Hiking Fitness

“Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.”

– Jim Rohn

Before undertaking a multi-day hike it pays to be in reasonable shape. Why? The fitter you are the less you struggle both physically and mentally.

By being in good shape, you are able to focus more on the beauty of your surroundings and less on the distraction of how exhausted you feel. In addition, a good level of pre-hike conditioning minimizes the likelihood of stress/repetition related injuries such as knee and achilles ailments.

There are three elements which go into being hiking fit: aerobic conditioning, strength and flexibility.

1.  Aerobic Conditioning


Training for the 12 Long Walks with a 20 kg (44 lb) Baby Buddha on my back | April, 2011.

The best way of preparing for a long hike is…….wait for it…….to hike a lot.

Groundbreaking stuff.

Hiking up and down mountains with a pack on your back is like any other physical activity; it uses specific muscle groups that need to be trained in order to perform at optimum efficiency. Therefore, any time you spend walking with a pack on your back, particularly on challenging, uneven terrain, will hold you in good stead once out on the trail.

If you live in a town or city and for some reason are embarrassed to be seen toting a big backpack around your neighbourhood, try filling up a daypack with heavy items such as water and food. Much less conspicuous, similar results.

For a general overview of what is needed to prepare for a multi-week hike, check out the following article, Physical Preparations for Long distance hiking, by thru-hiker Chris Suge”Willett.


When hiking opportunities are few and far between, you will need to look for alternative means of aerobic conditioning. Activities such as running, cycling, swimming, Stairmaster, snowshoeing, treadmill, deep water running and rowing are all beneficial in helping to build an aerobic base.

2.  Strength

In addition to aerobic fitness, a simple series of strengthening exercises will help you to hike more efficiently and minimize your chances of injury on the trail.

All of these exercises, which emphasise both leg and core strength, can be done at home without the aid of equipment. For detailed descriptions, click on the exercise in which you are interested.

  • Wall Sit: Great for increasing quadricep strength; comes in handy during those long/steep descents. Especially beneficial for those with a history of knee problems.
  • Calf Raises: Helps to increase ankle and calf strength. The stronger your ankles, the less likely you are to turn or twist them when walking over uneven terrain. Be sure to stretch your calves after finishing the exercise.
  • Squats: All around leg strength.  The “Daddy” of leg exercises. Note: if you have a history of knee problems, it is best to start with the wall sit and/or modified versions of the squat until you your leg strength improves.
  • Crunches: Lower abdominals/core strength.
  • Leg Raises: Upper abdominals/core strength. A good tip is to place your hands underneath your buttocks, palms facing down, thereby giving support to your lower back.
  • Plank: All round core strength.
  • Tree: A yoga asana (posture) beneficial for improving balance and ankle strength. As a bonus, it also helps your powers of concentration. To increase the difficulty factor, try closing your eyes.

Upper Body

If you are carrying a medium to heavyweight load, it isn’t just your legs that are tired and sore by days end. Your shoulders and back also bear a significant proportion of the strain.

That being the case, upper body strengthening exercises such as pushups, chin-ups and dips are all excellent in rounding out your overall pre-hike strength programme.

These three exercises are ideal in that they can also be done whilst out on the trail. During long distance hikes, I try to do at least a couple of sets of pushups a day, as well as chin-ups and dips whenever the opportunity (e.g. flat rocks, sturdy tree limbs, etc.) arises.

3.  Flexibility

Tired and sore muscles are more prone to injury. Regular stretching is a means of minimizing the chances of injury occurring. I regularly stretch during breaks and at day’s end I always try to do at least 10 minutes before calling it a night.

For images and details from PhysioAdvisor.com, click on the muscle area in which you are interested:


  • Never stretch vigorously first thing in the morning. Your muscles will still be stiff from the evening’s sleep. Gentle loosening stretches are fine, however, over-stretching tight or cold muscles is one of the most common ways in which strains and tears can occur.
  • Don’t bounce during any of the stretches. All stretches should be done slowly and with control. Focus on breathing deeply. Breathe into the stretches.
  • All stretches should be pain free. If you are feeling pain, then you are over-stretching and putting yourself at risk of injury.