Training for Long Distance Hiking

Training for Long Distance Hiking

While many long distance backpackers focus on thru-hiking, or completing an entire long distance trail in one season, any long distance hike can be rewarding.  Long distance hiking can be one of the most enriching experiences in your life, but it can also be one of the most challenging things you have ever done.  You may come to some profound conclusion about life, but more likely you will just gain skills, confidence, friends, and memories.  When training for long distance hiking, you should prepare both physically and mentally which will increase the likelihood of finishing your hike.  A good training regimen should ready your body, mind, and gear.

Training While on the Trail vs. Before

Many long distance backpackers spend enormous amounts of time researching and purchasing gear, poring over maps, planning out meals, and figuring out logistics for their hike but fail to do any physical training to get their bodies ready.  Some hikers claim it is unnecessary to train beforehand and that they will simply get in shape as they hike.  This can be a mistake because backpacking puts an enormous amount of stress on muscles, bones, and joints.  An injury could keep you off the trail for weeks or end your trip altogether. Plus, do you really want to spend the first few weeks of your hike sore and huffing and puffing up every little incline?  It is critical to prepare beforehand and also take care of body while on the trail so that you can enjoy your time hiking, complete what you set out to do, and be able to handle future backpacking trips.   

Train for Your Hike By Hikingtraining for long distance hiking

The best way to train for a hike is to hike.  Sure, you could go to the gym and walk on a treadmill but that is a flat surface that does not strengthen the tiny muscles in your feet and ankles like hiking on uneven, rocky ground will.   You will want to go to they gym and make use of the equipment there, but at least once a week you are going to want to get outside and go for a long hike.  While training, I usually go to the gym several times a week and then do a long hike on the weekends.  You will want to start training 5-6 months before the start of your hike.  Make a list of hikes you want to do that vary in distance and elevation gain.  Then from this list, create a spreadsheet with a hike for each week up until your trip.  You will want to begin with shorter hikes that have less elevation gain and gradually work your way up to the longer hikes with more elevation gain.  You will also want to slowly add in a weighted backpack to mimic the weight of your pack.  Start with only around 5 or 7 pounds in your pack and work up to your full pack weight, adding a few pounds each week.  I typically just fill my training pack with gear, but you could try using bags of rice, water, kitty litter, or birdseed.

You are also going to want to do some shorter hiking trips that are several days to a week long prior to your long hike.  This will not only help you get in physical shape but you can try out your gear and get into the right mental state.

Hiking at High Altitude

The higher in altitude you go, the less oxygen there is available in the air.  This has a significant impact on your physical performance and makes it harder for your body to get oxygen to all your vital organs.  If you will be hiking at high altitudes, you are going to want to get in top aerobic shape.  Swimming and biking are great aerobic activities that will increase your ability to cope with less oxygen.mount whitney

Strength Training

When training for a hike, you will certainly want to focus on your legs.  Some of my favorite exercises that target the legs are:

  • lunges while carrying weight (try these downhill too)
  • step downs from a block – begin on top of the block and then step down with one foot but do not put your full weight onto that foot, just tap your heel and press back up again on standing leg
  • dumbbell step ups – while holding a dumbbell in each hand, step up onto a block or bench with the leg closest to the bench, lower back down and repeat
  • cross over step ups – the same as dumbbell step ups but you use the leg further away from the bench to step up
  • squats
  • any exercise standing on one foot – this will improve your balance which is needed for uneven terrain and stream crossings

Some useful exercises for the core include:

  • weighted planks
  • mountain climbers
  • Flat back with barbell – with feet apart and barbell on your shoulders, hinge forward at the hips. Keep your back straight and your knees slightly bent.  Send your bottom back and bend forward until your back is parallel with the floor.  Stand back up quickly.

On the Trail

training for a thru hike

While doing a long hike, you are going to want take care of body with stretches and exercises.  You will be tired and hungry but if you want to remain injury-free it is important to stretch every day.  You should not, however, stretch cold muscles since this may do more damage than good.  I usually get up and hike a couple miles at a quick pace to get warm, and then I stretch.  Be sure to stretch your hamstrings, quads, calves, hips, and back.  I like to also do some yoga before eating lunch.  It is unknown if stretching helps prevent soreness but my body just feels better after doing some stretching.  When you finish hiking for the night, you can do a quick foot and leg massage to help ease pain and aid in muscle recovery.  Eat well, listen to your body, and take breaks if you feel the need.  Don’t be ashamed to slow down or take zero days when needed.

Mental Training

Many hikers overlook the mental aspects of training for a long hike.  No matter how much you love nature and hiking, there are going to be times when you are exhausted, cold, hungry, dirty, and wet.  You might even get homesick or lonely.  It takes a great deal of mental strength to keep going during those times.  You body will become a rock solid hiking machine, but you will be mentally drained and fatigued.  Know this will happen so that when it does you will recognize it and have some tools to cope with it.  Before your hike, read books written by thru hikers, watch documentaries on the trail you will be hiking, and contact and talk to thru hikers.  You could also come up with some motivating phrases that will keep you going in times of doubt.  You should also consider taking an ipod.  Listening to music can be a great motivator and podcasts are a nice distraction when you are struggling or just on a boring section of trail.

Social support can also really boost your trail morale.  Prior to your hike, plan sections that you can hike with family or friends.  Its nice to have something to look forward to and its always a special experience to have someone hike with you for a day.   Let people know some locations and dates so they can send you a care package or letter along the way.   Just be sure to be specific about what you could use so you don’t end up with too much extra weight or gear you can’t use.

Go For It

At the end of all this, there’s really only so much preparation you can do.  You should go for it.  Just get out there and do it.  There will be bumps in the road and it will be really hard, but you will adapt, make adjustments, and learn as you go.

If you have any tips or advice you’d like to add, please leave a comment below!


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8 thoughts on “Training for Long Distance Hiking”

  • Hello there,

    Well, that is the article that I wanted to read because In two weeks I am going to climb a summit in Bulgaria. It is called Botev.
    It is a long distance walk (12 hours) and your tips are very handy.
    I agree with you that the stretching is very important in order to avoid injuries.
    What is the longest hike that you have ever done?

    • Glad you found the info helpful.  I checked out some pictures of Mt. Botev in Bulgaria and it looks really beautiful.  Good luck on your hike!

  • Man, I haven’t done a long hike since I was in Boy Scouts. We did a week long 50 mile hike in the Wind River range in Wyoming. It was exhausting but incredibly rewarding.

    As I’ve planned my vacations for the last several years, we always go through comfortable places with nice hotels. Reading this post made me realize that it would be fun to change it up, get off my lazy butt, and do a backpacking trip. Thanks for the reminder. I’m excited to read more of your posts.

    • You should totally go for it!  Backpacking trips are definitely a different kind of vacation but fulfilling for sure 🙂

  • Katie! We are like one and the same person in mind!

    When you talk about all the “small” things (I call them “minutiae”) I could not possibly agree any more than I do! People always want to focus on the things that don’t matter – the most expensive gear, the best shoes, the ruggedness of their whatever – yet they fail to simply train their own self to get better and stronger.

    I get this in the gym as well. As a trainer, I get people saying things like – I need to do more shoulder work bla bla bla, cut out carbs, eat less cake – it’s all the same!

    Just FOCUS on what’s important – get some hiking shoes, a pack, and train your body. Do the hiking more and more and you’ll get better!

    Thanks for the great article. 🙂

    • While I do think gear is important because its what’s keeping you safe and alive out there, its definitely not necessary to buy the most expensive, top of the line version of everything as some people feel the need to do.  I agree, if you stay focused on what matters to you (finishing a hike, losing weight, toning up), you will be motivated to make good choices and everything will fall into place.    

  • Excellent post!

    I have read lots about fitness adaptions that take place during these types of ultra long endurance feats. While there is no doubt you WILL get fit on the trail its just not starting the endeavour off on the right foot.

    It can be incredibly demotivating struggling your way for the first few weeks, not achieving the distances you wanted as your body gets used to the effort.

    It makes far more sense to start off Strong powering through the early tests with strength and confidence. Its far more likely to lead to the mind-set of “I got this” rather that “man this is impossible!”

    Happy Hiking.

    • I totally agree with you about the motivation part.  Lots of thru hikers end up quitting in the first few weeks because they were just not physically prepared and its too hard on their bodies.  Or they end up with an injury from pushing themselves too hard, too quickly.

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