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AT Thru-Hike: Focus On Physical & Mental Preparation

Read Time: Approximately 11 minutes

So you want to hike the Appalachian Trail? This epic, challenging wilderness path covers nearly the entire length of the Appalachian Mountains. The trail begins in Georgia and ends in Maine, with over 2000 miles of backcountry terrain.

The Appalachian Trail is famous for being one of the world’s most challenging long-distance hiking trails. It’s often called “the toughest hike you’ll ever love.” Completing a thru-hike takes months of preparation, physical training, and mental toughness.

Most people take 5-7 months to complete a thru-hike. Do you have what it takes? Learn how to get started with these tips to train your body (and mind), so you can finish this grueling hike from Georgia to Maine.

Man hiking up to the bald of a hill looking out over mountains with full backpacking gear for Pinterest

How You Should Train For An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike

While the outward appearance of preparing for a 2000-mile-long trek may appear to be that you have to focus on your training exercises and physical preparation, the thing that takes out many thru-hikers long before their body is their mind.

Mental Resolve

While many feel an accident or injury will be what takes them off the trail, what ends up causing them to quit is the mental exhaustion and isolation that creeps in after weeks and months of being on the trail.

You have to prepare your mind for long periods without the comforts and massive social interaction you’re used to in your everyday life. It can be a difficult adjustment for many.

Part of training your mind for a thru-hike is to get used to being alone and enjoying your own company. This can be done by taking solo hikes regularly in the months leading up to your thru-hike.

Start small with day hikes, and work your way up to weekend backpacking trips. The goal is to get comfortable in the wilderness alone for extended periods. This will help you mentally prepare for the solo nature of a thru-hike.

Another way to train your mind for a thru-hike is to read books about other peoples’ experiences on the many thru-hiking trails, like the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail.

Reading will help to provide you an idea of what to expect, both mentally and physically, during your own thru-hike.

Finally, one of the best ways to mentally prepare for a thru-hike is to talk to others who have done it. There are many online forums and Facebook groups dedicated to Appalachian Trail thru-hikers.

These are great resources for learning about the mental challenges you may face during your hike.

Two ladies using the stairs at a school stadium to get the leg workout completed

Physical Ability

Of course, a long-distance hike will require some physical ability, but while it helps, you will continue to build this up as you hike.

More important is training your body to hike long distances with a loaded backpack. This will help get your body used to the physical challenges of hiking all day, every day, for months on end.

Start by going on regular hikes with a fully loaded backpack. Begin with shorter hikes and gradually increase the distance and duration of your hikes as you get in better shape. Do this regularly in the months leading up to your thru-hike.

In addition to training your body to hike with a backpack, it’s also important to do some strength training at a gym or, if you have the ability, a home gym set like these amazing Rogue barbell sets.

This will help you build the muscle and joint strength necessary to carry a heavy backpack long distances.

Finally, doing cardio training is important to increase your overall fitness level. This will help you hike longer distances with less effort. Cardio training includes running, swimming, biking, or endurance cardio machines.

Choose an activity you enjoy and can stick with for the long haul.

How Long Before Leaving Should You Begin Training For Your AT Thru-Hike?

For most people, this training will begin at least a year before starting their thru-hike. This timeline gives you plenty of time to focus on the mental and physical training necessary for a successful thru-hike.

Of course, if you don’t have a year to train, that’s okay. Many people have started training just a few months before their hike and have been successful, but the sooner you can start assembling and enacting your plans, the better your hike will be.

Woman running on a treadmill getting her cardio built up in the gym

Physical Training & Preparation

Your fitness plan needs to be broad and cover a wide range of strength, aerobic, and anaerobic training.

Ideally, you should be doing aerobic and anaerobic training in the months leading up to your thru-hike. This will help you build the endurance necessary for long days of hiking and the strength necessary to carry a heavy backpack.

Example Training:

  • Aerobic training includes biking, running, and swimming.
  • Anaerobic training includes activities like weightlifting and sprinting.
  • Strength training is important to build the muscle and joint strength necessary to carry a heavy backpack long distances.

Also, in all this training, remember the most important training is to go load up your backpack and do real hikes for multiple days. Someplace like the Foothills Trail is a perfect match to expectations on the AT, allowing good shakedown hikes on gear to occur.

Building a Physical Training Program

It’s important to focus on training the specific muscles during a thru-hike. These include your leg, core, and arm muscles, as you will use these three more frequently than you may initially assume.

You can train these muscles without weights or machines by doing squats, lunges, sit-ups, pull-ups, and push-ups. In addition to strength training, you should also focus on cardio training to increase your overall fitness level.

This can include running, biking, swimming, or using an endurance cardio machine. Choose an activity you enjoy and can stick with and enjoy for the long haul.

Aerobic Training

Aerobic training is any activity that gets your heart rate up and keeps it there for an extended period. While on the trail, you will be looking to hike 8-12 hours a day which means you need to sustain that pace.

The best way to train for this is by doing activities like hiking with a pack, running, biking, or swimming. These activities will help increase your overall fitness level and prepare your body for the physical challenges of hiking all day.

Anaerobic Training

Anaerobic training is any activity that gets your heart rate up for a short burst of time, followed by a period of recovery. This is important because, on the trail, you will need to be able to hike uphill for sustained periods of effort and time.

The best way to train for this is by doing activities like weightlifting, sprinting, or interval training. These activities will help build the muscle and joint strength necessary to carry a heavy backpack long distances.

Interval training is anaerobic training that alternates between high-intensity and low-intensity activity periods. This is a great way to train because it closely simulates the physical challenges of hiking uphill for long periods.

Man lifting a barbell with weights in a crossfit gym

Resistance Training

Using weights to help build up stronger muscles is an important part of the preparation for a thru-hike. While less important than aerobic and anaerobic training, it is vital for body balance

This training will help build the muscle and joint strength necessary to carry a heavy backpack long distances, especially if you are a SOBO hiker starting in Baxter State Park.

Climbing up and then Katahdin down will be an insane level of arm and leg work.

The best way to do this is by lifting weights 2-3 times per week. Start with lighter weights and gradually increase the amount of weight you are lifting as your body gets stronger.

You can use your gym membership for access to free weights or machines, or you can look to add them to your home so that you can always have no excuse to do the work.

Focus on Training Your Body By Utilizing Actual Hiking

Although much of the information from internet forums is superficial, the concept of specificity is important when preparing for a hike. Several long hikes simulate what it will be like on the trail and should therefore be done to prepare.

The main issue is increasing difficulty too fast. Instead, take your time in increasing difficulty as your body will need to adjust. If you’re someone who works a desk job, training for a thru-hike will be a huge change for your body, and it needs time to adapt.

I began my training as a novice hiker by wearing at least the pack weight I planned to carry + 5% to help cover food or water changes on the trail. Then gradually work on increasing the distance and elevation of each shakedown by 10 to 20 percent weekly.

My first LSHT training hike was six months before my Ouachita Trail trek start date, during which I covered loops and got a feel for how the pack would work over longer miles, as it does feel different in mile 1 than in mile 10!

Since the Lone Star Hiking Trail is mostly flat, I am planning another 3-day trip out on the Eagle Rock Loop Trail specifically to get some more peaks and distance to grab some real climbs and descents as these work your legs in unique ways machines fail at training.

If you don’t have regular access to real mountains or if time is the issue to climb them regularly, there’s no need to stress yourself out and worry as you can prepare by walking as much as possible.

I would encourage people living in areas without many inclines to seek out flights of stairs in stadiums, parking garages, or buildings, as this similarly pushes your muscles.

Man in the gym using a foam roller on his leg

Take Time Off and Be Serious About Recovery

In addition to training your body, focusing on recovery is also important. This includes things like foam rolling, stretching, and taking days off from training.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when training for a thru-hike is not taking enough time off. Respecting the process and understanding that your body needs time to recover from training is important.

Foam rolling is a great way to improve blood circulation and help your muscles recover. I use either a foam roller every night or the good old cork ball I take hiking after training to help my muscles recover.

Stretching is also important for recovery. I like to do a dynamic stretching routine before training and a static stretching routine after training.

I also recommend taking at least one day off per week from training. This will give your body the time it needs to recover and prevent overtraining.

Mental training & prep for an AT Thru-Hike

The straw that breaks the camel’s back is mentally fatiguing, especially on the Appalachian Trail with constant rain, cold, and other hikers who are miserable.

Start by training your mind to be more optimistic. This will help you in all walks of life but especially on the trail when things seem to be going wrong constantly.

Most first-time thru-hikers are mentally unprepared for the long haul and think they can just “tough it out.” This is a recipe for disaster and will only lead to misery.

Missing Loved Ones

A huge issue is one people may not consider before they hit the trail with their first footfall. Leaving my wife and daughter is the most difficult part of any trip I take. If not prepared for the homesickness, it can wear a person down mentally.

I like to stay in touch with my family as much as possible while I’m on the trail, I bring my Zoleo to be connected with at least daily start and end day messages which also means I can get emergency notices from them.

This includes sending them postcards from towns, calling when I can, and writing long letters when I have the time.

I also find it helpful to keep a journal, use notes on my phone, and write down my thoughts and feelings about each day, both the good and the bad.

Julia Sheehan used this style of process to convert each hike into a book which I find absolutely amazing and hadn’t considered prior!

This is a very simple way to process what I’m going through and helps me see the positive when re-reading my entries.

It’s also important to remember that they are missing you just as much as you are missing them, so don’t forget to show your appreciation when you get back!

Belief in Sheer Willpower

Many hikers believe their stubbornness is enough to get them to Katahdin. While this may be the case for some, I find that most people need more than just willpower to make it to Maine.

It’s important to have a solid plan as well as a good support system in place.

I also find it helpful to have a “Why” for hiking the Appalachian Trail. This could be nearly anything from wanting to see all of the beautiful scenery to needing time to clear your head or simply wanting to challenge yourself.

Whatever your reason may be, make sure it’s something that will keep you motivated when things get tough, like your fourth day in constant rainfall when all your clothes are cold and wet.

Final Thoughts

Start training for your Appalachian Trail thru-hike today, and you’ll be on your way to completing one of the most challenging and rewarding hikes in the world.

Just remember to focus on your physical and mental preparation, and you’ll be ready to take on anything the trail throws your way.

Make sure to balance out your training, though, to use mental as well as physical training, and don’t forget to take some time for yourself to rest and relax!