Hikers with great fitness on high mountain summit
Average read time 4 min

So what is extreme hiking and backpacking? It’s not the 3 mile out and back to a summit with a couple of thousand feet elevation gain. It’s not even climbing a couple of peaks with 5-10 miles of total trail. It is long day hikes that consist of about 15-20+ miles or backpacking trips lasting more than 3+ days and with distances of over 25+ miles on rugged trails. It can include shorter distances in winter/arctic-type conditions. This is not to say hikes of lesser intensity are easy and should not be taken seriously!

I’ve witnessed arguably fit people who regularly hike and run crumble on a 3-day backpacking trip in the Adirondack’s Great Range. They did not have the full-body flexibility, strength, and or power needed to sustain the trip.

Bottom Line: Extreme hiking and backpacking are demanding activities. They challenge you both physically and mentally. Both require high levels of aerobic endurance/power, muscular strength/power, flexibility, and dynamic balance.

Extreme Hiking will Stress You and Test You

While hiking your body is dealing with environmental factors that stress your system over long periods of time. Depending on the specifics of your outing, factors such as weight carried, the amount of clothing worn, terrain, weather, altitude, distance and/or days traveled, ability to hydrate and feed well, your experience, unforeseen problems, injury, and mental stress will all impact your performance.

One would think that the single best way to get fit for the trail is simply to hike, but this may not be true. We know that a well-formulated strength and conditioning program will improve your physical fitness, but less known is it will also improve your mental fitness. Another aspect of “fitness” that’s not talked about much is spirit, that aspect of you that goes beyond the body and mind. This sustains you when they are failing!

Bottom Line: It is true that the more time you spend hiking and backpacking the better you will get at it, but you may not get the fitness you need for extreme outings.

In this 4 part article I will:

  1. Explain why simply being on the trail will not improve your complete fitness in of itself.
  2. Explain how to increase your fitness so your on-trail performance can be maximized.
  3. Explain how to increase your mental and spiritual “stamina” to sustain hardship.

Why Hiking Alone Will Not Make You “Trail-hard”

Hiking is a great way to get in shape. However, for those people who wish to experience a level of hiking and backpacking that surpasses the “weekend warrior”, you’ll need more. If you plan on through-hiking the Long Trail in Vermont or want to stand on the summit of Mount Rainier, getting out and hiking on the weekends may help but it will not lift your fitness to a level of elite performance so you can make the hike or climb with enough reserves to function sufficiently.

An end to end on extremely tough trails like Devil’s Path in the Catskills or the Presidential Range in New Hampshire will be made easier if you adopt a regular off-trail training program. Think of it this way, does any professional athlete just practice their sport on the field? No, of course not, they spend many hours preparing their bodies in strength and conditioning programs. Why shouldn’t you as an extreme hiker?

Ask yourself; when you hike, have you set specific fitness goals? For example, improving power? If so, how do you measure it? Speed? Time? Distance traveled? How you feel?

Bottom Line: Being on the trail can absolutely raise your fitness, but it is hard to set specific goals for components of physical fitness. In fact, over time you may be losing fitness in various ways and increasing the risk for injury.

Trail Hiking Increases Fitness… to a point

Being on the trail can absolutely raise your fitness, but it is hard to set specific goals for aspects of physical fitness. In fact, over time you may be losing fitness in various ways and increasing the risk for injury.

For example, hiking works specific sets of muscle groups, but maybe not through full ranges of motion. Gaining endurance and strength in limited ranges of motion may set the stage for injury. Another example regards aerobic power or capacity.  Just because you hike does not necessarily mean you will always be increasing this component of fitness (unless you track this).

Finally, hiking is not symmetric and you have your tendencies. You may step up with your right leg more than your left. You could have bilateral muscle imbalances which can lead to premature fatigue and injury. Yes, on a short outing you may not notice it, but as the miles increase so does your discomfort.

Having said that, to train in the gym all year and expect to complete the 100+ mile Northville-Placid Trail in the Adirondacks without ever stepping foot on the trail makes no sense either.

Bottom Line: In reality, it takes both training on the trail and “in the gym” to excel at high levels of hiking.

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Part 2: Developing aerobic power

Part 3: Developing a well-formulated strength and conditioning program

Part 4: Getting tough mentally and spiritually.