Skip to Content

Trail Legs: What They Are and Why Hikers Need Them8 min read

Do you like the idea of hiking, but are worried about how long it will take you to adjust? You’re not alone! Many people are hesitant to start hiking because they aren’t sure how their bodies will react. In this blog post, we’ll discuss what trail legs are and how long it takes most people to get them. We’ll also give you some tips on how to make the adjustment process easier!

Hiker legs or trail legs as they are better known are earned through hard trail miles. For many, this can be from four to eight weeks before they begin to fully toughen up to the physical abuse as more muscle fibers are recruited to help manage the consistent hard efforts.

These are very common miles and times on trail for a thru-hiker as most trails will take months or more to complete hiking them from end to end. Typically when you get your trail legs you will find increased appetite, which could tie into growth in hiker hunger, along with toughening of feet and lessening of blisters, and much faster hiking speeds.

Developing Your Trail Legs

Getting to the point where you have more reliable legs, calves, and glutes is important as you are putting in a massive effort in the lower part of your body and you want to limit injury chances while building that needed stamina, so then, how long does it take to get trail legs?

For those who are starting out without a lot of real longer hikes in preparation, this can take a month(s), for others who hike semi-frequently or more frequently this will occur over the first few weeks. Much of this comes down to your leg muscles to get back to full muscle use.

For most of us, we don’t use much of the muscles in our legs in our day to day jobs, regardless of walking “10,000 steps” or similar you aren’t using the stabilizers, for example, the big glute work has declined with the use of elevators and skipping stairs.

As you hike these long-dormant nerves and muscles begin to wake up, get blood flow and start adapting to the workload being demanded, what’s interesting is during this period is when many of the big leg injuries occur delaying or worse, ending, some thru-hike attempts before they ever get going.

A lot of how you will get your hiking legs will come down to a range of factors, from your age, fitness level, nutrition, sleep, or other health-related conditions. Each of these could cause delays in how your body heals and activates your muscles to get you moving and grooving.

Issues Before Development of Trial Legs

There are issues with injury when you haven’t had the time to properly develop trial legs, these can range from ankle sprains, to knee pain, IT band syndrome and even worse.

This is why many people spend a lot of time preparing for a thru-hike by doing long day hikes or weeklong backpacking trips so their bodies can better handle the abuse.

Injury Issues

Injuries will often sideline hikers for weeks or months at a time as the body struggles to catch up. Unfortunately, this is when common hiker injuries occur. It’s during this time that many hikers give up on their dream of a thru-hike and some head home.

If you’re starting out your hike with weak legs, take the time to properly condition them before hitting the trail! It will make your journey much easier and less frustrating.

You don’t want to spend weeks or even months rehabilitating an injury when you could have been hiking and enjoying the views!

Exhaustion

At the end of the day, many people think they will have all this energy and ability to hang out for hours talking with other hikers. What actually happens, in the beginning, is sheer exhaustion overwhelming your body.

Part of this is due to carrying a full backpack and gear, but the other part is your body just isn’t used to this type of work. This can last for weeks or even months as your body slowly adjusts.

This can also lead to a hard time getting up and moving in the morning after a night of rest as your body when not fully recovered is trying to force more recovery time. Sometimes the best thing to do is push through the fatigue and other times it will be to listen to your body and give it more time.

Over time you will learn to interpret these body signs and act accordingly, but in the beginning, it will be a learning process.

Achy muscles

This will be something you will want to manage the entire trail but especially in the beginning, you will experience some incredibly achy muscles which can lead to poor sleep which will hamper recovery efforts.

Focusing on finding a way to roll out your muscles, like a lightweight cork roller, is how I choose to help my muscles get better blood flow and relax more. I heavily suggest finding out if this works for you or if you need to look into something like yoga, or another alternate method for muscle work.

Blisters and Weak Feet

If you have hiked you already know of the ever-present blisters that can come if you fail to treat hot spots before they get worse. Blister care is super important while on the trail as your feet will be the thing that causes a catastrophic failure.

Like being achy, this may be an issue the entire trip but at first, when getting trail legs going you will be in shoes and socks you may not have battle-tested which means focusing on your foot care throughout the day.

How Do Trail Legs Help a Hiker?

Getting your hiking legs helps you in many ways but two of the core ways are going up hills and overall efficiency and your distance and speed.

Increasing Mileage Per Day

Let’s be honest, hiking dozens of miles per day is where many want to be on day one but it is just not logical nor feasible for nearly everyone. A day of hiking is going to cause loads of issues from finger swelling to overall soreness, but as your hiking legs grow into it you will find that you get less sore and can go longer between breaks.

Instead of having to plan recovery from days of hiking, you will become a mileage machine where you begin to have those oft-spoken marathon days where hikers put down 26+ miles in a day without batting an eye!

This is the point where you can play catch up on miles from going slow in the beginning, it is when your mind and body begin working as one!

More Efficient Muscles

You will hear from others about your huge calves and your muscles will move from being your primary weakness on the trail to being the most dependable part of your performance.

You will begin to climb and have fewer issues getting winded, as at this point hiking uphill is less hard and more now just a point of reference. Now you will look to burning summits and cranking out the miles.

Tips for Adjusting to a Thru-Hike

As to surviving these first few weeks before you get your trail legs, you will want to take more breaks and relax those poor lower limbs to help them recover better, roll out your muscles nightly before bed for better blood flow recovery, and forget about hitting high “mile” based goals.

Take More Breaks

At first baby your body, you have 2200ish miles to go and this is no time to be a hare, speed isn’t going to help you last at this early stage in the trek. Instead, take more breaks, eat better foods, and drink plenty of water.

You’re going to want to take care of your body so you can last 4-6 months, this is the time to be the tortoise, letting your body adapt and gear up for the efforts ahead will benefit you greatly.

Massage Out Legs Every Night

I can’t say this enough when I first saw someone with a massage ball I thought it was silly and not worth the weight to carry, but man that first-day into second-day ache was so real the next morning!

Now I always bring my Rawlogy ball, it is nearly zero weight but allows me to easily roll out muscles in my tent after a long day so that the muscles can more optimally recover over the night while I sleep, this leads to better starts the next day for me, and I bet you also!

Don’t Aim For Mileage as a Goal

One thing most newbies seem to think is they need miles, putting huge goals from the start of the trail. Instead of doing this to yourself, start with easy goals and work on adding miles each day if you feel good once you wake up.

Pressing miles will only cause more injury chances to occur, you need to allow your body to adjust to a huge change in workload and that is going to take time, patience, and a lot of care.

Final Thoughts on Building Up Hiker Legs

Unlike the typical day hikers, you have worked to become a mileage demolishing machine, churning miles on the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Pacific Crest Trail without batting an eye!

Overall an experienced long-distance backpacker will enjoy the process of gaining trail legs back when they start on their next trail. The experience is akin to what a new driver feels when they first start driving.

At first, everything is slow and cumbersome, but as you get more experience under your belt things naturally flow together and become easier. The same will happen while getting hiking legs; it just takes time and patience!