Training for Hiking

You might be asking yourself, “Don’t you just train for hiking by going for a hike?” That’s one way to do it, but if you're getting back into hiking after taking a season or two off or you aspire to hike longer distances and reach loftier summits, proper training becomes ever more important.

In this article, we recommend strength, balance and cardiovascular exercises that can be done as part of a three-month training plan. While that might initially sound like a lot of work, most of the exercises mentioned here are simple and can be done in your home or around your neighborhood.

In this article we’ll look at:

  • Benefits of training for hiking
  • Strength training exercises for hiking
  • Balance training exercises for hiking
  • Cardiovascular exercises to prep for hiking
  • A sample 3-month hiking training plan

Before beginning any new workout routine, we always recommend that you check in with your doctor.

Benefits of Training for Hiking

a hiker walking along a downed tree on a water crossing

One of the wonderful things about hiking is how simple it is: With a quality pair of shoes and sense of adventure, you can be on your way into the wilderness. But, don’t underestimate how strenuous hiking can be and the toll it can take on your body. By training for a season full of hiking or an ambitious multiday adventure, you’re likely to experience a couple of noticeable benefits:

You’ll have more fun: When you’re in shape for hiking, you’ll feel strong and be able to move more swiftly, which will allow you to enjoy the beautiful sights, sounds and smells of the outdoors rather than suffering through your trek.

You’ll put less strain on your body: When your muscles, ligaments and tendons are strong and well-tuned, they’ll be ready to respond if you stumble or slip on the varied terrain of the trail.

In addition to being physically prepared for hiking, you need to make sure you always carry the appropriate gear for a day on the trail. Touch up on the Ten Essentials before heading out the door.

Strength-Training Exercises for Hiking

Strength-training exercise that works on developing core strength can help you with overall fitness and balance for traveling on the uneven terrain of a trail. Here you’ll find a list of exercises that are ideal for hikers and can be done in your home or outside. After familiarizing yourself with them, check out our sample training schedule (located at the end of this article) with recommendations on how to incorporate each exercise into a three-month training plan.

example of how to do mountain climbers to train for hiking

Mountain climbers: This total-body workout strengthens your core, back, arms and legs. Start by getting in the push-up position and bringing your right foot forward so it nearly touches your right elbow. In one motion, switch your legs by extending your right leg back and bringing your left leg forward so it nearly touches your left elbow. Continue switching your legs back and forth quickly for 30 seconds. You can modify this workout to make it more challenging by using gliders or furniture moving pads under your feet. Doing so will engage your lower abs more than standard mountain climbers.

demonstration of how to do hip bridges to train for hiking

Hip bridge: This exercise strengthens your abs, butt, hips and lower back. Lie on your back with your arms by your sides. Bend your knees so your feet are flat on the ground and underneath your knees. Raise your hips by pushing up through your heels so that your body forms a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Lower back down to the starting position and repeat for 30 seconds. Focus on tightening your abs and glutes while raising and lowering. You can modify hip bridges to make them more challenging by lifting one leg off the ground and extending that foot straight out in front of you.

demonstration of doing a russian twist movement to train for hiking

Russian twists: This is a great ab workout. Get down in a sit-up position. Raise your back of the ground so that it forms about a 45-degree angle with the floor. Now twist your torso as far as you can to the right and then as far as you can to the left. Repeat for 30 seconds. To make the exercise more difficult you can lift your feet about 6 inches off the ground and hold a weighted object straight out in front of you, like a medicine ball or weight plate.

demonstration of a forearm plank, a good strength exercise to train for hiking

Forearm planks: This simple exercise helps build strength in your core, shoulders, arms and legs. To do a plank, get in the push-up position, but bend your elbows so that you’re resting on your forearms. Keep your body as straight as possible and focus on keeping your abs and glutes clenched for 30 seconds. For a more-challenging modification, place your forearms on an exercise ball and use the ball to support most of your body weight.

example of proper side plank form, a great exercise for training for hiking

Side plank: An alternative to the standard plank, side planks strengthen your abs and side muscles. Lay down on your right side with your legs extended. Place your right elbow directly under your right shoulder and support yourself on your forearm. Clench your abs and lift your right hip off the ground. Hold for 30 seconds. Switch sides and repeat.

demonstration of how to do a superman strength exercise for training for hiking

Supermans: This exercise strengthens your abs and lower back. Lie down on your stomach with your arms extended straight out above your head and your legs straight out below you. Simultaneously lift your arms, chest and legs off the floor about 6 inches (and imagine you’re Superman flying through the air). Hold this position for a couple seconds, then slowly lower back down to the starting position. Repeat for 30 seconds. As you progress, you can increase the difficulty a bit by lifting an opposing arm and leg (e.g. right arm, left leg), then lower them while simultaneously lifting your other arm and leg. Continue this motion as quickly as possible for 30 seconds. This variation is often called the swimmer exercise.

example of how to do a squat with overhead press using an exercise ball

Exercise ball squat with overhead press: To do this exercise, you need an exercise ball and two 5-pound dumbbell weights. Grab a weight in each hand and hold them at your shoulders with bent elbows, then place the exercise ball between your lower back and the wall. Position your feet slightly forward of your body and shoulder-width apart, then roll your back down the ball as you lower your body toward the floor until your knees reach a 90-degree bend. As you’re doing this, extend your arms so the weights are above your head. Then stand back up, while at the same time bringing the weights back to shoulder height. Repeat for 30 seconds. You can increase the dumbbell weight, but your focus should always be on doing the proper movements, not lifting lots of weight.

After a training session, it’s a good idea to do some light stretching and/or foam rolling.

Balance Exercises for Hiking

The exercises listed below are designed to strengthen your legs and ankles and improve balance and proprioception (your body’s ability to know its position in space and react with proper movement). On the trail, this can result in better agility and coordination when you’re stepping over logs, landing on uneven surfaces or reacting to a sudden slip.

Some of these exercises incorporate a soft surface to simulate a trail, which can increase difficulty and make your stabilizing muscles work harder. A soft surface can be anything from a yoga mat to a sandy beach. As with the strength-training exercises, see our sample training schedule for information on how to integrate balance exercise into a three-month workout routine.

example of how to do a standing single-leg balance

Standing single-leg balance: Stand upright with your feet together on a solid, level surface, then lift one foot about six to 12 inches off the ground. Keep your hips level and hold for 30 seconds then switch legs and repeat. For more challenge, stand on a soft surface or the squishy side of a BOSU® balance trainer. This can be difficult at first, so if you need to extend your arms to improve your balance, do so.

demonstration of a step back to balance move for training for hiking

Step back to balance: Start by standing upright with your feet together and take one big step backward. Keep your torso upright and use your core muscles to slowly and steadily bring your other foot back to match the first one while maintaining your balance. Now step back with the other foot. Repeat for 30 seconds. As you improve, you can add more challenge by doing this exercise on a soft surface, such as grass or sand.

example of a jump squat for improved balance for hiking

Jump squats: Start with your feet shoulder-width apart and then squat down until your thighs are at least parallel with the ground. Focus on keeping your chest up, your feet flat and your knees over your toes. As you come up from the squat, push through heels and explode up and jump a few inches off the ground. When you land, do so softly and immediately go into another squat. Repeat for 30 seconds.

demonstration of jumping off a box jump onto a soft surface

Jump down to soft surface: Find a set of stairs and place a yoga mat at the bottom to create a soft surface. Then stand on the second or third step and jump off, landing on the mat in a soft, controlled manner with both feet at the same time. Let your knees flex to absorb the landing. Return to the starting position and jump again. Repeat for 30 seconds.

example of a lunge off a step for improved balance for hiking

Lunge off step: Stand on a step and lunge forward off the step with one leg as you drop the knee of the other leg toward the ground until both knees are bent at about a 90-degree angle. Keep your front knee directly above your ankle. Now reverse the motion to return to the starting position. As you do so, push up through the heel of your front foot to engage your glutes. From the starting position, lunge forward with your other leg. Repeat for 30 seconds.

After a training session, it’s a good idea to do some light stretching and/or foam rolling.

Cardiovascular Exercise for Hiking

a hiker cross training on a mountain bike and while on a trail run

Cardiovascular exercise is a critical component of training for hiking. Early on in your training, any cardio is good cardio. That means you can bike, swim, run, walk or do another activity that gets your heart and lungs pumping. Shoot for about 30–45 minutes of quality cardio work three to four times per week.

As you progress, make sure that a couple of those cardio workouts each week involve walking or hiking. It’s also a good idea to start wearing your hiking socks and boots to get your feet used to being in them, even if you’re just walking around the neighborhood.

The closer you get to hiking season or a big trip, the more hiking you’ll want to be doing. Shooting for four training hikes per week is a good goal.

Training with weight: If you’re training for backpacking, or day hikes that require you to carry a significant amount of weight, it’s a good idea to get used to that by wearing a weighted pack on some training hikes. Start with about 10 pounds in your pack and as you get stronger you can add more weight until you’re roughly at 75 percent of the weight you anticipate carrying on your actual hike.

The sample training plan at the end of this article recommends how much cardio work to do and how often to carry a weighted pack.

Training Plan for Hiking

Here is sample three-month training plan designed to give you a feel for how you can use strength, balance and cardio exercise to train for hiking.

3-Month Training Plan for Hiking

    • training plan table for 5k trail running race
    • training plan table for 10k trail running race
    • training plan table for 10k trail running race

3-Month Training Plan in Printer-friendly version (PDF)

How closely you follow this workout depends a lot on your current fitness level. If you’re in very good physical shape, you can possibly skip ahead to the second month. If you haven’t been very active recently, start slowly and you may need to give yourself more than three months. The week prior to your big adventure, ease off the training and do two or three days of easy walking.

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