Physical Training and Preparation for Thru Hiking

Hiking? It has nothing to do with crossFit or your garage gym. Why is this article here?

No, you haven’t mistakenly clicked on the wrong page. Thru-hiking is something that will test both your physical and mental strengths. This is NOT a walk in the park.

It takes a lot of preparation. You go to the gym for a couple of hours, but this will be like your final exam – it will determine if you’ve really understood the saying “No pain, No gain”.

Whether you are planning to hike the Pacific Coat Trail, The Continental Divide Trail or shorter distance trails like the Oregon Coast Trail or Finger Lakes Trail, Preparing yourself physically should be among your top priorities.

Being fit and physically prepared enhances your enjoyment and greatly increases your chance for a successful finish.

What are some of the basics to getting your body trail ready?

mountain climbing

Increase Practice Incrementally

Don’t try to increase your practice hiking length too quickly. Stick with one length for a week, and add a mile or two at a time to your practice.

Practice Hikes using a backpack

Hiking with your backpack is a must. If you have not selected a backpack for your trip, we know a blog who can recommend and reviews backpacks for thru hikers.

Backpackers who travel alone will need a bigger pack because they will carry all their gear by themselves as opposed to sharing items with a travel partner.

That independence and freedom will cost you, in terms of a weightier backpack, so if you plan to thru hike alone, practice and train with a fully loaded pack.

How Long is the Thru-Hike you are planning?

Determine the length of the thru hike you are planning and determine realistic goals for mileage each day. It is a good idea to plan rest days, or low mile days so your body can rest.

Day Hikes for Training

If you are new, start training with shorter day hikes in the range of 6 to 10 miles. Depending on fitness level, try the day hike with a back, or perhaps and empty pack.

As you continue training using day hikes, add items to the pack and work up to the weight you plan to carry on your long thru hike.

Day hikes give you a chance to build up your endurance and eventually your day hike should be as long as your planned daily goal for your long thru hike.

Day hikes will also help you refine your navigation skills and filter your gear to only what you need, while showing you what gear you may want to add.

When you plan your day hikes, begin using easy terrain if you are not accustomed to hiking. Work up to more difficult terrain.

You should eventually be day hiking trails with similar gains in elevation, terrain, and if possible, weather, as your planned long thru hike. Weather will be a special challenge as it is likely to be quite varied on a long thru hike.

Weekend and Week Long Trial Hikes- There is no Better Teacher than Experience

You should also plan a few weekend hikes, and possible one or two week long trial hikes. This gives you a chance to try out your camping gear and techniques and discover if your daily mileage goal is going to work on a consistent basis.

Spending several nights outdoors choosing your own campsites will teach you a lot, without being faced with the commitment of the long thru hike.

This gives you time to re-evaluate your gear, navigation plans, mileage goals, skill set, everything you need for the long thru hike. Do not wait until you are on the long hike to practice these things.

Hit the Gym

Muscular man doing exercises for abdominal in The Gym

CrossFit, or some form of cross training will be a helpful addition to smaller training hikes.

CrossFit is beneficial because it does not focus on one area, but covers all major muscle groups for overall fitness. You will use menu muscles as you hike, besides leg muscles.

The one muscle group used heavily and the one that often catches hikers off-guard is the core.

Schlepping a hefty pack 15 miles everyday requires strong core muscles. It is much better to work those muscles into shape now then to develop them on the trail.

The Consequences of Not Making Training a Priority

Many Thru Hikers plan meticulously for food, re-supplies, mailing ahead, reading maps and all the other planning needed for a successful hike.

But when it comes to physical preparation they say to themselves they will ‘get in shape on the trail’.

Well, that’s true, you WILL get in shape on the trail, if you don’t quit or get injured.

The problem is going into the hike with little or no training means you will be more prone to injury.

You will have less time to practice using your gear, to figure out if you have packed too much, to find out if you included items you don’t really need and left behind items you do need.

If you do not do smaller training hikes you can not be sure you will meet you daily mile goal on your long thru hike. If you can not meet your goal you risk falling behind and not finishing the hike in time for the season to end or to meet your own personal deadline.

Without practice your first few hundred miles will be your training and this can affect the amount you enjoy the trip because being unprepared is discouraging and affects you mentally.

Keep in mind, a large number of hikers who attempt long thru hikes do not complete their goal, and one of the biggest reasons is not being prepared for the challenges physically and mentally.

Tip: Get checked and aligned by a Chiropractor before you start your long thru hike. If your hips or back are out of alignment or unbalanced the rigors and repetitive movements of an extended hike will cause discomfort, pain and/or injuries.

Mental Preparation:

hiker with backpack

Your physical preparation is related, in part, to your mental preparation. Not being physically prepared will affect your mind negatively on the trail.

But, it is also important to prepare mentally. Many hikers have a moment or two where they are tempted to call it quits. Many folks do not meet their goals and return home having not completed the hike.

How to prepare mentally:

  • Follow a pre-hike training regimen including weeklong hikes with your pack on. Getting in shape before hand will help prevent injuries and reduce the strain and fatigue you feel, especially at the beginning of the hike. Physical discomfort and injury can throw off your mental game. The mental and physical are closely related.
  • Think about and write down your reasons for finishing the hike. These reasons will be what you need to think about in the difficult moments of the hike. Write down the things you will gain from finishing, and the consequences of not completing the hike. It is important to WRITE DOWN the reason because the reason will be hard to access when your are in the gloomy grip of a trail trial.
  • Understand ahead of time that you will encounter things you really don’t like and that you will need to accept in order to finish. Hiking in a downpour that lasts several days, encountering a mountain lion, being so cold at night you can’t sleep, being so hungry you would eat condiments if you ran out of food before the next stop and all things that happen to people on thru-hikes and something like this will happen on your hike. Your reason must be strong enough to bring you through these trials.

While preparing both physically and mentally remember the more prepared you are the more rewarding the experience will be.