Pre-trip training is the most important thing you can do for trip success and enjoyment of your next backpacking trip. You can do this Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking in less time than you think—as little as two core hikes per week.
My wife and I did the GR20 in Corsica last summer. It’s considered the “the toughest long distance trek in Europe.” We did the rugged and mountainous trek in one-half the usual time—a 16 day/stage trip in just a little under 8 days, including one triple stage day. Our pre-trip physical conditioning had everything to do with our success on the trail and more importantly, to maximize our enjoyment of the trip. It’s always good to remember that your first goal on any trip is to enjoy yourself! [Photo: Alison walking a long ridge-line on the day we did 3 stages (high Alpine Variants) of the GR20.]
We trained for the GR20 with very limited time. Or alternatively put, we trained intelligently and efficiently—getting the maximum training benefit with the least amount of training time. Our Core Weekly Training Program (described below) consisted of just two conditioning hikes per week; one evening hike after work and a longer weekend hike that still had us back before 2:00 pm allowing ½ of a precious weekend day to do other things.
Reading the following conditioning regimen, you might think that we are focused on blazing through the landscape—barely taking time to view and appreciate the wondrous terrain passing through. NOT SO!
Quite the opposite, we propose that properly conditioned for a hike, you are more open to appreciating the outdoors. 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, go for a lunchtime swim, do some fishing or bag a peak.
Finally, many of us (especially in the USA) are short on vacation time. We do not have three weeks to leisurely do a long trek like the GR20 or John Muir trail. Being a better conditioned and faster hiker may make the difference between doing a long backpacking trip or not.
Overview of Our Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking
This is not rocket science. 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.
- 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.
- Obviously you’d probably like a lighter load for your actual trip, so see 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List for tips and ideas to reduce your pack 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) & socks (thin is better) that you intend to wear on your trip. This is the key to not getting blisters on your trip.
- 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:
- One Long and Hilly Hike on the weekend,
- One Shorter and Faster Hike midweek,
- and 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).
- 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 on the GR20.
- 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.
- 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.
2. Shorter and Faster Hike midweekFor 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.
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
- 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.)
- 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.
- Use a GPS watch (or your smartphone) 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.
- Or for free you can use old school tools to estimate 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.
- 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.