Skip to main content

Set yourself up for success on your next long-distance hike

Like any endurance event, preparation is key to making your next long distance hike the best yet

Two people hiking the W Trek in Chile, mountains in the background.
Toomas Tartes / Unsplash

Completing a long-distance trail is the ultimate aim for many hikers. While long-distance means different things to different people — for some, it’s being out ten hours at a time, while for others, it’s hitting the AP trail over the course of multiple months — there are some universal truths for anyone who wants to push their hiking further than ever before. I’ll look at plenty of these universal truths shortly, but if there’s one that you can’t escape, it’s this; this hike is going to be tough.

Endurance events like a long-distance hike take planning and training — no one thinks you can run an ultra-marathon without training, and long-distance hiking trails can be just as tough and even tougher. When it comes to how to prepare for hiking these long distances, most people focus on the physical attributes they need to develop. These are important, sure, but I like to think of my preparation as being a three-pronged approach, each of which is just as important as the others; physical, tactical, and mental. Here’s how I prepare for hiking or any other endurance events.

Let’s get physical

The physical attributes of training can be broken down here into two main categories; cardio exercises and weight training. To build your aerobic baseline — your cardio fitness — you should spend sustained periods of time in low-to-mid heart rate zones, either running, walking, or biking. While it’s important to get your heart rate elevated to pump the blood around your body, getting it too high can actually be counterproductive to developing your cardio baseline. You want to stay in what your smartwatch would tell you is zone two — can you hold a conversation but feel a bit breathy? Perfect. Mix it up, and don’t forget to add some hills into your training; just remember to control your breathing and slow down if you have to.

Lifting weights helps reduce the strain and stress on the body by building up the big muscle groups and preparing the body for the repetitive motions and strains of hiking. Of course, the legs are the primary focus for hiking, but it’s important not to neglect your core and other stabilizing muscles. Aim for a balanced approach to weight training, as this will reduce the risk of injury on the trail. Start with some squats, lunges, push-ups, and planks to strengthen the major muscles used for hiking. Don’t start ramping up the weight early; remember you’re training for endurance here. Adding reps or slowing down the movements helps to build endurance in your muscles, which will carry you through those long days on the trail.

A man hiking with gorgeous lake view

How do you prepare tactically for a long-distance hike?

What does it mean to tactically prepare yourself for your long-distance hike? Well, in the same way as training your body alleviates some of the physical strain, tactical planning can alleviate some of the mental strain that comes from hitting the trail. Your tactical plan should include elements like navigation planning, making sure you know how to use all of your hiking equipment, that you’ve got the right tent with you for the weather that’s forecast — come to that, making sure you know the weather forecast. Do you know where you can get water along the trail? What about restocking food? Do you have a home contact looking out for you from the comfort of their sofa?

Basically, what I mean here is that you should set yourself up for success. The more you know in advance and the more questions you have answered, the more focus you can give you enjoying your time on the trail and taking in the scenery. Some people even go as far as fronting up to potential issues before their trip and having a plan to deal with them. This might seem negative, but it can prevent your trip from becoming derailed by a blown-out hiking boot or a blister. Make a plan. This plan should be malleable and open to change, but at least you’ll be starting from somewhere, not just fumbling your way through your hike.

man hiking.
Ali Kazal / Unsplash

When the going gets tough

The tough draw on their mental strength. This is going to get tough, it might even hurt, and there might be times when you want to quit. Long-distance hikes can be the ultimate in type two fun — great when you look back on them but tough at the time — but no great success ever came without a little sacrifice along the way. Some people call this the pain cave, or hurt locker, or you hear some runners talk about ‘the wall.’ This is that mental place you go to when things are tough, where you prove to yourself what you’re capable of and what you’re willing to go through to achieve your goal. This is a by-product of testing your endurance and is a key part of your training.

It’s not just phsyical pain that puts you in this place. It might be a mental strain from perpetual rain, a longing for home comforts and friends, or a fear of the unknown. To push through and see the other side, you need to arm yourself with mental coping mechanisms that you can call on when you recognize the cave calling. I can’t say for sure what will work for you because everyone is different, but often people find that accepting and even making peace with their struggle is a great starting point. From there, you might need to sing, talk to yourself and tell yourself you’ve got this, get into a rhythm or meditative-like hike, or even laugh at how ridiculous your whole situation is. Remind yourself why you’re here; the juice is worth the squeeze.

man hiking on rocky mountain peak

Enjoy the journey, and don’t forget to look up

Hopefully, I’ve not put you off with all that talk of mental difficulties, and you still want to go on your long-distance hike; you should, trust me it’s worth it. My final bit of advice is some to take with you on your hike, and that is to enjoy what’s around you. All of your hard work has led you to this moment and to being here, on the trail, exactly where you wanted to be, and doing exactly what you want to be doing. Look up, see the view, smell the flowers, chat to the locals, try to cheese. All of these things.

Don’t get too focused on the trail ahead to enjoy the trail that you’re on. The better prepared you are phsyically, tactically, and mentally, the more you can relax about what’s to come and be fully immersed in what you’re doing. Preparation prevents poor performance and a long distance trail requires preparation.

Editors' Recommendations

Tom Kilpatrick
A London-born outdoor enthusiast, Tom took the first ticket out of suburban life. What followed was a twelve-year career as…
The best long-distance bike trails across the U.S.
Bikepacking trails or new places to adventure on two wheels
Sunset at the Continental Divide in Colorado Rocky Mountains

Bikepacking, more commonly known as bicycle touring, is a self-supported trip in which participants spend days, weeks, or even years traveling across regions, countries, and continents via bicycle. One of its greatest perks is the opportunity to explore amazing places.

Whether you’re traveling to a new city or region, there’s no better way to do this than on two wheels. You can cover more miles when pedaling using your bike shoes rather than walking and, unlike driving, you’re still connected to your environment -- no carbon footprint, just fresh air.

Read more
11 best climbing documentaries to get you pumped for your next adventure
Check out these harrowing true stories to give you ideas and inspiration for your next climb
Rock climbing outside

The best climbing documentaries get you excited to go out and climb. Whether you’re waiting for the weekend to arrive so you can get to your local crag or are looking to travel to a remote climbing destination, these docs are sure to fill you with ideas and get you stoked. If you love to travel for climbing, you might also be interested in these travel documentaries on Netflix right now that'll get you excited about new destinations.
These climbing movies about true stories profile amazing climbers putting up hard routes. Climbers, like other professional athletes, operate with impressive drive and determination. These climbers spend years working on their projects, sometimes risking their lives, all while pushing their bodies to their physical limits. I hope you enjoy these documentaries as much as I did.

Valley Uprising (2014)

Read more
6 exhilarating hiking movies to inspire your next trek
Check out these films that will scratch your itch to get out on a hike
Hiking in France

There is no adequate substitute for spending time in the great outdoors. Hiking, climbing, camping -- anyone who spends hours -- or days -- out in nature knows that the wilderness is both restorative and addicting. But unless you want to become a park ranger or a professional hermit, you can't spend all your time traveling.
When you're stuck inside, you can at least get a bit of that wild charm by watching a movie that puts the natural world front and center. Today, we're looking at six hiking movies that anyone who loves a good trek will thoroughly enjoy -- that is, unless living vicariously through these on-screen adventures backfires completely and you end up more frustrated than before. If that happens, then you really need to get outside.

The Way (2010)

Read more