How to Start Training for Hiking
Training is an essential part of being able to hike and backpack harder trails. Most people underestimate the demand for hiking and end up either huffing and puffing up the mountain feeling miserable the entire time, or they end up getting injured because their bodies aren’t trained correctly.
Yes, injuries can happen by accident, but most injuries are preventable by training your body correctly to handle the physical stress of hiking with the added load of your backpack.
This is why focusing on preparing your body is equally important as any of the other logistics you think about when it comes to more challenging hikes and backpacking trips.
Plus, my personal favorite thing about training is that it allows you to not be limited within your body. You can move as you want to without the risk of pulling something or injuring something, and it allows you to step into physically being limitless in your abilities.
One of the biggest myths I hear is “you train for hiking by hiking.” But you wouldn’t tell a football player to only train for football by playing football, would you?
Nope! Because a football player needs to strengthen their full body outside of the field in order to perform at their best on the field.
The same applies to us, hikers.
Not to mention just hiking and walking aren’t fully strengthening your body the way it needs to be, which leaves some areas weak and can lead to injury. Do you really want to risk it?
I learned this lesson the wrong way.
I didn’t train correctly, because I didn’t focus enough on strength training which then led to my body not being able to handle the difficulty of the trail I was doing, even though I was hiking every weekend prior, and I ended up injuring my knee and not being able to hike for over a year.
This is why I’m telling you from personal experience that you want to avoid doing this to yourself.
Not to mention, it’s anything but fun when you’re huffing and puffing the whole way up and down, thinking why did I get myself into this mess and waiting for it to be over. You’re in this stunning place, why would you want to remember your trip that way?!
So in this blog post, I’m going to give you a solid overview of HOW you should be training to ensure you not only reduce chances of getting injured but also so you have an enjoyable hiking and backpacking trip.
How Far Ahead for Hiking Should You Train?
Generally, you should start training 4 to 6 months before your big hike. Now, this of course depends on your current fitness level. If you’re starting completely from the beginning, you might only need 4 to 6 months or you might need 9 months to even a year to get yourself ready. This depends on where you’re starting from and how difficult of a hike you’re training for.
Do You Need to Train for Hiking Every Day?
I know there is a huge myth out there that you basically need to suck up all your free time with training… this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Training tears muscle fibers, and rest and recovery help to rebuild them so you get stronger because your body compensates for the stress you applied during training. So you’re going to need at least two rest days per week, ideally not consecutive days.
Working out endlessly does more harm than good. Aim for 4 to 5 sessions per week (which could also include hiking).
Just be aware, there is a fine line between overdoing it, and pushing yourself. If you don’t challenge yourself, your body doesn’t get stronger. But if you overdo it, then it takes too long to recover which means your body doesn’t adapt.
CONSISTENCY paired with the goldilocks zone of training where you’re challenging yourself just enough is where you’re actually going to see results and get stronger.
Break Down of How to Train for Hiking
Training for hiking and backpacking can get very overwhelming and confusing in general. There are a lot of moving pieces and things to put together, but we’re going to break this down and make it very simple.
I’m all about simplicity, not making things more challenging than they need to be.
Hiking Training Cycles
So first thing is first, there are training cycles. You go in and out of different training cycles and phases that help your body adapt and get stronger.
Your body needs to move away from its place of rest to improve, and then it needs time to make the changes that allow it to adapt. Please note that these cycles require time. Training requires time. There is no magic pill you can take that will make you fit and strong. And working out for 2 weeks isn’t going to get you there. This is a process and a journey. And shortcutting it or rushing it will leave you unprepared.
Training time is also going to mentally prepare you. I’ve spoken many times about how hiking and backpacking is 80% your hiking headspace, and that’s because it’s as mentally challenging as it is physically. You are pushing your body to new lengths, things that are well outside of your comfort zone and naturally, your body is going to respond.
So many of us sit in fear of hiking, backpacking, progressing, and going after what we really want to go, because it’s our headspace that freaks out and holds us back. Now, we’re not going to give into your hiking headspace in this blog post, this is a whole other area we’re going to save for another day, but training is going to help mentally prepare you. Because through this work, you’re going to start to move away from lacking confidence, not feeling ready, and wondering if you’ve even got what it takes to make it, to actually saying “I’ve got this.”
The five stages, cycles, phases… call them what you will of hiking are:
Recovery – After your big hike, it’s important to take time to recover. This period is only 1 to 4 weeks, depending on what your body needs. This isn’t to say you need to be a couch potato, but this means you’re not pushing yourself and focusing on things like mobility and stretching.
Transition – Next we have the transition phase, and this is literally a transition that is going to help your body get used to a training routine and used to the stress of regular training. If you’re just starting on your training for hiking journey, this is where you’re starting. If you’re in good shape, train frequently, or coming off of the recovery phase, you might only need 4 to 6 weeks. But if you’re a complete beginner, you’re going to want to be in this phase for 8 weeks.
Many people struggle here because they come in super motivated. They have new goals, energy, and are super stoked to dive right in.
This can lead to prematurely ramping up too much before their body is ready, which doesn’t help you get stronger, because remember, it’s all about progression. But also it can cause burn out. Which is why MANY people fall off workout routines very quickly.
I mean how many people do you know, and you might have done this as well, where you set a New Year’s Resolution to work out and lose 20 pounds. They go to the gym every day for a couple weeks TOPS and then fall off and never see results? Our goal here is to help you avoid becoming this person. To help you see it through.
Base – This is going to be the bulk of your training. It is the longest and most important training phase. This will take you to a new, higher fitness level and offer you the best chance of success when you start getting out and backpacking harder trails. This period will be 16 to 24 weeks, so roughly 4 to 6 months. Now if you’re just starting on your fitness for hiking journey, you most likely will be in this phase as you do your hikes this year. So the following phase might not apply right away. Each year can build on the previous ones. Train well through this phase, you will set yourself up for success. Skip or shortcut this phase, you will never reach your full training potential.
Specific – Towards the end of your base phase, you’ll start working on specific training. And for a few weeks, these two will overlap.
Specific training means that you’re focusing more on exercises and workouts that are going to be specific to hiking and backpacking. Things like training hikes or doing cardio on the stairmaster with a fully loaded pack.
This phase will generally last anywhere from 2 to 8 weeks.
Taper – Finally the taper phase will be done 2 to 3 weeks before your BIG HIKE of the year. There’s such a thing as being overtrained, and it’s actually better to be a little under trained than over trained. Because when you’re slightly undertrained, you’re at least well rested and have energy to push through.
Compared to being overtrained, your body is fatigued, your energy reserves are diminished, and you have nowhere to pull from.
Which is where this taper phase comes into play. You’re going to gradually reduce the intensity and volume of your workouts as you get closer to the start date to ensure your body is well rested to handle your trip.
Strength Training for Backpacking
You NEED to be adding in strength training into your workout routine for hiking and backpacking. This is one many hikers overlook, mainly because they usually either hate the gym, hate working out, or don’t understand the importance of strength training.
Strength training which is basically resistance training, which can be done with body weight, resistance bands, or weights, is literally is responsible for strengthening your body. Which then helps you get up the mountain and does a great deal to prevent injuries.
You want to prevent injuries instead of just focusing on treating injuries after they happen.
For example, if you have weak ankles, you’re more likely to roll an ankle on the trail and then end up with a sprain. Vs if you spend time ahead of time training, strengthening your body correctly, it reduces chances of rolling an ankle, and even if you do, it increases your ability to bounce back without an injury.
Or if you have foot pain, strengthen and stretch your calves, strengthen and stretch your feet, and your legs. Because when your lower body is well trained, your legs will take most of the impact when you’re hiking instead of feeling it in your feet.
I learned this one the hard way with my knees…
I have a desk job, even as a full time blogger, I still spend my days sitting at a desk working and writing blogs, even more so in my full time days when I did digital marketing. All this sitting around resulted in having weak and tight hips. I didn’t realize it, didn’t spend enough time strengthening and stretching my weakness, when then with overuse ended up in a pretty bad knee injury.
Tip for you here about knees – If you have weak ankles or hips, those will often result in a knee injury (unless you fall on your knee or have some other contact injury), because it sits right in the middle between the two and ends up taking a lot of force.
A little fun fact for you – as you age you lose muscle mass, and you can lose 1% of your muscle every year if you don’t do resistance training.
Cardio Training for Hiking
As you already know, with strength training we make our bodies strong to avoid injuries and handle the physical demands of hiking. But with cardio, we train our aerobic system which gives us the energy to make it up those steep passes, climb uphill, all without huffing and puffing. It’s the endurance we need for hiking.
When your aerobic capacity is high, you can exercise at moderate intensity for long periods without tiring. You’re also more efficient in your use of oxygen, which improves your performance at high altitudes.
But it’s not just about any type of cardio…
Did you know those CrossFit and HIIT (high intensity interval training) workouts we all love so much do nothing to help you get stronger for hiking? They’re only half-assing both your strength and your cardio workout. PLUS! You’re training in the wrong heart rate zone!
The bulk of your training needs to be in Zone 1, which is about 55 to 75% of your Max Heart Rate. Working at this level of intensity will lay down the foundation of a large aerobic base which will allow you to sustain bigger efforts with less energy.
Zone 1 can be the most challenging zone to train because it may feel too easy to be effective training. If your aerobic capacity is low, you might not be able to walk even at a brisk pace before your heart rate drifts into higher zones.
Especially if you either haven’t been training at all or the bulk of your training has been done at higher intensities aka those HIIT classes.
Fun fact – This is actually called Aerobic Deficiency Syndrome. When you’ve been training at too high intensity and your aerobic base is underdeveloped, so you feel out of breath quickly doing easy things like walking uphill. It’s completely reversible, but takes time so train slowly.
Adding Progression to Your Hiking Workouts
Every 4 to 6 weeks, you want to make sure you’re increasing your training volume, in other words, how challenging the workouts are. If you increase too soon, then you risk overworking yourself which isn’t going to help your body adapt. And if you don’t challenge yourself, well we already know that doesn’t help you either.