Trip Intensities & Training Tips

We offer three trip types: Fundamentals, Adventure, and Expedition. But since experience is not necessarily correlated to fitness, we also assign a physical intensity rating to each scheduled trip:

  • Low,
  • Moderate,
  • High, and
  • Very High

By pairing like-abled clients together, our groups hike and operate more cohesively. Nobody at the front gets frustrated by the slow pace, nobody in the back gets frustrated by being left behind, and we rarely split the group to accommodate divergent abilities.

Whereas most guiding organizations accept the first eight or ten paying customers who want to join a specific trip, I vet our groups extensively to match physical abilities, outdoor experiences, and even biographies. If I do my job correctly, you’ll feel like you’re with lifelong hiking partners.

Sublime off-trail travel in upper East Inlet, Rocky Mountain National Park

What intensity level is best for you?

The best indication of your physical capabilities is your performance on past trips: At a pace that is comfortable and sustainable for you, how much distance do you cover and how much vertical do you complete?

You can adjust your stated abilities slightly due to changes in fitness, pack weight, or altitude. But data from past trips is the best starting point.

If you don’t have enough hiking or backpacking experience to know your physical capabilities, I can work with you before or after you submit an application. Contact me. The most telling indicators will be your:

  • Age,
  • Gender,
  • Height and weight (or BMI),
  • Weekly fitness regimen, and
  • Past athletic results (e.g. your time for a local 5K or a marathon).

Using this information, I’ve become quite adept at grouping applicants of similar fitness, even I haven’t hiked with them before.

Trip intensity levels

Trips of different intensity levels vary by the:

  • Distance covered,
  • Vertical climbing and descent completed,
  • And off-trail routes undertaken.

To understand “normals” for each level and to determine the most appropriate level for you, use the table below.

I have very high confidence in my estimates for vertical change and off-trail travel — they are based on about twenty past trips in the High Sierra and Rocky Mountains. I have less data for mileage, so these numbers might be considered informed conversions.

If you’re uncertain how much mileage or vertical you can comfortably sustain, I have also included the fitness levels we typically see, broken out by age range. Fitness relative to peers is more subjective and thus less reliable, but it’s a place to start.

Mileage & vertical

In mountainous environments such as the Rockies and High Sierra, the limiting factor to each day is usually vertical gain and loss, not horizontal mileage. Groups tend to climb and descend the same amount each day, whether that is concentrated over 10 miles or stretched out over 20.


Hiking off-trail is sometimes no more difficult than hiking on-trail. But usually it is, because there are no man-made improvements to negate uneven footing, thick vegetation, river fords, soggy ground, and steep slopes.

In the Mountain West location (California and Colorado), the off-trail feature that clients struggle with most is talus and scree. Imagine entire slopes littered in boulders ranging from the size of basketballs to refrigerators, or smaller rocks that slide when weighted. This type of terrain is especially tough for individuals with less athletic ability, raw power, balance, and agility. We do our best to steer clear of such areas, but sometimes they’re unavoidable

Extreme car-sized talus in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. We try to avoid any extended sections like this, even on our most challenging trips.

Our Alaska trips are entirely off-trail and present a unique set of challenges. Compared to terrain in the lower 48, Alaska is extremely hard on feet and lower legs, and many miles are hard-won even if they’re flat. For an excellent description of Alaska, refer to Nathan McNeil’s review of his Gates of the Arctic trip in 2019.

Alan bushwhacks through Alaskan alder

Like Alaska, south Utah is also very unique and entirely off-trail. The footing varies; you will hike:

  • Across benches covered in thick beach-like sand,
  • Directly up and down ankle- and shin-high creeks at the bottom of deep canyons, and
  • On rock-hard sandstone (“slickrock”), flat or tilted.

Training tips

Your chosen trip intensity level should be appropriate for your known physical abilities. But your experience will be more enjoyable and more comfortable if you improve your fitness beforehand.

Training should prepare you most for the vertical change, off-trail travel, and pack weight. I would not focus as much on training for mileage — it’ll happen naturally in the process of training for the other factors.

If your trip will be at high altitudes (e.g. 8,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level) you may want to take some additional precautionary measures.

Vertical gain and loss

Find vertical near where you live (e.g. mountains, hills, stadium stairs, parking garages, etc.) and train there regularly.

Do NOT believe that good overall fitness can substitute for vertical-specific training. Each year, some clients struggle with the vertical more than they expected because they didn’t incorporate it into their training.

If you have gym access, do one-legged squats (high reps, low weight), plus sessions on the Stairmaster and/or treadmill with the incline at its max.

Off-trail travel

Off-trail hiking requires better balance and more power, and a Zen-like attitude — don’t get frustrated, because it is what it is.

Start hiking off-trail. You won’t go as far or as fast, but you’ll still get a comparable workout, and you’ll start strengthening all of those balancing muscles. If you are not comfortable yet going too far away from a trail, don’t, but still get off-trail for short sections.

Instead of hiking on “trails” made of concrete or pea gravel, find nasty, technical trails that are full of rocks, roots, and blowdowns. Again, you won’t move as fast, but your workout will be the same.

Loaded pack

At the start of your trip, you should expect your pack to weight 15-20 pounds for a 3-day trip, about 20 pounds for a 5-day trip, and 20-25 pounds for a 7-day trip. Your upper body needs to be trained to support this weight, and your legs need to develop the strength to move it.

Do some of your training with a fully loaded pack, even if that means adding excessive water or food to your load, or even putting rocks or bricks into your pack.

Do shorter efforts with an even heavier pack. For example, one client told me he has been doing repeats with a 40-lb pack on a small nearby hill with 150 vertical feet. Don’t go overboard here, however — it’s easier to tweak a knee or ankle when carrying a lot of weight. Build up to it.

High elevations

If you have not been at altitude before, or have not been at altitude in a while, you may experience acute mountain sickness, the common symptoms of which are headache, light-headedness, nausea, and loss of appetite. Efforts to train for elevation will help you avoid, reduce, or quickly get through these symptoms.

If you have access to high elevations (sorry, East Coasters), try to get up a few times before the trip.

If your travel schedule allows, stay at altitude for two nights before the trip. If you live at sea level, one night is the minimum.

And, finally, increase your cardiovascular fitness with high exertion activities like running, rowing, and cycling.

If you have known issues with altitude, you may want to consult with your doctor about precautionary medications like Diamox.