Though I’ve talked about it on and off over the years in different articles and on various forums, I never specifically discussed how to train for a long-distance hike. Mainly because I am not an authority on exercise and partially because I’ve written about it enough in informal conversation, but it seems to get brought up enough over the years that I get tired of writing it up each time. 🙂
Now, you may ask, “Why should I train for a thru-hike? I can get in shape on the trail?”
Well, I think there’s a lot of fallacy with this way of thinking.
Among the reasons why I think this rationale does not work:
- When approximately 80% drop out of their Appalachian Trail thru-hiking attempt, why wouldn’t a person want to run, lift weights, swim, go hiking, or any other regular exercise to make this percentage more in their favor? Yes, not all of these people drop out of their attempts due to physical issues. But injuries, not enjoying hiking, physical exhaustion, general soreness, etc., can get mitigated by a baseline of physical health before starting a longer hike.
- And then there’s the trope of “hiking is 90% mental.” As my friend Cam deconstructs in the linked article, the mental aspects get intrinsically related to the physical part. If you are not enjoying the hike because you are out of shape and not used to hiking, the hike’s mental portion became directly affected because of the physical aspects.
- Finally, if you hike, backpack, and camp frequently, you’ll find if you actually enjoy the wilds before you commit several thousand dollars and months of your life to such a significant endeavor. You can test out your gear, dial in a system, get your muscles used to hiking, see if you enjoy this activity, and (hopefully!) have more fun than watching yet another YouTube video about a DCF WonderTent.
I noticed a divide between people who make the outdoors a part of their central life vs. people whose primary outdoor activity is thru-hiking only.
If you hike and backpack regularly, you want to have a baseline of shape so you can enjoy the gift of time consistently. You want to hike that peak, ski the trail, raft the river, or run your favorite route at a level you enjoy and not huff and puff up the mountains or risk injury because you are out of shape.
And importantly, when the gift of time does present itself for a longer hike, you don’t want to waste time getting up to an acceptable level of fitness. And you want to do your best to avoid injuries. From day one, you can meet your time, mileage, or other trip goals in the way you wish to and not dictated by a lack of fitness and preparation.
Great, Paul, but enough opinionating. How do you suggest training for a thru-hike?
I don’t like to use the word “train.” That implies something special as opposed to a part of your daily life. Fitness is an inherently important part of life for both physical and mental well-being.
As I get closer to 50 and march further away from 40, I can no longer coast on intense weekend outings. As I detailed last year, I never got completely out of shape, but I did not perform at the efficiency I wish for the kind of hiking I enjoy doing.
This past year, I made fitness part of my daily life after a hiatus of a similar lifestyle a decade-plus ago.
Crucially, I now have a lifestyle where I am not stressed out, tired and can maintain my fitness level while continuing to make improvements and gains.
I find I enjoy myself at my current age, reach the same goals as earlier in my thru-hiking life, and not feel exhausted the following day.
My advice for anyone “training” for a hike is straightforward:
- Find vigorous activities that get your heart pumping and do it regularly. It might be trail running, basketball, cardio HIIT, weight lifting, swimming, bike riding, etc. Just do it.
- Go out hiking and backpacking as much as you can. As I said above, you’ll dial in your gear and technique, you get in hiking shape, and you have fun.
- No matter what activity you do, strength, resistance, and core training only help your backpacking. Besides fighting sarcopenia, it enables you to carry your gear weight, especially with more extensive food and water carries, enables more effective scrambling, helps with flexibility, and many other benefits. I happen to enjoy weight lifting but realize not everyone enjoys it. Some bodyweight and core exercises help everyone, though.
As always, I am not a medical professional, so you should always get their advice first before some anonymous guy from the internet!
My routine gets explained in more detail at this link (and updated here). I don’t claim it is the best routine, but it works the best for me.
- M, W, F – ~45 minutes of weight training followed by ~15 minutes of core training.
- Tues – Speed and agility training (also called “jump training “or “plyometrics”).
- Thurs – Full body workout, no weights. In total, about 15-20 minutes each of resistance training, core training, and HIIT cardio.
- Weekends we almost always spend going hiking, backpacking, skiing, or packrafting.
Additionally, I’ll do two 10- minute HIIT sessions daily M-Th, one around noon another at around 4:30, to get the blood pumping during the day.
Of course, Joan and I will often go on a daily stroll to the mailbox of a 1-mile round trip.
I’ll take a rest day or ratchet down the outdoor activity as needed vs. a formal rest day. I find about once a month or so; I prefer an easy hiking day or even weekend, mixed in with camping, vs. a full rest day.
I found that my backpacking is easier, more enjoyable, and I can reach my goal for trips more confidently using these routines.
Thru-hiking is much more enjoyable if in some type of shape, and agony if “hiking your body into trail shape.” Unfortunately, it took me a few years to figure this out. 🙂
Well said, I concur with the lifestyle approach to hiking fitness. I workout/cross train throughout the week because it’s fun and that’s what my life is about doing. Also, I’m 50 now and find the weekend warrior lifestyle is too stressful overall, trying to cram 10 lbs of activity into a 2 lb sack. “Getting into shape on the trail” is a recipe, for me, for short miles, unnecessary injuries, and frowny faces.
Very good point! The other bonus about maintaining fitness is that you can choose to “go big or go home” if you want a high mileage or long hour day. Or you can join your friends and their children one weekend,, drink coffee late into camp on a Sunday, and take a leisurely stroll. All without feeling like you need to hit it big. Being fit gives both options.
Good advice for staying in shape, Paul, but definitely not my preferred method. Pre-Covid, I biked 12 miles RT to work a minimum of 3 days/week and am now slowly getting back into that. When gearing up for a multi-day backpack trip, my emphasis will shift to less cycling and more mountain hiking or in-town walking days each week, typically long walks around the perimeter of Cherry Creek Reservoir or Barr Lake. For me, bike commuting is a time efficient way to get a workout since I have to commute anyway, so I may as well extend the commute by… Read more »
Sounds like you found something that works well for you. Which is all one can ask. 🙂 I regularly WFH so home-based workouts fit my needs well. Plus I genuinely enjoy weight training.