Prior to leaving for a long-distance hike there is a lot to do—you have to buy gear and supplies, pack maildrops, organize maps and guidebooks, etc. But it is important that you are physically, as well as logistically, prepared for your hike. This page explains how I condition myself for my long-distance hikes.
“Training” or Not, Be Active
Even when I’m in the off-season and do not yet need to be training for my next hike, I am still very active. I find that by regularly running, biking, lifting weights, and day-hiking that I maintain a moderate baseline fitness level, which makes it easier to regain “peak form” when I need to. Perhaps more important than the physical benefits of daily exercise, however, is its effect on my mental health—a good run, bike ride, or hike is an opportunity for me to release stress and frustration, to think about things, and to re-energize with some quality “me time.” I am known to sometimes get edgy and withdrawn when I cannot exercise, like if I’m injured.
I do not have an exercise plan, though I do keep a log of what I do. During the week I mostly run—of the activities I can do in the limited time I have to work out, I enjoy running the most and it seems to best train me for hiking. An average run is about 90 minutes, with the pace ranging from 6- to 10-minute miles depending on the terrain.
In addition to my scheduled workouts, I also try to integrate smaller amounts of exercise into my daily routine. I often bike to the grocery store or to a restaurant for dinner with friends. I take the stairs instead of the escalator. I purposely park on the outskirts of parking lots. Basically, if it’s reasonable to leave my car in the driveway, I do; and if I have a convenient excuse to get some exercise, I’ll do it.
Training for a Long-Distance Hike
The best method to train for a long-distance hike is to…go for a long-distance hike. No other activity is a perfect substitute for the physical, mental, and logistical aspects of long-distance hiking—like the muscles you work, the time you spend on your feet, the additional stress of carrying a pack, and the extra effort required by big mountains and high passes; the monotony of some terrain, the slow pace of progress, and the solitude and simplicity; and your preferred way to resupply, the most effective way to use your maps and guidebooks, and the frequency with which you need to acquire more, say, toilet paper.
Unfortunately, a long-distance hike is very time-consuming and not conducive to much else—like planning for your trip. In the weeks leading up to their start date, most hikers (myself included) find themselves determining their resupply points, packing their maildrops, cutting up their maps and guidebooks, finalizing their gear selections, submitting a resignation letter to their boss, finding someone to sublet their apartment, and dropping off their pets at their parent’s or friend’s house.
These pressures and demands result in many people doing nothing before their hike. They think, “I have so much to do before I can start! Plus, do I really need to do anything? After all, I will be hiking for the next 4-8 months—I can just get in shape on the trail.” However, this is NOT a good idea. First, it is unnecessary—it does not have to be all-or-nothing, as even short-but-intense workouts will help you immensely when you get on the trail. Second, being in poor physical condition leads to early-on discomfort, compromises your ability to finish within the hiking season or your budget, and puts you at risk of getting a trip-ending stress injury.
If you cannot train for a long-distance hike by hiking, then I would at least encourage you to get your legs accustomed to moving by running, cycling, or walking (ideally, on trails and with a pack) every day. Try to compensate for the limited time you have to exercise with high-intensity exercises. For example, a 30-minute run may be equivalent to a 2- or 3-hour hike because it demands more of your muscles and lungs, and applies more force to your bones, joints, and muscles. Shorter, more intense exercise is not the best training for a long-distance hike, but it’s a good compromise given pre-hike time constraints.
My first day of backpacking was my first day on the Appalachian Trail. I had spent plenty of time in the woods—as an adventurous child, a vacationing day-hiker, and a camp counselor—but I quickly realized that I was hardly prepared for the endeavor I had just undertaken. I did not really know how to use my gear (but I did know that I had too much). And I had never hiked 23 miles in a day, which is the pace I would need to average in order to finish the trail before the start of my Fall semester.
The learning curve was steep, and the first few hundred miles were much more difficult for me than they should have been. If I had been smarter, I would have done at least one—ideally, several—”pre-hike” hikes. This would have dramatically improved my initial comfort and safety, the quality of my experience at the start, and my odds for finishing.
If you are a beginner and are planning to embark on a long-distance hike, I would highly recommend that you get out there before you start. It will give you a chance to:
- Assess your equipment: what you are not using or could do without, what you are missing, what you might like more, and what might work better;
- Develop some backcountry/backpacking skills: how to stay warm in inclement weather, how to pitch your shelter in stormy conditions, and how to determine the amount of food you will need between two resupply points; and
- Familiarize yourself with things that will be a central part of your life for the next several months: you’ll see how the trail is graded, maintained, and designed; you’ll learn how to use your guidebooks, handbooks, and databooks in conjunction with each other; you’ll figure out how to pack your backpack to maximize your comfort and efficiency; and, most importantly, you’ll get a better handle whether you will enjoy the experience or whether you would rather do something else.
Veteran hikers can benefit from pre-hike hikes as well, though the benefits are smaller since their learning curves have begun to plateau.