It’s the eye of the tiger, it’s the thrill of the hike. Any amount of time spent backpacking down a hiking trail will invigorate hikers with the challenging physical exertion required to navigate oneself and all one’s hiking gear up and down elevation gains and rocky pathways. Hikers who haven’t prepared themselves for the hiking trail’s cardio and leg muscle demands risk returning to the trailhead beat down with their tail between their legs, ashamed and possibly vowing to never hike again.
To avoid this dismal discouragement by a frankly indifferent mother nature, hikers should practice regular strength training to make sure their core muscles, leg muscles, and other critical muscle groups are at the ready for the next hiking trail’s somatic wringer. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to physically prepare for day hikes and a variety of training plans to get in shape for a long hike that don’t necessarily have to involve tons of time at the local gym.
The best exercises to build up your hamstrings, quads, glutes, lower back, leg muscles and core muscles for the physical rigor required by hiking trails are lunges, push-ups, planks, and step-ups. Cardio exercises away from the treadmill such as biking, trail running, and stadiums can all improve lung capacity for high-altitude hiking trails. Playful activities that will build up your strength and keep your heart rate elevated while offering entertainment in their own right include swimming, rock climbing, and physical sports like football.
It’s not all dumbbells and treadmills, although both are good options for strength training. Hikers who keep to a training plan long enough before a long hike will find that their bodies are able to keep up a quicker pace and tackle any obstacle hiking trails might present. Training hikes with your rucksack, sleeping bag, and complete gear as you would carry it on the trail can help break in equipment like hiking boots and ready you for the hiking trail’s inviting challenge.
This complete guide should help give you some ideas about exercise in preparation for hiking. Read on to discover tips and tricks that serve as a warm-up for the exertion hiking trails demand and hit the next trailhead better, faster, stronger after you know how to train for hiking and put that knowledge into practice.
Simple floor exercises for hiking
For those hikers who prefer to spend as little time as possible at the local gym, or for those that haven’t got a local gym to go to even if they wanted to, there are a plethora of exercises that can be done anywhere to build up strength for the various challenges of hiking trails. They’re great for preparation and having your core muscles, leg muscles, and other muscle groups prepared for physical activity will help ease the exertion of tons of other hobbies besides hiking. The most important thing about these floor exercises is that they really only work when properly executed, so make sure to follow the steps below to make sure you’re getting the muscle build-up you’re looking for.
Everyone knows what a push-up is but a silent majority have forgotten what they learned in gym class and tends to properly execute an effective push-up only by chance. They can be done just about anywhere and there’s a reason they’ve been the undisputed champion for building strength in the muscle groups of your arms and legs. Follow these steps to perfect your push-up style and get the guns you need for high-elevation hiking trails:
1. Get in a face-down prone position on the floor. Keep your feet together and your hands more or less even with your shoulders. Bend your toes forward (toward your head) and make sure the balls of your feet are on the ground.
2. Use your own force to lift your body. You should be supporting your body weight with your palms and the balls of your feet only. Maintain a straight line from your head to your heels all the time you’re doing push-ups. Make sure your hips don’t sag, or the push-up won’t work and you won’t build up the arm and chest muscle groups you want to.
3. Repeat lowering and raising your body up and down. Every two (that is, each up-and-down) counts as one push-up. Don’t cheat yourself out in the counting, but don’t try to go for 100 push-ups right away if you haven’t been doing them regularly recently. Also, make sure you’re going all the way down to the floor and going up all the way until your arms are straight.
4. There are a few different types of push-up; if you find the normal way too easy, try a push-up with your arms wider apart or your hands in a diamond formation, i.e. with the forefinger and thumb of each hand touching the other.
More than just a perennial viral sensation, planks are also a great floor exercise to build up strength in the abdominal and core muscles. First-timers are going to really feel the burn when they start planking unless they have naturally strong core muscles. Most people don’t do enough self-support activities to build up core muscles and have a hard time with them at the beginning, so don’t sweat it (you’re going to sweat a lot, by the way) if you have a hard time. Similarly to a push-up, a proper plank involves lifting your own body weight. The positioning is different and works out the core muscles whereas a push-up will primarily build up muscle groups in the shoulders, chest, and arms. Here’s how you can execute the perfect plank:
1. Get into a sit-up position with your arms at shoulder-width and toes curled forward, as discussed earlier.
2. Look at a random spot about a foot past your hands. Make sure this straightens out the line from your neck to your ankles.
3. Hold this position for about 20 seconds. That 20-second time is one rep, so be ready to do a few in a row.
4. For an additional workout, try to plank with your forearms flat on the ground and elbows bent.
Lunges are great exercises to build up your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and core muscles. Lunges can even help your lower back muscles to avoid the soreness that plagues so many hikers on backpacking trips. Lunges aren’t hard to do but it is easy to get off course and perform lunges incorrectly, so follow these steps for immaculate lunges:
1. With your feet about hip-width apart, take a step with the right leg and shift your weight forward to make sure your ankle touches the floor first.
2. Lower your body until your right thigh is parallel with the floor and your right shin is completely vertical. Your knee can move forward a little, just make sure it doesn’t go further than the point of your toes.
3. Press up on your right heel to lift back into the starting position. Repeat on the left leg.
Dance film fans probably like the sound of step-ups. Sports enthusiasts might have heard of the exhausting elder sibling of step-ups called stadiums, which entails sprinting up and down the stairs in a stadium until exhaustion sets in. The great thing about step-ups is that you only need one stair, or a park bench, or any kind of elevated surface. Hikers can modify step-ups to include all the gear they plan to take with them on their next backpacking trip. Word to the wise, though: it’s better to introduce the weight of your gear slowly over the course of a long training plan. Your hamstrings, glutes, and other muscle groups will develop more steadily and so will your endurance. Here’s how you can execute the perfect step-up:
1. Stand facing your selected elevated surface. Put your right foot on top of it, making sure that your hip, knee, and ankle form a 90-degree angle.
2. Press your right foot into the elevated surface and push your body up until your right leg is completely straight. Leave your left leg hanging in the air when your right leg is straight.
3. Every step-up is one rep. Repeat on the left leg.
Cardio training for hiking
In addition to floor exercises, there are many cardio exercises that don’t require any time at the local gym. Running and jogging are feasible options almost anywhere, from the city to the fields. Most cardio exercises have the added benefit of building leg muscles and all of them will ultimately increase the amount of time you can spend taking it all in on one of your favorite hiking trails. You can even train for long-distance thru-hikes with smaller day hikes and trail running excursions. Hamstrings, one of the most worked-out parts of the body on even the most basic hiking trails, build up nicely with most cardio exercises.
Biking is a good way to get some cardio in and it’s already a pastime in its own right so there’s plenty of equipment and helpful information about biking is widely available. Hikers who want to use biking as a build-up or warm-up for hiking trips might want to set down a training plan so they can monitor progress and set training goals. Your heart rate is going to speed up considerably if you’re out biking for a long while, so make sure to rest once in a while. Bring plenty of water because biking will build up a huge thirst. Try biking in places with a sizeable elevation gain to get used to the elevation gains common in the most challenging hiking trails.
Swimming is a great addition to any hiking training program because it’s a cardio exercise that is fun and also serves as a cool-down after biking or trail running exercises. It will build up almost all the critical muscle groups that the hiking trail will put into action. Hikers lucky enough to live near the ocean can add ocean swimming to their training program to mix cardio exercises with sunny R&R. Some local gyms may have a swimming pool available, perhaps one that’s heated in the cold months so hikers can keep up their training plan year-round.
Rock climbing as part of a hiking training program
Much like biking, rock climbing has its own hordes of die-hard enthusiasts who have helped this total muscle group workout spread to cities of every size around the globe. Hikers who don’t live near any natural rock climbing spots can likely find a local gym catering to rock climbers with imitations of the real thing. It’ll build up the arm, chest, shoulder, and leg muscles that come in handy on high-elevation thru-hikes where lots of rock scrambling is likely.
Lifting your body weight up a rock wall, either on-belay or bouldering without a harness, will boost your cardio as well as strengthen your core muscles and lower back muscles. Upper body strength is a common feature in regular rock climbers, and hikers often enjoy a day-hike to natural rock walls to practice for longer thru-hikes that will entail some scrambling.
Since the body is supported by both the legs and upper body while rock climbing, it makes for a super-enjoyable workout to build up your glutes, quads, and hamstrings. Unlike biking or the floor exercises we mentioned before, hikers can’t really wear their hiking boots to break them in during a bouldering or rock climbing exercise at a local gym.
There is specific climbing footwear required at most climbing gyms, but out in the backcountry hiking boots can be worn. It’s not advisable for really risky climbs, but if you’re desperate to break them in on a low wall it should be fine. It’s probably wiser to wear them on a day-hike to a rock climbing spot and then switch to climbing shoes when you get there.
Dumbbells and treadmills: training for hiking at the local gym
Most local gyms have staff who should be happy to help anyone learn how to use their equipment, but there are also some strategies hikers can use to formulate a personal training plan that includes dumbbells and treadmills at their local gym. Treadmills are great for standard cardio and most of them include some kind of program to mimic the elevation gain you might find on the most interesting hiking trails.
For hikers who haven’t really been physically active in a long, long time, or who failed to follow a training plan in the off-season, cardio ups the heart rate and gets the blood pumping, so a slight pain in the extremities might happen as the blood pumps through veins that have shrunken down. They’ll build up to size really quickly, often after just one or two runs on the treadmill.
Dumbbells are the classic workout for building strength in the upper body. Smaller handheld dumbbells can be included in some of the floor exercises in this guide, although that’s not as advisable for hikers who have swimming and biking included in their training plan, for obvious reasons. To work out the muscle groups in the upper body that are so often used lifting things out on the hiking trail, dumbbells are really a cinch to figure out. Always make sure to warm up before lifting with dumbbells to avoid tearing a muscle.
Don’t take on more weight than you can handle. You might experience some cramps if you lift with dumbbells less than an hour after you eat. A cool-down period is just as important as the warm-up routine to ensure your muscles don’t tear. Dumbbells are some of the most straightforward upper body strength training tools hikers can use.
Scheduling your training program
On a quotidian note, hikers training for a long hike should always make sure to set aside at least an hour for their individual workout plans. A shorter amount of time won’t build up muscle. That’s not to say you should go crazy and workout for 8 hours a day, but an hour is the minimal amount of time you should plan to spend exercising. Add 15 minutes to the end for a cool-down period, and if you can spare it 15 minutes at the start for a warm-up.
When planning a training program over a longer amount of time, the most important consideration is when your backpacking trip will take place. For long hikes, like a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail, hikers will need to have a training plan in place and started 6 months or a year before. For shorter long hikes, between 3 and 6 months is probably a long enough amount of time to get you into hiking trail shape.
It also depends on your physical condition before the start of the training program. If you are just getting into hiking and weren’t so physically active before, your upper body and leg muscles will need some time to build up, so you should try to start as soon as possible and spend a long amount of time working out the essential muscle groups before you’re able to tackle the most difficult hiking trails.
Training plans for long-distance hikes can help to prepare hikers for the sometimes-grueling tasks ahead of them on the hiking trail. The most effective exercises that build up important muscle groups in the upper body, leg muscles, hamstrings, quads, and glutes are usually very easy to do and don’t require any special equipment or time at the local gym. Dumbbells and treadmills can do the job as well, for hikers who do have access to a quality local gym and are interested in using it.
Biking and swimming are great and fun activities that build up strength for hiking trails and are interesting outdoor activities in their own right. Hikers who plan on including either activity in their backpacking trip should find it fairly easy to include them in their existing training plan.
Overall, the most ideal way to train for a long-distance hike is with shorter day-hikes. Hikers will enjoy preparing for hiking with more hiking, and other areas of know-how like camping and trail running will also build up from continuous application. If at all possible, a year-round training plan should be devised to keep you in shape and at the ready for a hiking trail at any time.
It’s easy to prepare for hiking trails with other fun activities that can also include day-hikes. One of the best examples of this is rock climbing, which will work out just about every muscle group in the body and leave them in top condition for the demanding hiking trail you have your eye on for your next backpacking trek. Including your rucksack filled with the gear you’ll actually take with you is a great way to get acclimated to the wight and break in your hiking boots.
While it isn’t necessary to be a bodybuilder to stomach the physically tiring demands of hiking trails, you’ll find that you can go a long way or just stay out on the trail for a longer amount of time if your body is in great shape. A training plan can help you get from trailhead to trailhead on a thru-hike and it also offers an opportunity to set personal goals that will leave you feeling proud and energized when you meet and surpass them. Now that you’ve come to the end of our guide, hit the local gym, go out biking, or just do a few reps of lunges and step-ups so next time you want to hit the hiking trail you can do so more physically able and confident you know how to train for hiking.
Bonus tip: Check out this satirical take on hikers’ training programs while your heart rate levels out!