By Adele Whipps
Back in March of 2013, I embarked on a solo hike with the intention of walking from Georgia to Maine––a stretch otherwise known as The Appalachian Trail. The hike would take me over 2,000 miles of hard terrain, through fourteen states, up and down severe elevation changes, switchbacks, undeveloped wilderness, and through every possible weather scenario.
But my epic journey was not an impulsive decision. I made sure I did my homework.
While you might not be considering a hike as extreme as The Appalachian Trail, all long-distance hikes––be they 16 miles or 1600 miles––need to be treated with the same respect. Any physical activity that takes a toll on your body also has the potential to cause permanent injury.
So, how do you get ready for a long-distance hiking trip?
While there is no “one way,” there are several important steps to help you to safely prepare for any kind of high-impact activity.
Slow and Steady
I come from an active family. My childhood consisted of watching my mom and dad get ready for marathon after marathon each year. My dad was also going out for two to three-week-long hikes on The Appalachian Trail every summer, so if anyone knew how to train it was them.
The most important thing to know when you begin training is where your limits are. It’s important to work with them, rather than trying to overcome them. In my case, I had been running at the gym for about a year before I considered hiking. But as they say, I had to walk before I could run (or climb, camp, hike, lift…you get the idea).
My first workouts involved running for three minutes and walking for five minutes on an on-and-off rotation schedule. I slowly increased my run time and decreased my walk time until I was only running. This method worked for me, but every person is different. Central to this concept of “learning your limits” is the idea of endurance or, in a more personal sense, resilience.
You should research programs such as Couch to 5K, or something similar, making sure that the program you choose is within your limits. Maybe running isn’t your thing, and you need a different method for endurance training. There are different ways to intensify walks as well. Cycling and swimming are also great ways to build endurance. Explore what feels good to you, and pay attention to the mental resilience that goes hand-in-hand with your physical abilities.
Once you have a consistent routine, customize it to fit your ultimate goal. Consider increasing the mileage or intensity (at a safe rate), until you’re satisfied with your training method. Strength And Flexibility
Another important factor is strength training. Backpacking involves carrying a lot of extra weight, so preparing your body is essential. You don’t want to strain or fracture anything (ask me how I know).
Before my hike, I found an instructor-led weight training program at my local gym. Having a professional around to monitor your progress is helpful because they will be able to tell you the proper way to handle weights, and they will correct your stance and form to make sure you’re maximizing your strength potential while simultaneously reducing the risk of injury. Some gyms also offer personal trainers that give you one-on-one sessions.
Again, working up to weights and strength training takes time. Use local resources like gyms and gear shops, and check out websites that are dedicated to hiking and backpacking. I didn’t know anything about weights and weight training, but I was lucky to have my parents as guides while doing my research and finding a professional to help me train safely.
The important thing is to slowly incorporate a routine if weight training is new to you. To ensure your safety, make sure that you have a trusted resource as a reference.
Proper Gear And A Trial Run
Prepare your body as much as you want, but remember that your training loses all effectiveness if you don’t hike with the right equipment.
Make sure that you compile a list of everything you need before you go and then test it “in the field” as much as possible. Luckily, there are limitless gear lists available online to help you prep for any type of hike. These lists can be overwhelming, so be prepared. Once you get over the initial shock of how vast the gear world is, work on visualizing what your hike will look like and use this to create an appropriate list.
Gear Shops dedicated to outdoor activities are wonderful for those who need in-person help. Sometimes a real-life person is easier to talk to compared to thousands and thousands of website recommendations.
Once you have your basic gear assembled, it’s time for a test run. Taking your gear out and using it beforehand is essential because it allows you to get a feel for everything (and spot any problems, before they ruin your big journey).
For example, the shoes you plan on wearing need to be “broken in” before your hike––otherwise you’re likely to face serious blisters. Maybe you find that the backpack you bought literally rubs you the wrong way. Making the adjustments saves you time and potential injury. Blisters are one of the most common issues people experience when they hit the trail, and the infection risks and long-term skin damage that come with them can be serious.
A lot of gear shops allow you to test products and return them if they don’t work for you. Always check to find out what the store policy is on returns and exchanges. If you can, seek the perspective of a fellow female hiker. Our bodies and weight distribution are different from men’s, but a lot of the advice you’ll find online is male-oriented and fails to take our unique abilities and needs into account.
Consider Taking A Pre-Trip
As I mentioned before, my father had been section hiking The Appalachian Trail long before I decided to hike the whole thing. This means that he’d been going out for two to three weeks at a time and completing a section of his hike, rather than thru-hiking the Trail all at once. When I came to him asking if I could join him on a part of his section hike, he was thrilled.
It was in my first section hike that I learned a lot about what to expect if I went on a longer hike. I used my gear, learned what food I liked and didn’t like, learned that my feet needed more support and insoles, and other important information that a quick trial run wouldn’t have given me.
I realize that not everyone has the luxury of taking large chunks of time off to test everything. But even going out for two days is better than going out for an hour (or not going out at all) with your new gear. Every little bit helps because slightly longer outings allow you to learn more about yourself and your limits. Maybe you find out that even two days is too much. Maybe you’ll be like me and you crave more the moment your short trip is over.
Any chance you have to make it more like the “goal hike” you have in mind, the better. After all, we practice to find out what needs improving. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
Expect Speed Bumps
I did everything I could to get ready for The Appalachian Trail, and guess what? I still got hurt. I’m not trying to scare anyone, but inevitably something you didn’t plan on will happen.
For me, it was trying to carry too much weight at once. I picked up a package of resupply food and rather than sending what was too much forward, I carried it all with me. I carried an extra ten or so pounds for over 20 miles and the next day I couldn’t put any weight down on my right foot. Long story short: I had to take three unscheduled days off to recover.
It didn’t take me off the trail, but it could have.
The rest of the trail was sprinkled with various falls and scrapes, but nothing as scary as that moment when I thought it was all going to end.
Your hike’s “speed bumps” might not be that extreme, but the point is that even the most prepared person can get waylaid unexpectedly. No trip is perfect. The weather might end up being awful, you could misstep and twist your ankle, maybe you end up catching a cold.
If something like that happens, listen to your body and know when to pack it up and go home. I got cocky thinking I could carry all that extra weight, but if I had honored my limits, I wouldn’t have hurt myself. Women are especially prone to this kind of miscalculation, simply because we often feel that we’ve got something to prove by even attempting these hikes in the first place.
I am woman, hear me roar, right? Thank goodness I went to the hospital, or I would have been far worse off.
Don’t let pride undermine your health. You can always come back and try again later…but make sure your body and mental health are a priority.
Remember Why You’re Going
My last recommendation is to not forget your mental strength and endurance! Don’t force yourself to go on any trip that you’re not mentally invested in. Because if you’re not having fun, what’s the point? Training is hard, and some parts won’t be fun. But if you hold on to the image of yourself in the future, and you feel excited and proud, I’d say you are on the right track!
You’ll be happy to learn that I completed The Appalachian Trail. I thank a large part of that due to my innate stubbornness, but I know that my prior training had a lot to do with it too. Hopefully, you now have a solid idea of how to get started with your journey, and how to do it safely.
Additional resources for your journey preparation:
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