Is Height an Advantage or Disadvantage on Hiking Trails?

Posted by on June 28, 2012 in Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Skywalker--Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail, Skywalker--Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail | 1 comment

Height–the great talisman. Surveys consistently show that 98% of people want to be taller. And this national trend plays out in microcosm on America’s hiking trails.

I am 6’11”. When I am out hiking, countless people ask me what my exact height is, almost always followed by lamentations they aren’t taller themselves. But is it possible that great height is nothing more than a talisman? 

The answer is a resounding YES. I can not begin to count the number of times that I got passed on the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, by much shorter hikers, who almost always exclaimed, “Gosh, I wish I had your height.” Better (or worse!) yet, their observation is almost always made with no sense of irony. After all, if height was such an advantage, why were they passing me? The fastest hikers I saw were often males in the 5’6″ range. Is there an underlying reason for this? It turns out there probably is.

Dr. Thomas Samaras of the University of California has made it his life’s mission to study height. He has reached a major conclusion. The taller a person gets, the absolutely stronger that person becomes, but the relatively weaker he or she gets. The reason is that weight increases at a faster rate than strength. For example, if a person gets 20% taller, his or her strength (all else being equal) would increase by 44%. However, to maintain the same body shape,  their weight would have to increase by 72%. This example explains a lifelong mystery that I have had. At 6’11”, I am about 20% taller than the average person; my weight is 210 pounds which is about 20% more than the average person. Yet I am much thinner than the average person. Height, weight, and strength vary in non-linear fashion.

All this works to the advantage of shorter hikers (or athletes in endurance sports such as marathons and the decathlon). They normally have to carry much less body weight, but their strength is only marginally less. It also explains questions I have long had about why such great athletes as 7’1″ Wilt Chamberlain, 7’2″ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or 7-foot Shaquille O’ Neal were almost always the last person down a basketball court.

So please remember this ‘vertically challenged’ people. You have an advantage, not a disadvantage on us tall people. In fact, we are the ones who are vertically challenged! And remember when you pass us out there to please not say, “Gosh I wish I had your height.”

Bill Walker is the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail (2008). He is also the author of Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail (2010). He is also the author of The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago (2012). He is currently working on a whimsical book on the subject of height.

1 Comment

  1. I’m 6’4″ and a “big slow runner” and always wonder why I am constantly hearing people tell me how they could never keep up with me and my “long legs.” But are long legs an advantage? I never thought so – they are much longer pendulums and require much more force to swing. That’s why the people who win marathons are usually, like you said, about 5’6″!

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