There are now less than 6 weeks left until I head out on my Pacific Crest Trail adventure. It’s a very exciting time, but it’s also around the time that I’m starting to stress about all of the little things I have to do before I leave. I did all of my major planning months ago, and I’ve been procrastinating on finishing up all of the little things (which have added up to quite a long to-do list!). But, one thing that I have been consistently doing in preparation for this hike is training.
Every thru-hiker has their own take on training, and strategies range from not training at all, to religiously hitting the gym. While the former may not be the smartest strategy, the latter may not be entirely necessary either. Relying on “on-the-job” training during a thru-hike might be feasible for many people, but the person whose training begins at the trailhead will likely be moving much more slowly and in a lot more pain than the person who spent months getting physically prepared. It is probably impossible to fully prepare your body for something as intense as a thru-hike. The only thing that can do that is, well, doing a thru-hike. A couple of months into the hike, someone who didn’t train may be in just as good of shape as someone who did, but there’s a good chance the person who trained saved themselves from a world of pain in the first few weeks.
All loaded up for a training hike!
My personal thought is that as long as you are in fairly good physical condition at the beginning of your hike, you should be okay. The higher your level of physical fitness, the easier the beginning of the journey will probably be. I like to maintain a fairly regular exercise schedule in my day-to-day life, so my ‘training’ period didn’t really involve a lot of change. The fact that I was training just made me somewhat more motivated to actually do the work.
Getting some practice walking on consolidated, slippery snow.
My training technically began about a year before my thru-hike, when I began taking progressively longer and longer hikes in the summer prior to my hike. This was more about testing myself to make sure I was capable of surviving in the backcountry on my own, which is probably even more important than physical fitness. Although, it was also nice to know I had the physical capability to pull out a 20+ mile day. If you haven’t had much experience with hiking/backpacking/spending time in the backcountry, you’ll most likely want to get some before heading out on your thru-hike. You’ll want to make sure that you know how to use your gear, that you can survive multiple days in the wilderness, and that you actually enjoy spending multiple days in the wilderness. Again, you can absolutely attempt a thru-hike without having any of this experience (many have, and many have successfully completed their hikes), but having the experience will probably make planning and starting your hike much more enjoyable. I started out with day hikes (with my full pack) that became progressively longer, which lead into overnight trips that also became progressively longer.
The view from my first ever training hike, and feeling accomplished after my first ever overnight hike!
A few months before I was scheduled to begin my thru-hike, I started focusing on upping my physical fitness level. For me, this has mostly involved training ‘hikes’ with a weighted pack, running, and yoga. My training hikes started at about 5 miles in length, with a 25-pound pack, and I have gradually increased both my distance and pack weight and am planning on making it up to 20 miles with a 35-pound pack before I set out on my hike. It’s very important that you start gradually, and don’t suddenly jump way above your current level of fitness. I try to get out for one of my long walks twice a week. I also run 2-3 times a week, to keep my cardiovascular health in a good spot. I practice yoga as often as I can (usually 4-6 times a week), which improves my strength, mobility, and mindfulness. Sometimes I throw in a strength training workout of bodyweight exercises and some dumbbells if I feel like mixing things up.
Here is an example of what my weekly training schedule might look like (this is 5 weeks out from my hike):
Monday: 8k run, yoga
Wednesday: 16 mile hike, yoga
Thursday: 10k run, yoga
Friday: 17 mile hike
I would say the most important aspect of your physical fitness for a thru-hike will be stamina. If you can only focus on one thing, I would practice running and/or walking for as long as you can. This will also improve your cardiovascular health. Strength and mobility training, such as yoga, will give you a strong core and limber muscles, which is very helpful in preventing injury.
Strong & bendy! Yay yoga!
In the end, you should do whatever works for you. Other hikers can tell you what to do, but only you know what works for yourself. Don’t think you can’t hike because you can’t commit so many hours per week to physical training. As long as you are in reasonably good health and shape, you can do a thru-hike! As they always say, hike your own hike!