Physical Preparations for Long Distance Hiking

Chris "Suge" Willett

With Collective Wisdom from: Redneck Rye, Squeaky, Gutsy 2, Peaks, MinnesotaSmith, Footslogger, Knees, Mags, Fiddlehead, The Solemates, Khaynie, DrewNC2005, Belgarion, gsingjane, C.coyle, Julie, Skidsteer, Almost There, BW2006, Peanuts, Ridge.

Special Thanks to gsingjane for many helpful editing comments.


All I could do was sit in the middle of the trail and keep myself from crying. My two hiking partners scattered into the woods to look for a campsite for the night while I tried to maintain control over my exhausted body and splintered mind. I could feel every part of my body, from the blisters on the bottom of my feet, to my aching quads, to the pounding pain in my head. We had hiked ten miles and less than three thousand feet in the White Mountains of New Hampshire over the course of an eight hour day, which was about twice what I was able to handle. The last few hours were a blur of bad memories. I wanted to be anywhere but where I was. There was no joy in my life.

Today the memory of that hike up Crawford Path toward the Lake of the Clouds Hut remains burned into my mind as a reminder of how not to approach hiking, especially the long distance variety: I want to enjoy my time in the outdoors and I cannot do this if I am physically exhausted. I began to exercise as a means of improving my outdoor experience. I had no interest in hiking 30 miles a day simply to impress other people or to buoy my ego. Rather, I wanted to be on the move most of the day, to see as much of the land as I could, without reaching the death-march stage of complete un-enjoyment that I had experienced in New Hampshire. I wanted to be happy and comfortable the entire time. I wanted to look upon a steep climb up to mountain top as a fun opportunity to see something new, rather than dreading the physical exertion it would take. I wanted to be alert enough to spot a pretty flower under a bush at the end of a long climb, at the end of a long day. I wanted to be able to whistle a tune to accompany the setting sun while strolling along a ridge line, soaking up the best light of the day, long after most hikers had called it quits and were safely ensconced in a view-less shelter or tent. In short, I wanted everything.

In this article I will present both my own opinions and those of others on the subject of physical preparations, including why you might want to consider it, why you might not, and methods for improving your level of outdoor fitness. Let it be known at the start that I am not a physical trainer. I do not have a degree in exercise science. I cannot run a marathon. I have never hiked a 40 mile day. I am not the world's sole authority on hiking. What I will describe is what has worked for me and interested readers can see the results at I am going to focus on physical preparations for long distance hiking, though much of what I will write holds true for day hikes or shorter length backpacks. For section hikers, I believe physical preparations are of the utmost importance. There are many different definitions of what constitutes a long distance hike, so feel free to use one you like. For myself, I define a long distance hike to be one in which I can grow a respectable beard. Hikers of the female persuasion might want to choose another one.

Do You Need to Physically Prepare, or Not?

There are two dominant schools of thought when it comes to the necessity of physical conditioning before a long distance hike. The first one asserts that the only way to prepare the body for the rigors of hauling a heavy pack up and down mountains is to haul a heavy pack up and down mountains. This being the case, the long distance hiker simply limits mileage and duration for the first few weeks, slowly increasing both as the body adjusts, increases its fitness, and hardens. The second school asserts that by building hiking-specific power in the legs, strength in the cardio-vascular system, and endurance in general, the long distance hiker can move with ease up and down mountains without any breaking in period.

I have found that most hikers, perhaps 7 out of every 10, are in the first school. The reason is simple: It requires you to do nothing other than spend a lot of time sleeping in, lounging for long periods during the day, and stopping early. It requires you to do nothing before hand other than planning to carry enough food to sustain you over the 8-10 mile days you'll be hiking. With work, family activities, and community obligations, it is much easier to put off physical preparations than to take an hour every other day to exercise. On something like the Appalachian Trail, hikers beginning with minimal physical preparations and hiking slowly will be, assuming they make it, in about the same shape by the time they reach Damascus as those hikers who started off with moderate fitness on Springer Mountain. If this is the case, then why is physical conditioning a good thing? The reason is simple: Enjoyment. For hikers on a trail like the Pacific Crest Trail, where sparse water sources frequently dictate longer days, physical preparations are very important.

While 7 out of 10 hikers (my own estimate) are in the first school, I would also estimate that 7 out of every 10 hikers have a very hard time at the start of the Appalachian Trail. Most hikers who start at Springer don't make it much past the Smokey Mountains. Many hikers develop bad blisters, knee problems, back pains, or some other ailment that keeps them from enjoying what is supposed to be the experience of a lifetime. Swallowing down a dozen ibuprofen tablets a day to keep going is not a good idea. Hikers who have not prepared physically can run-down their bodies by pushing themselves beyond the sort of mileage that they are capable of enjoying, either because others are pushing them, or they get bored sitting around for hours on end and want to "get somewhere", or because they refuse to listen to their body, or simply because they feel like they should be able to hike further than they actually can (i.e, the ego thing). A long distance hike is far more difficult mentally than physically, and if your body begins to fail, to become broken down, your mental state will suffer. Once the hike is no longer enjoyable, there is little reason to continue. Therefore, if you do not want to prepare physically for a hike, you are going to have to force yourself to soak up the days with non-hiking related activities, strictly limit your hiking to what your body can handle, listen to your body, and ignore people who want you to hike beyond your capability to enjoy. Some of the most well known Appalachian Trail hikers belong to this school and it is not one to be lightly ignored.

What Others Think About the Need to Prepare

Redneck_Rye says: Since I'm headed out to the PCT later this spring, I figured I should do something to get into a better shape than my current fat, lazy one. Workout plan, eat a lot better, etc, etc. A great idea but I've met me and it ain't going to happen. My new and brilliant plan - Springer to Erwin or Damascus.

Squeaky says: If you want to train for hiking, then hike. no matter what you do you can't replicate hiking up and down hills/mountains with a pack.

Gutsy_2 says: If it's any consolation to those of you who may be on the lazy side...I read an article prior to my hike that said after 3 weeks of "daily" hiking (one zero a week), there is no measurable difference in the fitness of those who were in marathon athletic shape prior to starting, and those who were relatively sedentary prior to hiking.

Peaks says: I'll agree with that article. However, unless you are in reasonable shape, those first 3 weeks will be tough! Not only very tired muscles, but also more blisters and such, even if you do short days. It will be discouraging.

minnesotasmith says: I would suspect that that would be true only for thru-hikers who hit Springer already approximately proportional in height and weight. Heavier guys like me will likely take more like 2-3 months to drop all the excess poundage and start halfway keeping up with the "Pony Express" guys (trail name of a speed hiker who thrued a few years ago), I expect.

Footslogger says: I thought a lot about getting into shape prior to my thru in 2003 ...but that's about as far as it got.

Knees says: New thru hikers seem to obsess on the fitness side of things and basically if you're in "10,000 steps a day (5 miles)" shape you should be fine. You don't need to be in marathon shape, you don't need to be in double marathon shape, and you don't need to be anywhere close to superhuman shape to successfully start out and complete a thru hike. Obviously, it doesn't hurt if you are in great shape, but even if you can only fit in an hour or so worth of walking each day you can get into good enough shape to prep for the trail.

What to Prepare For

I have gone backpacking in the Grand Canyon with marathoners who, by the end of a 12 mile day, became complete wrecks. Their endurance was good for comparatively short duration and they were not used to gaining elevation. Part of the problem was mental, but the other was physical: The muscles needed for climbing hills are not the same as the muscles for running on flat ground. Moreover, their marathons would generally be over in four hours or less. Hiking for eight hours or more is an activity significantly different from running for four hours. To illustrate the muscle concept, consider the following: In 2003, I hiked 2650 miles over 105 days on the Pacific Crest Trail. Upon my return, I began running again and assumed that as I had been, during the last month of my hike, averaging around 30 miles and 5000 feet of elevation gain per day, I would have no problem with my rolling 6 mile running route. I made it a mile and a half before the muscles in my legs quit on me. I wasn't tired, but my trail-leg muscles were simply not helping me on the pavement. This, of course, is only a simple example, but it is one I keep in mind.

There are three basic components to physical preparations for long distance hiking: Hiking-specific leg muscles, long duration endurance, and hardening the body. Stated in another way, you need power for hills, energy all day, and the ability to hike day after day after day. Walking on flat ground, even with a 60 pound pack, is easy. Gaining a vertical mile of elevation in a five miles of hiking, even with a light pack, is hard. Hikers preparing for a trail like the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, or Continental Divide (or any trail in the mountains) need to prepare for the hills, not for the flats, by building hiking-specific leg strength. In doing so, endurance, another key component, will follow. As hiking stresses the feet , ankles, and knees, one must also develop strength, flexibility, and hardness in those areas. Since a long distance hike has a duration of several weeks (or more), your body needs to be sufficiently hardened to endure the stresses that you will put on it. Other anticipated (or unanticipated) conditions will require additional preparations. For example, if much snow is expected to be encountered, strengthening the lower back and stomach muscles will help you keep upright while postholing through the snow. If heavy loads are expected, for example because of long distances between resupply points, strengthening the shoulders and upper back muscles will help in carrying the load. In general, strengthening the core of your body should also be done if conditions warrant it.

Assessing Your Current State

The first step in preparations is to understand your current level of fitness. Before beginning any new exercise program, or increasing an existing one, it is not a bad idea to visit a doctor for a physical exam to find any unknown problems: Stressing the heart if you have an unknown heart condition is not a wise move. One expensive, and not so much fun, method for assessing your current fitness level is to join a gym, hire one of the trainers (it might be free with the membership), and have them do a fitness assessment. However, there is an easier, more basic, more specific, and much more fun method to do the same thing: Go for a hike with lots of elevation change. Depending on where you live, this might be difficult. I would bring only a day pack rather than trying to simulate a heavy load. The phrase, "lots of elevation change" is a subjective one, but here are my standards for gauging difficulty: Anything less than 300 feet per mile, sustained, is easy. 300-600 feet per mile, sustained, is moderate. 600-1000 feet per mile, sustained, is strenuous. Above 1000 feet per mile, sustained, is very strenuous. Sustained simply means you have to spend some time doing it. For example, a gain of 500 feet in 1 mile would be sustained and moderate. Gaining 250 feet over a quarter mile isn't sustained and I'd consider it easy. Use your own judgment here. Use a watch to record how long your hike takes you and try to remember how you felt as you climbed. If you don't have access to mountainous terrain where you live, don't worry: I was living in Illinois when I started to exercise for hiking reasons. Just make sure you're healthy and start.

My standard method for gauging my fitness level is to hike up to the top of Mount Ellinor in the Olympics. The trail gains 3200 vertical feet over sometimes rocky, tortuous terrain, in less than three miles. I know that I am in good shape when I can do this in 75 minutes without getting overly tired. The Mountaineers, an outdoor group in the Pacific Northwest, requires you to complete something similar, while carrying a 40 lb pack and in mountaineering boots, in 2.5 hours in order to qualify as being "fit" enough to climb. A good example near the Appalachian Trail is the climb from Cosby up to the Appalachian Trail on the Snake Den Ridge trail. The trail gains about 2500 vertical feet over 4.6 miles, which works out to a grade of about 540 feet per mile. If you can hike this without a break in 90 easy minutes, I would stop reading this article and just keep doing what you are doing. To interpret your results, listen to your body: Are you tired? Are you sweating hard? Do your legs hurt? Did you feel seriously short of breath at any time? Does the idea of doing it again repulse you? Are you spent? Does the idea of hiking for another eight hours turn your stomach? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should either slow down your pace or begin to increase your fitness level. If you felt fine while hiking and feel fine afterwards, you might try a more difficult assessment hike. Although there are not too many places east of the Rockies where you can try it, the gold standard for assessing hiking strength is the vertical mile: A five mile trail that picks up a vertical mile in elevation change. Whatever "assessment" hike you choose, make sure it has at least 1000 feet of elevation gain in one shot, it has at least a moderate grade, is at least 3 miles long, and you hike it at at least a moderate pace. Increase the difficulty if you think you are in moderate or good shape. Decrease them if you are mostly sedentary, are on the extreme side of old for a hiker (i.e, you've been collecting social security for a decade), or have a medical condition that could become aggravated. Remember: The point is to hike up hill over an extended duration and to record in your head how you feel while doing so. Oh, and to have some fun while getting assessed. With some idea of where you are physically, you not only have a measure as to how far you need to go, but also a fairly reasonable way of seeing how far you've come.

How to Begin

The key to succeeding with any exercise plan, hiking specific or otherwise, is to find something you like to do, and then make sure you do it on a regular basis. Alternatively, find something you know you can stick with, and then stick with it. Fitness won't come overnight or in a week. Unless you can train full time, you should think in terms of months. It helps to have goals, both short and long term. A long term goal could be an academic-summer thruhike of the Appalachian Trail. Or, perhaps a section hike of the Colorado portion of the Continental Divide Trail. Short term goals are person specific, so I will give you some of mine. When I first started exercising to hike better, it was because I was heading out to Nepal for a month of trekking: I didn't want to be whipped as I had been in New Hampshire. After all, Nepal meant the Himalaya, and I thought that particular mountain range just had to be more difficult than the Whites. In the short term, I wanted to be able to run 1.5 miles in 20 minutes without stopping. When I eventually met that goal and was comfortable meeting it consistently, I increased my goal: Run 2.5 miles in 25 minutes. It took a while to reach it. Additionally, I wanted to run at least three times a week. I eventually made my goal four times a week. Nepal was a great adventure and much easier than I thought it would be. A few months later I was planning a 450 mile section hike on the Appalachian Trail. That became my next long term goal. Following that it was three months on the PCT. Set reasonable goals and work to meet them on a consistent basis.

Various Primary Methods

There are plenty of methods to gain physical fitness and I am certainly not an expert on all of them. I will cite some here and expound upon a few of them. What is most important is that you regularly work at fitness. I have not included hiking as a training method for obvious reasons. However, if you live in a place where you can spend an hour hiking up serious hills four or more times a week, then go for it. Weight training is not, in my opinion, terribly useful for on trail hiking (outside of seriously long stretches of snow) given today's general trend toward light and ultralight gear. However, I do it anyways. Part of this is for vanity, but I do believe that it gives me a serious edge when setting out on trips in which I have long runs between resupply points, or when I will be spending a lot of time postholing through snow.

1) Running. Running is a good way to build moderate-duration endurance, to harden the feet, and (sometimes) strengthen joints. If you live in a place with hills, make sure you incorporate them into your running route as this really helps build hill-climbing strength. Running can also be hard on your knees and ankles (sometimes) and the back. Buying running shoes is a must. They do not have to be expensive or super fancy. Basic $80 Asics have worked well for me. If you run at night, buy some reflective tape and put it on your clothes so that cars can see you better. If you are starting from zero (as I was), you'll need to start slowly and work up. It took me almost two weeks of work before I could run my 1.5 mile route without stopping (and taking 22 minutes!). After 2 some odd years, and just before setting off for my PCT hike, I was routinely running a 10 K route (about 6 miles) in 50 minutes, four times a week (about 24 miles a week). Note that marathoners train much more than this and at a much faster pace. If you live in a place blessed with a good local trail network, then trail running is probably the single best method for getting in hiking shape. However, few of us are so fortunate.

2) Inclined Treadmill. This is my current favorite as I hate running in the rain and it rains all the time here in Washington. The incline helps you build power for going uphill and is about as close as you can get to hiking without actually hiking. You'll spend more time walking than running. Because it is possible to move faster on a smooth, straight treadmill than on a rocky, twisting trail, you'll need to ratchet up the speed on the treadmill to get the best benefit. Set on a maximum of 15 degrees of incline, I walk the treadmill for either 45 or 60 minutes at a speed of 4 miles per hour. Basic trigonometry implies a vertical gain of about 4100 or 5500 feet respectively. Walking on the treadmill is also very low impact , which is both a benefit and a detraction. While it keeps you injury free, you can't build up much toughness in the joints. I don't carry a pack while on the treadmill for three reasons. First, I carry a light load while doing long distance hikes, so a pack on my back doesn't slow me down very much. Second, my gear stinks enough already and I don't want to add to the accumulated funk. Third, I'd look like a dork. The great downside of the inclined treadmill is that you have to be indoors, but you can always occupy your mind in other ways, such as reading the newspaper. I wear good running shoes.

3) Step machine. This has a lot of the benefits of an inclined treadmill. You also have to be indoors. You can probably get away with basic athletic shoes.

4) Stairs with a pack. One of the more popular options to to put weight into a pack and then walk or run stairs. You can measure out a precise amount of weight using water: A quart of water weighs about 2.2 pounds. Try a 30 pound load at first (13 quarts, plus weight of pack) and decrease or increase as needed. Try to go at a reasonable pace for 30 minutes, longer if you carry less weight. This does get you out of doors to exercise, but you have to find a good, long set of stairs. Some places to look include high school and college stadiums (might need permission), hospitals (ditto), parking garages (possible creeps), and office buildings (where you work). You'll want to spring for good running shoes.

5) Cycling. Of the options, this is the most entertaining as you can get out into the countryside. However, it requires the most initial dollar expenditure up front and you have to live in a place where you can do it safely. Given the drivers in the my area, I would never go for a fast hour ride. You may live somewhere better for it. You'll want to incorporate as many hills as possible. The leg muscles for cycling as different than those for hiking, but you should build good endurance even if the leg muscles you'll develop won't be optimized. Cycling is very low impact and is good for those with back issues or knee problems.

6) Swimming. Swimming is excellent for building endurance and muscle tone, but does little to build hiking leg muscles. Moreover, it requires you to go somewhere to swim, which decreases the chances you'll stick with it four times a week for several months.

7) Flat walking. If you have any physical problems or are starting from a very unfit beginning (as I was!), consider simple walking as your primary exercise. Buy a good pair of running shoes and try to walk for twenty or thirty minutes at a stretch.

What Others Think About Training Methods

Minnesota Smith says: [Adopting a bit of Jardine] He takes the position that up to five miles a day in training, not to put on a training pack, but to do so on your training walks when you start being able to do more than 5 miles at a time. I use two 1-gallon jugs of water for packweight at first (just over 16.5 pounds). Eventually, I go up to about 40 pounds training pack weight. This is reached for me by using one of those 2.5 gallon jugs that discount laundry detergent comes in, an orange juice bottle of 3 or 4 quarts, plus a bunch of drinking water bottles (the usual kind people are always walking around with, NOT hiker Nalgene bottles). These fit in a medium-sized pack pretty well; I use a high-end type of backpack like college kids wear on school days (30.00 or less at Big Lots).

Mags says: I enjoy trail running. Trail running is more forgiving of the body than road running and more closely approximates what your body will be going through. Trail running, esp. on steep trails, involves a lot of powerhiking on the uphills. Trail running is a good compromise between getting the body in good cardio shape and stengthening muscles used for hiking.

Fiddlehead says: A step machine is probably the best exercise you could do instead of actually going out there and hiking some hills. Of course a pack on your back would add to the experience.
My niece wanted to do GA one spring so i told her to work out on one. We were doing 20+ mpd (her decision) by the time we got to Franklin. She had a great time. Me too!

Redneck Rye says: Since I'm headed out to the PCT later this spring, I figured I should do something to get into a better shape than my current fat, lazy one. Workout plan, eat alot better, etc, etc. A great idea but I've met me and it ain't going to happen. My new and brilliant plan - Springer to Erwin or Damascus.

Squeaky says: I had no mountains to train on for my 05 hike so i tried to duplicate them in a gym and by carrying a heavier pack. I ran up to 25k with a 27lb pack in 2 hours, uping the intensity, walking 50k in 7 hours with a 50lb pack on the flat, lots of reps with light weights........... I got injured 3 days in. The bottom line is if you want to train for hiking, then hike. no matter what you do you cant replicate hiking up and down hills/mountains with a pack. [Note: This is Squeaky. I'm a fat slob in comparison.]

The Solemates says: I weight lift almost daily and play basketball once or twice a week.

Knees says: I got myself into reasonable shape. Reasonable shape as far as I'm concerned is averaging at least 5mi/day of moderate walking. Some longer moderate training walks up to maybe a half marathon (13mi) would be a good idea. Work up to this. A good rule of thumb would be to try to get at least 1.5-2hrs of moderate walking in each day (6-8mi) and perhaps longer walks on the weekends. A "zero day" each week isn't a bad idea to let your body heal and build up. DONT OVERTRAIN.

I did not carry any weight during my pre-hike walking. I walked at a pace of about 4mph (15min miles) on pavement, sidewalks, and bike path surfaces while getting into basic shape. I rode my bike on an 8mi loop as some cross training. Thru hiking is 90% mental. Concentrate on what it is going to take mentally to do the hike.

khaynie says: Run for 40 minutes 3-4 times/week or walk for 60 min 3-4 times/week - rain or shine. The latter will help you prepare mentally for the challenges you are certain to encounter on your thru-hike.

In my opinion, stay off treadmills - they're boring and unrealistic; unless you live in an area that has absoulutely nowhere to run/walk. Work out your upper body either in the gym or at home 3 times/week. This is what my wife and I did to prepare for our thru hike. In fact, it's still our routine.

DrewNC2005 says: Maybe it's been mentioned on here and I didn't see it, but here it goes in case it hasn't: training for a long distance trek does not necessarily mean you have to walk/run long distances to build endurance. Cardiovascular endurance is built more quickly by short, repetitive bursts while exercising. True, running three miles a day over a long period of time will eventually make running three miles a day easier and build your endurance. But, training in intervals with short bursts incorporated will build your endurance much quicker.

This doctrine is not really a new thing. Marathoners and track stars have trained like this for years. To incorporate this into your workout, just try doing what you already do, but alter the pace. Start out a little slower on your run (5 min.) increase your speed to about 75%-85% for 1-2 min. and drop back to about 50% for 3-5 min. Then just repeat this over and over until you run for 30 min. or so.

Rest a day if you need it. And one day a week, run sprints. Run, at top speed, about 4 x 100 yds, 4 x 40 yds, and at the end 2-3 x 200 yds. Rest in between each sprint until you are able to run the next. I guarantee you will build your endurance much quicker if you do that once a week. Our track coach made us long distance guys run like this once a week and we saw great gains in our endurance by doing so.

Belgarion says: For exercise I started walking, two miles, every other day. I would walk from my house to the Wall of Mart a mile down the road, then turn around and come back. After about three weeks of this I started to increase the distance by a mile every week until I got to six miles a day. I would break that up in three walks a day. About June I started my trail training by hiking the back trails around a local pond. There is about a total of 20 miles of trails there, ranging from a relatively dirt road type trail to a back side type trail. Around the middle of June I again weighed myself and found that I was around 164. I had lost over a hundred pounds. Let me put it this way, a twenty year friend saw a pic of me at 267 and said that it look like I swallowed another person. when he saw me in June he said it now looked like I only swallowed a half a person. Around the middle of July I found an old schwinn ten speed out on one of the back trails, took it home, repaired it and started to ride. I would get up around 7 am, be riding by 8 and take a ten minute break in a two hour ride time. I would either ride to the town of Portsmouth, 30 mi away, or I would ride to rochester, about 15, depending on the weather and my level of tiredness. I also continues [sic] to train on the hiking trails at the pond.

Secondary Training Methods

In addition to a normal exercise routine, it is important to have secondary activities that increase your fitness level, but that are purely recreational in nature. The idea is to break up the exercise routine with something that is viewed more as pleasure than as exercise. Additionally, this is a time to see the benefits of your preparations. With my schedule, I try to do my primary exercise four times a week during the work week, and then add a day or two of secondary exercise on the weekends.

1) Day hiking. If you are fortunate enough to live close to the mountains, this is an excellent option. Rain or shine, get out for a good, solid day hike with plenty of elevation gain. Not only are you building fitness, but you're hiking! After a month or so of primary exercise, you may find that previously difficult day hikes have become only moderate ones.

2) Backpacking. Even better than day hiking is going on two or three day backpacking trips: You toughen the body nicely, learn to use your gear, and get to spend evenings in the wilds as well as days.

3) Snowshoeing. In the winter time, when snow covers the ground, one can find a whole new world to play in. Trails that I'd turn my nose up at in the summer time become stunningly beautiful in the winter time. There is no reason to grow fat and complacent just because snow is on the ground. Instead, it is a time to really boost your fitness level for the summer time. Snowshoeing can be done by anyone that can walk and the start up cost (i.e, the cost of a pair of snowshoes) is fairly minimal. You build tremendous leg power while fighting your way through powder and endurance increases rapidly. However, there is a significant chance of hypothermia if you are not prepared. It is very easy to sweat heavily, get too far out, and then rapidly cool off.

4) Nordic (Cross Country) and Skate Skiing. I haven't tried either of these, but they look like fun and are supposed to be the best aerobic exercise out there.

5) Recreational Sports. Basketball, soccer, ultimate, hashing, tennis, and the like are excellent ways of getting in some exercise time in the name of enjoyment.

6) Orienteering. Essentially, you have a map, a set of directions, and a compass to navigate your way (usually mostly off trail) to a certain destination. On a competitive level, you try to do this as quickly as possible.

Core Strength

For ultralight hikers on (mostly) snow-free trails that permit short-runs between resupply points, building upper body strength is not especially important. Indeed, some of the strongest long distance hikers I know, such as Pony Express, Birdie, and Glory, have absolutely no upper body power. However, for hikers using more traditional, heavier gear or for those who expect to spend a significant amount of time in the snow, building strength and power in the back, shoulders, and abdomen becomes more important, especially for those hikers getting on in years. I lift weights for ten minutes before I start my primary exercise and this is enough for me. Before setting out on the Continental Divide, I did inclined sit-ups and found the additional strength in my abdomen to be invaluable for thrashing through the Montana snow. If you don't have easy access to weights, a simple method is just do a few sets of pushups, sit ups, and dips using a chair for support. Others have a different approach.

gsingjane says: Three times a week all the upper body stuff, plus back and ab strengthening. (E.g. benches, curls, lats, delts, shoulders). It's about 25 minutes and then the cardio. I run (sometimes relatively long distances of 10+ miles) but had not done any weight training for over 17 years (I quit lifting during my first pregnancy and never got back to it) and I am really noticing a difference! I'm sure that most physically fit young people don't need nearly as much "remedial" work as I do, but it is helping me tremendously in feeling physically, and mentally, ready to take on the Trail again this year.

Footslogger says: Core strength is key to a healthy spine. Since I'm somewhat of an office rat here at the clinic what I do is use a "balance ball" instead of a chair. It's hard to slump down on the ball, like I otherwise might on a chair. Plus ...I often lift my feet off the floor for several minutes at a time and use my balance to avoid tipping. This adds to the core strengthening effect.

c.coyle says: As someone who has lifted weights since my teens, "core strength" to me means your trunk - abdomen, upper back, lower back, chest, butt. The muscles associated with these areas are, respectively, the abdominals, lats & traps, spinal erectors, pectorals, and glutes. Plain old pushups, pullups, and situps are also good for the core. The big thing to avoid is overtraining - lifting too often, or doing too many repetitions. Your body doesn't get stronger when you lift, it gets stronger when you rest between lifting. I used lift three times a week. I'm down to twice a week. At almost 52, I'm thinking of going to once a week. Overtaining leads to injuries. I think every person over 40 should do some kind of strength training. A natural part of aging is losing muscle mass. Strength training can't stop the process, but it can slow it down.

julie says: I do Ashtanga yoga and find that the core strength it builds really helps my endurance overall - being strong and flexible means your whole body is working together, not just your butt uphill and your quads downhill (or however it goes for you). I recently learned that the point of the "asanas" (yoga postures) originally was to strengthen the practitioner (yogi or yogini) to the point where he/she could sit in meditation indefinitely. I like the idea of getting strong enough to sit still. I recommend yoga as part of your overall fitness plan.

Skidsteer says: I'm 43 and it seems we have much in common training-wise. I made the decision to go to once a week training( weights ) about two years ago and have no loss of strength, size, or endurance. My joints feel better too. Of course I hike/walk/run every chance I get. My theory is that weightlifting once a week works particularly well for fit, older, experienced lifters and it sounds like you more than qualify. I would encourage you to give the once-a-week thing a try. You can always go back to your old routine, after all.

Almost_There says: The other thing is you can go to resistance training as you get older. Resistance bands work great as I use them now due to a shoulder injury from football. Easier on the joints than free weights, and I still get good results. I applaud you "older" guys for continuing to weight train, it keeps your body younger and hopefully keep you hiking to a ripe old age!!!

BW2006 says: I also do pilates which has really strengthened my core but the best strength exercise of all is yoga. I do a strenuous yoga class a few times a week. All the balance poses and deep lunges really strengthen your lower body.

peanuts says: Pilates....Pilates....Pilates....strengthenes your core and increases flexibility, if you have a machine at home, even better...

Ridge says: Core strength is one of if not the most important strength asset to anybody, especially to those who frequent the outdoors. Climbers need exceptional core strength, hikers can also benefit tremendously. Core strength supports the spine, especially the lower back area. Abdominal muscles make up a lot of the core area, thus exercises to build these muscles are necessary. I use a simple wheel, about 4 bucks, its hard to use it properly, but with time, and practice, it becomes a great and simple way to build these important muscles. There are a lot of methods to exercise these muscles. I do know that core strength really helps when carrying a pack for miles on end. It also dramatically improves balance and endurance.

khaynie says: Here's my reasons for upper body training: 1) You can get an extra kick from your trekking poles. Dig those tips - pun intended. 2) It's much more comfortable to have your pack rest on muscle as opposed to bone. 3) Believe it or not, having a strong upper body helps your speed and endurance. 4) It's nice to break up the monotony of your legs/cardio training. 5) Who wants to be all legs?

How Far in Advance to Start?

How much time is needed to work yourself into reasonable shape depends on many factors, but chief among them are your current state of fitness and the purpose for which you are developing your fitness. When I started exercising regularly, I was significantly overweight and couldn't handle any trail with any significant elevation gain. I needed six months to get to the point where I could handle several days of 15 miles a day hiking, with a pack, in the (Smoky) mountains. Another year of training got me to the point where I could cruise along at 20 miles a day on the southern Appalachian trail without significant effort.

Conditioning for long distance hiking is not an overnight endeavor: You need to put the time in. Starting a week before you leave for a thruhike of the AT won't do you very much good. However, starting a month before would have some significant benefits. If you are starting from scratch, as I was, starting to exercise in August for an April departure would be perfect. If you regularly play sports (i.e, basketball several times a week), then simply adding a running component on a few off days would be enough to see significant improvement.

People who make plans and stick to them blindly are not doing themselves any favors. It is good to honestly assess whether or not a plan works for you. Given these warnings, take the following plan with a grain of salt before adapting it for your own use. Try something like this if you are starting from scratch.

Monday: 20 minutes of primary exercise (30 minutes if flat walking).
Tuesday: Repeat.
Wednesday: Rest (though I keep insisting I'll go to the rock gym)
Thursday: 20 minutes of primary exercise (30 minutes if flat walking)
Friday: Rest (or 30 minutes if flat walking)
Saturday: Secondary exercise.
Sunday: Rest.

Of course, if this is easy for you, simply increase the duration and intensity of the primary exercise. I would hesitate to add a fourth primary day until and unless your body can handle it: Rest days are important as they give your body a chance to heal. As the body strengthens, the less time it will need to heal and the more you can push it. Once the above routine has become easy (a few weeks or a month, perhaps more), increase the duration of your primary exercise 10 minutes and/or add a fourth day for primary exercise. Unless you are training for a very fast hike (i.e, a sub 80 day AT thruhike), I wouldn't go much beyond an hour of primary exercise four times a week. I've found that 45 minutes of primary exercise, done four times a week, in which my heart rate moves from a resting 60 to about 150, is sufficient to maintain my current level of fitness.


Deciding to prepare, or not, for the physical aspects of a long distance hike is a personal decision and one that should be based on what the hiker wants to get out of his or her trip. Additional factors such as time constraints due to work, school, family, etc, or an inclination toward laziness (I'm guilty of this), can serve to discourage people from preparing physically. After all, it seems to be much more fun to drink a few beers while looking over gear catalogues or reading over posts on about the best hostels to stay at and which shelters to avoid. However, preparing physically can drastically add to your enjoyment of your hike, especially at the beginning of it. A thruhike is not an easy task and requires far more mental effort than physical. However, if your body becomes exhausted and injured, it will stress your mind to the point where it is simply easier to get off the trail than to continue on. Rather than spending your free time investigating which alcohol stove model is the most efficient or which hammock set up is optimal in a certain temperature range, prepare physically. It is your body that will do the work, not your gear.

One of the prime arguments for ultralight hiking is that it allows you to see more while at the same time being less tired. Preparing physically has the same benefit: You can hike longer, see more, get a more intense experience, while at the same time being less tired and so, in general, getting more enjoyment out of your time on the trail. Find something you like to do that involves gaining elevation or otherwise builds power in your legs and endurance in your body. Do it three or four times a week. Do something active on the weekends. Start working at it several months (depending on current fitness levels) before you intend to leave for your hike. When you hit the trail and are still fresh at the end of the day, when you have plenty of energy to rumble up to McAfee Knob to see the sunset, when you don't view the half mile side trip to Mount Cammerer as a chore, then you will wonder why people don't put in a little effort to physical preparations before leaving settled life and setting out on a once-in-a-lifetime experience.