A thru-hike is a monumental endeavor—a walk for hundreds or thousands of miles that tests both your physical fitness and your commitment. You don’t necessarily need to be in pro-athlete shape to tackle one: Many people show up on the trail without much prep in advance, some with little backpacking experience at all. Reality check: Only one in four people who start the Appalachian Trail actually finish, and the percentages are similar for other long hikes. Give yourself the best chance possible by using these five tips from record-setting thru-hiker Liz “Snorkel” Thomas to toughen up before you ship out. —The Editors
Prep your feet.
Find a rocky, rooty trail close to home and walk it three times a week in the shoes you plan to thru-hike in. When it starts to feel easy, throw on a weighted pack. Pay attention to foot pain: If it persists for a few hikes, take a break to heal and then try different socks or shoes. For truly intractable problems, you may want to get custom insoles, or consider seeing a podiatrist to make sure you don’t have any medical issues you need to address in advance.
Strengthen your ankles.
Your legs are only as strong as their weakest link, and if your ankles are easy to roll, then you’re just asking for an injury. Prep in advance to help build them up and avoid a season-ending misstep. Do a dozen lunges and squats per side twice a week to work your core and ankles. For added balance and strength training, use a Bosu ball ($100). Cheaper alternative: Balance on one foot until your ankle tires, then switch.
Read More: Can you train for the trail without hiking?
Get pack ready.
Even when the lower half of your body is ready for the rigors of the trail, you need to make sure your shoulders and core are prepared to tote the weight necessary to help you live on the trail for months at a time. Carry a backpack on training hikes to prepare your back, core, and shoulders. Begin with a light load and add 5 pounds every week until you’re at your target trail weight. Extra credit: Carry a weighted pack off the trail, too, when shopping or out on errands; you’ll help yourself get used to wearing one for days at a time.
Train your brain.
Mental fatigue ends as many thru-hikes as physical injuries: The grind of being out all the time in good and bad weather and the change to your routine can be stressful. You’re going to encounter bad weather on your thru-hike, so get psyched for it now by going on training hikes when it’s raining or windy. Not only will you get mentally prepared, but you’ll also dial in your layering system.
Most well-known long trails involve a fair amount of ups and downs, some of them steeper and more punishing than others. If your training hike isn’t hilly, use a treadmill or stair climber. Start with 2,000 feet of elevation gain spread over two or three workouts, then add 500 feet a week until you get to 4,000.
First published in 2017; last updated January 2022