Getting ready for a thru-hike adventure can involve more than researching and buying gear, packing up some resupply boxes, and binge-watching every YouTube video made on how to be ultralight. Sure, this may be a key part of your preparation; however, making an effort to train for a thru-hike in some form has a higher chance of supporting your success rate than having the best tent on the market.
There are various approaches, mentalities, and even beliefs on how to train for a thru-hike, depending on who you talk to. And let me tell you, it can get pretty darn interesting when you gather a bunch of eager hikers getting ready to attempt their first thru-hike with the seasoned trail veterans who have been there and done that. The bottom line is that everyone’s got a different way of training and what works for her or him.
With that said, I’ve dabbled in many training tactics when preparing for the Appalachian Trail (AT), a 1,500-mile route through Spain and Portugal and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Based on my experience and the many thru-hikers I know and have encountered, here’s a run-down on how to train for a thru-hike.
Mental and Emotional Training
I’m listing mental and emotional before anything else because in my opinion, this is the bomb-diggity most important piece in training for a thru-hike. You can have all the ‘right’ gear and spend a year getting your body in top physical shape, but if you don’t have the mental and emotional fortitude for what a thru-hike entails, it’s going to be tough to make it.
Here are some points on why mental and emotional prep is so essential when training for a thru-hike and tips on how to do it.
Get Clear on Your WHY
Why do you want to undertake this thru-hike? Is it for the challenge of it all, or because you just quit your job and want some time to reflect on a new direction for your life? Before any long hike I do, ranging from a month’s duration to six, I take some time to write out my why, so I’m clear on what I’m committing to. This may be particularly helpful if you’re ever in a hard moment and consider quitting – being reminded of your why brings you back to why you’re out there and what the thru-hike means to you. Take a picture of your words and keep it on your phone for when you need it most.
Prepare Yourself for Adversity
Yes, there will be days where the sun shines brightly, your pack seems weightless, your body feels like a well-oiled machine and you actually feel content and satiated from your dinner. There will also be times it rains for days straight, you ache everywhere with soreness, your pack feels like it’s got rocks in it, your stomach is a bottomless pit and you can’t remember what a hot shower feels like anymore.
A thru-hike is a wild undertaking that can be both easy and hard, depending on the day or even the moment: it can change that fast. Knowing this in advance and training your mind to be even through the rollercoaster of emotions will help maintain your overall sanity during the storm. If you want to work on steadying your mind, I highly recommend developing a meditation practice. Even five minutes a day will help set you straight and be a powerful component of your mental and emotional training. I swear I don’t know what I’d do without it.
Affirm It and Own It
The saying, ‘Embrace the suck’, is a popular mentality that many thru-hikers adopt. Whatever adversity comes at you, bring it on and embrace it. ‘It’s like this now’ is one of my favorite sayings that I repeat to myself often. This simple saying keeps you in the present with what’s going on right before you: Now at this moment it’s easy-breezy and I’m a hiking rockstar…and now in this moment I’m a whiny mess because a mouse scurried off with my last square of chocolate that I accidentally dropped.
You could also look at every challenge as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and your capacity. Working on a practice of positive thinking is a solid tool to put in your kit when training for a thru-hike. ‘This too shall pass’ is another well-recited mantra while thru-hiking when it comes to handling a tough experience. Heck, there are all sorts of sayings and affirmations you could come up with. The big takeaway is to train yourself before your thru-hike to affirm and own the entirety of all your experiences – doing this will make it a lot easier to handle the crazy gamut of stuff thrown out you later while actually on the trail.
Learn to Go Without
There will be times you don’t have internet access, that you’ll be filthy and not able to shower, there will be no heat or air-conditioning and pizza delivery isn’t a phone call away. If you practice living more simply before a thru-hike, or just have the awareness that all your favorite creature comforts won’t be with you, this mental step of training can be what makes or breaks you. And don’t worry – once your amazing journey is over, all that stuff will be right where you left it.
So, how do you physically train to hike for five or six months? I’ve broken it down to two main approaches to physical training for a thru-hike.
Approach #1 – Do Something Beforehand (aka The Proactive Choice)
This approach involves moving your body and getting it strong and fit for your upcoming adventure. Here are some of the varied ways you can do something proactive to train for a thru-hike.
The most practical training to do physically is to actually get out there and hike!
- You can hike with your backpack weighted up, to give yourself a sense of what it feels like to carry 20 pounds on your back.
- If you like going to the gym, I know hikers who bring their fully weighted pack with them and hop on the stair-master to train.
- Some hikers create a schedule to get in a certain number of miles each week.
- Doing some overnight trips not only trains your body, but it gives you a chance to try out and know your gear beforehand – a crucial part of your preparation.
- Hike another long trail first. Yep, there’s a breed of thru-hikers out there who walk another trail first to get their bodies in hiking shape, but it’s only 500 miles instead of 2,000. This requires extra time and money on hand, but it’s a fun way to do it!
- Build up muscle by lifting weights at home or in a gym. Gaining muscle will make you stronger and more capable of carrying a loaded backpack.
- Bodyweight training is when you use your own bodyweight to provide resistance against gravity. Think movements like squats, push-ups, burpees, plank poses. These exercises will give you increased power, endurance, speed, flexibility, balance, and coordination – all necessary for thru-hiking.
- Cross-train by doing other forms of cardio activity besides hiking.
- Cycling, HIIT (high-intensity interval training), Tabata, Cross-Fit, dancing, skiing,
swimming, martial arts, cardio machines (like the elliptical, stair-climber, treadmill,
rowing machine) are all forms of cardio.
- Building up your cardiovascular health strengthens your heart, your brain, improves your mood and energy levels, and boosts your immune system – all very relevant when thru-hiking.
- Hamstrings, hip flexors, shoulders, and low back are constantly at work while we hike, so getting them more flexible beforehand will help you enjoy your hike more because you’ll feel less sore, and decrease the potential risk of injury.
- Yoga and Pilates are fantastic additions to your physical training program to increase your flexibility.
- A little stretching goes a long way to boost your flexibility and this is such a good way to care for your joints which will be worked to the max while thru-hiking.
Feel Good in Your Body Before You Hike
- Many hikers choose to lose some weight before a thru-hike so they can feel lighter and more limber, moving more comfortably in their bodies when on-trail.
- Eating healthy allows your body to be in optimal shape before your thru-hike, which means you start at the top rather than the bottom. Build up reserves of nutrients in your system, since you’ll lose some while living on trail for many months.
Approach #2 – Do Nothing Beforehand (aka The Passive Choice)
Thru-hikers come in all forms with a plethora of mindsets, and some believe in doing nothing to physically train beforehand. Here’s some of the rationale to support the passive choice.
I’ve talked to many hikers who passionately feel that physical training and prep is pointless. How come? They claim that nothing really prepares you for hiking 15-20+ mile days almost every day for months on end. That no form or amount of training gets you ready for hauling a weighted bag day in and out, for eating less food than you really need. and surviving in all types of weather conditions.
And you know what? I somewhat agree…somewhat. Although nothing you physically do will completely prepare you for the unknown and what you need to endure, I do think it can give you some assurance you tried your best.
You Get Your Trail Legs As You Hike
Building upon the former, it’s a common fact that your ‘trail legs’ develop as you’re hiking. This means you get stronger, fitter, leaner, and more capable as you progress from day one. So, the argument goes that there’s no need to spend months training at the gym or doing day hikes beforehand because your trail legs will come as you walk.
I’ve met many hikers who had never backpacked before and totally nailed the completion of their thru-hike. They opted to start slow with low mileage days and built the strength and fitness as their trail legs grew. I’ve also known, or know, thru-hikers who don’t do anything to physically train and they jump right into crushing big mile days. It’s hard to predict who will be successful with this approach, but those that are had the mental stamina to succeed, which is what matters most.
Indulge…and Indulge Some More
Finally, there’s a camp of thru-hikers who ‘train’ by lifting their forks to their mouths as much as possible a few weeks (or even months) before setting out. The mindset goes to eat whatever you want because you’ll lose weight on the trail, drink, be merry, watch TV and enjoy all the city-life things and comforts you’ll miss while living in the woods. Indulgence is supposedly the way to get the body ready, this approach states.
Although fully embracing this tactic wouldn’t work for me and my body, I will admit that I do enjoy ice cream a little bit more a week or two before I head out for a long hike. I may lean toward healthy choices in my training approach, but I’m not a purist. You scream I scream, don’t we all scream for ice cream at some point in the game?
Hike Your Own Hike
Everyone’s got a different way of training for a thru-hike, and there’s really no right or wrong way to do it. For me personally, I definitely feel the mental and emotional training is paramount and why I seldom find myself having a ‘bad day’ on the trail. In addition, I’m an avid supporter of getting out there and hiking, staying fit with other physical cross-training, keeping flexible with yoga, and eating well. I attribute all of those aspects to why I’ve never had any major injuries and am rarely sore on the trail.
On the flip side, I agree that you get the most training while actually on a thru-hike and nothing prepares you for accidents that just happen, no matter how much you trained. This is why it’s best never to judge another thru-hiker’s approach, as long as she or he owns it fully. Overall, I’m a big fan of balance and doing what’s right for you and your body. I like to think that making an effort to train for a thru-hike amplifies the success rate of finishing, but it may not depending on those random, unforeseen circumstances.
And some people are just darn lucky, and to be honest, thru-hiking has a lot to do with luck. But ask yourself this: Would you feel better knowing you gave yourself the best shot at it by training in some form rather than not? Go for a hike, grab an ice cream cone after, and mull it over. How you train is up to you.