Are you considering or gearing up for your first thru-hike? Or maybe you’re a seasoned hiker looking for ways to stay in shape during the off-season so you can tackle your next adventure with comfort and ease? Whatever your goals, thru-hiking is a major financial and time commitment. It’s also an emotional investment.
And why shouldn’t it be? Thru-hiking is a transformative experience. No one ever plans to end their once-in-a-lifetime adventure prematurely.
Even so, out of the thousands of people who attempt a thru-hike every year, only 15-25% are successful. However, with the right combination of physical training and mental preparation, you can increase your chances of success!
So how exactly do you prepare for such a life-changing adventure? Where do you begin? Is thru-hiking really more of a mental game than a physical one? All your questions will be answered, but first, let’s start with why it’s important to train for a thru-hike.
Obligatory disclaimer: This article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. I’m an enthusiastic thru-hiker with over 3,000 trail miles under my feet who’s dedicated to helping people make the right choices for themselves on and off trail. Between solo traversing the Grand Canyon and hiking along some of the most rugged and desolate coastline in California, I understand the challenges and rewards of the hiking experience, and I’m excited to share that knowledge with others. Talk with your doctor or another qualified health provider before engaging in any training regimen.
Why You Should Train for Your Thru-Hike
In the weeks leading up to their start date, most hikers find themselves mapping out their resupply points, preparing their maildrops, cutting the tags off their clothes to save some weighty grams, arranging their leave of absence with their employers, and tying up any loose ends at home.
All of that prep work can consume your energy and bandwidth. Throwing after-work gym sessions and shakedown hikes into the mix will feel unnecessarily burdensome. After all, you’ll be hiking for the next 4-6 months. Getting into shape will be a breeze on the trail. Right? Well, not exactly. By relying on the couch potato strategy, you fall victim to a classic thru-hiker fallacy.
Every year, alums from each triple crown trail (Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail) report injury as one of the top, if not their number one, reason for not completing the trail. A proper training regimen before beginning your adventure is essential for an enjoyable, pain-free, and successful thru-hike.
When Should You Start Training for Your Thru-Hike?
Normally, it’s best to start training about 4-6 months before a thru-hike. If you want to start earlier, all the better. If this is your first long-distance hike and you lead a sedentary lifestyle, you may feel comfortable starting training up to a year out from your start date.
How to Physically Train for Your Thru-Hike
Your age, overall health, pre-existing medical conditions, and current fitness level, among other factors, play a role in the amount of physical preparation you’ll need for your thru-hike. Remember to consult with your physician before starting any exercise program.
Strengthen your cardiovascular system by doing some form of cardio 3-4 times a week to prepare for your thru-hike. Additionally, mixing in light aerobic activity will strengthen your heart and lungs, boosting your on-trail endurance and training your body to keep moving without becoming fatigued.
These aerobic activities can include:
- Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP)
- Group fitness glasses
- Gym cardio equipment (e.g. elliptical, rower, stepper, etc)
- Skiing/cross-country skiing/ski touring
By engaging in resistance training, you can reduce the risk of injury caused by repetitive motions on your hike. These overuse injuries can manifest in the form of tendonitis in the knee and ankle, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and others. Because these injuries can take so long to heal, they can sideline hikers for a few weeks or the entire season.
A resistance training routine incorporating lunges, squats, planks, free weight circuits, and pull-ups/push-ups will develop key muscle groups and improve your mobility on trail. Ideally, you should engage in a resistance training routine 2-3 times a week.
Climbing is also great for building upper body and leg strength. If that’s something you might be interested in, hit up your local climbing gym or head to your nearest crag for an exciting workout!
A Note on Good Pain Vs. Bad Pain
It’s normal to feel pain in the form of soreness when you’re pushing your body to new limits, and it’s often a sign that you’re making progress! Bad pain is your body telling you something is wrong and should be dealt with to prevent further injury. While good pain will feel dull or achy and usually occurs after exercise, bad pain is sharp and can flare up during exercise, or in the joint after exercise. If either of these happens, reduce your intensity or stop doing the exercise. The last thing you want is to get overzealous at the gym and hurt yourself before you start your hike! It is also worth noting that getting too sore while likely make it difficult for your next workout to go as planned. Try and balance pushing yourself, but not pushing so hard that your later workouts are inhibitied.
Your hamstrings, hip flexors, shoulders, and lower back are constantly at work while you hike. When you exercise these areas, you’ll experience less muscle stiffness at the end of a physically challenging day on trail. Including yoga and Pilates in your fitness routine are excellent ways to improve your mobility and core strength. Additionally, engaging in a dynamic stretching routine before you break camp in the morning before you go to sleep can improve your mobility, increase your comfort, and help reduce muscle soreness and stiffness.
Finally, the most effective way to prepare for a thru-hike is–you guessed it–hiking! You can start by walking in and around the areas where you’ll be hiking to get a feel for the terrain and elevation changes.
However, if that’s not possible or you live in a flat area, you can climb staircases in parking garages or the bleachers at your local high school, train on the StairMaster at the gym, or take long walks around your neighborhood once or twice a week. As your cardio improves, graduate up to steeper terrain (if possible), throw on a weighted vest or partially loaded pack and add more weight every week until your pack weight matches how much you plan to carry on trail.
It’s also a good idea to do at least one shakedown hike a month out from your start date. Shakedown hikes build up your endurance and allow you to test and fine-tune your gear before you hit the trail, a crucial component of your thru-hike preparation!
What is a Shakedown Hike?
A shakedown hike is simply a hike utilizing the same or similar gear you plan to use on your thru-hike in order to test gear, packing strategies, fitness, and more.
Training Hike Length
Many runners in training programs make sure they don’t increase their overall training load by more than 10% every week. They do this to prevent pushing your body to quickly and to reduce injury risk. Translating this to hiking training, this means, don’t increase your hiking mileage and elevation gain by more than 10% each week. Hiking is generally less impactful on joints and muscles than running, meaning the 10% rule likely can be increased if we are just talking about hiking.
10% may not seem like much, but if you increase by 10% each week, your overall mileage and fitness will still rapidly be increasing. For example, in 3 months, that equates to over a 300% increase in weekly mileage.
How to Mentally Train for Your Thru-Hike
Understand Your “Why”
There’s a saying that thru-hiking is 20% physical and 80% mental. On the whole, I agree. Before stepping foot on the trail, it’s worth asking yourself why you’re willing to put your life on hold to go walk in the woods for six months.
Your “why” may be a desire for more solitude, to disconnect from the outside world, or even to reconnect with yourself and what you value most. Your reason for hiking can be as deep or surface level as you like, as long as it’s yours and yours alone.
I had several reasons for hiking the PCT; among them was the desire to experience a remarkable journey surrounded by nature’s grandeur. That’s it. No matter what, returning to your “why” can help you stay motivated on a bad day and give you the extra push you need to reach the finish line.
Commit to a Self-Care Routine
Performing simple self-care exercises on the trail can prevent soreness, pains, and injuries on your thru-hike. Taking the time to stretch, massaging your sore feet, or wearing compression sleeves can be great inclusions into your daily routine, enabling you to maintain your peak performance on trail.
Another self-care tip that sounds like a given but needs to be said is keeping yourself hydrated. Chronic dehydration is a struggle for many thru-hikers. When you’re hiking on a trail with unreliable water sources, have to stretch six liters of water over 20 miles, hiking at elevation, or simply having too much fun that you forget to hydrate, it’s no wonder hikers constantly feel thirsty for most of their journey.
At best, chronic dehydration slows you down, making you feel sluggish and uncomfortable. At its worst, untreated dehydration can lead to serious, potentially life-threatening consequences like heat stroke, muscle breakdown, and kidney failure. Dehydration can also impair your mental performance and decision-making abilities, increasing your risk of accidents on trail.
Review Your Wilderness First Aid Skills
Unfortunately, many thru-hikers don’t know how to spot the signs and symptoms of the most common backcountry injuries and illnesses like heat exhaustion, heat stroke, hypothermia, and altitude sickness. Remember that you and you alone are responsible for your safety on trail.
Even if you do everything right to keep yourself out of harm’s way, there’s still a chance you’ll come across another hiker in need of medical attention. If that happens, will you be ready to help?
Backcountry rescues and response times often take longer than in cities. Therefore, being able to self-treat and evacuate yourself or others will free up search and rescue resources for more serious emergencies. That being said, it’s better to call for help and stay put if you’re not sure how to self-treat or evacuate without causing additional harm to yourself or others.
I highly recommend brushing up on the basics of wilderness first aid before starting your thru-hike. Better yet, get your Wilderness First Aid (WFA) certification! Both REI and NOLS offer year-round, two-day WFA certification courses.
Since becoming WFA certified four years ago, I have applied my skills and knowledge to aid and treat others in numerous wilderness medical emergencies. Not only will you gain confidence in your judgment and decision-making abilities, but you’ll also be equipped with the tools and knowledge to advocate for the safety of yourself and your hiking companions.
Your Next Steps
Now that you understand the fundamentals of thru-hiking preparation, the next step is to develop a training program you can get excited about. As I mentioned earlier, physical conditioning for your thru-hike should include cardio, strength, mobility, and training hikes. So how could that translate into a weekly training schedule?
- Develop a simple or robust physical training program to adhere to (how you do so is up to your needs and preferences).
- Determine any additional training you may need or want before your hike. Wilderness First Aid and CPR certifications are examples of great options. Schedule these trainings.
- Write down your “why”. This can adapt over time, but make sure you are writing down or logging somewhere your reasons for this adventure, and even some goals you seek to attain during it.
- Set aside time each week to research the trail and overall planning of your hike. Each week, you should be making progress so that your confidently prepared before you head out on the trail.
These next steps will help cover your physical preparation, your experience/knowledge preparation, and your mental health preparation.
Example Training Routine
When I started training for the PCT, my weekly exercise routine looked like this:
Monday: Rest day
Tuesday: 30-45 minutes of resistance training, core development, and mobility exercises
Wednesday: 2-4 mile walks around my neighborhood with a weighted pack or HIIT workout
Thursday: 30-45 minutes of resistance training, core development, and mobility exercises
Friday: 2-4 mile walks around my neighborhood with a weighted pack or HIIT workout
Saturday: Weekly hike (3-5 miles with at least 1,000 feet of elevation gain, or 6-10 miles with at least 3,000 feet of elevation gain)
Sunday: 15-20 minutes of core and mobility exercises
Note: I chose to invest in a physical trainer who has experience working with thru-hikers to develop a training program that was aligned with my hiking goals and fitness needs. If you’re looking for a credentialed physical trainer who will also serve as your accountability partner and personal hype man, I highly recommend connecting with Lee at Trailside Fitness to get you trail ready!
And one more thing. Staying motivated is difficult when you’re juggling life responsibilities or focusing on other, more exciting aspects of thru-hike prep. I get it. But there are ways to meet your fitness goals for the trail while having fun doing it!
Team up with a friend and schedule weekly gym or climbing sessions, form accountability groups with other thru-hikers, reward yourself for reaching fitness milestones, and remember that, just like thru-hiking, it’s all about putting one foot in front of the other.
Ash Czarnota is a freelance writer based in Southern California with over 3,000 trail miles under her feet. She is the founder of Go Galavanting, an online community to celebrate adventurous women and highlight emerging thought leaders in the outdoor industry. A PCT alumni, Joshua Tree enthusiast and burgeoning climber, Ash uses her outdoor experiences to craft content that educates and inspires a rising generation of adventurers to embrace their inner wild. Connect with her on Instagram (@salty_millennial).