 minutes on the summit taking photos and transitioning to ski mode, we should be ready to ski five and a half hours after leaving the hut.

Estimating the descent time is a little trickier. It depends on the number of people, the amount of vertical to drop and how many times the group will stop and gather.

Try using the following formula: For each person in the group allot one-minute per 500 feet of descent plus two minutes for each stop. If our group of four stops four times while descending 4,000 feet it will take just over an hour to descend the line. (4,000 ft. / 500 ft. per hour) + (4 stops x 2 minutes per stop) x 4 people).

Day Three: A Big Tour to the Trailhead

We plan a route on the map and calculate that, over the course of the day, we will climb 5,000 feet and descend 7,000 feet, with three climbs and three descents covering about 12 miles total.

[Illustration] Donny Roth

[Illustration] Donny Roth

Use the same methods as before, but consider the transition times. While experienced groups may be faster and larger groups tend to be slower, factor 15 minutes for each transition from ski to tour (the bottom) and 10 minutes for the transition from tour to ski (the top).

The 5,000 feet of climbing should take about six hours; the three transitions at the bottom will total 45-minutes and the three at the top total 30-minutes. Factor in a two-minute stop on each descent for a total descent time of one hour and 20 minutes. Add this to the total climbing time (six hours), and it will take 8.5 to 9 hours to reach the car.


These are the numbers I use while budgeting time for clients and friends who have average fitness, are pretty comfortable with their gear and want to ski tour bigger days. I find that fiddling with gear or layers slows people more so than below-average fitness. So with above-average fitness and efficiency with gear, your times will be faster than these. But even if the values differ, the process for estimating time is the same. Think ahead, make a plan and give yourself enough time to eliminate the stress that doesn’t have to be part of a day in the backcountry.

Donny Roth is an AMGA-certified ski guide and professional skier. He writes about his adventures at Learn more about skiing with him in Chile at


  1. Great, informative post! I always look forward to reading Donny’s well presented articles.


  1. […] spend traveling, biking, paddling, or skiing it. AMGA-certified mountain guide Donny Roth offers his perspective for estimating travel times while backcountry skiing in the mountains. Check it out – it’s good, solid skills, and the drawings are […]

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