Preparing Physically For A Long-Distance Hike

Some may wonder what the appeal is of willingly placing oneself in a position where they walk for miles a day, can get sore, tired and hungry, and still go back for more. Welcome to long distance hiking! An activity that can be as addicting as a drug- except good for you and something you can do for life. In this article, you’ll get a great idea of what’s involved with hiking longer distances.

What is Long-Distance Hiking?

There is no one official definition for long distance hiking. This can be a subjective based on your experience. Long distance hiking means different things to different people.. For those who are just starting to hike, 10 miles could fall under the category of a long distance hike and be daunting. For expert hikers they can go hiking for one week to one month- some even up to six months! These long distance hikes require a great deal of endurance and perseverance, both mentally and physically.

Over 15-20 miles is where you typically get into a different set of skills and stamina needed since you will move from one day hiking to two or more. So if you’re thinking about extending your hikes, this puts you into the category of backpacking. There are universal truths for those who want to push themselves further than ever before. But you can’t escape that long distance hiking is Tough.

Physical Demands of Extended Hikes

There are definitely more challenges you will face as you start going on those long distance hikes. Good news though! You do not need to be an Olympian. If you are in good health, you can eventually train to hike a few hundred miles even. One of the keys to long distance hiking is to be flexible and prepared for whatever nature or your body throws at you.

Long distance hiking does require a great deal more preparation than shorter hikes. You can experience more frequent exhaustion, stress on your body from carrying a heavy backpack and more mental stress. Hiking longer distances requires a mental and physical readiness that requires specific training so you do not get injured. Following these steps in this guide should give you a great head start.

You do not want to injure yourself or get discouraged along the way. This is why preparing for a long distance hike is so important. Many hikers focus on the physical part of the training. It is best to train for the physical, mental, and having a clear plan.

Here is a quote by Lao Tzu that I absolutely love! “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

This quote applies so perfectly to long distance hiking. Remember to break your goals down into smaller achievable actions. The first step of course is to create a training plan.

Building Your Hiking Stamina: Tailored Training Tips

Creating a progressive training plan: start slow and build up. A good place to start is with a realistic evaluation of your hiking abilities. This will provide you with the information you need to target the training for your hikes. People get hurt when they overestimate their abilities and then hike without a proper plan.

If you are new to hiking, then you definitely have a lot more to learn than someone who has hiked for 5 years. If you are brand new to hiking, you should not plan a hike that requires you to dredge across rivers, climb rocks, or climb steep elevations.

Here are general training tips/strategies, cardio and weight training and a 10% progressive hiking plan. Incorporating a training routine/plan such as these will help prepare your mind and body for the endurance and strong mind set that long distance requires.

Training Strategies

Here are 4 general ways to get into shape for those longer hikes

1) Walk and take the stairs as much as you possibly can. Try to avoid escalators and elevators. Park far away from the store when you go grocery shopping and try to walk to as many places as you can throughout your day. If you can, start holding meetings where you walk vs. sitting stationary at a table. Every little bit helps!

When I worked in Downtown Phx and was training to hike the Grand Canyon, I would walk up and down the parking garage steps. This helped me so much since my time was so limited. I would commute 15 hrs a week so I was typically exhausted when I got home for the day.

2)Go on day hikes as often as you can all year round. Find ways to make it work during those extreme summer and winter months. No excuses! One idea for the winter months is to go cross country skiing or snow shoeing. Snow shoeing is an absolute blast actually.

3)Go on those longer hikes (more than 10 miles) AT LEAST once per month during the season. If weekends are your only option then look at what you can replace or cut out. Coffee with girlfriends? Go hiking instead! Be the fittest person in your group so others will admire you and then take suit.

4)Plan for your first backpacking trip of the season to be at least 4 days long. This way you can go 4-5 miles the first couple of days and break in your body gently.


To build solid aerobic fitness, you should spend extended periods of time in low to mid heart rate zones. You can achieve this by walking, biking, or running. It is important to elevate your heart rate and pump blood around your body, but getting it too high can be counterproductive to your cardio baseline.

To do this, stay in zone two- you’ll know you’re there if you can hold a conversation but you’re a bit breathy.  Add some hills into your training too. Just control your breathing and slow down if you need to.

Weight Training

Lifting weights can help to reduce the stress on the body through building the muscle groups and preparing the body for the repetitive motions of hiking. The legs should be the main focus for hiking- but you shouldn’t neglect your core or other stabilizing muscles.  Go for a balanced approach to weight training.

Your chances will decrease of getting injured on the trail…  Recommended training includes squats, lunges, push ups and planks- good ol’ Rocky style work out.  Be progressive on the weights so you don’t injure yourself.  Remember- your training for endurance, not a weight lifting competition.   Adding reps or going slow on each movement is a great way to build endurance in your muscles to help carry you through those long days.

Sets & Reps for Your Arms

Having weak shoulders can lead to upper back pain, as well as shoulder and neck injuries. Plus, you need upper body strength to use trekking poles, which can take a whopping 25 percent of the load off your knees.

Start with lighter weights and increase the load as you gain strength, skill and confidence. Exercises can be described in terms of sets and repetitions. A set is a series of lifts followed by a short rest and repetition is also called a rep -it’s a single lift from start to finish. A person doing a series of curls with a dumbbell might do four sets each with eight repetitions for a total of 32 reps.

One exercise to try is the angled, standing arm curl. This will Isolate your biceps and forearm flexor muscles for even development across your arm. This will prevent tendonitis from repetitive use of trekking poles.

Do Reps 10 (each side) Sets 3 Rest 30 seconds

So how often should you do this type of training? It is important to take a break in between your strength training sessions. Taking one day off in between the workouts gives your muscles a chance to repair and regrow themselves. Many people who go to the gym will establish a workout routine that follows Monday, Wednesday, and Friday or a Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday schedule. Whichever schedule you choose just be sure to add a rest day in between your workouts.

Lower Body

The major muscles in your legs are your hamstrings, quadriceps and glutes and are often the limiting factor in how many miles you can hike. It is difficult to hike when your legs turn to Jell-O or start to cramp up on you. Having stronger legs will help you tackle elevation gains, a heavy backpack or long mileage days.

These exercises are also excellent for training for those ups and downs on a trail when it goes from flat to sloped. When you’re going up and down on uneven trails, it places more stress on your muscles and joints especially your knees. The steps and switch backs which are put in by trail builders to lessen elevation gains can cause hikers knees to rebel. You need a combination of high-impact leg exercises with pulse racing endurance workouts to replicate the training you’re going to encounter on the trail.

These three lower body exercises are great for increasing the muscles on your legs:

Stair Climber. Choose a program on the computer that mimics the up-and-downs that you would go on on an actual trail. Place both feet in the stirrups and then stand tall with your hands resting lightly on the handrails. Start with 15 minute sessions and add more time and then increase resistance as you progress. For an advanced workouts, wear a backpack and start with a 10 pound load.

Walking lunges. Start with your feet together and then hold a 5 to 10 pound dumbbell in each hand with your hands down at your side. You’re going to step forward with your right leg landing on the ground first. Lower your body by flexing the knee and hip of the extended right leg until the knee of your last leg is right above the floor. Then, push up with your front leg to bring both your feet together and stand upright. Now lunge forward with the opposite leg. Do 10 lunges and then alternate between your opposite legs. For a more advanced work out you could increase the weight of the dumbbells.

Box jumps. Start by facing a 12 to 16 inch tall exercise step or a box- one that you can jump on. Keep your face forward with your torso upright and place your feet shoulder width apart. Dip your knees and upper body and then drive upward with your arms and jump with both legs at the same time. The goal is to land on the box with both feet. After landing extend your body operates a full height and don’t crouch. Jump down from the box and then repeat this process; to begin, do three sets of 6 to 10 reps resting one minute between each set.

Hiking Plan/Measure Progress

Setting realistic goals and milestones will help to keep you on track. Milestones are steps along the way where you will evaluate if you are making the progress you need to ultimately meet your goal. Preparing for a long distance hike is going to take more time out of your day. You’ll need to be able to balance your prep sessions with everything else you have on your plate. As far as the Goal- using the progressive hiking template I provided below should give you a great head start. You can use this as a basis and adjust according to your mileage.

Use the 10% Rule

You can use the 10 percent rule as a guideline to help you plan a series of hikes that will prepare you for your goal. Start with the goal distance and elevation gain on week 10, the week of the actual goal hike, and work backward, subtracting roughly 10 percent each week for 10 weeks. As you train, try to hike with the pack weight you plan on hiking with on your goal hike.

For example, let’s say you’re interested in hiking to an elevation of 2,300 feet of elevation over 11 miles.  If you give yourself 10 weeks to train for this goal, your training plan would look something like this:

14.2800 ft
24.7900 ft
35.21,000 ft
45.81,250 ft
56.51,375 ft
67.31,525 ft
78.11,700 ft
891,850 ft
9102,000 ft
10112,300 ft


Logistics for Peak Performance

This section could be an entire book. Here is a summary and a brief description of some of the logistics you’ll need to consider and what you’ll need to figure out for long distance hiking.

Essential gear- Choose the right equipment

Selecting the right gear for your hike can truly make a difference on your level of enjoyment. For longer hikes you will need to bring a lot more gear with you. Here is a list of what is typically needed for backpacking: backpack, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove with fuel, cookpot, bowl, cup, spoon, pocket knife, first aid kit, compass, flashlight, rain park and water bladder/bottles.

You’ll need to carry more food of course on your longer hikes. The weight is now an issue and you want to make sure you bring enough. It’s not wise to carry canned food or jars for instance. They are heavy. Consider bringing high energy snacks such as dried fruits, granola, power drinks and power bars. For those hikes that are lower in temperatures, I like bringing Snickers, TBD (Waffles), Trail mix with peanuts and raisins, and pretzels (for the salt). For heavier meals, consider the freeze dried Mountain House or many other varieties that are available in Outdoor Recreation stores such as REI.

Finally, you will need to either bring more water or use a water filter along the way. Ideally, you should carry at least 2 quarts of water for each person each day you are hiking. For day hikes, I always bring a minimum of 3 liters (even for 2-3 hour hikes). For desert hiking, some experts agree that you should carry a gallon a day to avoid dehydration. One gallon of water weights 8 lbs. It’s always a good idea to eat salty snacks along with drinking water to avoid hyponatremia (this is drinking a lot of water w/out salt replacement). Best practice is to bring at least 2-3 different water containers with you. Don’t rely on just your hydration bladder especially. Something happens to it and you’re up &*^% creek without a paddle. If you are on a multi-day hike then it will be necessary to plan stops where you’re going to be able to refill your water bottles.

Summary- Long Distance Hiking

Long distance hiking takes more work to prepare and plan than day hikes, but the rewards are greater. You will gain greater fitness and discipline through following a specific hiking and weight training plan. You will also learn additional skills on packing the right gear, nutrition and the logistics on planning a long hiking trip. So if you are looking to make that next step, take the initiative now to make it happen!

Have experience with long distance hiking? Thoughts or comments on this article? Please leave your comments below! Thank you for stopping by, and Happy Hiking!

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