Lisa Densmore above Lakes of the Clouds Hut. Photo by Jack Ballard.
caption Lisa Densmore above Lakes of the Clouds Hut. Photo by Jack Ballard.
Conditioning for long hikes

By Lisa Densmore

AMC Outdoors, January/February 2011

My quads quit throbbing two hours ago. They were simply numb. On day three of the Presidential Traverse, the classic trek across the highest and most rugged of New Hampshire's White Mountains, I plodded onward through endless forest, long past the expansive alpine vistas; the boulder piles atop Mounts Washington, Jefferson, and Adams; and Air Line's dramatic knife-edge above King Ravine. My 30-pound pack, weightless this morning, felt like it held half the rocks paving the Gulfside Trail. Would this hike never end!

According to the Mayo Clinic, a 160-pound person burns 438 calories per hour while hiking.

I regretted the decision to forgo the night at Madison Hut and hike out. It was only three extra miles to the Appalachia trailhead, the end of my trip. At 2 p.m., I had plenty of daylight to go the additional distance, but I underestimated those few extra miles after 7.5 rough ones.

I finally reached the car, and Motrin got me through the leg hurt of the next three days. But the hurt to my ego took longer to heal. My random runs around my neighborhood and half-dozen day hikes prior to my big trip had fallen grossly short of the overall conditioning that a multi-day trek carrying weight required. I had underestimated how much a measly 15 pounds more than my usual day pack and a long downhill finale could cripple me.

"People tend to focus on the cardio component when they are preparing for a multi-day backpacking trip, and they improve quickly," says Russell Lord, professor of exercise science and human performance at Montana State University-Billings and avid hiker and backcountry skier. "But the muscular-skeleton adaptation takes longer, six to seven weeks, before there's significant change in muscular function. Simply running long distances won't help you if you're going to carry weight. Motor skills and conditioning are incredibly specific."

All multi-day hikes require you to carry weight, typically 20 to 25 pounds on a hut hike or a supported trek with pack animals, and 40 to 50 pounds on an extended backpacking trip. To avoid mind-numbing fatigue and soreness, you have to increase your muscular strength to not only hold up the load, but also move it over uneven terrain for long periods of time. The key is to build up slowly.

"Put on the pack you're going to be using, but start with only 10 pounds in it, then walk for an hour," advises Mike Innes, a former AMC adventure guide who hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2007. "Gradually build up to 30 pounds or more, carrying it for the average daily mileage you expect to do on your trip. Don't do too much too soon! If you never get to the point where you're training with the full load over the full mileage, it's OK. Half is still good homework."

During the winter, Innes recommends cross-training by snowshoeing with a pack, which is closer to backpacking than cross-country skiing. However, if your only option for exercise is at a health club, he recommends spending the first six weeks on a cardio machine, such as a Stairmaster, an elliptical, or a treadmill, at least four times per week for an hour per session to give yourself a good aerobic base. After six weeks, he suggests changing up the last half hour by adding four-minute intervals at high intensity alternating with four minutes at a more moderate pace. "Push your heart rate to your anaerobic threshold, recover, then do it again," says Innes. "Thirty minutes of intervals is better than only a long, slow workout."

What about the weight? "If you don't want to look weird wearing a pack at the gym, use a weight vest," says Lord. "It might hang differently and weigh less than a pack, but it still helps your body adapt. If you weigh 180 pounds and add a 30-pound vest, your body learns how to exert and balance itself under a 210-pound load, a closer approximation to the load it will be forced to handle on the hiking trail."

To train for the up and down in the mountains, Lord recommends using the stairs in an office building. "The real stress on your body isn't going up. It's going down," he explains. "Put on your pack, then take the stairs two at a time, which puts your knees at a more realistic climbing angle. The key is to come down really slowly, also two steps at a time. That helps stabilize the muscles in your core, improving your balance as well as your strength. You don't have to do two hours in the stairwell, but if you don't do it at all, your body won't be ready."