How To Train For A Long-Distance Hike

There's a lot to do before any big, long-distance hike: buy gear, sort supplies, analyze maps and guidebooks, pack and plan mail-drops. But don't underestimate the importance of being physically prepared, too. Here's how I train for a long trek.

Stay Active
Even during the off-season, it's important to maintain your physical condition. The first way is simple–move as much as possible: take the stairs, bike to the grocery, etc. If there's an excuse to work up a sweat, I take it. But I can't rely on this alone.

Embrace Endurance Exercises
I run, bike, take day hikes, and lift weights. While I don't follow an exact plan, I do keep a log to help track my efforts. During the week, my runs average around 90 minutes, with 6- to 10-minute miles, depending on the terrain. If I can only do one activity, I usually opt for running, as I've found that it keeps me in the best hiking shape. Not only does this make it easier to get back into peak form when the time comes, but exercise gives me a chance to mentally re-energize and relieve stress. 

But If You Can't...
If you're facing serious time constraints, try to squeeze in short, intense workouts. I recommend daily running, cycling or walking—ideally on trails and with a pack. Compensate for your limited time by turning each outing into high-intensity exercise.

"Pre-Hike" Hikes
My first day of backpacking was my first day on the Appalachian Trail. I had spent plenty of time in the woods—as an adventurous child, a vacationing day-hiker, and a camp counselor—but I quickly realized that I was hardly prepared for the endeavor I had just undertaken. I did not really know how to use my gear (but I did know that I had too much). And I had never hiked 23 miles in a day, which is the pace I would need to average in order to finish the trail before the start of my Fall semester.

The learning curve was steep, and the first few hundred miles were much more difficult for me than they should have been. If I had been smarter, I would have done at least one—ideally, several—"pre-hike" hikes. This would have dramatically improved my initial comfort and safety, the quality of my experience at the start, and my odds for finishing.

If you're a beginner looking to embark on a long-distance hike, I recommend getting out there before your big trek. It will help you:

  • Prepare your body–the muscles that you'll work, the time spent on your feet, the additional stress of carrying a pack, the extra efforts needed for big mountains and high passes, and the monotony of the terrain  
  • Seriously assess your equipment. Ask yourself: what you are missing? What you could do without? What might work better?
  • Develop crucial skills like staying warm in inclement weather, pitching your shelter in stormy conditions, determining the amount of food you need between resupply points.
  • Familiarize yourself with things that will be a central part of your life for the next several months. You'll see how the trail is graded, maintained, and designed; you'll learn how to use your guidebooks, handbooks, and databooks in conjunction with each other; you'll figure out how to pack your backpack to maximize your comfort and efficiency. Most importantly, you'll get a better handle whether you will enjoy the experience or whether you would rather do something else.