Training for a thru-hike, especially one rated “difficult”, is something that every hiker should do before taking the long journey to that end game. These are some tips to get you started:
Find Your Training Spot Close To Home
This is one I struggle with myself, because where I’m from, there isn’t much elevation to work with. I typically travel to destination hikes to get the real adventure going, but not all is lost if you live in the prairie-lands, like me.
One of the most important aspects to training, is having a training spot that is close to home. I found a Nature Park near my house and began to utilize that area as my “thru-hike” spot. Sure, there were lots of people there with their kids or churches and schools bussing group visits around (because this park was in the heart of the city), and they probably were wondering, “why in the world is that guy wearing a full climb get-up in this 3 mile stretch?”. I like to think they understand that I’m simply out there to train and I’m not as crazy as I look!
So, I walk the paths, and because each path is only 2 or 3 miles long, I walk them several times. This helps the legs stretch and get used to a cadence that will keep your momentum moving when you’re on a thru-hike that takes months to complete. You essentially change your walking/hiking stride. To cover lots of terrain you want a good stride, and you want to be able to work with that stride, even while wearing your full pack.
Should I Train On Other Things Besides Just Hiking?
Absolutely. I mountain bike regularly. In fact, I was mountain biking every day for quite some time. This helped shape me up, grow the muscles in the legs and really help with my core balance, strength and posture.
Recently, I’ve started adding the gym into the mix. I felt like the cardio from the bike alone was beginning to plateau and I needed to stir things up a bit. Now, I’m just as addicted to the gym, as I am to biking, hiking, backpacking, and writing!
There’s really no way to go wrong with training, as long as you’re training. So, don’t feel like you’re not owning up to some sort of expectations just because other people seem to know what they’re doing. The truth is, no one truly knows what we’re doing. As science and medicine and mathematics, etc, continue to evolve, and as humans continue to learn, we will continuously shape our ideas on what’s right.
What About Acclimation
Thru-hiking will take you on a serious journey. You’ll come across some of the lowest zones, and then find yourself on some of the highest elevation gains, all on the same trail as it spans across it’s 2,100 miles (or more!). Thinking about acclimation is definitely something to take into consideration.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is, for some thru-hikers it can take a month to fully acclimate. If that’s the case, then they’d already find themselves a third of the way into their thru-hike and guess what?… the terrain has shifted, no longer requiring the acclimation.
When it comes to acclimation there’s not much of a way to truly get used to the elevation gains unless you are nearby and can constantly train there. Another way would be to rent a place in the area for some time and live there for a bit, but that’s really taking a stretch just to go on a destination hike.
So, get out there, and have fun with it! Listen to your body, rest when needed, eat when you’re hungry. Thru-hiking doesn’t require someone to go on a full on keto (survival mode) diet. It only requires the person to be able to carry themselves well.
My best advice is that if you’re like me, and live somewhere that has very little elevation gain, you take it slow at first when you arrive to your thru-hike. The first time I experienced very high elevation gains was when I backpacked the Rocky Mountains. I could feel the air thinning out with every step up after a certain height. It made me feel lightheaded, almost dizzy at times, and exhausted. I wasn’t acclimated and wouldn’t have had the time to acclimate anyhow as I was only there for 6 days.
Something super important to note, is at times like the above paragraph, you need to understand what your body is trying to tell you. Do not push through a dangerous attempt when your body is literally trying to shut down on you. Stop, rest, sleep if you need, eat your snacks, hydrate and then go ahead and cancel the climb for now. The mountain will most likely still be there to try again later, when you’re not at risk of serious injury or illness.
Rangers are usually available to help someone off the mountains when needed. Know your emergency numbers at each location you trek.
Carrying That Backpack
One of the best (and worst) parts about backpacking is getting used to carrying that pack. I say it’s the best because once you’re familiar with your setup you will be prepared for anything. Did it just start raining out of nowhere? No problem, my rain jacket is easily accessible from the front stretch pocket. Do I want to setup camp but don’t feel like digging through all of my stuff right now? I can just pull my sleeping bag from the bottom stowaway pouch. Did I just get a bee sting? No worries, my safety kits are in the top zip-pouch.
Knowing your pack out like the back of your hand is going to help your hikes feel successful and second nature. To get used to carrying it everywhere, just take it training with you. Practice using the different slots and pouches available to see what works for you. And remember to add more miles each week. By the time you make it to your destination hike, you won’t even notice the weight of your pack.
Add Miles Weekly
Like I’ve mentioned above, this is how you’ll get used to the weight you carry, adjust your hiking stride, and prepare your lungs for efficient oxygen intake. You want to push your limits on this exercise.
For the first week, walk as much as you can until you’re noticing you really need a break. Then stop. Record how far you’ve made it and rest until the next week (you should get to the point where you’re hike-training three days a week, but when you first start it’s okay to feel like one day a week is plenty).
When the following week comes around, hit your recorded marker, then add a mile. Then record, and head back home again.
Continue this rinse and repeat until you’re hiking 10 miles a day without problem. Many thru-hikers hike around 16 miles a day. If you train at 10 that’s a great starting point for beginners. If you’re able to get it to 16 before your trip, even better!
Something we don’t want to skip: food!
You need to know what provisions you have and you need to understand how to ration them based on how much area you still have left to cover before a restock.
You’re going to feel hungry on a thru-hike. Let me reiterate, You’re going to always feel hungry on a thru-hike. It’s the nature of the beast when it comes to long distance hiking. Remember, thru-hiking requires you to burn an exceptional amount of calories every day while you’re on the trail.
A great way to prepare yourself and train for this, is to understand your body and to learn how to eat for fuel instead of pleasure or out of boredom. Eat healthy, provide the nutrients your body needs, and eat small portions five times six times a day. This will make sure your body is intaking the proper nutrients it needs. It will help with digestion. And, you’ll only be taking in the calories you need, instead of excess.
Have An Escape Plan
A seasoned thru-hiker doesn’t just head out into the wilderness without some sort of escape plan. Don’t allow yourself to get into a bad situation due to lack of preparation. Spend some time thinking over anything bad that could happen, and then prepare for it. Then do it again and make sure you didn’t miss anything.
Have maps downloaded and ready to show your routes even without cell phone reception (AllTrails is one of the apps that offer this).
Locate and know the ways to get in touch with “Trail Angels” along the paths of your thru-hike.
Understand where the restock locations are, and take note on where your at while on the trail so you know how much farther you may need to go. I’ll post a Land Navigation post and back link it here in the near future to help with this topic.
Have a way to signal that you need help.
This post was written by Evan