How To Train For Long Distance Hiking: 8 Expert Tips

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There are few workouts more rewarding than a long hike or backpacking trek

However, in order to be adequately prepared for long-distance hikes, thru-hikes, and backpacking trips, you need to put in adequate training beforehand so that you have the cardiovascular and muscular strength and endurance to handle hours on your feet hiking over difficult terrain.

So, what does training for long distance hiking entail, and what are the best strategies and tips for how to train for long hikes?

In this article, we will provide tips for how to get in shape for hiking, how to train for long distance hiking and backpacking, and the types of workouts and exercises that should be included in a long distance hiking training plan.

We will cover: 

  • How To Train For Long Distance Hiking

Let’s dive in! 

A person hiking with a backpack and poles, looking out at snow-capped mountains.

How To Train For Long Distance Hiking

Like any form of cardiovascular exercise, hiking can be quite demanding on your heart and lungs. Additionally, particularly if you are backpacking or carrying a heavy hiking pack, or hiking up mountains and steep trails, hiking is an intensive workout for your lower body muscles.

For these reasons, a long distance hiking training plan should involve workouts that build your cardiovascular endurance or stamina as well as your muscular strength.

Hikers need to have not only strong legs but also a very strong core and strong hips. Hiking requires a lot more balance than walking on a smooth and level surface. 

Moreover, because backpacking and long distance hiking typically involve carrying a heavy load on your back, it is vital to strengthen your core muscles, postural muscles, and spinal stabilizers so that you can maintain proper posture under the load for the duration of your hike. 

If your shoulders and back muscles fatigue, you may begin to slouch while carrying your hiking pack, which can cause back pain and can’t throw off your balance, increasing the risk of injuries and falls.

Another important component for how to train for long hikes is to include strength training exercises for the smaller stabilizer muscles in your ankles and hips so that you reduce the risk of spraining an ankle on loose rocks or roots or falling off balance while scaling steep inclines or descending steep declines.

A person hiking in the woods.

Let’s get into more detail about each component of how to train for long distance hiking:

Increase Aerobic Fitness

If you are going to be doing thru-hiking, backpacking, or even just long day hikes, you need to build up your endurance to handle long distance hikes.

Depending on your proximity to trails, it may or may not be possible to use hiking as your primary form of training for longer hiking. If you can get out and hike, simply gradually increase the length of at least one long hike per week, building up to 8 to 10 hours if you plan to do a full day of hiking on your hiking trip.

If you are training in the off-season and do not have ready access to hiking trails, you can do any form of cardio exercise to build your aerobic endurance.

You can do outdoor walking in your neighborhood or urban environment or incline walking on a treadmill, again increasing the duration of your walks as you go.

A person walking on a treadmill.

Wear a Weighted Vest

A good strategy for how to train for backpacking or how to prepare for a hike is to wear a weighted vest during your day hikes or cardio workouts. 

A weighted vest will help simulate the external load of carrying a hiking pack. This will help increase the cardiovascular and muscular demands of your workout so that you are better prepared for the physical rigors of backpacking and hiking with a pack.

Work On Ankle Strength

Ankle sprains are among the most common hiking injuries, and working on your ankle strength will help prevent inadvertent twisting of your ankle or stumbling on the hiking trails.

Good ankle stability exercises to include in training for hiking include single-leg balance exercises, walking lunges, single-leg calf raises, and running or walking in sand.

As you progress, you can add instability to your balance exercises. For example, instead of doing a 30-second single-leg balance on the floor, stand on a Bosu ball or pillow to further challenge the small stabilizer muscles in your lower legs.

A person balancing on one leg on a yellow stability cushion.

Improve Hip Mobility

One of the often overlooked aspects of a good training plan for hiking is the importance of mobility work.

One of the differences between hiking and regular walking in an urban environment or on a treadmill is the uneven terrain that you navigate while hiking. 

Rather than walking in a straight line, hikers often have to step out to the side to avoid roots or rocks or step up onto stumps and over boulders. 

For this reason, you need to have much more mobility in your hips and ankles than when just walking on a level surface. 

Your hips need to be able to move smoothly out to the side as well as forwards and backward. Therefore, it is important to include tri-planar hip mobility exercises in your hiking training plan.

A person doing an elbow plank in a field.

Strengthen Your Core

One of the best tips for how to train for long distance hiking is to include core exercises as a mainstay in your hiking training plan. 

Not only will you be carrying a hiking pack, which places a load on your spine for the duration of your hike, but you also need good core strength to help you navigate uneven terrain and take steps outwards without throwing off your balance.

The best core exercises to do when training for hiking and backpacking are anti-rotation exercises such as forearm planks, high planks, side planks, planks with forward reaches, up-down planks, Pallof presses, bird-dog on your hands and knees, and dying bug on your back.

Build Leg Strength

Even more so than with walking or running, hiking requires strong glutes, hamstrings, calf muscles, quads, hip flexors, adductors, and abductors in the legs. 

You will be ascending and descending incline and decline, stepping up and down off of stumps, logs, and rocks, and lifting not only your own body weight with each step but also the added weight of your backpack. Thus, you need to have strong legs and excellent functional lower body strength for hiking.

A person grasping a barbell.

Some of the best lower body exercises for hikers to include when training for backpacking or long hikes include:

  • Step-ups and lateral step-ups with added weight, weighted step-downs
  • Lateral lunges, forward lunges, walking lunges with dumbbells, reverse lunges, and Bulgarian split squats
  • Single-leg calf raises
  • A variety of squats, jump squats, and single-leg squats
  • Deadlifts, single-leg Romanian deadlifts, hamstring curls, single-leg glute bridges, hip thrusts
  • Resistance band lateral side steps and resistance band monster walks

As you get stronger, add elements of instability and/or wear a weighted vest during your hiking strength training workouts. 

A person doing a raised glute bridge.

These progressions will better simulate the actual physiological and biomechanical demands of hiking

For example, instead of performing sumo squats with 10-pound dumbbells, perform sumo squats with 10-pound dumbbells and a weighted vest on a BOSU ball. 

The BOSU ball will significantly increase the activation of your core and the stabilizing muscles in your hips and ankles because it is an uneven surface.

The weighted vest will require you to contract your core muscles and postural muscles, much like when you are wearing a backpacking pack.

Similarly, progress from bilateral exercises like squats and bilateral glute bridges to unilateral exercises like weighted walking lunges or Bulgarian split squats and single-leg glute bridges.

Hiking is a unilateral exercise because each leg is moving in opposition to one another, so you will get better functional training for hiking by focusing on unilateral strength training exercises.

A person doing a pull-up.

Don’t Neglect Your Upper Body

Additionally, you should strengthen your upper body in preparation for training for hiking long distances, especially if you are going to hike with poles.

Good upper-body exercises when training for backpacking include push-ups, chest presses, bench dips, curls, tricep extensions, forward and lateral raises for your shoulders, dumbbell punches, battle ropes to build upper-body strength and endurance, and overhead presses.

You should also train the muscles in your upper back by doing lat pull-downs and pull-ups.

Add Metabolic Work

Most conventional tips or how to train for hiking include the basics like building your aerobic endurance and strengthening your legs, but it is also important to build up your anaerobic fitness and power with exercises like burpees, jump squats, box jumps, medicine ball slams, and alternating jumping lunges. 

Not only are you doing something wonderful for your physical and mental health with long distance hikes, but you are also getting to enjoy nature in its unadulterated form, taking in vistas and natural surroundings that only the hardiest hikers will ever get to see.

If you are training for long distance hiking and looking to choose one of the absolute longest hikes in the world as one of your long-term goals, check out our guide: The 9 Longest Trails In The World.

Enjoy the journey!

A person sitting on the edge of a rock formation on a mountain.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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