Quick & Efficient Training for Backpacking & Hiking
Get fit with just two core hikes per week!
Alison and I use this common sense, 2-day-a-week training program to prepare for hiking 30+ mile days on the AT. But it’s also excellent training for the John Muir Trail, PCT, CDT. This Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking and Hiking works equally well for shorter, less intense trips. And it always keeps in mind that fun is the first priority of any trip!
Busy Lives Require Intelligent, Time Efficient Training
We all know pre-trip training is hugely important to the success and enjoyment of 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 a 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 — One Longer and Hillier Hike on the weekend and One Shorter and Faster Hike midweek.
Finally, It’s good to remember that your first goal on any trip is to enjoy yourself. Good training helps with this as well. 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. 2) Training makes trips possible with limited vacation time. Many of us do not have two to three weeks to leisurely do the John Muir trail or a long section of the AT. Being in better shape and able to hike faster and complete a long trip in less time may make the difference between doing a long backpacking trip or not.
Overview of the Training Plan
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.
* Start when you can and do what you can — something is always better than nothing! But optimally, 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 Training Plan
|First and foremost, do what you can! Any walking is better than no walking and no training program is 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.
- 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. Tip: weight vest (see table below) is an even faster way to load up.
- Train on terrain similar to what you’ll hike on. If your trip will be on hilly and rocky trails, train on the steepest and rockiest trails you can find nearby (like we did in the Sugarloaf example below). If your 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 Altra Lone Peak Shoes or Brooks Cascadia or socks (thin is better) that you intend to wear on your trip. This is the key to not getting blisters or other foot maladies on your trip.
- 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.)
Gear to Make Training Easier & More Effective
IMPORTANT | Training in the exact shoes and socks as you’ll use on your trip is critical for foot comfort and no blisters!
|Altra Lone Peak Shoes | 21 oz| The most popular hiking & backpacking shoe! Light, huge toe room, comfortable! The best “training aid” you can get.|
|Brooks Cascadia | 25 oz | Formerly the most popular UL hiking & backpacking shoe. Still great! A bit snugger fit than Altra.|
|Darn Tough Vertex 1/4 UL Socks or SmartWool PhD Light Mini Socks | 1.8 oz | Thin (UL or light cushion) wool sock are best for comfort and blister protection. Size your shoes accordingly.|
|RUNFast/Max Pro Weighted Vest 20/40 lb or 10 lb Weight Belt. While loading up your backpack is best, these are much easier and faster to use, reducing prep time and increasing on-trail training time.|
|Cascade Mtn. Tech Carbon Poles | 15 oz | Incredible value at $35! Our personal favorites. Equal to the best poles but one-third the cost!|
|REI Flash Carbon Poles | 15 oz | Stiff, light, travel-friendly, won’t break off-trail/rough terrain (readily available)|
|Suunto Ambit3 Peak GPS | Our favorite for cost, long battery life & ease of use. Admittedly not necessary… but it has long battery life & greatly simplifies tracking mileage, hiking speed, & especially elevation gain & loss stats (a pain to get by other methods).|
|Budget! GAIA GPS App (iOS/Android) App turns your phone in to one of the best GPS/Fitness Trackers available. Only $16 with exclusive Adventure Alan discount. Likely the least expensive way to track and monitor your training progress. It’s also the best backpacking GPS out there! Read more here…|
|See more Tools and Equipment that we routinely use to track our training.|
Make Your Trip Even Better | Lower Your Pack Weight
Look at our top ranked 9 Pound Full Comfort Lightweight Backpacking Gear Checklist. This will give you lots of ideas on how to shave weight out of your pack. A 9 pound pack is all you need to be happy, safe and warm. So, if you want to lower your pack weight but retain all the convenience and comfort of “traditional” backpacking, look no further than this Lightweight Backpacking Gear List. This Backpacking Gear is suitable for most backpackers on most 3-season trips in the lower 48 and even trips world-wide.
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
- 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 did 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.
Training with the same backpack and weight as you intend to use on your trip is the best and least expensive BUT… it can be cumbersome and time-consuming to pack your backpack with the same weight as for your trip. Yes, people have used a combination of gear, towels, duct-taped bricks, water bottles, bags of flour, canned food etc. to mimic what they take. We find that a 10 lb Weight Belt or the RUNFast/Max Pro Weighted Vest (can be loaded in increments up to 20 lb or or 40 lb) are faster and easier to use (especially for midweek hikes) and give you the same training benefit. [Just make sure you do a few long hikes with your actual backpack before your trip!]
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. And stairmaster does not simulate sloping/uneven trails and randomly varying step heights. Only up and down hiking trails can do that!)
- 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 Monitoring your Training
- 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.)
Monitoring 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.
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.
While not necessary and expensive… a Wrist GPS is nice if you can spare the $. It has far longer battery life than using a smartphone to track. And it greatly simplifies tracking mileage, hiking speed, and especially elevation gain and loss stats (which are a pain to get by other methods). My favorite is the Suunto Ambit3 Peak GPS (Amazon) or Ambit3 at REI.
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.”
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.
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