Part 5: Planning an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike – Physical Prep

The start date for most northbounders is only a few weeks away. If you haven’t begun any physical preparation, try to spend these final weeks to develop your trail fitness. Some people take physical conditioning to the extreme before setting off, but for the AT, this is overkill. The ability to hike five to 10 miles per day out of the gate should allow you to comfortably keep pace with the average new thru-hiker in the north Georgia mountains. For this trail, a month of physical exercise should be enough to easily get you to that point.

Feet: Your feet are the most important part of your body on a thru-hike. Take care of them. Do yourself a big favor – get some miles under you before you start, and train in the footwear that you are going to start out in. Any walking is going to help you, and it’s best to take brisk walks with elevation gain and loss. Walk in your neighborhood, walk with your dog, walk in the park, walk in the woods – anywhere you can walk, walk! You will start to develop endurance in your feet and get some of the inevitable soreness out of the way before setting out. Gradually increase your mileage and time, and try to carry a pack of at least 30 pounds part of the time to get a feel for both balance and how your body is going to handle the pack.

Ankles: I am an advocate of hiking in trail runners or low-cut, lightweight boots. As such, you are not provided the ankle support of a traditional lug-soled hiking boot. To compensate, you will need to limber up your ankles. When you’re walking, get on uneven ground and let your ankles rock and pitch a bit. This will give you more lateral strength in the ankles, and help prevent twists and sprains when you are on the trail. Even a mild ankle twist or two in training, I believe, is a good thing in the long run to limber the ankles and get them trail ready.

Knees: If you’re going to get hurt, it’s most likely going to happen while walking downhill. Descents with a steep pack wear on the knees most of all. You’ll need to prepare for this, and it helps to get used to walking downhill with a loaded pack if you have good hills or mountains in your area. The steeper the better here. As you begin the AT, you will encounter plenty of steep Georgia descents, perhaps in rain or late-winter snow. Be ready for this. If you prepare your knees before for setting out, you can prevent an on-trail injury.

Gym & Weight Training: Many folks are going to insist on at least some sort of gym exercise. The traditional barbell squat is a great exercise for building the legs. Additionally, seated leg extensions help build hiking-specific muscles. Avoid stair-climbing machines, as these tend to isolate muscles that are not used as heavily in hiking. An inclined treadmill is your best bet if you insist on using a gym to do your conditioning. Stretching can do wonders to increase your flexibility and balance, and get you in much better trail shape.

Start Slow

My final – and best – piece of advice is to ease into the hike. Bear in mind that there is no physical exercise to prepare oneself for backpacking 15 to 20 miles a day for weeks on end without, well, backpacking for 15 to 20 miles a day for weeks on end. That said, 99 percent of people must work out physical kinks on the trail, because they can’t duplicate thru-hiking efforts before they hit the trail. You will not be able to get yourself into true trail shape without working your way into it. Period.

I have seen dozens of gung-ho hikers (typically, young males) start out at a sprinter’s pace, only to be sidelined early on with stress fractures, shin splints, or other overuse injuries, some of which force them to abandon their hikes less than a month into them. So don’t try to do big days until you’ve been on the trail for a while. Your body should start giving you signs after a few weeks that you’re ready to turn up the miles. Pay attention to your body, take rest days when you need them, and cut yourself plenty of slack at the start. The AT thru-hiking season is long enough for anyone, no matter your fitness level at Springer, to complete the trail by October with a March/April start.

Next up: Part 6 in our AT thru-hike series will focus on Mental Planning & Final Words

Links to previous articles in our series:

Part 1 – Overview of planning a hike

Part 2 – Budgeting

Part 3 – Gear and Clothing

Part 4 – Logistics

Andy Somers lives in Huntsville, Alabama, with his wife Karen and two daughters, and works there as a civil engineer. Andy has hiked the full length of the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, and has ridden a bicycle across the United States. In addition to his long distance hiking and cycling pursuits, he’s climbed the highest mountain in 39 of the 50 United States, including Washington’s Mount Rainier.

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Mike Ryan March 6, 2013 Reply

Dear Andy,
I really enjoyed your info on the AT thru-hike. I am starting in Mid April and found your conditioning hints helpfull.
I graduated a civil then started mortuary school and have been in the funeral business for 35 years.
Mike Ryan

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