Training for backpacking: how to get in shape for your first multi-day hike
One of the questions I get the most from readers is how to get in shape for your first multi-day trek. Now I am not an official expert in the field of sport and exercise, but I can share my many years of experience with you. 14 Years of trekking that is, without being super fit and/or an athlete. With all my tips below, you can then learn what way suits you most. If you have any questions at the end of the article, feel free to contact them or contact me.
You don’t start to get in shape for backpacking just like that. How much you have to work out and what exactly you’ll have to work on depends on your overall shape and whether you exercise regularly. Before I continue, I should warn you: an excellent shape certainly does not guarantee the success of your multi-day hike. This involves a lot of other factors, such as blisters, stamina and mindset.
If you can run a marathon, this certainly does not mean that you can just hike a trek with a backpack, too. In Kathmandu, for example, I once met a Dutchman who ran marathons, but never managed to reach Mount Everest Base Camp. I also spoke with a very fit American who had to cancel a hiking trip because her knees couldn’t cope with the weight of her backpack. Training for backpacking does not only consist of ensuring that your fitness is up to standard but also various other parts. I’ll go through them all below.
As mentioned, I base this article on the experience I have gained over the past 14 years. In 2006 I did my first big multi-day trek, the Inca Trail in Peru. A tough but not very technical four-day trip through the Andes, with the highest point being the climb of Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,200 meters. It was a good exercise, but when I saw the sunrise on Machu Picchu, I knew I wanted to do this more often. It turned out to be the start of a passion for making multi-day backpacking trips, preferably with different landscapes every time. Meanwhile I hike several multi-day hikes every year, from the Himalayas to my homecountry The Netherlands and everything in between.
Decide which hike to do
Before you start training you’ll decide which trek you’ll do and prepare for. Your choice determines how you will ultimately train and, more importantly, what for exactly. Frequently made choices for first hikes are the aforementioned Inca Trail, hikes in Nepal, the West Highland Way in Scotland or one of the many trails in the Alps. They all have a different character and therefore require different training.
For example, if you are hiking with luggage transport and you only carry your daypack, it is important to train your body to hike distances. When you hike in the Alps, you also carry limited luggage because you spend the night in mountain huts and the meals are prepared for you. When you go for a trek in Nepal, you can hike with a relatively light backpack because it is common to hire a porter here, but when you do the Laugavegur in Iceland or the Kungsleden in Sweden, you’ll have to carry all your stuff with you including food, tent and cooking equipment. Unless you sleep in the cabins here too, but I don’t recommend that because of crowds.
So every trek will have its own rules and challenges. Consider:
– How many kilometers or miles do you hike per day?
– How many days do you hike and do you have rest or acclimatization days en route?
– How big is the altitude difference per day?
– What the trail difficulty is: easy, medium or strenuous
Based on this you can decide which way to start preparing for your first multi-day hike. Below I’ll cover some various things that should be considered and in order before you eventually start your trek.
Training your shape for backpacking
The most important thing of course is that you have a good condition for hiking, but … it is not a necessity. However, it will help you to make it a whole lot easier and more fun. The worst thing in the world is hiking a trek while out of shape and believe me, it’s happened to me several times. Also, I went on the Poon Hill trek in Nepal with a Filipino who did work occasionally, but had no hiking experience whatsoever. His condition was average for someone who exercised twice a week, but he was having a really hard time and not enjoying it so much. Yet he made it, mainly just with the right mindset.
So anyway, condition. There are various ways to train fitness. Although I hear from many people that they don’t like going to a gym, I do recommend that you do this. Here you can work on both your fitness and your strength.
To improve your overall fitness you can take excellent lessons such as spinning / RPM, Body Attack from Les Mills or you can do CrossFit / high intensity (HIT) training. Bear in mind that you sometimes have to walk up for hours and that this is usually longer than an hour. For example, it is useful to do two lessons in a row at the end of your training period. A favorite combination of mine in the gym is to combine a strength training class (Bodypump) with spinning, for example. Running is also a great way to work on your fitness, but preferably in nature on unpaved terrain.
I recommend that you do fitness training at least three times a week before the start of your multi-day trek, whether outside or in a gym. Is fitness training necessary or can you only train with normal walking? No, I don’t think you can train for a multiday hike just by normal walking. At least not where I’m from. With hiking in the Netherlands you hardly train the condition that you need to be able to go hiking with a pack. Don’t like going to the gym? Surprise: I’d also rather sit on the couch binging Netflix. But if you want something, you’ll need to work for it.
Training your muscles for a multi-day hike
For many years I have underestimated the essence of strength training. Only when I started doing this did I noticed that walking up in the mountains became considerably easier for me. You can have your own strength training schedule put together for you or take part in group lessons. I am a huge fan of Les Mills BodyPump and I try to do this twice a week when I’m in The Netherlands. The advantage here was mainly in making my upper legs stronger during squats and lunges, as well as making my back stronger for carrying the backpack. In addition, more power naturally also helps you to tie up and carry your backpack easier. In addition, I do Pilates once a week to improve my core stability.
When your multi-day trek takes place in the mountains, it helps to prepare your muscles for walking up. I now know that my calves always bother me the first hour that I walk up, so I regularly train in the gym for half an hour on the treadmill with a good incline. That way you stretch your calves a bit more and you will suffer less from muscle pain.
Train hiking with a backpack
Hiking with a pack can be quite a challenge and requires some practice, especially if you do not want to arrive at your destination of that day completely knocked out each time. I therefore strongly advise you to practice hiking with packs a few times too, preferably in a hilly environment. Just fill your pack with weight and off you go. This also gives your the opportunity to actually test how the pack works for you!
In the run-up to the Inca Trail I regularly loaded my backpack with books and hiked about 15 kilometers along the Posbank in Veluwezoom National Park, which is basically one of the most hilliest areas in The Netherlands. If you do not live in a hilly environment (like me) or you do not have time to go here, then a simple option is to practice mountain hiking with a backpack by going up stairs with your backpack on. For example, in the stairwell of a flat nearby. Or tie your backpack and stand on the treadmill in the gym. There’s no need to always go outside to exercise for your condition.
Hiking several days in a row
In addition to hiking with a backpack, I also advise you to practice walking for several consecutive days, preferably with a backpack. Suitable places for this can be close to home, it’s not about chasing hills but more about experiencing what hiking (with a pack) for several days in a row does to your body.
In addition, it is essential to practice this in connection with recovery. If you walk a simple trail for 1 day, you can take a hot shower in the evening and get into your made-up bed, recovery is a lot easier than if, for example, you lie on a cold and uncomfortable mat in a tent without being able to shower. Your body then has much more trouble recovering, so you can have a harder time the next day. It’s good to practice a bit with limited recovery.
Practice drinking and eating
Practicing eating and drinking is also useful. How much water do you need in a day? Do you sweat a lot or a little? How much food do you have to bring to get through the day? On which foods or products do you perform well and on which food do you do less well? It is useful to try this out in advance so that you will not be confronted with surprises on while already on your trek. Try which foods work for you and which don’t. Curious about what I eat on my treks? Then check my super useful article about food on multi-day hikes.
Break down mentally, at least once
Can you do the practice hikes without too much trouble? Then try once to go beyond your limits and break down. Hike those extra kilometers until you really think you can no longer continue or run those extra minutes. Carry a pack so heavy that it makes you hurt. Do something out of your comfort zone, go to the maximum and maybe even beyond. This will make you realize that you are capable of much more than you think. It greatly increases your resilience to find your own limits. Do you have physical limitations? Always do this in consultation with a trainer and / or physiotherapist. It’s not the idea to totally break down physically and hurt yourself. The idea is to explore your limits and see how far you can push them.
Other tips once on the trail
The time has come: your first multi-day hike is at your doorstep. The adventure you’ve been working towards for so long will finally begin. I will give you final some useful tips, insights and experiences for during your trek, because things always go different than planned or are heavier than expected.
– Do not make the mistake to think you can hike 5 kilometers per hour. This is impossible, especially when you hike in the mountains. A good average to maintain is 3 kilometers per hour plus breaks. For example, a 15-kilometer hike will usually take you 6-7 hours in total, depending on your fitness and the terrain. In the mountains you may even be slower than 3 kilometers an hour, I’ve done several treks where I wasn’t faster than 2 kms an hour. And that’s perfectly normal, don’t stress out over it!
– Have an easy start and don’t push yourself insanely from the first minute. I recently hiked in New Zealand and met a girl who was on a multi-day trek for the first time in her life. The first day went well (because she thought she should arrive at the destination before the indicated time), the second day it went less well and on the third day she dropped out. She had started way too fast by thinking that she had to walk within the specified time. As a result, she had demanded far too much from her body and had completely blown herself up beyond her limits. She didn’t enjoy it at all. The indicated duration is a suggestion, not a must!
– Stop regularly. When I hike with a heavy backpack, I take a short break every hour. Or when it is a relatively easy hike every hour and a half. Then I take off my backpack, make some stretches and can relax my body that way. That’s so much nicer and better for your recovery than just marching on!
– Climbing is demanding, but descending is even more demanding. I often hear from starting hikers that they have difficulty climbing because they are panting. Well I’ll tell you: I’m panting too. And with me most people are. There’s nothing wrong with panting when you walk up, because that’s normal. Your body has to work harder than usual and is therefore tired faster. Do not be embarrassed or apologize to yourself and your hiking mates. In addition, climbing may be tough, but descending is a huge burden on your body. Therefore always make sure that you still have some energy left for the descent, if necessary by hiking a bit slower.
– You can never be fully trained and there are always unexpected surprises along the way. You will get unexpected aches and pains. Or it can just rain. Or some of your gear breaks. Or you slept badly. These are things that you cannot prepare, but must experience on the spot. Rest assured: I also regularly have a tough time on the trail and I sometimes think “why again did I want to do this?”
– Finally: enjoy! Really, don’t forget to enjoy it. Hike at your own pace, don’t be rushed, stand still from time to time, breathe in and out deeply and ENJOY!
Conclusion and disclaimer
Hopefully you found this article useful in preparation for your multi-day trek. Do you want to know what my favorite treks are? Here you will find my top 24. Have fun reading!
This article contains affiliate links. If you make a reservation or make a purchase through such a link, I may receive a modest commission without additional costs for you.