How does one prepare for hiking? Specifically, long-distance hiking? Will more hours in the gym, yoga class, or daily walks train you enough for the unique demands hiking for long distances places on your body? Unless your day-to-day routine includes 2-4 hours of walking with a pack on most of us will need to dedicate time to hiking and walking on a regular basis to be adequately prepared. Enter in the hiking program.

In the exercise science field, progressive overload is the way we describe how to properly provide a stimulus for the body to adapt and grow over a period of time. Take weight lifting for example. You don’t go to the gym after taking 6 months off from lifting and grab the heaviest weights possible and start pumping unless you’re looking for an injury. Same goes for marathon training. It’s common knowledge that training the body over time gradually with heavier loads or more distance is how to safely prepare the body for the chosen event or activity. Long distance hiking is no different.

Training for hiking has the following benefits:

  1. Injury Prevention- With progressive overload, the body gets stronger and can better withstand more physical demands than before training.
  2. Health Benefits- Regular training keeps the body in shape over a longer period of time, lowering the risk of chronic illness prevalent in the first world. Read more on the health benefits of walking here.
  3. Peace of mind, confidence, and enjoyment- When you are confident in what your body can handle it allows for more enjoyment of nature and the adventure itself versus body aches, pains, and deconditioning.
  4. Safety/Survival- If the weather conditions turn South quickly, the water source you were counting on is dried-up, or you suffer from an injury, the better shape you are in the more likely and capable you are to get home safely.

The 2nd training principle we learned in exercise science is specificity. It doesn’t make sense to spend all of your time in the pool swimming laps or in the gym gaining massive strength if you’re planning a long distance hike. Hiking with your pack on is the best way for you to prepare for your hike. 

I recommend following a hiking program similar to this:

  1. Hike one long distance hike per week on your day off to gradually progress your mileage. The distance you begin with shouldn’t be too far beyond your current fitness level. If you’re accustomed to walking with only your bodyweight, start with that in the beginning before adding weight.
  2. Hike one shorter hike per week that includes hills and variable terrain. Again, if you’re starting deconditioned and used to bodyweight, begin there before adding your pack weight.
  3. Hike in your actual footwear to break them in and allow for your body to adapt to their unique shape. Any blisters should happen early so they are out of the way early.
  4. Add your pack weight progressively. One example is to hike with 25% of your pack weight for the first 2 weeks. Then week 3 carry 50%. Weeks 4 and 5 carry 75% and weeks 6 and 7 100% with week 8 as a lighter taper week.
  5. On an 8 week plan, building up your pack weight is a quick way to specifically and progressively overload your system to be prepared for the hike.

On the other days of the week, use cross-training to condition your body aerobically such as running, swimming, lifting, and yoga. Depending on your health history, likes/dislikes, environment, schedule, fitness level, and hiking goals, your hiking program will vary. If you’re in need of some strengthening exercise ideas, check out this post here. Remember that the time in between workouts is just as important as the workout itself. The time to recover is where the adaptation takes place. Hydration, movement, rest, and nutrition is how we can optimize recovery and ensure we are not overtraining.