Walking Well: Trail Training

Physical Conditioning
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In"Trail Training," Dr. Vernier discusses how to prepare for an Appalachian Trail thru-hike, words that make sense for any backpacker, whether you're going out for a weekend or a month. After all, you don't have to be a long-distance hiker to find that hiking is hard work. Anytime you strap 30 to 40 pounds of gear on your back and head up a mountain, you're bound to feel a few aches and pains.

Completing an Appalachian Trail thru-hike well is so physically and mentally demanding that it requires intensive and extensive conditioning. How best to prepare for it?

Physical Conditioning

Running long slow distance is the finest aerobic training for long days of hiking. Short fast sprints won't hurt but are not essential. I found that running the Boston Marathon a week before my first thru-hike put me in much better condition than my companions who were 20 or 30 years younger. Of course, after 3 or 4 weeks they were as strong or stronger.

Walking moderate distances in your boots prior to the hike is useful preparation. Carrying a medium to heavy pack is even better and more realistic.

Weight training of leg extensor muscles makes mountain uphills less exhausting. Upper body training improves marathon runs and makes pack-lifting easier. High repetitions with relatively low weights are best.

My formula:


At least 15 to 30 miles per week at 8 to 10 minutes per mile, preferably for 2 months.


Leg extensions, 10 reps at 40, 50, 60, and 70 pounds per leg per day 3 times a week for 2 months.

Arm flexions, 10 reps at 10 pounds 4 times a day.

Arm extensions, 20 reps at 10 pounds 4 times a day.

Because hikers vary so much in physical capability, they should consult a training expert to design a personalized program of running and weights.

Hiking: Start by wearing boots, no pack, 2 miles the first day; 4 miles the second day; with light pack 2 miles the third day; 4 miles the fourth day; with heavy pack 2 miles the fifth day; 4 miles the sixth day. At this point a preliminary one-week hike actually on the AT will allow you to test yourself, your equipment, and provisions. Try 5 miles on the first day, 7 miles the second day, then 8 to 10 miles per day for the rest. At this point you should have a good idea of what you will be able to do on the trail.

You will have many ideas for changes you should make. Boots should be sturdy, well-fitted, broken-in, and equipped with cushioned insoles (Spenco or equivalent). Thick socks and polypropylene liners are standard wear.

The most frequent early trail problems are blisters and joint problems from poor conditioning. They can be prevented or reduced by starting with low mileage days on the trail as indicated above. This was brought home to me on my second thru-hike. I averaged 13 miles per day on my first hike, and sitting at my computer in midwinter figured that I could readily increase this to 16 miles per day. So I did 14 miles the first day and had blisters. The second day I did 14 miles and the blisters were much worse. This was a dead wrong strategy which made me take 10 days off at Wallace Gap for recovery. I learned my lesson the hard way. Even Earl Shaffer, an outstanding hiker, had major blister problems on his second day after about 14 miles from Mt. Oglethorpe to Springer as related in"Walking with Spring." Be warned and not macho! You can do those 20- or 30-mile days after 2 or 3 weeks if you are so inclined.

Of course it is possible to squeak through with no training, getting it "on the job" on the trail, but conditioning can prevent most discomforts. I am convinced that the high dropout rate among prospective thru-hikers (about 90%) is mainly due to inadequate conditioning.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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