How to Train for a Thru-Hike
A successful thru-hike requires training. Hiking day in and day out for an extended period of time 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 every day 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 number of things you can do to train and prepare for your long-distance hike.
In this post, Kim, Bearfoot Theory’s former Community Manager, who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, and I share some tips that helped both of us get ready for our first-long distance hikes.
Please remember when you’re out there to practice good trail etiquette and remember to Leave No Trace. This means packing out all of your garbage, being respectful to others on busy trails, and following the established rules.
Training your BODY for Thru-Hiking
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 paddleboard!), stretching with resistance bands or set up a slackline!
Kim 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 paddleboard for an hour for a core workout!”
Don’t miss our favorite yoga poses for hiking & backpacking
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.
Read our 5 tips for Jumpstarting Your Training Routine TODAY
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 every day? Find some quick online workouts that target different muscle groups. Just 15 minutes a day can help you build strength.
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 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.
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.
For further reading check out these helpful posts:
- How to Improve Your Hiking Lung Capacity
- How to Protect Your Knees While Hiking
- Eliminating Hiker Foot Pain: Foot Rehad for the Outdoor Enthusiast
- How to Prevent Altitude Sickness
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.
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!
Stop making excuses. Here’s how to break down the most common barriers to getting outside.
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 our top tips for getting over your fears of hiking solo
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!
If you need support with finding the right gear for your thru-hike check out these gear lists:
- A Complete John Muir Trail Gear List
- A Complete Pacific Crest Trail Gear List
- Everest Basecamp Female Packing List
- Lightweight Beginner Backpacking Gear Recommendations
- How to Pack a Backpacking Pack for Multi-Day Hike
And we have gear guides to help you with all the major purchases:
- How to Choose a Backpacking Pack + Our Backpacking Pack Favorites
- How to Buy a Sleeping Bag + Our Top Sleeping Bag Recommendations
- How to Buy a Sleeping Pad + Our Top Sleeping Pad Picks
- How to Choose a Backpacking Stove + the Best Backpacking Stoves
- How to Select a Water Filter for Backpacking
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 you hiked a long distance trail? What did you do for thru-hike training before thru-hiking a long-distance trail? How did you train to thru-hike? Leave us a comment below!
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