How to Train for a Thru-Hike

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How to Train for a Thru-Hike

A successful thru-hike requires training. Hiking day in and day out poses mental and physical challenges that you need to be prepared for. Whether you’ll be hiking weeks or months, it’s a guarantee that not everyday is going to be peachy. Some days you’ll ache. Some days the scenery will be monotonous. Some days you may even get scared.There is no question that thru-hiking takes a lot of courage and dedication, and you can absolutely overcome any hardships and have an incredible time.  They key is being prepared – both in body and mind. Before your hike, there are a numbers of things you can do to train and prepare for your long-distance hike. In this post, Kim (Bearfoot Theory’s content director who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail) and I share some tips that helped both of us get ready for our first-long distance hike. 

Training your BODY for Thru-Hiking

YOGA

Some say the key to not getting injured is building flexibility. Yoga has so many benefits that will help in training for long distance hiking. First and foremost, yoga helps build important core muscles for backpacking. Yoga helps you learn to control and improve your breathing which is important given significant changes in elevation on long distance hikes. Improving your balance, an important component of yoga, will also help prepare you for difficult stream crossings. Yoga also helps identify great exercises that you can use on the trail. You’ll need to know how to stretch out a stiff back from carrying your pack and all day and sleeping on the ground.

Ok, what if you aren’t into yoga? There are other ways to build a strong core and increase flexibility. Try paddle boarding (you can also do yoga on the paddle board!), stretching with resistance bands or set up a slackline!

Training for a thru-hike requires mental and physical preparation. Learn how to get ready with these tips from a PCT and JMT thru-hiker.Bearfoot Theory’s editor, Kim Vawter was serious about training for the PCT, even when she was on vacation. “While my dad and I road-tripped Southern Florida to visit all 3 National Parks in Florida I found ways to get my training in. My dad read and napped in the car while I hopped on a paddle board for an hour for a core workout!”

BUILD CARDIO

Be comfortable being active! Remember you are going to be walking every single day for weeks or months depending on the trail you choose. Build up your cardiovascular system by doing some form of cardio 3-4 times a week to prepare for your thru-hike. If you like running, sign up for a race. A 10k or half-marathon will give you a more immediate goal to train for. Cycling or mountain biking is another great option to help build cardio. During the winter, you can also stay active by snowshoeing uphill or ski touring if you have proper avalanche training.

STRENGTH TRAINING

The muscles that are essential to carrying a pack are upper arm, shoulder and back muscles. Focus on these muscle groups when choosing exercises. Keep in mind you are going to be carrying a lot more weight than your body is used to, and this will also affect your joints. It’s important to ease your body into carrying all the weight it will carry on the trail. Start small by using wrist/ankle weights during training walks or fill your pack with 5-10 pounds for day hikes. If you already have weak joints to begin with, swimming is another great option to build strength. There are even weights you can use in the pool to gradually add strength training into your routine! Climbing is also great for building upper body and leg strength, so hit up your gym or local crag. What if you don’t have time to do this everyday? I’m a big fan of the Tone It Up online workouts, which are organized by muscle group.  They are free and most of them can be done at home with limited time.

Training for a thru-hike requires mental and physical preparation. Learn how to get ready with these tips from a PCT and JMT thru-hiker.Be creative. Training doesn’t mean you have to go for a run or attend a group work-out class or even join a gym–indoor rock climbing is a great way to build muscle mass and challenge yourself!

PREPARING FOR ELEVATION

If you can’t train in higher altitudes that is totally okay; building your cardio will help with building your lung capacity. Kim, who lives in Los Angeles, walked a lot of stairs to prepare her lungs and build strength in her knees prior to her PCT hike. Check to see if your local high school or university will allow you to walk the football stadium stairs. The key is to know how high you will be hiking and compare that to where you currently live. If you live at sea level and will be hiking at elevations of 10,000+ feet, it will be even more important for you to focus on cardio and breathing exercises.

Training for a thru-hike requires mental and physical preparation. Learn how to get ready with these tips from a PCT and JMT thru-hiker.Even if you live in Denver, CO, known for being the “mile-high” city, Forester Pass, the highest point on the PCT, will take some getting used to. It’s important you prepare your body to encounter elevations it isn’t used to by building your cardio and practicing breathing exercises.

Here are some great items to help support training for long distance hiking:

 Training your MIND for Thru-Hiking

KNOW WHY YOU ARE THRU-HIKING

The Pacific Crest Trail Association estimates that between 50-60% of people who attempt to thru-hike the PCT fail. Many people focusing on getting the right gear and building physical endurance, but they forget the mental aspect of thru-hiking. A year before Kim hiked the PCT, she attended Pacific Crest Trail Days (generally held in late August in Cascade Locks, OR) to get as much exposure to thru-hikers as possible. One thru-hiker told her, “You have to know WHY you are doing the trail and you have to be able to remind yourself everyday WHY.” After thru-hiking, she says she can’t agree more with this. Your “why” might change on the trail and that is perfectly okay, but you need to discover your “why” to prepare yourself mentally for the grind. Kim recommends sharing what you are going to do with as many friends and family as possible, and tell them your “why” too! That helps build your support network.

Walk the walk, and before you take your first step, know why you’re doing this and believe you can do it.

Training for a thru-hike requires mental and physical preparation. Learn how to get ready with these tips from a PCT and JMT thru-hiker.

Know your “why” for wanting to backpack a long distance trail and be prepared to do it solo, even if you are starting with a partner!

GET COMFORTABLE BEING ALONE

If you are a solo-hiker, practice being truly alone. Without your cell phone, without the television, without your computer and without friends–100% alone. Before your hike, go solo camping, even if that means setting up your tent next to your car in a major campground. If you have fears to face, this will be a major stepping stone. Once you do that, go on a short overnight backpacking trip. Hike a few miles in, set up camp, and sleep alone in the woods. These baby steps will help you build up confidence as part of your thru-hike preparation.

An important note: Even if you are starting with a partner, you need to be prepared to spend time alone. What if your partner bails out halfway through? What if you need some time to yourself?  Working on your solo hiking skills before your thru-hike will help you once you’re out there.

Read Next: Get Over your Fears – Tips for Hiking Solo

Tips for your first solo hike

BECOMING SELF-RELIANT WITH YOUR GEAR

Once you are out there, you will need to be 100% self-reliant. If some of your gear breaks, you’ll need to figure out how to fix it. You should test all of your gear and practice with it, so you feel comfortable using it before you go on your thru-hike, make sure you know how to repair, maintain, clean and store your gear while on the trail.  Being self-reliant also means you should need to know how to read a topo map. Not sure how to read one yourself or want a refresher? REI offers great classes!

SITUATIONAL TRAINING FOR YOUR THRU-HIKE

Walk yourself through all the situations that could occur in the wilderness so you can feel more comfortable and confident with your ability to take care of yourself. For example, visualize how you will respond to a snake biting you. Would you scream and jump in fear? Or would you stand confidently and slowly move away? Think about the different situations you might find yourself in, read and educate yourself on the topic, and have a rational, well-thought out plan for what you might encounter.

HAVE TIPS ON TRAINING FOR LONG DISTANCE HIKING? LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW, TWEET ME, OR WRITE ME A POST ON FACEBOOK

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About the author

Hi! I'm Kristen....blogger, hiker, sunset-watcher, and dance floor shredder. I feel most alive in the outdoors and created this website to help you enjoy the best that the West has to offer.

10 Comments on “How to Train for a Thru-Hike

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  1. Hi Kristen,

    A pilgrimage on my bucket list is to walk/hike the Camino de Santiago. I already know my why so at least I have one box ticked and I’m pretty fit! Box number 2 ticked! I’m not sure when I’ll be doing this but I’m hoping within the next 3 years. I have 2 other great trips planned before then.

    I’ll be honest, I had no idea there’s so much planning mentally, physically and logistically that needs to happen before taking such a journey. I realize now, I’ve got some work to do! I’m happy I can take my time through and prepare properly. The last thing I want is to bail on something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time.

    Thanks a lot for these super tips!

      Best of wishes Astrid on your upcoming adventures! You got this!

        Hey Kim!

        Thanks for the vote of confidence!

          Hey Astrid, thanks so much for your message! You got it! Which trail are you planning on conquering?

            Hey Kim!

            Well, that\’s a good question! I want to make it to Estella and then get a bus to Madrid and fly out back home. I\’d like to do it in stages. It\’s not a race right?

            Hubby has come with another idea…

            Take a month and walk the Camino Portugues instead. It looks like a beautiful pilgrimage all along the Portuguese coast from Lisbon up to Santiago. Choices, choices!

            Any advice?

    From my experience in long distance hiking the biggest thing is mental strength. I’ve seen so many times fit people cracking mentally, not being able to cope with trail “realities”. It’s great that you’re mentioning it in your article!

      Thanks Karo! We definitely think it is a big component lots of people overthink!

    Wow Kristin, that’s impressive. I have on my bucket list to hike the Camino de Santiago in Spain, but perhaps I need to add the PCT to my list as well. Either way, that’s some intense dedication and training!!!

      Thanks, Nate! Lots of PCT thru-hikers I met this past year have also hiked the Camino de Santiago and highly recommended it.

    Thru Hike is not so easy but anyone who has so many courage can do it easily.

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