How to Prepare Physically and also Mentally for a Long-Distance Hike

For most people, hiking means hitting a local trail on a weekend afternoon to enjoy a couple hours of scenic cardio, fresh air and perhaps solitude. But others crave a more all-consuming experience: a physically and mentally demanding – yet immensely rewarding – long-distance hike that takes them hundreds or thousands of miles through untamed wilderness and arduous terrain.

The Appalachian Trail, runs 2,180 miles from Georgia’s Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Each year, between 1,800 and 2,000 hikers attempt to “thru-hike” the Appalachian Trail. Many start in Georgia in late March and early April with the goal of reaching the trail’s northern terminus by mid-October, according to Laurie Potteiger, information services manager with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. People ages 5 to 81 have completed the trail,​ among them singles, retired couples, families with kids, people with disabilities, a Fortune 500 CEO and an astronaut. (A small number of adults over 70 and families with children have finished the journey, and there are special considerations for these groups.) “The interesting thing is that they have nothing in common except an overriding desire to hike the AT,” Potteiger says. “That’s the beauty of it. It brings such diverse people together … people from all over the world with all kinds of backgrounds and from different economic segments.”

A Reality check

If you’ve ever thought of hiking a long trail – a really long trail – you may have pictured yourself free of work and social obligations, spending your afternoons communing with nature, earning breathtaking mountaintop vistas and getting fitter by the minute. Trails like the AT Trail certainly offer these rewards – and more – but they are hard-earned. The failure rate is a high one with by far most people not making the whole trip.

Physical training. Pounding the trail day after day can take a toll on your body, causing blisters, stress fractures and shin splints. Muscle soreness is a given, but with proper training, you can prevent some injuries that could force you off the trail.

One way to gain a physical edge is with functional fitness training, says Walt Thompson, a registered clinical exercise physiologist with the American College of Sports Medicine and a professor at Georgia State University. The key is finding exercises that mimic the activity you’re training for, he says. This helps condition and develop your muscles for the challenge. “So if you know you’re going to be going downhill and uphill for an extended period of time, a lot of folks will prepare by walking or jogging” on hilly terrain or doing intervals on the treadmill using incline mode, he says. Elliptical trainers, climbing machines and stair steppers are also helpful in training for long-distance hikes.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy recommends tackling mountainous terrain for training hikes, preferably with a backpack, and preparing to cover seven to eight miles a day when you begin your thru-hike​. It also advises gradually increasing the weight in your pack until you can carry all the items you plan to take on the trip. (Then re-evaluate: Is that camping chair worth its weight? Probably not.)

Philip Werner, a full-time hiker, guide and outdoor writer who runs, says it’s important to expose yourself to varied and uneven terrain. “The harsh truth is that the only way to really prepare for a hike is to hike – you can’t really simulate the activity in the gym,” Werner says. “You’re carrying a backpack, and the backpack has 25 to 45 pounds of stuff in it. The only way to prepare your body to do that is to carry it on unsteady terrain.”

Other musts

Break in your hiking boots (“they should be walked in for miles and miles and miles” before a long-distance hike, Thompson says), choose functional and lightweight gear and carefully plan meals and snacks. Aim to consume 3,000 to 4,000 calories per day or more, depending on your body weight and pack weight; for very long distances, you’ll need a food resupply strategy.

Mental preparation. Consider what your worst day on the trail might look like. “You wake up early in the morning, put on your wet socks and hike in the rain. Is there anything more horrible than that?” asks Werner, who has hiked almost 1,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail and plans to do another 350 this spring. “You might have to do this for days at a ​time, so you have to develop an almost Zen-like attitude about physical discomfort. … On a long trail, your job every day is to get up and hike.”

Rain or shine, hiking day after day with a heavy pack is a psychological challenge, so “having a positive attitude and sense of humor and being really committed to your goal” are key, Potteiger says. “Those intangibles are probably more important than physical training.”

If you hike the AT at peak times, there will be plenty of opportunities for camaraderie. You may even adopt a trail nickname and experience “trail magic,” an unexpected occurrence that lifts your spirits. “You have a very rich network of friends and peers to connect with – a support system that’s accessible to anyone,” says Werner, whose trail name is “Earlylite” for his tendency to pack light and get going in the wee hours.

If a long-distance trail sounds physically and mentally daunting, “start within your means and build up your capabilities,” suggests Robert Manning, who co-authored “Walking Distance: Extraordinary Hikes for Ordinary People,” with his wife, Martha. The two have hiked dozens of long-distance trails in spans of a few days to a few weeks. They took on Vermont’s 272-mile Long Trail, for example, but in two- to three-day increments. “We’re not super athletes,” says Martha Manning. “We’re just normal people who enjoy being​​ out of doors.”

She points out that during all your preparation – from experiencing different terrain to testing your gear – what you’re actually doing is strengthening your psyche. “You’re gaining a mastery of skills, so when you’re ready to go out, you’re ready for it,” she says. “You know how your body responds, you know how your clothes feel … it’s all about breeding a sense of confidence.”

Author: Harlem Valley News