How to Build and Maintain Thru-Hiking Fitness
Staying in hiking shape during the off-season is a serious challenge, but it’s not impossible
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Last fall, after backpacking around 270 miles on the Long Trail through the rugged Green Mountains of Vermont, my fellow campers and I discussed how we were now in the best shape of our lives. Around the campfire, we brainstormed how we might maintain our fitness after returning to our regular routines back home. Some said it was impossible. Others thought we could do it by hiking a super-steep mountain once per week. The rest of the group believed the best strategy would be regular running.
So what’s the right answer? It is indeed nearly impossible to maintain thru-hiking fitness when you’re not actually thru-hiking, according to Lee Welton, an Idaho-based online personal trainer and founder of Trailside Fitness who completed the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018. Because thru-hikes are all-consuming, he says there’s no way to replicate the same physical and mental challenges while juggling the work and social obligations of our everyday lives. Jenn Cadorette, a physical therapist who owns Wellfound Physical Therapy and Fitness in Vermont with her husband and completed the Long Trail in 2017, is a bit more optimistic. “It’s not impossible,” she says, “but it takes a lot of work.”
Aspiring thru-hikers, especially those who need to build fitness instead of simply maintain it, face an even tougher challenge when it comes to training. Different versions of the question “How do I train for my upcoming hike?” frequently appear in online backpacking forums like r/AppalachianTrail or r/PacificCrestTrail on Reddit. And the replies often offer some take on the following advice: “You don’t need to train for a thru-hike. Just hike slowly at first and get your trail legs along the way.” According to Welton, this widespread belief is one of the biggest misconceptions about preparing for a long trek. “It’s some of the laziest and most careless advice an aspiring hiker can ever hear,” he says. “Some of the younger hikers will go out and might be able to do it, but older hikers definitely need to train. And they should also have a smart plan to do the right type of training.” Here’s how you should break it down, whether you’re looking to maintain existing fitness during the off-season or getting into thru-hiking shape for the first time.
Why Training Matters
Training helps you avoid the type of discomfort or injury that could put a damper on your big adventure or even derail it altogether. After all, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy reports that only one in four hikers make it to Mount Katahdin, and injuries are among the most common reasons they quit.
Maybe you dream of hitting one of the country’s legendary Triple Crown trails as a novice backpacker. Or perhaps, like me, you’re an experienced hiker and just want to stay fit enough to do the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim, summit all 46 High Peaks of the Adirondacks, or conquer another big hiking dream. Whatever your particular goal, thru-hiking is a massive commitment of money and time, so you’ll want to do everything in your power to make it a success. “You put all this effort in, and you could get in 500 miles and suffer an injury,” Welton says. “If you can mitigate that risk with training, I’d advocate for that.”
Start with Steady-State Cardio
Creating and executing the right training plan will set you up for hiking success, and it should include staying active year-round. But not all training is created equal, and not all workout regimens will translate to on-trail fitness. Despite the mainstream popularity of programs like HIIT training, it’s not exactly the best way to prepare for an upcoming trek. “It’s not translatable to hiking at all,” Welton explains. “It uses the wrong energy systems.” Instead, prioritize steady-state cardio—focusing on off-feet activities like rowing and cycling is particularly beneficial for beginners. Training hikes will produce a fair amount of impact on the joints, but these activities won’t overload them.
Experienced backpackers looking to maintain their post-trail fitness might consider doing something more intense, like trail running, to stay conditioned. “I did a lot of trail running after I finished the Long Trail,” Cadorette recalls. “I felt like I almost had to because my muscles were missing the exercise.” Running and stair climbing are other options to consider if you already have a solid fitness base and your joints can take the stress. Remember: hiking calls for steady cardio endurance. As a general guideline, Welton recommends aiming for at least 30 to 60 minutes of endurance training twice a week, in addition to practice hikes.
Add Resistance Training to Prevent Injury
Resistance training is an equally important piece of the hiking preparation puzzle. Exercises like lunges, squats, and planks will prepare your muscles, bones, and connective tissues to handle the stresses of the trail. “For hiking, you should focus on lower weight and more reps to hit the endurance fibers in the muscles,” Cadorette says. Welton recommends two or three 30-to-60-minute sessions per week.
Muscle soreness will always be a fact of life on the trail, but regular resistance training will significantly improve your movement efficiency and strengthen tendons and ligaments. It will also decrease the likelihood of common overuse injuries (think knee and ankle pain, shin splints, and plantar fasciitis) that can force you off the trail because they take so long to heal.
Gradually Increase the Difficulty of Training Hikes
While most of the training advice culled from internet forums is oversimplified, the principle of specificity still holds when preparing for a trek. Undertaking several lengthy hikes is, of course, vital to preparing for a long-distance trek, because it’s the best way to simulate on-trail conditions. But be patient and increase the difficulty gradually to avoid injury.
While practicing for the Long Trail as a novice backpacker, I strapped on a loaded pack and progressively increased each practice hike’s distance and elevation by 10 percent to 20 percent each week. I did my first training hike six months before my Long Trail start date, following a six-mile trail up and down Mount Greylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts, gaining an elevation of about 2,000 feet. Then, every one to two weeks, I completed a slightly longer and more challenging trail. As spring turned into summer, I climbed about three mountains per month in the Catskills, sometimes hiking up to eight or ten miles with elevations of 2,000 to 2,500 feet. My training finally ended with summiting Mount Phelps in the Adirondacks, gaining 2,200 feet in eight miles, as well as a 12-mile hike to Avalanche Pass in the High Peaks Wilderness, gaining about 2,500 feet. I finally felt ready to hit the Long Trail.
Welton recommends a systematic approach of gradually increasing distance and elevation by starting with weekly four-to-eight-mile hikes with a maximum of 1,000 feet for the first month. More experienced hikers might feel comfortable starting with eight-to-ten-mile or ten-to-12-mile hikes with an elevation of 1,500 to 2,000 feet or 2,000 to 3,000 feet, respectively, to keep their fitness in check. No matter where you start, the goal is to ramp up to hikes of 12 to 14 miles with a maximum elevation of 3,000 feet by month four.
If you don’t live anywhere near mountains or simply struggle to find the time to hit them regularly, don’t fret. You can still prepare by walking as much as possible. Welton encourages people living in flat locations to seek flights of stairs in a parking garage or building. “You can even look into things like a step-up with a step that’s eight to ten inches high,” he says. “It’s not as big of a hurdle as people think it can be. If you’re serious about hiking, then load up a pack and use the stairways.”
Don’t Skimp on Recovery
Remember to schedule time—an entire day at minimum each week—for physical and mental recovery amid all this preparation, especially if you’re not in the best shape. “I’m a huge believer in foam rolling,” Cadorette says. On the trail, she carried a tennis ball to roll out her hip flexors and tensor fasciae latae, or TFL muscle, which starts at the side of the hip on the top portion of the pelvis, attaches to the IT band, and helps bend the knee and hip. And at least once per week, you should take the time to stretch your whole body, particularly the calves, hips, quads, and hamstrings.
With the proper training and recovery program, anyone can be prepared to step onto the trail of their dreams. Whether you’re preparing for your first adventure or trying to maintain a certain fitness level, consistency is paramount. “You just have to put in the work,” Welton says. “Make a plan and follow through. And if you need help or guidance with that, seek out a personal trainer with hiking experience.”