How to Prepare Physically (and Mentally) for a Long-Distance Hike

FOR MOST PEOPLE, HIKING means hitting a local trail on a weekend afternoon to enjoy a couple hours of scenic cardio, fresh air and perhaps solitude. But others crave a more all-consuming experience: a physically and mentally demanding – yet immensely rewarding – long-distance hike that takes them hundreds or thousands of miles through untamed wilderness and arduous terrain.

The best-known long-distance trails in the U.S. are the Appalachian Trail, which runs 2,180 miles from Georgia’s Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin in Maine, and the Pacific Crest Trail, which snakes 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada through the desert, deep forests and high peaks of California, Oregon and Washington. Scattered throughout the country are many other long trails, weaving through the Ozarks, running along the spine of the Rockies and linking some of the country’s most scenic national parks.

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia(GETTY IMAGES)

Each year, between 1,800 and 2,000 hikers attempt to “thru-hike” the Appalachian Trail. Many start in Georgia in late March and early April with the goal of reaching the trail’s northern terminus by mid-October, according to Laurie Potteiger, information services manager with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. People ages 5 to 81 have completed the trail, among them singles, retired couples, families with kids, people with disabilities, a Fortune 500 CEO and an astronaut. (A small number of adults over 70 and families with children have finished the journey, and there are special considerations for these groups.) “The interesting thing is that they have nothing in common except an overriding desire to hike the AT,” Potteiger says. “That’s the beauty of it. It brings such diverse people together … people from all over the world with all kinds of backgrounds and from different economic segments.”

Those heading north on the Pacific Crest Trail – typically a five-month journey – often begin in late April through early May, and this year looks to be busier than usual, thanks to the winter release of the movie “Wild” based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of her PCT trek. The Pacific Crest Trail Association has seen a dramatic traffic spike on its website and Facebook page, according to Jack Haskel, trail information specialist with the PCTA. “[‘Wild’ is] the largest piece of publicity the PCT has ever gotten, and it has shown a big spotlight on the trail,” he says. (The Appalachian Trail will soon get its own cinematic nod with the release of “A Walk in the Woods,” based on Bill Bryson’s memoir.) Amid the surge in interest, the PCTA initiated a permitting system this year to limit the number of long-distance hikers starting from the trail’s southern point to 50 per day.

Reality check. If you’ve ever thought of hiking a long trail – a really long trail – you may have pictured yourself free of work and social obligations, spending your afternoons communing with nature, earning breathtaking mountaintop vistas and getting fitter by the minute. Trails like the AT, PCT and Continental Divide National Scenic Trail certainly offer these rewards – and more – but they are hard-earned. The failure rate is high on the PCT: Approximately half of those who embark on a thru-hike finish the journey. To put that into perspective, 425 hikers reported finishing the trail in 2014.

Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park

“The PCT is really long, wild and remote. It’s difficult. It’s physically arduous to walk 2,600 miles,” Haskel says, adding that many hikers work up to covering 20 to 25 miles per day. “So be in the best physical shape of your life.”

Physical training. Pounding the trail day after day can take a toll on your body, causing blisters, stress fractures and shin splints. Muscle soreness is a given, but with proper training, you can prevent some injuries that could force you off the trail.

One way to gain a physical edge is with functional fitness training, says Walt Thompson, a registered clinical exercise physiologist with the American College of Sports Medicine and a professor at Georgia State University. The key is finding exercises that mimic the activity you’re training for, he says. This helps condition and develop your muscles for the challenge. “So if you know you’re going to be going downhill and uphill for an extended period of time, a lot of folks will prepare by walking or jogging” on hilly terrain or doing intervals on the treadmill using incline mode, he says. Elliptical trainers, climbing machines and stair steppers are also helpful in training for long-distance hikes.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy recommends tackling mountainous terrain for training hikes, preferably with a backpack, and preparing to cover seven to eight miles a day when you begin your thru-hike . It also advises gradually increasing the weight in your pack until you can carry all the items you plan to take on the trip. (Then re-evaluate: Is that camping chair worth its weight? Probably not.)

Philip Werner, a full-time hiker, guide and outdoor writer who runs, says it’s important to expose yourself to varied and uneven terrain. “The harsh truth is that the only way to really prepare for a hike is to hike – you can’t really simulate the activity in the gym,” Werner says. “You’re carrying a backpack, and the backpack has 25 to 45 pounds of stuff in it. The only way to prepare your body to do that is to carry it on unsteady terrain.”

Other must-dos: Break in your hiking boots (“they should be walked in for miles and miles and miles” before a long-distance hike, Thompson says), choose functional and lightweight gear and carefully plan meals and snacks. Aim to consume 3,000 to 4,000 calories per day or more, depending on your body weight and pack weight; for very long distances, you’ll need a food resupply strategy.

Mental preparation. Consider what your worst day on the trail might look like. “You wake up early in the morning, put on your wet socks and hike in the rain. Is there anything more horrible than that?” asks Werner, who has hiked almost 1,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail and plans to do another 350 this spring. “You might have to do this for days at a  time, so you have to develop an almost Zen-like attitude about physical discomfort. … On a long trail, your job every day is to get up and hike.”

Rain or shine, hiking day after day with a heavy pack is a psychological challenge, so “having a positive attitude and sense of humor and being really committed to your goal” are key, Potteiger says. “Those intangibles are probably more important than physical training.”

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