Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking and Hiking

We use this common sense, 2-day-a-week training program to prepare for hiking 30+ mile days on the AT. We also used it to do the “the toughest long distance trek in Europe,” the GR20 in Corsica, in ½ the normal time. But this Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking and Hiking works great for shorter and less intense trips. And it always keeps in mind that having fun is the first priority of any trip!

Photo above: Dawn on the AT, White Rock Cliffs Maryland. Alison and I used this training program to prepare for a 124 mile section hike of the AT in just four days over Memorial Day Weekend. Without good training we would not have been able to do the hike in our limited vacation time. See: Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train – Harpers Ferry WV to Harrisburg PA.

Busy Lives Require Intelligent, Time Efficient Training

We all know pre-trip training is hugely important to the success and enjoyment our next trip, but… Let’s face it, most of us don’t have hours and hours of spare time each week to train for hike or big trip. As such, we need to train intelligently and efficiently—getting the maximum training benefit with the least amount of training time. With this Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking and Hiking you can be physically prepared for your next big trek with as little as two core hikes per week.

Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking

Good training makes even 30+ mile days fun, even over “the rocks of Pennsylvania!” The team grinning ear to ear at the historic or traditional mid-point on the AT, just a few miles before you enter Pine Grove Furnace for ice cream!

And It’s Not All About Speed – Training Has More Important Benefits

It’s good to remember that your first goal on any trip is to enjoy yourself. Reading the following conditioning regimen, you might wrongly assume that we are focused on blazing through the landscape—barely taking time to view and appreciate the wondrous terrain passing through. Quite the opposite, we propose that properly conditioned for a hike, you are more likely to enjoy yourself and appreciate your surroundings.

1) Training Helps You Enjoy the Hike

Not under the physical and psychological stress of being overwhelmed with the effort of hiking, you are more relaxed and fully present to appreciate your surroundings. In addition, the ability to move quickly (when you want) gives you far more options to get to that perfect campsite, have some extra time for a side trip, take more photos, go for a lunchtime swim, bag a peak, or even take a midday nap!

2) Training Makes Trips Possible with Limited Vacation Time

Many of us are short on vacation time. We do not have two to three weeks to leisurely do the John Muir trail or a long section of the AT. Many of us struggle to get a squeeze a longer trip into a single week of vacation. Being a better conditioned and able to hike faster may make the difference between doing a long backpacking trip or not.

Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking

Alison descending from the crux of the GR20 Trek. Good training, and a A Light Pack (see our gear list), made all the difference to our enjoyment of this rugged and difficult trek!

Overview of Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking and Hiking

No fads. No gimmicks. This is just common sense use of tried and true professional training techniques. It is essentially training your body over 8-12 weeks* to hike the daily distance you intend to hike, over the terrain you will hike in, carrying the weight of your backpack. Our training consists of just two conditioning hikes per week; one evening hike after work and a longer weekend hike that still has us back before 2:00 pm allowing ½ of a precious weekend day to do other things.

First and foremost, do what you can! Any walking is better than no walking and no training program is ever perfect. The more miles (feet-on-ground) you accumulate (even if it is on local sidewalks to your workplace) the better off you are. Don’t let perfection stop you from doing whatever you can!
  • Your core training is hiking/walking with a pack.
    While running and biking, etc. are all excellent cross training; build aerobic conditioning, strengthen joints and muscles; nothing prepares you to backpack— like hiking with a pack on your back! Specificity, specificity, specificity.
  • Here’s a list of Tools and Equipment for Training that we routinely use to make training easier.
  • Wear Your Backpack (or a daypack). Work up to having that pack loaded to 75% (or more) of the anticipated pack weight for your trip. (A 10 lb Weight Belt is also a fast way to add weight.)
  • Train on terrain similar to what you’ll hike on. If your trip will be on hilly and rocky trails, train on steepest and rockiest trails you can find nearby (like we did in the Sugarloaf example below). If you’re trip is in the sandy desert, train back and forth on a local beach.
  • Think creatively on this one. On the super hilly and rocky GR20 we met two fast and fit hikers from the Netherlands–one of the flattest places on the planet. They had trained for the GR20 with heavy packs in sand dunes and in building stairwells. It worked! They were rockin’ the route.
  • Hike in the shoes (e.g. light trail runners like Brooks Cascadia or Altra Lone Peak) & socks (thin is better) that you intend to wear on your trip. This is the key to not getting blisters on your trip.
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$45 carbon fiber poles. 1/3 price of comp. poles!

Train with your trekking poles if you use them (we do). We like these at REI or these great bargain carbon fiber poles for only $45 from Amazon!

  • Note: if your hiking will be at over 8,000 feet having good aerobic conditioning will take some of the sting out of the lower oxygen levels at altitude. That is you won’t be as out of breath. This is more efficiently done by running, biking, stairmaster, etc. vs. walking. (Important – this will not help with altitude sickness. There’s no correlation of aerobic fitness to reducing your risk for altitude sickness.)

* Realistically, you should start training in earnest at least 8 weeks before your trip. Prior to that, it really helps to start with a good base of moderate walking, jogging, biking etc. and thus already have basic aerobic and joint muscle conditioning. If you do not have this base, a 12-16 week progressive build-up to pre-trip hiking fitness may be more appropriate.

The Weekly Training Schedule

This is the weekly training routine that Alison and I use to prepare for our big backpacking trips. This routine uses our limited training time to best advantage. Ideally, each week we do:

  1. One Long and Hilly Hike on the weekend,
  2. One Shorter and Faster Hike midweek
  3. Supplement this with Other Training: running, biking, Stairmaster, uphill treadmill, swimming etc. as the spirit moves us.

1. Long and Hilly Hike on the weekend

The goal of the long weekend hike is to build up to hiking the same distance and elevation gain and loss as your anticipated longest/hardest hiking days (maybe by increasing mileage and elevation by 5-10% per week as you get fitter).

Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking

Our weekend long hike and the foundation of our training: Sugarloaf Mountain is 40 minutes away, giving us more hiking time & less driving time. Our “creative” route on the mountain allowed us to build up to hiking our target of 30 km with 1500 m of elevation gain and loss (19 miles & 5,000 ft) in around 6 hours. To get that much elevation gain, we did the Mountain Loop (green) trail 4x at the start of our hike. [We used CalTopo, the best route planning tool available to plot our route and calculate distance and elevation gain.]

  • We don’t live in Colorado (Rockies) or California (Sierras), so we do our best to find terrain “similar” to the GR20 within an hour drive from our home . If you live near something like Longs Peak, by all means hike there!
  • In the above example our goal was 30 km hiking with 1500 m of elevation gain and loss (19 miles & 5,000 ft) in around 6 hours hiking time—about what we believed our hardest days would be.
  • You may need to be creative with local features. Remember the Dutch hiking up and down building stairwells? E.g. doing multiple laps up and down a small ridge to meet your elevation gain and loss goals. In the example above, we did the Mountain Loop (green) trail 4x at the start of our hike to get in 1000 m or 3,400 ft. elevation gain.
  • Consider working up to hiking about 15-30% faster than you intend to hike on your trip. This will in some way compensate for hiking back-to-back long days on your trip. We averaged about 5.0 kph (3.1 mph) on our Sugarloaf hikes. [On the actual GR20 we averaged between 2.2 to 2.7 mph most days.]
  • For your training hikes, log your average hiking speed, total distance traveled, and elevation gain and loss. This will be your key indicator of progress and a measure of your physical preparedness for your trip. Use this information to make realistic estimates of how far you’ll go each day on your trip and plan logistics. You’ll be surprised how accurate your predictions will be!
  • Find a partner to go with or these long hikes may get stupefyingly boring! Alternatively you can listen to Audio Books (our favorite), Podcasts, or just do a walking meditation.

Finally, consider taking a two or three day weekend backpacking trip a few weeks before your trip. This will give you back-to-back trail day conditioning and give you a pre-trip opportunity to shake out gear. See our: Benefits of Early Spring Backpacking article.

Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking

For easy weight for a quick mid-week hike I sometimes use a standard 10 lb Weight Belt (blue in the photo) and a water bottle(s) to get me in the 12-15 pound range (since my pack rarely exceeds 20 lb on a trip.) This saves me the hassle of loading up a backpack.

2. Shorter and Faster Hike midweek

For our Weekday Shorter and Faster Hike, we focus on hiking fast over easier terrain (laps in a local park, up and down in the hilly section of town, etc.). This develops leg speed and gives us the ability to opportunistically “crush” easier sections of trail, gaining valuable time and distance. This also adds feet-on-ground conditioning time each week.

We try and cover as much distance as we can in about 2 to 3 hours. This allows us to fit the hike in before or after work. (See example hike below)

3. Other Training

  • Stairmaster is a great training tool! It is a fabulous and time efficient workout that builds essential uphill hiking muscles and aerobic capacity—it can be done in crap weather—or in the dead of winter. It’s a core element of our training. Work up to doing 45 minutes to an hour (or more) alternating between steady pace and faster intervals. I try to do 3,000 to 4,000 ft vert (283 to 377 floors) in a workout. For those doing trips at altitude this is a great opportunity for low impact hiking specific aerobic conditioning. (Note: Stairmaster is not a complete tool since it does not condition you to hike downhill—arguably just as important as going up. On your long weekend hikes you will need to ensure that you also train your legs to go downhill, sometimes steeply.)
  • Stairwells in tall buildings are also excellent midweek or lunchtime conditioning, especially since you go up and down.
  • Fast walking on a steeply inclined treadmill is also good and time-efficient uphill training. Also consider wearing a pack or a weight belt on the treadmill.
  • Trail running is a great way to aerobically condition yourself, and to develop the eye-foot coordination to miss rocks, tree roots, holes, and other difficult terrain. This does not need to be fast running at all. Slow jogging, even walking steep hills as necessary is just fine! [Some accomplished trail runners may do a lot of long runs for their trip prep, that’s fine. It’s just not our thing.]
  • Alison and I also swim and bike during the week, but mostly from long-standing habits as triathletes. Not sure that these are the best training for backpacking, but they probably help some (or do whatever aerobic activity floats your boat.)

Tools and Equipment for Training

Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking

Old school tools still work! For free you can get trail miles from signs or paper maps and use your own watch for timing. With these you can record distance hiked, your average speed (and possibly elevation gain/loss) for your training hikes. Photo right is my favorite $35 basic solar wrist watch for hiking.

  • The Gaia GPS App on a smartphone (in tracking mode) is our favorite way to log essential information from our training hikes—distance hiked, speed, and elevation gain.
  • See How to use the iPhone as the Best Backpacking GPS for more information on how to use your iPhone/Smartphone as an excellent tool for training, hiking & backpacking.
  • Or you can use a GPS watch to record time, mileage, and elevation gain/loss on your training hikes. Good GPS watches are available for around $100. A basic Garmin is just fine.
  • For free, use old school tools to get trail miles and elevation gain/loss from paper maps or trail signs and use your own watch for timing. My favorite basic watch for hiking is this $35 solar wrist watch.
  • Use CalTopo or gmap-pedometer.com (free) or Map Pedometer (free) to plan your training hikes and calculate hiking distance and elevation gain and loss (or you can use paper maps if you have them.)
  • A 10 lb Weight Belt is a fast and convenient way to add weight for a quick mid-week hike, and not bother with the hassle of loading up a backpack.

Tools to Monitor your Training Hikes (distance, speed, and elevation gain)


Gaia GPS  in tracking mode is our favorite way to log essential information from our training hikes—distance hiked, speed, and elevation gain. It only uses about 2% battery life per hour on my iPhone 6+ so it easily handles even a day long hike with battery to spare.

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Gaia GPS  iPhone App data screen from Our Weekday Shorter and Faster Hike: Out of our front door we can do the whole 10+ mile hike after work (hike takes us about about three hours ad we get 1,300 – 1,5000 ft of elevation gain). Also See This Post for more information on how to increase battery life on a smartphone.


 

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A Wrist GPS greatly simplifies tracking mileage, hiking speed, and especially elevation gain and loss stats (which are a pain to get by other methods).

Tools to Plan Routes for Your Training Hikes or Your Next Big Trip!

We use gmap-pedometer.com or Map Pedometer, both free, to plot our route and get distance and elevation gain. Both automatically route along many common trails near you. But CalTopo is an better and far more sophisticated tool, perfect for both planning training hikes AND also planning the route for you next big trip!

Below is an example of our standard 10+ mile “Shorter and Faster Hike midweek.”

rock-creek-hike

A hiking route planned out with gPed. It automatically routes along trails giving you distance and elevation gain.

Parting Shot

Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking

Training works! Hiking a high ridge on the tough GR20. We did 3 High Alpine stages in a single day. And our training enabled us to do the whole GR20 in ½ the normal number of days.

By | 2017-05-04T15:03:38+00:00 February 8th, 2017|Skills|24 Comments

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24 Comments

  1. Russell March 22, 2016 at 12:29 am - Reply

    Best article I’ve read about this topic for us “average” backpackers who have neither the time nor the ability (nor interest, frankly) in becoming ultra-endurance athletes just to get and stay in shape for a trek. Many thanks!

    • Alan Dixon March 22, 2016 at 12:59 am - Reply

      Thanks for the kind words Russel!

  2. Andy Duncan April 4, 2016 at 7:29 am - Reply

    I enjoyed reading your article and have incorporated much of your plan into my own training this season. I use a GPS to keep track of my progress and I can feel my endurance increasing. In the past I tried to hike everyday, but your system works much better. Thank you!

    • Alan Dixon April 4, 2016 at 7:59 am - Reply

      Glad it is working for you Andy. Hope you have some great trips this year. -a

  3. Wayne Hobbs April 18, 2016 at 5:05 am - Reply

    Now that I’m over 60 I find it’s easier to stay in shape than to try to get in shape. So I hike locally and regularly with the equipment I’ll use on the trail. For the past 2 1/2 years I walk / hike about 120 miles per month. Even still trails often push my limits and only my strength of will allows me to easily push through those long elevation climbs. Great article. I have the AT in my cross hairs.

    • Alan Dixon April 18, 2016 at 1:28 pm - Reply

      > Even still trails often push my limits and only my strength of will allows me to easily push through those long elevation climbs…

      Got that Wayne! Many of us end up there more often we like. Goes with the territory. Have a great year hiking. -alan

  4. Anne in Colorado February 9, 2017 at 12:26 am - Reply

    I’ve been playing with the current rucking fad for training. One way they add weight is using bricks wrapped in duct tape to soften the corners. A standard brick weighs about 4.5 lbs and they’re small enough that if your pack is handy you can put a couple in to weigh it down and you’ve spent $5 instead of the cost of a weight belt. The concrete caps are even more price efficient than bricks and fit nicely in a 20 liter day pack. (I put an old towel and a piece of anti-fatigue mat left over from another project in the bottom of the pack to better center the weight.)

  5. Matt Haigh February 9, 2017 at 1:35 pm - Reply

    Last summer at 61 I completed a 500 mi section of the PCT that included the JMT. I have an excellent fitness base from cycling but have not carried a pack in 25 years so I was a little intimidated, to say the least. I figured my best bet was to just start walking with weight so 4 months prior to departure I backed off on the cycling and began carrying my pack. Started with 15 lbs ( which hurt) and added a few lbs every week till i was up the 30. Only did 3 to 6 miles/day but I did it every day and I live at low flat elevation. Gotta work with what you got. The hike was an amazing success! Little to no physical issues. My milage average (12)was not high but I was in no hurry. The biggest factor in my success was a low pack weight, 12lbs base with bear can, so thank you Alan for your excellent gear advice. I’m now officially addicted, planning another 500 mile PCT section this coming summer. As Wayne says its easier to stay in shape than get in shape I still carry weight 3 to 5 days a week.

    • Alan Dixon February 9, 2017 at 1:38 pm - Reply

      Awesome at any age Matt let alone 60+! You are an inspiration. Best -a

  6. Dustin February 16, 2017 at 10:51 pm - Reply

    Great write up. I’m also in DC area and plan to hike the MD section the AT over a weekend in April. Just the article I needed to get me excited for training.

    • Alan Dixon February 21, 2017 at 7:39 pm - Reply

      Dustin,
      Sorry for the late posting of your comment. I am just back in the US after two weeks in remote areas of country and with absolutely no internet whatsoever. So glad yo found the article useful. Have a great hike this spring! All the best, -alan

  7. Jerry Larkin February 19, 2017 at 10:03 pm - Reply

    Why didn’t I find your website, sooner? So muck valuable information!!!

    • Jerry Larkin February 19, 2017 at 10:03 pm - Reply

      oops – muck = much

  8. Karl February 22, 2017 at 10:25 am - Reply

    Just out of curiosity: How many times per week do you, on average, do the “Other Training” that you mention in the “The Weekly Training Schedule” section?

    • Alan Dixon February 22, 2017 at 4:46 pm - Reply

      Karl, Alison and I train on average about 5 to 6 days per week. So 2-3 “other trainings.” Note that walking is super important for hiking. In the past, when I was an athlete training and competing at a national level, I found out the hard way that you need to train for walking if you intend to hike. Otherwise, even though you are in fabulous shape, you’ll get incredibly sore walking long distances with a pack on. Hope this helps. All the best, -alan

  9. Paul March 10, 2017 at 12:47 pm - Reply

    Last year’s hike ended early when the climbing on a section of the CT left me ready to quit. This year I started in November at the gym doing basic lifting-bench,squat and deadlift. I’m also going to a local stadium once a week to climb stairs. This & bike commuting have been my conditioning for the winter.

    • Alan Dixon March 10, 2017 at 3:07 pm - Reply

      Nice! I’m guessing you climb like a banshee this year. Have a great hike. -a

  10. Sarah May 7, 2017 at 5:32 pm - Reply

    This is a GREAT article! Thank you. When I am not backpacking, I keep my pack loaded with a 40-pound bag of rock salt and hoist it whenever I get the chance. My driveway is hilly so even walking the dog keeps me backpacking-ready!

    • Alan Dixon May 7, 2017 at 5:33 pm - Reply

      All good and fun! Best, -alan

  11. Lexie McGrane June 24, 2017 at 5:44 am - Reply

    Alan,

    I am planning a trip to Glacier National Park in just 5 weeks and need to be in better condition to hike 10+ miles each day. What is the best training regimen I can use in such a short time? Thanks!!!

    • Alan Dixon June 25, 2017 at 12:59 pm - Reply

      Lexie, my advice is to do what you can but don’t over do it. That is don’t try and speed up the training progress as your risk of injury goes way up. Getting injured is the last thing you want to do before a big trip! So whatever your training plan would be for 12 weeks, I would do weeks 1 through 5. Week 6 will be walking in Glacier. And week 7 can be for when you get back.

      And if you are not as fit as you intended to be: 1) have a realistic hiking plan based on your ACTUAL fitness, 2) get early starts and hike at a steady pace, minimizing long stops and other “wasted time,” and 3) and most important enjoy yourself! That’s the reason you’re going in the first place. Have a great trip, -alan

  12. Alice July 20, 2017 at 5:33 pm - Reply

    Hey there, I live in a completely flat area and at sea level, so I can’t do these hilly hikes to train. What can I substitute?

    • Alan Dixon July 20, 2017 at 5:49 pm - Reply

      Alice, Good Q. You do have a number of options.
      1) Stairwells on any multi story building. Multiple laps up and down is good. 2) Stadium stairs. Ditto. 3) Stair-master at a local gym, there is a conversion from floors to elevation gained [94 floors = 1,000 feet of elevation gain]. 4) Treadmill at a local gym. Put it on something like 10% to 15% grade and whatever speed you can hold. Don’t hold on with your hands or you’ll defeat the uphill purpose of the workout. 5) if you can get to a sandy beach, walking in sand with a reasonably heavy pack is also a good resistance workout [although not specifically directed at your uphill walking muscles]. I learned this from some dutchmen training for the Alps. They would go out and hike sand dunes with their packs on. Hope this helps. Good luck training and have a great year trekking. Warmest, -alan

      • Alice July 20, 2017 at 8:35 pm - Reply

        Thank you! I really appreciate the response! I am sure I can find some stairwells somewhere 🙂

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