Train for a long-distance hike

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 I am known to sometimes get edgy and withdrawn when I cannot exercise, like if I’m injured.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.

“Pre-Hike” Hikes

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.

17 Responses to Train for a long-distance hike

  1. Matt January 23, 2012 at 7:51 pm #

    Thanks for the tips! I’m planning of starting to section hike the AT this spring.

  2. Charlie Hensel January 30, 2012 at 2:18 pm #

    Andrew,

    I have used a more structured training methodology for my 1,000 mi AT hike. I you are interested, let me know and we can share info,

    Best Wishes,

    Charlie

  3. Warrior Pilgrimage February 16, 2012 at 9:00 am #

    I will commence on my own multi-day hike soon here in my country and my trailmates have been asking me how to do an ultra-light backpacking regimen and techniques and I turn to your website as reference although I am not a big fan of yours. Just the same, I admire your methodology and your steadfastness.

    Be still, my brother. You take the best path and enjoy your ride with the winds up north.

    ~~~~The Trailhawk

  4. Rocky July 28, 2012 at 11:21 pm #

    Lots of day hikes carrying your target pack weight (base + supplies), and working up to your target daily mileage, helps. Not as good as overnight trips, but better than nothing. I filled my pack with water bottles to get to my target weight.

    Day hikes can work out some issues before the big hike – like hiking pace, shoe fit, pack fit, water usage, trail food preferences, hiking in varied weather. Your day hikes should have significant elevation changes, and varied terrain and trail conditions. 50 laps around the mall is not the best, but if that’s all you can do …

    You must schedule practice hikes well in advance. Then plan around those hikes. I rearranged my work schedule to four 10-hour days, and dedicated Fridays to long day hikes. And I planned several week-long tune-up hikes, several months in advance.

    • Andrew Skurka July 29, 2012 at 9:50 am #

      If you have limited access to hills or mountains, you can partly make up for it by carrying loads that are far in excess of your expected pack weight. The 1-2 inches that you have to lift that load with every step will add up.

      • corey wass November 19, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

        hey man im hiking to south dakota from farmington maine do you know the trails to get to south dakota by chance?

        • Andrew Skurka November 20, 2013 at 5:19 am #

          Try the North Country Trail

  5. GrizLee July 29, 2012 at 6:15 pm #

    Mr Skurka,

    I have been followign you for some time now and even have your book. Over the past few years I have becomem addicted to the North.

    I am planning a long distance trek along the Canol Heritage Trail next summer in the NWT. I am researching footwear for hiking on the tundra. Last year, I wore my climbing boots (La Sportiva K2s(?)) in Kluane park for a 10 day trek. They are heavy, but my feet stayed absolutely dry. I want to “drop” the weight for my Canol trek. Is it possible to hike the tundra comfortable with the La Sportiva traill runners and gortex socks? I’ve read that hikes up there, one is pretty much going to have to deal with constant wet feet. We will have 3 major river crossings (swim?) and several streams to cross.

    I am interested as to what you recommend and what your experience has been in this area of footwear on the tundra.

    Thanks, you are an inspiration,
    -GrizzLee

  6. Andrew Z. February 25, 2013 at 3:54 pm #

    Andrew,

    What do you think of weight training in preparation for a thru-hike? I am specifically thinking of exercising to increase your one-rep maximum on exercises like squats or dead-lifts. Does this increase in maximum output translate to increased hiking endurance in your opinion?

    Thanks,
    Andrew Z.

    • Andrew Skurka February 25, 2013 at 4:18 pm #

      I think your time would be better much spent hiking with a pack, or running over hilly terrain, or balance drills, or at least low weight and very high reps. Good long-distance hikers tend to be like ultra runners, but stronger and less lean; and good ultra runners tend to be like road runners, but stronger and less lean. You don’t want to be super muscular.

  7. John D July 10, 2013 at 10:24 pm #

    Hi Andrew

    Loving the book, hoping to do at least the 3 day beginner hike with you next year. I completely agree with your statement that the best way to prep for a long distance hike is by hiking with your pack. My question concerns your body’s core, should you also try to strengthen your core to help handle the pack? Or will those pre-hike hikes do this all on their own?

    Thank you

    John D
    Lafayette, CO

    • Andrew Skurka July 11, 2013 at 7:09 am #

      I’ve never done any core-specific training in advance of a backpacking trip. I think the pre-hike hikes mostly solve that issue.

      I do, however, make sure to get “aligned” by my chiropractor before taking off for a long hike. For example, if my hips are out of whack, that imbalance will at least cause abnormal wear, if not an injury, over hundreds or thousands of miles. Since you’re local I’ll offer you a name — Lisa Erikson at LifeSport Chiropractic.

  8. PSO September 7, 2013 at 1:10 am #

    I quit smoking August 13, 2013 after smoking for 35 + years, 2 packs a day in order to hike.
    Was hopeing to do the PCT in 2014 but will need to wait until 2015 at age 64. I need to do a few longer hikes first. I did a 50 mile hike last week and I was in worse shape than I realized.
    Thank you for the great information. I will stay in touch and will be looking for articles on old people walking. ha ha

  9. Sarah October 18, 2013 at 10:03 am #

    A few friends and I are planning a big hike next year to the top of Mt Roraima. It’s a 6 day hike (2.5 up, 1.5 at the top and 2 down) and, while I have experience hiking, I’ve never done a multi-day hike before, especially one up a mountain like Mt Roraima. What would you recommend for training? Also, in terms of gear? I plan on buying your book now that I know it exists, but wanted to get your thoughts about planning specifically for this type of trip.

    Thank you!
    Sarah S.
    NYC

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  1. Training in 2013 « Tjamrog’s Weblog - January 5, 2013

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