The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

What is walking distance?

Date carved in treeThe carving on this boundary tree (which I'm pretty sure isn't really 200 years old) reminded me of a story our mechanic's brother related this summer.  He told us that he remembered when a preacher lived in the old house that used to stand in our core homestead area, and that folks walked in from all directions to be married here.  I found the tale interesting because I'd wanted to get hitched at home, but knew that very few of our friends and family would feel up to the short trek (about a quarter of a mile through moderately rough terrain) from the parking area to our trailer.

Meanwhile, I've been pondering how far is too far to hoof it because we want the Walden Effect Annex to be within walking or biking distance.  We're currently looking at a tract four miles away, up over a ridge and down the other side.  I suspect that a hundred years ago, this property would definitely count as being within walking distance, but I'm not sure if I consider it such.  (The steep hill would make it a bear to bike, but I guess you could coast down the other side.)

Carved beechOf course, if you went as the crow flies, the property is really only about a mile and a half away, and if you followed the old roads (which are now private property), it's more like two and a half miles.  When I visited England in 2000, I was impressed by the network of foot paths that made it easy to get from village to village, remnants of a time when everyone walked or rode a horse.  The same sort of paths still exist in our neck of the woods, but are no longer public property, presumably since they weren't worth maintaining to car standards.

So what do you consider walking distance?  Presumably it depends on how hilly your terrain is, and whether the roads are even safe to walk along.  (We could hike to our nearest town, but it would be along a country highway with no room to walk outside the car lanes, so we don't risk it.)  I'm especially interested in hearing from the quarter of our readers who reside outside the US --- is a seven mile walk par for the course in India?  Do you Brits really use your foot paths?  How about the large contingent of you in the Phillipines?

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Four miles is an hour's walk. Walking a 1.5 mile trail would take a half hour or maybe less. When I was a boy, lots of country people didn't have cars. There were several well worn paths leading to town. One man I knew who lived eight miles away walked to work and home every day, with a gunny sack slung over his shoulders to carry stuff home. He walked the roads and frequently was offered a ride. In sixth thru eighth grade I walked a mile to school, a mile each way back home for lunch, and a mile home in the evening--and thought nothing of it at the time.

But I'm afraid today, as used as we all are to cars, someone wouldn't walk more than a mile on a regular basis, but would drive instead. Unless that person did walking as a discipline.

Comment by Errol Sun Aug 5 10:08:31 2012
I say it depends on a whole lot, like the weather and terrain. I am relativly healthy and active for me I'd say a mile. Though I'd prefer to ride my bike most of the time. It also depends on what I'm walking for, I have walked long distances for excersize (8 mile) but if Im late for work I'd drive the half mile.
Comment by Irma Sun Aug 5 10:29:02 2012

In the Netherlands where we have very good cyclepaths, I tend to ride my bike to work and in and around town. Say up to 20 km (12 miles). My main reason for this is that it's easier to carry stuff on a bike, and a lot faster than walking on our flat terrain. But you still get good exercise and its much less polluting than taking a car.

Sometimes if the weather is really nice, or if there has been snow I walk to the shopping mall, which takes me around 15 minutes, so that should be around 1.25 km (0.8 miles). I've also walked to the car dealership to get my car serviced. That takes about half an hour, so 2.5 km (1.6 miles). I've also on occasion walked to the train station which took me about an hour. That was mostly because I didn't want to leave my bike parked out in the open at the station for a whole day. That was before they built a new guarded parking facility nearby.

In short, I would walk (up to an hour if needs be) if taking the bike was unfeasable.

Comment by Roland_Smith Sun Aug 5 11:10:32 2012

Everything is walking distance until you get to water too deep to walk in. The hardest sell I ever had was convincing my grand-kids that anywhere was walking distance. As little as 5 years ago my grandson wanted a ride to his friends house. His friend lives about 1100 feet from here. Mostly Americans can't walk because they won't walk. Pedestrians are looked down on and treated as an inferior class here. Even riding a bike I am considered an old weirdo to be pitied. We have plenty of unused land and woods that paths could be made in and would be except for the threat of being shot dead for setting foot on someone else's land. Now I'm off to the village (1.25 miles)on my bike for some light shopping. I am riding my bike but wearing walking sandals just in case.

Comment by Oldfool Sun Aug 5 11:19:00 2012
I frequently walk over a mile when the weather is pleasant. Before my bike was "borrowed", I'd bike up to 10 miles. It helps to have a destination, as just walking or biking for its own sake has never been my thing.
Comment by Amanda Sun Aug 5 12:15:22 2012

Daddy --- Very interesting to hear about how walking was different when you were growing up! I always figure Appalachia is at least 50 years behind the rest of the U.S., so that might be equivalent to 1900 in New England. :-)

Irma --- A mile does seem to be about the consensus. I have to admit that that's about where I stop wanting to walk places and start wanting to hop in the car too, unless there is a real reason to walk.

Roland --- I think you're right that if you're willing to do it, an hour's walk is pretty feasible. On flat, paved terrain, that might be four miles, or maybe more like two or three in hilly or uneven terrain. Of course, if you're going to have to walk home the same day, four miles turns into eight....

Oldfool --- "Mostly Americans can't walk because they won't walk." Good point. And, unfortunately, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy --- if no one walks, there are no walking paths, so it's not safe to walk. (Plus the status issue you mention, but I tend to ignore that.... :-) )

Amanda --- I agree about the destination. Which makes it such a shame that the paths between destinations are no longer walkable!

Comment by anna Sun Aug 5 13:03:55 2012
My husband and I bought a house in town (Hagerstown, MD) specifically so we could walk to the majority of our destinations. I have to say that, for casual trips and work, I don't want to walk farther than 2 miles. When it's some place that I really want to walk to, I've walked 6 miles before, so it's variable, but around 1.5-2 miles is my usual cut off point.
Comment by Angela Sun Aug 5 14:10:18 2012
We just bought some land about 2 miles up a curvy mt road from our house. Its unsafe to walk and questionable on a bicycle. Although going down would be okay. I find I like to break up my day between the land and house. Clean up and cool down etc. Anyway, we use a small motorcycle to go back and forth. I've been really happy with the arrangement. Otherwise, I just wouldn't be there as much and its fun to go for a ride just about anytime. It gets about 100 mpg, and I use about a gallon of gas per week. Driving the truck would cost 5x's that. $20p/mo vs $100p/mo. At that rate its probably already paid for itself. Anyway, could be an option for ya...
Comment by Arthur T Sun Aug 5 14:40:23 2012

Angela --- Walking is definitely a major perk of living in town. Sounds like you're a pretty good walker since your cutoff is about twice as far as other folks'. :-)

Arthur --- Great outside the box solution! Maybe we'll do something like that if we decide this particular parcel is the one.

Comment by anna Sun Aug 5 16:25:06 2012

(Just back from a quick walk to the cemetery, enjoy the breezes, with Tobin, before the coming thunderstorm)--Walking was usual for us in Hyde Park, Boston in the late 40s and all thru the 50s. We knew how long it took to get to school on time! My father timed his near-sprint to the train station, to commute to work, and taught me to cut corners and jay-walk! Usually our walks to the grocery stores took about 20 min. I, too, had to walk home for lunch (dinner) when I stayed with my grandmaother in South Weymouth, when I was in the 3rd grade. This was expected to be about 20 min. each way, if I didn't dawdle. Even on snow-shoveled sidewalks, with piles higher than my head, we walked, and were expected to cross the streets safely, without patrols guiding us. Now I have had to walk when my car isn't working, and I realize, at 69, that walking depends on the body's health, overall, esp. legs (knees, ankles, and feet!!). Also on being alert not only to traffic, if in town, but also to the condition of the street or sidewalk. Yes, I have tripped a few times, walking my dog who always has come to a dead stop and been there, for me to hold onto, to get up by!) My plucky near-blind neighbor, originally from Germany, walks as much as she can downtown, but not as much as she used to, 10 yrs ago, acrosstown. When I first lived near Mendota, Va I would hike alot, exploring. I still didn't really hike more than 2 hrs at a time, usually. Then I did have friends about 1-2 miles away, that I could walk to. How great it would be if the place you are thinking of could be connected somehow by a walk! Would it be possible to have a car parked halfway, so you could walk to the car and drive the rest? At any rate, a walk to a friend or to a family member is purposeful and so beneficial, and jis worth your figuring out how to make it happen:)

Comment by adrianne Sun Aug 5 18:05:37 2012

In the suburbs here in the DC metro area, we walk 1.5-2 miles one way regularly. We have dogs, which definitely helps us walk more for our errands (exercise the dog and run an errand.) The weekend walks often include a trip to one of the coffee shops which are exactly 1.6 miles one way with a reasonable uphill at the beginning (and downhill right at the end on the return.)

I would probably consider the following before deciding what is walking distance:

frequency - the 1.6 miles to the coffee shop would probably be pleasant almost every day as it is reasonably flat and I don't have to carry anything. A couple of times of week and it definitely becomes a lovely outing and not a chore.

time commitment - It takes about 25-30 minutes one way (our dogs do like to stop and smell the roses), so round trip is a commitment of an hour without the coffee or errands on the other side. I can handle that type of time unit commitment on a regular basis. Anything getting to 1.5-2 hours or more total (round trip) and I'm thinking once a week or less frequently . . . maybe I have better things to do with my time. (maybe not)

hauling - We have walked occasionally the same 1.5 mile one way distance for a gallon of milk or things that weigh less. Once we bought a 24 pack of toilet paper (more awkward on the return than heavy.) But I would want to drive the same distance if I have to pack anything more than that (tools, supplies, produce . . .)

time of day - if the trip can be timed to whenever the temperature and weather is the best, then a longer distance is okay. But if one must be somewhere with regularity and at a specific time (dodging raindrops if necessary), then anything over a mile starts to sound dreary (15-20 minutes.)

Terrain - 20-30 minutes walking one way could be almost 2 miles or it could be 1/2 mile of really rough terrain.

Labor - How will I spend the time at the destination? If I was walking the 1.5 miles and then expected to work all day (or even part of a day with significant exertion), then the 1.5 miles home might seem a bit far.

But . . . to visit a friend once or twice a month, maybe toting a small gift and expecting a bit of producer or fresh prepared goodie to carry back? Then I would think walking distance could be an hour or more hike one way (4-5 miles of easy terrain.)

Walking regularly, one definitely gets in better shape. In Africa the farms (machambas) are often a distance from the homes. They can be up to 5 miles and are often split into different production units. A larger plot(s) is usually planted with dryland (rainfed) staple crops or cash crops (corn and cotton, as an example), while there is often another plot, if available, along a river bed where market vegetable production can occur. The husband and wife may even have separate plots where they each are expected to pitch in at various points in the season. The farmers don't typically go to their machambas every day. They go every day during the key production points (land preparation, planting, 2 weedings/hoeings, harvest.) But then they may not go for a period of time to check on their crops or do anything with them (particularly the rainfed crops.) Walking 5 miles or more is not uncommon, just not typically on a daily basis.

Comment by Charity Sun Aug 5 19:11:40 2012

Mom --- I think you've got a good point that if you know there's a place you want to walk to regularly that's two miles away cross country, it may be possible to talk to the people in between and come up with a foot path rather than going the long way around. Definitely a good "act locally" suggestion!

Charity --- Excellent rundown on yet more factors that affect what constitutes a good walking distance. And very fascinating to hear about the African farming examples!

Comment by anna Sun Aug 5 19:29:54 2012
Everything is relative! As a suburban mom....3-4 blocks with kids. Along a busy street? Maybe a block or two before pulling my hair out. I once did a 2 mile hike with the kids and by the end I was carrying the youngest (5) holding the older ones hand while promising fruit snacks back at the minivan and hollerin at the middle kid to stay where I could see her.
Comment by Fostermamas Sun Aug 5 23:11:11 2012
Fostermamas --- After we moved to town, I walked the 0.6 miles to my elementary school every day, I'm pretty sure. Granted, we stayed to the back streets, but I don't remember my parents walking with me (although I did have my older brother when I was in fourth grade). (We weren't in town when I was younger and I can't really remember how my little sister (who was in town from kindergarten on) got to elementary school....) So maybe as long as you go around so you don't walk on busy streets, even a kid could walk half a mile?
Comment by anna Mon Aug 6 08:20:45 2012

My brother and I used to walk half an hour to school in the 3rd and 4th grade; we lived at the farthest point that the buses wouldn't go to. This was fairly recent - late 1980s or early 90s - in Maryland.

The only problem with that was that my mom was always worried that someone would kidnap us. Also, carrying my trumpet to band practice could be a burden. But otherwise I didn't mind.

Here in our rural area, the roads are very curvy, and it's dangerous to walk. You have to listen closely for cars and jump over the guard rail when someone's coming. I wouldn't do it with kids or a dog, or with any kind of burden. I suspect that this is what's eliminated so much of the walking in our area.

Comment by Faith T Mon Aug 6 09:27:25 2012
I started walking long distances when I was around 5 or 6, with my dad and older brothers. He didn't always have a vehicle that worked, so when we stayed at his place on the weekends or summer vacation, walking was sometimes our only form of transportation. We would regularly walk for more than a mile at a stretch, and many of our fun activities when he did have a car were hikes (along the Appalachian Trail, which, for those of you who don't know, can be extremely steep and tiring). Walking with children is very much possible, but it may be a matter of building up to it and getting the kid accustomed to walking. My dad was very much sink-or-swim about these walks and if we got tired, we knew there was no option but to just continue because Dad was not about to call a cab for us.
Comment by Angela Mon Aug 6 09:37:59 2012
Faith and Angela --- I enjoyed hearing your experiences about walking as children! I agree with Angela that how far a kid will walk depends entirely on the attitude of the parent --- if mom or dad assumes the kid can do it, generally they can.
Comment by anna Mon Aug 6 11:57:35 2012

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