March 2020 Update | How to Train for Hiking & Backpacking
Keep the faith. Keep in shape. With most of our big hikes and backpacking trips on hold, it’s still important to stay in shape. First, we want to be fit and ready to go when parks and outdoor opportunities do open up. Second and more important, outdoor exercise is a great way to reduce stress, calm the mind and soothe the soul. Of course you’ll need to be creative in these challenging times. For instance, our favorite training mountain is closed but we’re training on out-of the way trails in areas that are still open (where social distancing is easy) and on city streets to keep fit.
Alison and I use this common sense, 2-day-a-week training program to prepare for hiking 30+ mile days on the trail. It’s excellent training just about any long day hike you can think of but also for backpacking the Appalachian Trail, John Muir Trail, PCT, CDT etc. This Quick and Efficient Method to Train for Hiking and Backpacking works equally well for shorter, less intense trips, backpacking or hiking. 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 Method to Train for Hiking and Backpacking you can be physically prepared for your next big trek with as little as two core hikes per week — 1) One Longer and Hillier Hike on the weekend and 2) 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.
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.|
|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 While loading up your backpack is best, these are much easier and faster to use, reducing prep time and increasing on-trail training time. Alan likes this to toughen up his shoulders a bit.|
|10 lb Weight Belt. Use this in combination with your daypack (maybe some water and food in it) to achieve the right training weight. Also good for early season training when you don’t want a ton of weight on you. [good for more tender shoulders]|
|Budget! Cascade Mtn. Tech Carbon Poles | 15 oz | Incredible value at $45! 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 from a trusted source.|
Tools and Equipment for Monitoring your Training
|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…|
|Budget! $35 Solar Wrist Watch. Inexpensive and effective, this is one of our favorite ways to keep track of time and distance. It’s a fun and cost saving way to 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.|
| 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).
|Free! 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.)|
While loading up your backpack is best, and costs the least… weight vests and belts are much easier and faster to use, reducing prep time and increasing on-trail training time.
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 Plan to Train for Hiking & Backpacking
|First and foremost, do what you can! Any walking is better than no walking — 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 for hiking in terrain similar to what you’ll walk 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.
- Train for hiking in the shoes (e.g. light trail runners like Altra Lone Peak Shoes (or other light trail running shoe) and 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.)
The Weekly Schedule to Train for Hiking & Backpacking
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 and weight training (especially strengthening our core). 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).
Using our local Sugarloaf Mountain, we are creative combining trails, and doing laps on steeper sections to achieve our goal the total distance and and elevation gain for our training hikes.
- 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: Shakedown Hike | Ensure Success on your Big Backpacking Trips.
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.)
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 like the Suunto Ambit in the list above. 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).
Plan Routes for Your Training Hikes!
Get your distance hike and elevation gain before you hike
We use gmap-pedometer.com or Map Pedometer, both free, to plot our route and get distance and elevation gain — we don’t like surprises. 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.”
Make Your Trip Even Better | Lower Your Pack Weight
Look at our top ranked Ultralight Backpacking Gear List | 9 Pound. 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.
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