Photo: Dan Holz/Tandemstock

How to Train for Long Trails

Prep your body and mind for a thru-hiking adventure.

There’s nothing like hiking a long trail. Whether it’s 200 miles on the John Muir Trail or 3,000 miles on the Continental Divide Trail, the rhythm and routine of hiking day after day delivers unmatched rewards. But the experience will be a lot sweeter if you’re ready for logging big miles everyday. That requires a trifecta of fitness, self-care, and mental resilience. Here’s how to get started.

Endurance and Strength

They say the best way to get ready for climbing mountains is to climb mountains. The same goes for thru-hiking: Nothing prepares you for backpacking 20 miles a day like backpacking 20 miles a day. Putting in that kind of training time is unrealistic for most folks, but you can still increase endurance and strength before you hit the trail.

Start Hiking and/or Running

Whatever your base level fitness is, start building cardio endurance and leg strength with regular hikes and runs. Begin training at least three months before your hike (more if you haven’t been regularly active). Schedule one or two rest days per week and gradually build to the distances you’ll be tackling. Listen to your body.  

Increase Distance Slowly

Runners training for marathons and ultramarathons generally try not to increase mileage by more than 10% per week. That helps prevent overuse injuries, allowing your body to gradually adapt to longer distances. Hikers can follow the same principle to safely build up endurance, but can add slightly more distance, more quickly, since hiking is lower impact.

Train Your Feet

At the same time you’re training cardiovascular stamina, you should be thinking about the endurance of your feet. Going on long, slow hikes (as opposed to running on a treadmill) toughens your feet—and gives you a chance to make sure your sock/shoe system is dialed for the trail. 

Cross-Train

Maintain your cardio training but give joints a rest by cross-training. Try swimming, cycling, or Nordic skiing.   

Mimic the Terrain

Find trails with terrain and steepness that mimic your target trail. No hills nearby? Use a stadium or other buildings with stairs to train for elevation change.

Increase Strength

Even a lightweight pack requires upper, core, and lower body strength. Gradually increase the weight of your training pack until it’s equal to the heaviest load you’ll carry on the trail. Also, add strength work in a gym or at home, two to three times a week. 

Photo: Jim Meyers/TandemStock

Care and Feeding

Long trail success requires more than fitness. You need good nutrition and hydration, and the ability to care for the inevitable aches and pains. 

Train Your Gut

Experiment with different types of trail snacks and fluids and take note of how they make you feel and use trial and error to determine the best amounts and schedule. On a multi-month trek, your preferences might change, but getting a sense of what works best will help you maintain energy. 

Live Out of Your Pack

While training, practice “living” out of the pack you’ll be using. Determine the best places to store items like lip balm, snacks, and water so you can grab them on the go. Pack pointy items, like stoves and headlamps, so that they’re not lying directly against your back. Instead, wrap them in clothes or stash them in outer pockets.

Stay Limber

Stretching and yoga will help ease soreness. So will self-massage with a foam roller or other massage tool. Incorporate post-hike treatment into your routine to help stay healthy. Maintain the stretching on the trail. If you roll with a small recovery tool, like a lacrosse ball, consider bringing it on your overnight training outings.

Make It Real

Just as you’ll prepare your gut by eating and drinking foods and fluids you intend to use during your venture, it’s imperative to train in the footwear and apparel you plan to wear on your trek. Make sure seams of shirts, jackets, and sports bras, and the waistbands of shorts and pants, don’t rub under pack straps. Basically, make a training day once a week or so a dress rehearsal to make sure what you intend to wear, from your socks and shoes to your hat and sunglasses, will be comfortable for the long haul.

Mental Training

Training for and tackling a long trail means, well, long hours on trails. It’s natural to occasionally struggle with motivation. Here are some tips to keep you going.

Keep Your Eye on the Prize

Remember what your end goal is. Pin a trail map and inspiring photos on walls at home to remind you what you’re working toward.  

Accept the Bad with the Good

Challenging things happen on the trail—chafing, swarming mosquitoes, injuries, rough weather. Never make a decision about aborting your mission after a bad day of hiking. Instead, refocus on the good: the days of blue skies with the wind at your back.

Take Time Off

On the trail, rest days are called zero days. Your body and mind need recovery days, and the same is true during training. Treat yourself to rewards on those days, like double-scoops of ice cream or a massage. You’ll return to training refreshed. (If you have more than one of these signs—irritability, sleeplessness, lack of appetite, extreme soreness—you might be overtraining.)

Team Up

Find training partners; they can breathe new life into your miles. 

Tune In

Hiking alone? Listening to music, podcasts, or audio books can make you crave your time on the trail in new ways.

Prepare Your Mind

The Wisdom of Others

For Davis, mental and emotional training is even more important than the physical training. “Most thru-hikers don’t get off trail for physical reasons,” she explains. “More people are mentally unprepared for what a thru-hike really entails.” Watch documentaries and read books written by people who have hiked the specific trail you are training for to get a better, more realistic view of the trail. You can also tailor this information by looking for someone with a similar background and physical abilities to you. And don’t underestimate the power of contacting former thru-hikers via phone or email. Many are happy to help mentor an aspiring hiker.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.