Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb

By Michael Lanza

When three friends and I decided to attempt to thru-hike the John Muir Trail—221 miles through California’s High Sierra, with numerous mountain passes ranging from 11,000 to over 13,000 feet in elevation—in just one week (backpackers traditionally take two to three weeks)—the plan seemed like a wild dream. Hike 31 miles a day for seven straight days through some of the biggest mountains in the Lower 48? It was an agenda for lunatics. So we started training. Seriously training.

Although it would prove to be one of the physically hardest things any of us had ever done—and one of the most rewarding—three of us made it, and the fourth member of our team was fit enough to finish, but had to bail out because of severe blisters. (Read my story about that crazy adventure.)

Since then, with a small group of very fit and experienced friends, I’ve hiked very long days from the Grand Canyon (including a couple of one-day, 42-mile and 22,000-foot, rim-to-rim-to-rim hikes) to the White Mountains, the Tetons and Wind River Range, and a 50-mile dayhike across Zion National Park. And I’ve climbed numerous peaks via technical and non-technical routes, including the Mountaineers Route on 14,505-foot Mount Whitney in California’s Sequoia National Park with my 15-year-old son, who was also motivated to train hard for that.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

A backpacker on the John Muir Trail hiking toward Silver Pass in the John Muir Wilderness.
Mark Fenton backpacking the John Muir Trail toward Silver Pass in the John Muir Wilderness.

If you’re planning to climb a big mountain or take a challenging backpacking trip or long dayhike, you may be wondering how to train properly for it—especially if, like many people, you don’t live in a place with easy access to the mountains and don’t have the freedom to spend endless hours training on trails. I’ve developed my own training program described in this article over more than three decades of dayhiking,

I’ve developed the training regimen described in this article over nearly four decades of avid dayhiking, trail running, ultra-hiking and -running, backpacking, climbing, all forms of skiing, and other activities—including many years doing it professionally as a past Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and more than 10 years running this blog.

So for regular people with normal lives who aspire to occasionally elevate life, here’s an everyman’s (and woman’s) guide to getting yourself physically ready for the mountains of your dreams. Please share your comments, questions, or tips in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

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A hiker on the Grand Canyon's North Kaibab Trail.
David Ports hiking the Grand Canyon’s North Kaibab Trail on a rim-to-rim dayhike. Click photo for my e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.”

Start Early

Start training at least three months before your climb or hike, ideally from a good base of fitness developed through maintaining some level of regular exercise program year-round, which helps you get where you want to be more quickly and enjoyably and avoid injury. If you haven’t been exercising regularly, start training four to six months before your big climb or hike and gradually increase your workout durations and intensity—don’t start from zero going too hard or you’ll risk injury or just discouraging yourself.

Google any of the exercises mentioned in this article and you’ll find instructional videos.

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A hiker on Bondcliff, on the Pemi Loop in New Hampshire's White Mountains.
Mark Fenton on Bondcliff, on a 32-mile, 10,000-foot dayhike of the Pemi Loop in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

Core and Balance Exercises

Core fitness in your abdominal and back muscles creates a foundation of strength, endurance, balance, and stability—all critical to accomplishing a big climb or hike, as well as to any outdoor or athletic activity. A strong core helps your body carry a pack over a long distance—even a light hydration or daypack—conserving energy in the large muscles of your legs. And you can train your core in small blocks of time right in your home.

A hiker on "The Visor" of Half Dome, above Yosemite Valley.
Todd Arndt on “The Visor” of Half Dome, above Yosemite Valley. Click photo to get my custom trip planning for Yosemite or any trip you read about at this blog.

Five to seven days a week, do five to 15 minutes of abdominal and back exercises. I mix up the following, doing as many reps as I can:

•    Slow bicycle crunches—In the crunch position, hold each elbow to the opposite knee for a second.
•    Planks—Try to build up to three minutes.
•    Body roll-ups—Lie on your back, arms extended overhead, roll up into a ball, touching your feet, extend again, repeat.
•    Supermans—Stomach-down on the floor or on an ABS ball or other stability ball.

Twice a week, incorporate balance exercises to train your body for uneven terrain. Some suggestions:

•    Standing on one leg on a BOSU or similar balance trainer for 30 seconds; try to extend your raised leg straight out in front of you, and then bend your torso forward and extend your leg out behind you. Repeat on the other leg.
•    Standing on one leg on a BOSU, with its flat side up, holding light dumbbells in your hands, pump your arms forward and backward as if running. Do 50 or more reps (25 on each arm) if you can. Repeat on the other leg.
•    Stand on a bongo board and slide side to side or drop into a squat and rise back up.

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A climber below the East Face of Mount Whitney, High Sierra, California.
My son, Nate, at 15, below the East Face of Mount Whitney, High Sierra, California.

Resistance Exercises

Resistance exercise—lifting weights or doing body-weight exercises like squats, pushups, dips, and pull-ups—strengthens muscles by overworking them and makes bones stronger. It gives you endurance, power, and strength for climbing and descending hills with a pack on.

Do resistance exercises two or three times a week for an hour, developing a routine that targets all of the major muscles. Try to do at least half of your exercises in a way that engages the core muscles. For example:

Instead of doing standard one-arm rows with a dumbbell while bent over leaning on a bench, to engage your core, balance on one foot with a dumbbell in each hand. Then tilt your torso nearly 90 degrees forward and extend your raised leg straight out behind you, so your torso and legs form a T, with your arms extended downward holding the dumbbells. Keep the knee of the “post” leg slightly bent to avoid injury. Alternate rowing with each arm, using dumbbell weight that allows you to do 20 to 30 reps (10 to 15 with each arm); after a minute’s rest, perform a second set balancing on the other leg. Start with lighter dumbbells than you’re inclined to use—balancing on one leg while rowing with your arms greatly increases the difficulty.

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A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail, Death Canyon Shelf, Grand Teton National Park.
David Gordon backpacking the Teton Crest Trail, Death Canyon Shelf, Grand Teton National Park. Click photo for my e-guides to backpacking the Teton Crest Trail and other classic trips.

Make It Fun

Lastly, remember: This is supposed to be fun. Experiment and find exercises, routines, a schedule, and outdoor activities that you actually enjoy and look forward to—which is the real key to sticking with any fitness program. It shouldn’t be a chore; it should reinvigorate you. Set goals that are consistent with whatever achievement is truly important to you, but also with your lifestyle and how you want to spend your time.

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