The Hierarchy of Human Propulsion

Posted by on Jan 10, 2012 in Outdoor | 4 Comments

Forward movement is the means to every human end. Progress, such as it is defined, is often elevated above all else. Politicians speak of progress in reverent whispers. For athletes and coaches, it as an eternal pursuit. The businessman is obsessed with his progress up the corporate ladder, or the growth of his bottom line. But progress is ambiguous, and in our bizarre world, often regressive. However, physical progress, the literal act of moving forward, is definite, obvious, and everywhere.

We walk. We run. We hike and skin and ski. We pedal. We propel ourselves forward. Upward and onward, progress is the result of every human action.

But not all methods of forward progression are created equal. Some are inherently better—more efficient, faster, more enjoyable—than others.

The Hierarchy of Human Propulsion

My conclusions below are based on my own experiences. Your own conclusions may differ, however, I think many of you will agree with my observations. These ranking are independent of any terrain considerations. Clearly different tools are better for different roads and trails. But efficiency doesn’t always equal enjoyability. And all of the activities listed, except for road running, and post-holing through snow, are inherently enjoyable—but not equally. I’ve divided the activities into 2 categories: Summer and Winter.


Mountain biking > Cyclocross > Road biking > Trail running > Hiking > Walking > Hike-a-bike > running.


Skinning > Snow biking > Skate Skiing > Snowshoeing > Classic skiing > Post-holing.

A couple of notes: I didn’t include traditional alpine skiing because the uphill is lift-served, and the skiing itself is incorporated into ski touring, which I’ve listed above as skinning. Also, cyclocross is listed not exclusivley as ‘cross racing, but rather, as ‘cross riding, a mix of pavement, trail, dirtroads.  In other words, Roadirt. (Cruuuush!)

Oh, and yes. I would rather spend 2 hours pushing my bike, instead of 2 hours running down the street. I’ve done both, and at least a hike-a-bike comes with the possibility of an enjoyable decent or traverse, whereas running (is what criminals do) along the road is forever and always a painful exercise in self-flagellation.

Now, clearly there is an apples-to-oranges aspect to comparing bikes and feet. Wheels beat legs. And wings beat wheels. But wings are slightly more difficult to obtain than wheels. And anyway, I’m not sure there is any method of human flight that can be considered human-powered.

Anyway, the rankings above are not perfect. There are always exceptions and caveats. But they do reflect my order of preference for the time I spent outdoors.

What’s your hierarchy look like?




  1. DanZ
    January 10, 2012

    Classic skiing > Snowshoeing

  2. Dave B
    January 10, 2012

    Mountain biking > Road biking > Trail running > running > Hiking > Walking > Hike-a-bike

    skiing > winter biking > running either kind (road or trail)

  3. Allison
    January 11, 2012

    Backpacking > mountain biking > hiking > kayaking > bike touring > road biking > dog walking> walking > running only to chase some sort of ball or to save myself from being snacked upon

    nordic trail skiing > skinning > groomed xc skiing > snowshoeing > snow camping > post holing only to chase some sort of ball or to save myself from being snacked upon

  4. vegpedlr
    January 14, 2012

    Ditto that classic skiing is greater than snowshoeing. ‘Shoes can be barely ahead of post holing sometimes. No chance for a glide like with classic skiing.

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