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Are you thinking about thru-hiking? It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it! If you’re looking for some guidance on how to train for thru-hiking, then this article is the place to start. After reading this post, you’ll have six months’ worth of plans that will help prepare your body and mind for a successful hike.
Building a good plan to help maximize your preparation time is vital to your long-term success on the trail, helping you to avoid injuries and allowing you the strength and conditioning to hike all day without getting wiped out and needing to zero more frequently.
This is not a one-time thing, this has to happen for at least six months before you’re ready. Building up your ability to sustain on your own along with having the overall fitness to ensure you can hike without injury gives you a better chance to succeed.
Why Focus on Training?
Training helps you avoid the type of discomfort or injury that could put a damper on your big adventure or even derail it altogether. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy reports that only one in four hikers make it to Mount Katahdin to complete a successful thru-hike of the AT, listing injuries are among the most common reasons they quit.
Taking time to prepare your body for your upcoming thru-hike is an investment in your own success. This means you need to condition more than just your muscles and heart with aerobic exercise, but also work on strength-building exercises that will help reduce injury risks.
Since most thru-hikers will be carrying a moderate to heavy pack up as well as down steep trails this will help in preventing back pain and ensure your body is best prepared for consistent movements like steps, hills, and more.
How Do You Train for a Thru Hike?
This is a mixture of mental preparation along with physical prep that ensures you are ready for an arduous adventure that will tax your will, fortitude, and push you to your limits.
You want to start with your core three needs: flexibility, muscle, and cardio. Each of these needs should be addressed and performed for at least two to three days a week for maximum benefits.
Flexibility helps make sure your body is limber and pliable to movements that may not always be too natural to our urban environment, strength will help with your uphill and then cardio allows you to go longer and harder each day.
You want your workouts to last between 30-60 minutes each time, with the amount depending on what you are trying to accomplish with targeted work.
Since I am not a physician, before starting any specific training program, make sure you speak to medical professionals and get checked out to make sure it isn’t a danger to your health and if so they can help with a modified plan.
Building Overall Flexibility – Yoga
A much-overlooked area of fitness for the outdoors and hiking, in general, is flexibility and being pliable. When we are outside, or even in our daily lives with many different activities and jobs to do it can be hard enough just getting all those things done without adding on extra tasks that require a higher level range of motion.
When you have better overall mobility throughout your body then not only will these other external movements become easier but so too does everything else internally like breathing deeper into the lungs which means more oxygen flowing through blood vessels bringing nutrients up from the feet towards the heart where circulation improves as well.
Increasing your limberness also helps you to prevent injuries during your hikes, especially ones involving uneven terrain such as how rocks might shift underneath weight-bearing foot causing momentary shifts.
Building Muscle Mass – Weight Lifting or Bodyweight Exercise
For hiking, you should focus on lower weight and more reps to hit the endurance fibers in the muscles which will, in turn, build muscle mass and overall power.
Focusing on this helps you to build up these vital muscles which are used to help you maintain your balance, which is called into need lots, especially during those long days and months on a thru-hike.
Doing some solid muscle building can also decrease the likelihood of common overuse injuries or limit the opportunity to be impacted by those kinds of injuries.
These can show up in issues like knee and ankle pain, shin splints, and plantar fasciitis that can force you off the trail for a short period to permanently for the season because they can take so long to heal.
Cardio – Hiking Primarily, Stair Climber for Vertical, Treadmill for distance and incline
For cardio, I think it is clear, the better your cardiovascular system before you start on the trail the easier it will be.
This is why I recommend hiking as your primary cardio training unless you live in the flatlands like me in Texas. Then like me, you should look to supplement with at least a high incline treadmill (15% inclines) and a stair climber for more vertical work.
If you don’t have access to a stair climber then take some time to go find a building around you that has floors of stairs and start climbing as you want to work out up and down as they are somewhat different.
As for the treadmill, you can also work on a low incline to work on sheer endurance work and try to work yourself up to 12-20 miles per day as this will set you up to annihilate a trail with built fitness prior.
Low-Intensity Steady State [ LISS ]
This is perfect training for hiking as it is focused on teaching your body to spend a long period constantly outputting effort moving without reaching exhaustion and tiring out.
LISS workouts are going to be perfect if your goal is straight endurance and not to build speed or increase your overall power output, using a quality elliptical can help build up this long-duration endurance.
There will still be a need for some ramping up as you do want your intensity to get high, for many this could be as high as a 15% incline, in order to drive the body into the lactic acid generating low-intensity work zone of approximately 60% effort.
High-Intensity Interval Training [ HIIT ]
While popular within fitness circles HIIT training is not the best way to train for hiking.
One of the major reasons is that HIIT training has a tendency not only to drive lactic acid build-up but also to create an oxygen debt.
These are typically counterproductive when you are hiking from place to place and often times altitude level as well on your thru-hike.
Instead, this can be used as a tool to help you build up but I would refrain from doing it more frequently than once a week as longer, more sustained work is what you need to be able to manage for multi-week trails.
Elevation – Hiking
The final part of fitness preparation is hiking while gaining and losing elevation, with the purpose being to replicate conditions on the trail you have chosen to hike to better prepare.
So if you are planning for the Appalachian Trail you wouldn’t need to get as much elevation as if you were to be preparing for the Sierras on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Being better prepared for these consistent changes will ensure you survive and thrive instead of gassing out and needing to stop all the time.
On a trail like the A.T. you have lots of PUDS, pointless ups, and downs, where you go up 2000 feet and then down 2000 feet and similar. You will want to be physically prepared for the rollercoaster.
In addition, if you have not done enough elevation gain and loss then it will be easy to get altitude sickness on the trail, or your heart rate may stay too high when going up a mountain.
If you have not done enough elevation gain and loss then it will be easy to get altitude sickness on the trail, or your heart rate may stay too high when going up a mountain.
You can do this by hiking in areas around where you planning on thru-hiking, this way you get to build up beforehand so you are healthy and ready once on the trail for real.
Mental Preparation for a Thru-Hike
While almost everyone will focus heavily on the physical the mental game is far more important to your overall successful thru-hike than you may realize.
Many who start will lose the game based solely on their mental game lacking the preparation it required, you see it on shows like Naked and Afraid, where they quit due to missing family and loneliness.
To be successful you must make sure you fully grasp your reason, the why behind you deciding to thru-hike to increase your mental resolve.
The last part is learning to enjoy being alone, as for most of us this alone is an incredibly frightening issue but it is nearly essential for success.
Understanding Your Reason For Thru-Hiking
One key that is thought about but not maybe to the depth necessary is understanding your personal reason for thru-hiking, what is driving you to take on this huge and daunting task?
For many of us, it may be a base need to want more time alone, fewer distractions, or a big life change where you need to possibly rediscover yourself and what you hold important personally.
For many it allows them to get away and be a means of therapy from past trauma while others may just be yearning for a life-altering adventure in their life.
No matter what knowing your personal “why” will help keep you from quitting the trail when the trail gets hard or difficult, it is your rock on your trek and if you don’t have it in your heart you may fail.
Learning To Be On Your Own
For hikers it is typically well understood that you may spend some decent legs of a day or longer without any other interaction with other people, the further away from cities this is kind of expected.
What occurs for many people who are starting without doing previous shorter trips is that this catches them completely off guard, especially for people who are extroverts and used to a crowd to feed on.
This doesn’t mean you won’t see people nor interact with people but it means you need to know how YOU will handle less human interaction as this can cause drive a hiker to quit when they find they are more a day or family hiker.
Instead, what you want to learn is why it is ok to just exist within your own head and to enjoy and delve deep into that almost limitless access to yourself, without interruptions normally experienced in life.
Physical Preparation for a Thru-Hike
Focusing on building up your body should be a simple thing to explain as you need to be able to work your body harder than it has probably ever worked while you hike for months on end.
Pushing your body will end in issues without proper build-up before, but not just your legs need to be focused on. You need to build up your toes and feet, work on aerobic style cardio, resistance training, and stretches to help round out overall peak fitness performance.
You want to know beforehand where your problem areas are so that you can pay attention to them on the trail and catch anything before it becomes bad enough that it stops you in your tracks.
Conditioning Your Feet
Your feet are more than likely your biggest chance for success and your worst enemy in leading to a complete failure on your thru-hike while also being the most overlooked.
You want to focus on working out and building up the skin and ligament strength within your foot as it will be getting an incredibly large workout consistently walking over uneven surfaces.
You can work on this foot toughening and ligament strength on any sand you can find, the deeper and longer the better to help push and work through building up those feet to be durable for the long haul.
Most newbie hikers may never have walked in the shoes they will start the trail in, that is a dangerous way to start as they won’t be broken in, you won’t know how your feet will feel and fit.
Instead, you want to make sure you have walked in your shoes and socks plenty prior to starting your thru-hike to make sure you know how they’ll react and that all gear is well broken in prior to beginning.
Additionally, on your thru-hike, you will be hiking in wet and soaked socks and shoes more often than you will admit to yourself. You should soak your shoes and socks prior to hiking to get adjusted and make tweaks as needed.
This may seem over the top but wet feet and shoes versus dry ones make a large difference in your life on the trail and knowing how your feet will survive 8 hours in wet, damp shoes is a good way to prepare yourself for the inevitability of the trail.
One of the most important things for any hikers is to have a strong cardiovascular system, you will need your heart pumping hard but being able to recover fast.
You want to work on building up your body to the rigors of the work to come, for many this will be a consistent workout of hiking on weekends along with mid-week workouts on a treadmill.
If you don’t have any real hiking areas around you will want to work out on machines then and on sidewalks and preferably some parks in the area to get some path walking at a minimum.
If you only have time for machines then you should focus on the treadmill at a 15-degree incline and stairclimber to build the most power in your legs that will hold up to the upcoming mountains.
Resistance training is helpful to your overall strength but limited in overall benefits for a thru-hike, it is important to understand that muscle mass does not equate to hiking power and strength.
Lifting weights builds up your endurance but doesn’t do much for the legs specifically, it can be helpful to add some in if you are looking for more upper body strength as well but it’s just more calories and weight on you on the trail.
Isometric exercises like push-ups or planks will help build core muscles that will support a heavier pack more efficiently while also helping build arm stamina so they don’t give out too quickly on those long days of hiking.
It’s recommended to perform these routines three times per week preferably before cardio workouts for maximum effect.
Learn to Stretch
One of the other least focused things that can help you become healthier and more resilient on the trail is to focus on stretching out the muscles you worked hard during the day.
It’s recommended to stretch out before and after your workouts, but many don’t extend this to their hiking days. There are many stretches you can do on the trail while taking a break or when you set up camp for the night focused around your calves and hamstrings that can do wonders.
First thing in the morning, you can do some dynamic stretches before starting your hike with a few rounds of “the running man” and “high knees”. Then once you are done for the day you can perform static stretches on your sleeping pad (not inflatable, duh).
Many people don’t properly help themselves by stretching out their muscles after hiking hard all day long. The best way to avoid soreness later on from hiking would be to focus on stretching those worked muscles so they don’t give out too quickly during those long days.
There are many stretches that could help you become healthier and more resilient while taking a break or when setting up camp for the night focused around your calves and hamstrings that will do wonders.
Final Thoughts on How to Train For Thru-Hiking
To be successful on the trail means more than just being prepared with your gear, you must be mentally and physically prepared for you to be successful on your thru-hike.
If you don’t do the proper preparations you will quickly find your body giving out and showing signs of exhaustion which is when you will end up waiving your white flag and heading home.
Instead, take the time beforehand and put in the work to know your personal why and to mentally prepare for the hardest thing you have done in your life and know that people are rooting for you, go out there and just keep fighting!