As I huffed up the side of New Hampshire’s Mount Liberty in the fog, I couldn’t recall an ascent ever being so taxing on my muscles or my mind. It was the second summit of my first day backpacking the Pemigewasset Loop in the state’s White Mountains, and the 32-mile trail was giving me a solid thrashing.
As an active runner, climber, hiker, and cyclist, I’m fit, but my legs were burning, my knees grinding, and my pack felt much heavier than it had during my last backpacking trip only two months prior. There was no going back, of course—my determination and stubbornness simply wouldn’t allow me to call off a hike just because I was tired—but I was exhausted physically and mentally knowing I had three whole days of this ahead of me.
That’s largely because I essentially hit the trail—a trail with eight peaks over 4,000 feet—straight “off the couch,” or with little to no specialized training for such an arduous adventure. In hindsight, all of my discomfort and mental anguish could have been avoided with just a little preparation and hard work.
So take it from me: train for a long hike. Because just as athletes don’t perform at the top of their game without hours of practice and training, hikers should not expect to set foot in the wild and excel without conditioning their bodies and minds.
Why to Train for a Hike
For most people, training for a hike boils down to one simple thing: being able to complete a dream journey or effortful adventure with less pain, suffering, or huffing and puffing.
Mitigating my discomfort would have been reason enough for me, but training before a strenuous outing is about more than gaining the ability to go farther faster with less pain; it’s also about minimizing risk.
“Conditioning prior to attempting a difficult or lengthy hike is very important for success and to help minimize injury,” says William Byrnes, director of the Applied Exercise Science Laboratory at the University of Colorado Boulder.
And while “success” can mean anything from a more comfortable hike to a safe return, wanting to avoid injury is universal.
Byrnes explains that muscles adapt in a variety of ways to reduce the stress of performing vigorous exercise and that those changes happen more fluidly when the muscles have been conditioned to adapt. These adaptations can include increased muscle mass, more intramuscular mitochondria to allow for higher rates of energy generation, and a larger number of capillaries around each muscle cell. The cardiovascular system also adapts, allowing it to deliver oxygen and nutrients to active muscle cells more efficiently. All of this is only possible through conditioning.
Skip this crucial prep, and you may be more susceptible to injuries, exhaustion, and life-threatening situations during your trek.
When to Train for a Hike
What your training actually looks like will depend on a lot of factors, including your baseline level of activity and fitness (Are you starting “off the couch” or are you fairly fit?), your goals and how extravagant they are (Are you hiking in a mountainous state park with your family or summiting Denali?), and what you want to accomplish (Do you want to set a speed record or just enjoy a tough hike without feeling like you’re dying?).
Whatever the case, Byrnes recommends starting slowly and building up intensity as your body adapts to new stimuli. Consider weight training: when lifting a 10-pound weight starts to feel less difficult, move up to a 12- or 15-pound weight. The same goes for aerobic exercises: gradually add miles or minutes as your ability increases. You probably won’t notice immediate improvements, but Byrnes says training adaptations will likely occur within two to four weeks of beginning a solid exercise program.
But that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be ready to hit the trail just yet. If you’ve never run a marathon, for example, a month of training won’t prepare you for one, Byrnes says. He suggests training until you know you can complete the trip you want to take.
In fact, depending on your goals, your preparation could take anywhere between six weeks and six months, according to Jason Antin, an instructor at the Colorado Mountain School in Boulder and a mountain performance coach at Uphill Athlete, which offers training plans and coaching to outdoor athletes.
And he would know: he has decades of experience not just accomplishing impressive feats in the mountains himself, but helping others do the same. And while he says the ideal training scenario is a life of preparation, regular hikes in the mountains aren’t an option for everyone. In that case, Antin recommends at least a month of training, and six months if you’re aiming for an excursion of epic proportions.
How to Train for a Hike
When you’re ready, Antin suggests starting by assessing your aerobic capacity. That’s a measurement of your body’s oxygen consumption during physical activity and a reflection of its ability to continue performing strenuous activities for long periods of time—endurance, essentially. The more oxygen your lungs can pull in and push into your blood, the more of this critical gas will be pumped to your brain, heart, and other tissues and muscles where it can be used.
Here’s how Antin recommends checking your aerobic capacity: Either outdoors or on a treadmill set to a 10 percent incline, do a slow walking warm-up for at least 15 minutes and continue until you break a sweat. Then begin to gradually increase your speed, breathing only through your nose. When nasal breathing becomes uncomfortable, slow down just as gradually and find the fastest speed at which you can maintain breathing through your nose for 15 minutes. Note your average heart rate during that last leg (a heart monitor or fitness wearable is helpful), because it is your aerobic threshold heart rate and will be your goal for aerobic training.
Now start the actual training, spending most of your time performing aerobic exercises such as running or fast hiking that keep your heart rate holding steady at just below your aerobic threshold. Depending on your starting aerobic threshold, the intensity of this initial training will vary, but your goal is to get your heart pumping. And don’t skip this, because there are no shortcuts when it comes to aerobic adaptation, Antin says.
He also suggests a simple weight training routine during the first one to eight weeks of aerobic training in order to build up a strength reserve. This will help give you the ability to execute many of the repetitive movements common in outdoor activities (like stepping up while wearing a heavy backpack).
After that, upgrade to more complex strength training motions that involve several parts of your body at the same time. Think deadlifts, cleans, and overhead squats. These will help you build strength while simultaneously improving the neuromuscular coordination of muscular contractions. “It’s a fancy way of saying: ‘see: do,’” Antin explains. “As an athlete of any caliber, you are training your body and mind to respond efficiently.”
If a month or two is all you have before your adventure, Antin suggests heading straight to the weight room. With such a time crunch, it’s important to focus on muscular endurance and exercises that burn leg and core muscles like squats and planks, he says.
Finally, if you’re gearing up for a specific event, concentrate on training for activity-specific conditions. For example, do calf raises to prepare for ice climbing—a task that can be taxing on those muscles.
Regardless of how much time you have, make sure you’re well-recovered before you actually set out: Taper your workout intensity between one and three weeks before you embark to ensure you are well-rested going into a big event.
“Your body and mind are incredibly powerful and so much can be achieved if provided enough prep time,” says Antin. “Most outdoor endeavors dwell heavily on mental capacity and the more time you spend in the activity, the more experienced and confident you will feel embarking on the goal objective.”
Alisha McDarris is a DIY contributor at Popular Science. She’s a travel lover and true outdoor enthusiast who enjoys showing friends, family, heck, even strangers, how to stay safe out there and enjoy more time in the wild. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her backpacking, kayaking, rock climbing, or road tripping.