Q&A: How to Physically Prepare for a Thru-Hike

When talking with aspiring thru-hikers, it rarely takes long for the conversation to turn to the physicality of an end-to-end hike.  Hiking a long trail is seen as a physical feat, one worthy of as much respect as an international competition of any other sport.  But, here’s a secret:  A thru-hike is really just a really long walk.

The best way to prepare for a long hike is to hike for a long time.  Now I’m not trying to sound pretentious or unhelpful here; that’s just the truth.  After being in the woods for a month or two, carrying a full backpack over mountains, a body is hardened and able to withstand the rigors of the trail.  Thru-hikers talk about getting their “trail legs,” at which point they’re able to hike at full speed.  While getting their trail legs takes first-time backpackers up to six weeks (with dramatic improvements in the first several weeks), it often takes seasoned hikers half that time, at least in my experience.*  If you’re planning a thru-hike, it’s a good idea to, at least, take a few backpacking trips to prepare (and to get familiar with your gear).

That said, the first time I headed out on the AT, when I intended to hike from Harpers Ferry to Katahdin in 2011, I had hiked my fair share of 4000-footers but had never backpacked.  Not once.

So, if you can’t squeeze in some backpacking experience before your thru-hike, there are other ways to prepare for your time in the woods.

1) Take up long-distance running or cross-country skiing.  When you’re on the trail, you’ll often find that you’re too hot or too cold or too hungry or too thirsty or too tired or too sore.  You’ll be rained on, hailed on, snowed on, and sleeted on.  You’ll experience blistering heat and gale-force winds.  In my mind, the best way to stay strong and keep smiling through all of that is to be comfortable being uncomfortable.  In modern America, many people are fortunate enough to very rarely find themselves physically uncomfortable; endurance sports are a good way to mentally condition yourself to keep plugging along through thirst, cold, some pain, etc.

2) Tackle the stair master — or, as one of the older men who watches me sweat for hours on it at the wellness center likes to call it, the “machine from Hell.”  As far as preparing your body for the actual activity it will be spending months doing, no machine beats the stair master.

3) One of the commonalities of Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” and Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” is the enormous packs the authors’ carried.  With any luck, today’s aspiring thru-hikers will not be carrying loads that are nearly so heavy.  Nonetheless, it’s worth practicing lifting, putting on, and carrying around your pack.  Your shoulders and hips will thank you for any conditioning you do with your pack before you hit the trail.

Finally, if, come April, you realize that you’ve neglected the physical aspects of your trail preparations, don’t worry.  Many other thru-hikers have set out with the intent of using the trail as a fitness program; this is an especially realistic perspective if you’re hiking northbound on the Appalachian Trail, since the early portions of the trail are very forgiving.  Happy trails!

*I think some of this is due to seasoned hikers’ having mastered the “technique” of backpacking, but I won’t bore you with that hypothesis.

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