Training for long distance thru-hikes isn't frequently discussed short of the people saying they go to the gym and lift weights or use the stair climber. Unfortunately, this approach is dreadfully ineffective and unhelpful towards actual hiking.
The best training method for long-distance hiking is to prepare your body correctly by spending time and effort. You need to put in the hours actually hiking, preferably, while carrying your backpack along with a similar weight you plan on bringing for your thru-hike.
We should expand our conversation around overall fitness levels and how to work on building hiking strength along with how you need to gauge a balanced approach for the length of your hike. Just understanding how far you have to hike will tell you a lot about the exertion you should put in daily.
How you prepare will give you an understanding of yourself and what your chance of a successful long-distance hike is. Many people don't know very few people who start a thru-hike will finish it. Outdoor.com reports this figure at only 20% of those who started a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail were able to complete it successfully.
I am hoping to help you in building a plan to prepare your body for being one of the 20% of successful hikers, ensuring at a minimum, your body is ready to take on this trial.
Take a step back from any pre-conceived notion of your fitness. What you need to do here is take in an honest assessment of your physical capabilities so that you can properly plan on how you can get prepared.
A long-distance hike like the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail or the Continental Divide Trail doesn't come easy, even for the mentally prepared. You are going to put your body through the longest continuous stress that it has more than likely encountered in a lifetime.
Think that through, deeply, you are planning to walk continuously 8+ hours per day for around 180 days straight. You will do this through weather, carrying your food and water while tearing and repairing and building muscle through climbs and descents.
This isn't how much you can lift or how big your muscles are, this baseline is a test of your overall endurance and ability to perform over long periods. An average thru-hiker will hike between 2-3mph for around 6-8 hours daily, at a minimum, and many times this may go much longer.
If you aren't used to walking on a flat surface for 10-12 miles, then at a minimum, what you are trying to evaluate is how far you're able to go before your feet and legs give out. Never pushing yourself hard to the wall where you could injure yourself, but pushing yourself to get a more accurate understanding of your personal limit or threshold.Josh
As a starting assessment, I would advise you to do these without your pack initially and when you can reach 10-12 miles in a given stretch that you then start to add weight to the "hikes".
As you begin to do these long walks to build up your endurance you need to look for long-distance hikes in your area. You are looking for something where you can do an out-and-back overnight where you will want to hike in at least 8 miles.
Why the out-and-back you may ask? Well, what you are wanting to accomplish is a round trip hike that will press you to hike at least 8 miles after resting on a camping gear load while on consecutive days.
This is to help you start to get mentally prepared for this process and distance while traveling. You want to know how your body reacts after a hard day of hiking followed up on a pad and sleeping bag or quilt.
This also gets you an opportunity to work on your gear as you will need to start carrying your goal weight for the thru-hike and this is a good way to test yourself and your ability to carry your gear. Also, this provides you a benefit that you know how to use your gear and if you need to replace or remove something.
Each week you want to measure your week against the previous week to see how far you have progressed. This helps to keep you motivated and on track to be ready properly for your long-distance hike.
As you are getting closer to your 10-12 miles consecutive days you are starting to be ready for hiking shape.
Once you have hit your new goals what you want to do is to update the goals and start your cycle over again. You want to do this until it is time to leave on the thru-hike and you'll find you will be in amazing shape versus the other hikers who you start with and ready to last the entire trip with fewer issues.
You can also train based on your distance you plan to hike as it is far easier to prepare for a day hike or a short duration trip. We will just say that you need only minimal preparation for any hike that is short of a week, you just need to understand your food and water needs.
If you are looking at a hike which will be a week in duration you are more than likely looking at a hike of 20+ miles in one direction. What you want from this is to be prepared physically to hike at least 40 miles to ensure you have the capacity to hike in and back.
This should include proper practicing of travel distance per day as you may be able to reach your intended camping spot within a day or two but be careful hiking late into the night, especially when you haven't hiked the area before.
Many section hikes are going to be two weeks or longer and due to this require better physical preparation. You want to make sure you can recover from each day which becomes more important the further you hike and the more days you are hiking.
Section hikes though may give you the opportunity to be similar to a thru-hiker and have stops in a town to regroup and refill your consumables like food. Having the ability to restock and rest in a hostel or clean warm space can help you in sustaining longer distances.
This is when you hit the big time, these hikes will require a level of dedication which is hard to surpass since it will be approximately a 6 months investment in you. You want to make sure that when you start this adventure that you will complete what you need to feel fulfilled as it isn't simple to attempt a second time.
Most thru-hikers when hitting their stride can hit 20 miles per day or even more, what you want to train and prepare for is consecutive days where you can hike for 12-20 miles without feeling the ill effects that would make you quit.
This is when you need to best optimize your body as you will be doing considerable work where your body will need to repair itself. Make sure to keep your supplements well managed and take care of your feet.
Long distance hiking is an amazingly fun and mind freeing experience, leaving behind the trappings of a house and society you will find that maybe it hasn't helped us to build all this around us. Unfortunately, this is life for humans in this day in age, never leaving a screen or listening to stories and hanging around a firepit.
When you decide to make the commitment to a long distance hike it isn't a small one as it will require a large amount of dedication. Most people never get the chance, those who do should make the most of the time and experience and you will come out a better human for it.
Just make sure you prepare and that you don't get injured and have to stop the attempt due to something you could have prevented with some hard work prior to the start.