Trip Planning: How to estimate the time a ski tour will take based on distance and elevation gain

Backcountry ski touring from Sol Mountain Lodge in British Columbia

Ski touring in the Monashees of British Columbia. In remote ranges like this it’s critical to have a solid time plan to get back to the lodge with some daylight to spare!  Photo: Zeb Blais/Blackbird Mountain Guides

 

Trying to figure out what time to start your ski tour to avoid the heat of the day? Need to figure out a turnaround time? Don't want to be late for dinner? Or how about this for a novel idea: you just want to have a good estimate of how long your backcountry trip is going to take?  These are all great reasons to calculate the travel time for your backcountry ski trip or mountaineering objective. 

Here is a process and some tools you can use to estimate the length of your backcountry ski tour based on the elevation and distance of your trip. Before we can estimate the time a ski tour or mountaineering trip will take, we need to pick an objective and plan the route.

 

Choose an objective

Regardless of whether you want to ski Mount Shasta or simply get a few laps in at your local backcountry zone, you need to pick an objective that makes aligns with the conditions and your team.  Be sure to check your local avalanche center and used a checklist (the AIARE framework, etc.) to make sure your objective is reasonable based on the avalanche hazard for the day.  

Plan the route

Before you can estimate the amount of time your trip will require, you’ll need to create a route. Start by researching your area of interest in guidebooks, topographical maps, online forums, websites, and by talking to people who know the area well. Once you have a general idea, draw the route using an app like Caltopo. Create your route in sections based on how you plan to travel in the terrain. 

For example, in the map above, the red line is an approach.  This will be straightforward skinning.  The green line is a ski descent. Purple is a skin track back to the ridge and blue is a ski descent that takes us back to Sunrise Lodge.

 

Estimate the travel time for a ski tour 

Here are a few great ways to calculate the time your tour will take.  For each method, you'll need to know the distance, elevation and what type of travel you'll be doing for each leg of the trip.  This can be hiking uphill, hiking downhill, skiing downhill, bushwhacking or, you can even set up your own custom travel rate once you're familiar with the process.

 

1. The Munter Time Calculation

This is the OG method of estimating travel times. It all began with, who else, but a Swiss Mountain Guide named Werner Munter. This simple formula is remarkably accurate at estimating times. You can also calibrate it based on how fast you travel, so it provides more accurate estimates specific to you.  The formula for the Munter time calculation is: 

Munter Time Calculation method for estimating travel times for backcountry trip planning and ski touring

  • Time will be expressed in hours
  • Distance must be in kilometers
  • Elevation must be in meters
  • Rate = is your rate of travel. A higher rate number means you’re moving faster over the terrain.  For example, skiing downhill is typically around a Munter rate of 10, while walking uphill is 4. 

    For most people typical Munter rates for the Munter Time Calculation are as follows:

    • Uphill travel (Skinning, hiking or in a boot pack): 4
    • Downhill Walking: 6
    • Downhill on Skis: 10
    • Bushwhacking: 2

    To calculate your time for the route above you would have 4 sections: red, green, purple and blue. Let's break it down by section:

    Red: Approach to Dark Side
    Distance: 1.22 km
    Vertical gain: 277m
    Munter Rate: 4 (since this is an uphill section)
    Time =1.22 + 2771004 = 1 hour
     
    Green: The Dark Side
    Distance: .54 km
    Vertical loss: 200m
    Munter Rate: 10 (since this is an downhill ski section)
    Time = .54 + 20010010 = .25 hour = 15 min
     
    Purple: Return from Dark Side
    Distance: 1.12 km
    Vertical gain: 135m
    Munter Rate: 4 (since this is an uphill section)
    Time =1.12 + 1351004 = .62 hour = 37min
     
    Blue: Return to Sunrise Lodge
    Distance: 1.22 km
    Vertical gain: 151m 
    Munter Rate: 10 (since this is an downhill ski section)
    Time =.64 + 15110010 = .22 hour = 13 min 
     
    Total travel time for this backcountry ski tour is 2 hours 5 minutes
    (1+ .25 + .62 + 22 = 2.1 hours = 2 hrs 5 min). Keep in mind, this is not the total time for the trip.  This is only travel time. You will need to account for transitions, food and water breaks, layer changes, etc.

     

    2. Caltopo Travel Plan

    The Travel Plan feature from Caltopo is the fastest and easiest way to calculate travel time. Using this method we can calculate the travel time without breaking the trip up into legs and simply draw it as one continuous loop. By setting the route in the direction of travel, Caltopo knows when we’re travelling up and when we’re travelling down, and can calculate the time for the entire route all at once.  As shown in the screenshot below, the time calculated by “Travel Plan” for Ski Time is the same as what we calculated using the manual Munter Time Calculation above.

    This feature is only available on the pro subscription.  Another thing to note is that it calculates travel times so quickly that you might miss out on terrain features you would have otherwise noticed while scouring the map for ups and downs.  But I've never heard of anyone complaining that it's too efficient!

    Our entire route, this time shown in orange, can be calculated all at once with the Travel Plan feature in Caltopo Pro. Photo: Zeb Blais / Blackbird Mountain Guides

    Be careful with this feature, it makes a difference which direction the route was drawn! If you drew your line opposite the direction of travel (you started drawing it at the destination and finished the line at the starting point) you can get the calculation back on track by reversing the direction of the route.  To do this, select your route, choose “Modify” then select “Reverse.”  This will switch the direction of travel and will use the proper Munter rates for each uphill and downhill section.

     

    3. Guide Pace

    GuidePace is a simple and inexpensive mobile app that can save a ton of time crunching numbers.  Basically, you give it the distance, elevation gain or loss and the Munter rate and it gives you the time it should take.  The Munter Time Calculation is simple math, but this app makes it almost fool proof.  If you work in good ‘ol miles and vertical feet, it allows you to enter imperial units as well and just sends you back a time estimate.  GuidePace can also compute 3rd/4th class travel times and technical (5th Class) climbing times if you have an estimate of how fast you climb pitch lengths in those respective terrain types.

     Guidepace method for calculating time for sk tours and approaches and climbing based on the Munter Time Calculation

    Yep...GuidePace really is this simple.  It works in imperial or metric units (who uses those anyway?!) to estimate travel time in various terrain from hiking and ski touring to 3rd/4th Class Scrambling, to pitched out 5th class climbing.  It's an inexpensive mobile app that is simple and easy! Photo: Zeb Blais / Blackbird Mountain Guides

     

    In summary, we have 3 great options for estimating travel time for backcountry trips and ski tours.  The classic Munter Time Calculation, the Caltopo Travel Plan and the GuidePace mobile app.  When you plan the total time your trip will take, make sure to add in time for breaks, layer changes and transitions (skinning to skiing, skinning to crampons, crampons to skiing, etc).  Keep track of how long you stop when you do stop, cause maintenance breaks and transitions will eat up a lot of time if you're not diligent to stay on track!

    Good luck out there and let us know how your trip planning goes!

    Backcountry skiing in south america really is that awesome and its even better when you know how long your tour will take based on the Munter Time Calculation

    Gratuitous South America backcountry powder skiing photo. Made possible by the power of the Munter Time Calculation and well well-planned backcountry trips.  Photo: Zeb Blais / Blackbird Mountain Guides

    Leave a comment