Hiking is a full-body workout that requires strength, balance, and endurance. In order to enjoy your upcoming hiking trips and protect yourself from injury, you’ll want to build up strength in certain muscle groups and improve your cardio fitness with some hiking exercises prior to hitting the trail.
Whether you’re preparing for some easy to moderate day hikes, an accent of a high peak, a weekend backpacking trip, or a thru-hike, we’ve got you covered with some of the best hiking exercises to help you prepare for the physical demands of the trip.
How much or how little you do to prepare will depend on several factors:
- Your current physical condition: This is one of the most important components when it comes to getting in shape for hiking. The better condition you’re in, the less you’ll need to train for your hiking trip.
- The length and difficulty of your planned hiking trip(s): This is another crucial factor dictating how much you should train for your hike. A short, easy hiking trip will require substantially less preparation and physical training than a challenging day hike or an intense, week-long backpacking trip.
- The altitude of your hiking trip: High elevation hiking requires extra lung capacity and strength and will involve additional training and preparation. Preparing your body for these demands will help make your hike more enjoyable. Keep in mind that no matter how much you train, you’ll need to take some extra precautions to reduce your risk of altitude sickness. It’s hard to predict how an individual will react to high altitude, and even those in the best of shape can succumb to altitude-related illnesses.
- The weight of the backpack that you’ll be carrying on the trip: If you’re just taking a light daypack, you likely won’t need much extra strength compared to hiking with no pack. On the other hand, if you’re carrying a 20-pound pack on a backpacking trip, you’ll need additional strength and stability in all major muscle groups utilized in hiking, and especially in your core, lower back, and shoulders.
- Your hiking experience: If you have a lot of hiking experience, you may require slightly less training and preparation than someone with no hiking experience at all, even if you haven’t been hiking recently. Muscle memory will, to an extent, help you navigate uneven terrain. However, you’ll still need to do some hiking exercises and prepare for the trip if you have not been very active recently.
Before diving into the best hiking exercises, it’s important to go over general tips for injury prevention. Hiking puts a lot of strain on the body, and reducing your risk of injury is crucial both while training for your hiking trip and while you’re on the trail.
Follow the tips below to help avoid injury when preparing at home and on your hikes.
Warm up properly
Before starting the exercises, make sure to warm up for around 5-10 minutes with some dynamic stretches to get your heart rate up. You can go for a brisk walk or easy jog, do some jumping jacks, or try high knees and butt kicks.
Stretch after exercising
Don’t forget to stretch after you’ve finished exercising. Stretching has many positive effects on the body and mind – it can boost flexibility, help you relax, reduce muscle tension, decrease the risk of injury, and speed up recovery. Even with just 5-10 minutes of stretching after your workout, you’ll be able to reap the benefits.
You should feel a bit of tension as you stretch but no pain. If anything starts to hurt, don’t stretch the muscle that far.
Don’t overdo it
Building a strong foundation takes time. When beginning a new training program, it’s important to take it slow and allow your body to build up strength over the course of weeks or even months. Always listen to your body and stop if something hurts.
While it’s normal to be sore and not feel your best when you begin a new training program, you shouldn’t experience pain or excessive discomfort. If any of the exercises you’re doing cause pain, stop and consult a physician.
Give yourself enough time to rest and recover between training sessions. Exercise and strength training cause microtears in the muscles and other soft tissues, so adequate rest is essential to allow your body to repair itself and get stronger.
Choose the right footwear
Even if you’re in excellent shape, you’ll still run into problems with discomfort and potential injury if you’re not wearing the right footwear. When selecting your hiking shoes, make sure to choose a pair that fits you well, feels comfortable and supportive, and is right for the conditions you’ll be hiking in. For example, you don’t want an insulated hiking boot if you’re going on a hiking trip during the summer or to a tropical area.
Many hikers prefer a pair of trail running shoes over traditional hiking boots. While there are situations where hiking boots are better suited to the task, trail running shoes are lighter weight, more breathable, and more versatile than hiking boots. To learn more about the benefits of trail running shoes vs. hiking boots, check out our detailed blog post here.
Socks are also an essential component when it comes to remaining comfortable while hiking. From preventing blisters to keeping your feet dry and odor-free, choosing the right hiking socks can make a huge difference in your hiking experience. Invest in a quality pair like Silverlight socks, and your feet will thank you after miles on the trail.
Consider using trekking poles
Trekking poles reduce the stress and impact hiking has on the knees and help you keep your balance, especially when descending steep terrain. If you are prone to knee pain or have had knee problems in the past, you should consider purchasing a set of high-quality trekking poles to support you on your hike.
Consult a physician if you have past or existing injuries
While these guidelines will help reduce the risk of injury, it’s always best to check with a doctor or physical therapist before starting a new exercise routine. This is especially important if you currently have an injury or have had one in the past.
How to get in shape for hiking: the best hiking exercises
The importance of lower body strength in hiking is obvious, but you’ll also need to perform exercises that work the entire body and build core strength. To get in optimal hiking shape, you should focus on the following:
- Build strength in major muscle groups: Hikers need to have strong quadriceps, calves, glutes, and hamstrings. Strengthening these muscles can help you hike longer and harder while also protecting you from common hiking injuries, such as knee problems and ankle sprains.
- Enhance your balance: Strong balance helps hikers safely navigate uneven terrain and is especially important when carrying a heavy pack.
- Increase your endurance: Hikers are on the trail for hours on end. You’ll need to build endurance in addition to strength in key muscle groups.
- Boost cardio fitness: Make sure to incorporate some aerobic activities and exercises into your training plan, such as running, cycling, swimming, or walking briskly outdoors, especially uphill.
General hiking exercises
Below are some of the best hiking exercises to get you in shape for your next adventure. All of the following exercises can be done without any equipment. You can train at home, in the park, or wherever you please!
Starting in a standing position, step forward with one leg and lower the hips until both of your legs are bent at a 90-degree angle. Keep your body weight in your heels and align your knees with your ankles. Step back up to a standing position and repeat on the other leg for one repetition.
Start with around 3 sets of 10 reps. To increase the intensity, add weight. There’s no need to purchase any dumbbells or special equipment. You can use a household item like a jug of water or a bottle of laundry detergent or wear a weighted backpack.
This exercise can be done on the bottom step of a flight of stairs, a step stool, or a short bench – anything that’s sturdy and somewhere between 8 and 16 inches high will work fine. The higher the step, the more difficult this exercise will be.
Stand just before the step and place your right foot on top of the step. Hold your arms straight out in front of you to help you balance. Step up until your right leg is nearly straight and pause in this position, making sure to avoid placing your left foot down onto the step.
Step back down until your left leg rests on the ground in the starting position. Repeat this 15 times, then switch legs and perform 15 step-ups on the other side.
Add weight to your backpack and wear it while doing the step-ups to increase the intensity.
Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and toes pointing straight forward or slightly outward. Look straight ahead and stand up tall. Tighten your abs, extend your arms straight out in front of you. Sit back as though you were sitting in a chair until your knees are at a 90-degree angle.
Avoid letting your knees cave inwards as you squat and keep them directly above your feet. You can focus on pushing them outwards as you move down. You should also maintain good posture and keep your spine straight. As you stand up from the squat, drive through your heels. By pressing your heels into the ground, it will help ensure you’re activating the right muscle groups.
Start with 3 sets of 10 reps and rest between each set. You can increase the intensity by adding weight or a jump.
Also known as pistol squats, this exercise builds strength through the core and entire lower body. It’s also a great way to improve your balance.
Stand with your feet parallel and around shoulder-width apart. Lift your arms straight out in front of you and extend one of your legs forward, trying to keep it as straight as possible. Tighten your core and keep your spine straight as you squat down by bending the leg you’re standing on. Keep your weight evenly distributed on that foot.
Squat down as far as you can towards the floor, making sure to keep your extended leg as straight as you can. Straighten your standing leg to return to an upright position. Maintain a tight core and straight spine throughout the exercise.
Don’t worry if you can’t go down very far at first – this is normal. Ultimately the goal is to get your extended leg parallel to the ground, but it can take time to achieve this.
To make the exercise easier, place a short stool, bench, or chair behind you and only go down until you feel the chair hit your butt, then come back up to standing. You can work your way up to a full pistol squat as your strength, flexibility, and balance improve.
Start with 3 sets of 5 reps on each leg, resting between each set.
Lay down on the ground and bend your knees so that your feet are flat on the floor about hip-width apart. Tighten your core and lift your hips towards the sky, making sure to push through the heel. Squeeze your glutes at the top, then lower your hips back down to the ground for one rep. Make sure to maintain a slow and controlled movement for the duration of the exercise.
To increase the intensity, hold a weight or try the exercise with only one leg at a time.
Planking is an excellent isometric exercise to strengthen the core, which is a crucial component of maintaining balance while hiking.
You can do planks on your hands or on your forearms. Kneel on the ground and position your elbows or hands directly beneath your shoulders. Extend your legs behind you so that you’re on your toes, keeping a straight line from your head to your feet.
Engage your core (it helps to imagine you’re pulling your belly button up towards the ceiling), and don’t let your back or hips sag. Your spine should be in a straight line with your body flat and parallel to the floor. Keep your gaze focused on the floor and pull your shoulder blades together to prevent your back from rounding.
Start with 3 sets of 30-second planks, resting between each set. If this is too difficult, you can put your knees on the ground until you’re strong enough to do a full plank or hold the position for less time.
Planks can also be done on the side to focus more on the obliques. To make it more challenging, add a leg raise.
Day hiking exercises
If you have been hiking before and are generally in good shape, you may not need to do much training at all for a day hike.
Try going for a brisk walk a few times a week and get your heart rate up for at least 30 minutes. Wear a daypack packed with a few items so that the weight is similar to what you’ll be bringing on the hike. You should also make sure to wear the same shoes you’ll be wearing on the hike to ensure they’re comfortable and to reduce your risk of developing blisters.
If the hike you’re planning is challenging or if you need to work on your general conditioning, the exercises above are more than enough to get you in great day hiking shape.
Mountaineering and high elevation hiking exercises
Climbing to the top of high peaks requires an incredibly high level of physical fitness and excellent stamina. Preparing for a high elevation trek can seem quite challenging, especially if you live in a low elevation area with few hills. Fortunately, the same exercises used for general hiking training can be applied with added intensity to get you in great mountaineering shape.
One of the best ways to prepare your body for the lower oxygen levels at high altitudes is to increase your VO2 max – the maximum level of oxygen your body can utilize during exercise – through aerobic activities. Load up your backpack and hike up a steep hill or long staircase in a tall building.
Experts recommend preparing for at least six months ahead of your trip. Like training for other types of hikes, you’ll want to start slow and build a strong foundation before increasing the intensity. Here is what a six-month training program could look like:
- For the first two months: Focus on a combination of cardiovascular exercise, strength training, and core work using the exercises listed above as well as your favorite aerobic activities.
- For the next two months: You can start increasing the difficulty and intensity of your training. You can add some extra miles to your runs and conditioning hikes and try harder variations of the exercises above.
- In the month or two just before your trip: Try to maintain your current fitness level but don’t overdo it with extra training. Your body needs enough rest and recovery to be ready for the demands of summiting a high peak.
In addition to training in advance, you’ll also want to plan enough time before and during the hike to acclimate to the elevation and limit your risk of altitude sickness.
How to get in shape for backpacking
While day hiking allows you plenty of time to rest and recover before your next hike, a multi-day hike or backpacking trip requires you to continue hiking for several days at a time with no rest. If you’re not in good shape for the trip, you’ll likely feel sore and uncomfortable and may even have to end the trip early.
Getting in shape for a backpacking trip is similar to training for hiking, but with a bigger emphasis on endurance and strengthening the core, lower back, and shoulders. You’ll want to work up to the harder variations of the general hiking exercises.
In addition to wearing your backpack while performing the above exercises, you should make sure to wear the pack on any training hikes you do. Start with low weight and increase it little by little until you’ve reached the same weight you plan to bring on your backpacking adventure.
It’s also a good idea to wear the same trail running shoes or hiking boots that you’ll be wearing during your trip to make sure they are comfortable and broken in and help prevent blisters on the trail.
How to get in shape for thru-hiking
Thru-hiking requires additional physical training, plus preparation for the mental challenges of spending weeks on the trail. While no training program can fully prepare you for the demands of thru-hiking, there are many things you can do ahead of time to make your first couple weeks of hiking much more pleasant.
You’ll want to train for at least a few months before your thru-hike. You should incorporate a balance of strength training, cardio, and hiking or walking into your workouts. Use the hiking exercises above as a guide and work up to more difficult variations of the exercises.
Go on plenty of hikes and walks – long, challenging hikes are especially good training. If you don’t live in an area with access to many hiking trails, try to walk as much as you can. Whether it’s to the store or to a meet-up with friends, the more walking you can do, the more it will prepare your body for life on the trail.
Try to get up early and go for a walk almost every day before your thru-hike, even if the weather is bad. This will help prepare your mind and body to operate on an early morning schedule and get you used to walking in all sorts of weather conditions.
Appropriate training and preparation can mean the difference between an incredible hiking outing and a painful one. By following the tips and exercises in this article, you’ll be well on your way to remaining strong, healthy, and injury-free during your training and on your hiking adventures.
All of the hiking exercises and suggestions in this article can be customized according to your specific training needs and goals. Use the exercises as a guide and make modifications as needed based on your current physical condition, your hiking destination, and the type and length of your trip.
Wherever you’re headed next, stay safe and have fun!