Training for a Long Distance Hike

After my lectures and during my book signings, I am often asked, “How do you train for a hike?”

It’s a really good question.

Most folks (including me) don’t want to spend our time away from the mountains walking around town with a full pack on. And even if we did, it wouldn’t emulate the conditions we encounter on the trail. Because the trail is typically uneven, often filled with obstacles like roots and rocks to traverse, your muscles and joints move in different ways than they do on flat, paved streets. So, the best advice I can give for getting into shape is to work on becoming aerobically fit.

Before your hike

Running, swimming, stair climbing, brisk walking and cycling are all activities that I have been known to take part in leading up to a hike. Getting your heart rate up and bringing it back down again simulates climbing hills, topping out and returning to a comfortable hiking pace again. The more you can do that in advance of a trip, the better you’ll feel both during and at the end of each day.

Another thing I focus on, both when training and when hiking, is my breathing. Early on in my hiking career I discovered that taking deep breaths—ones that draw air past your lungs and deep into your diaphragm—help oxygenate your blood and speed your recovery time. One caveat – during the height of bug season (typically June and July), a very deep breath can pull a black fly or mosquito straight into the back of your throat. That’s when I employ a bit more nose breathing.

During your hike

Once I’m out on the trail, there are a few tricks I’ve learned about staying up to speed and keeping my momentum.

  1. I try to take breaks on top of hills, not at the bottom of them. It’s easier to set off again from the top than facing a climb as your first task.
  2. Similarly, if the trail crosses a stream or river where I am going to stop to refill my water bottles (where rock-hopping will be required to get across), I cross the stream before I take my pack off. This way, I can walk across the stream while I am warmed up and my pack is lighter. It’s nice to start up again without having to pick your way across a stream as your first order of business. [Additional health note: ALWAYS use a water filter to treat your water.]
  3. While we’re on the subject of stream crossings, it’s a good time to mention hiking poles. I can’t say enough about using them. They keep your upper body involved in your hike, take pressure off your knees on descents and provide extra stability on uneven terrain and on stream crossings.
  4. Don’t forget to stretch. I try to stretch out every morning before I put my pack on and start walking and every evening after I’ve stopped for the day, paying particular attention to my quads and hamstrings.
  5. Listen to your body. Only you know when your body has had enough of a workout for the day. If you ignore the signs and try to push through, you may only be making yourself more susceptible to injury. Better to find a nice camp spot and eat a healthy meal.

Just how can you eat healthy food on the trail, especially when you’re out for several days? That will be the subject of my next blog, “What you need to hike the Appalachian trail – Part 3”.

Also in this series

What you need for an Appalachian Trail Hike – Part 1 — Logistics: Planning your hike