How to Get In Shape for Hiking: Top 5 Training Exercises

Last Updated: March 14, 2022
Close-up on intermediate climber tying her shoelace

Hiking is more than a walk in the woods. It's a form of exercise that requires a strong core, heart health, balance, and a multitude of other physical capabilities. Hiking season is year-round in many parts of the country and the world. That means one of the most important parts of getting in shape for hiking is maintaining your heart health and strength, so you can continue hiking as often as you please throughout the year. It's never recommended jumping straight into hiking after weeks or months of inactivity. This can result in injury and even more time off the trails. This guide to getting in shape for hiking will help you achieve the conditioning, strength, and balance needed to hit the trails safely. 

Basic Hiking Fitness

Hiking fitness is different from the fitness required for other sports. The most common injuries while hiking are ankle sprains and rolls. Starting with basic exercises can help you get your heart and muscles prepared for your first hike. The following are simple exercises to achieve the fitness base you'll need for your first hikes.

Cardio Exercises

Cardio is any type of exercise that increases your breathing and heart rates. Numerous exercises can be used to improve your cardio strength for hiking. Common ways to improve cardio are through walking, biking, or running. Equipment at the gym, like stationary bikes, treadmills, and elliptical machines, can help you improve your cardio if you don't live in an area ideal for exercising outdoors.

Crunches and Working Core Muscles

Hiking requires core strength for superior balance. A strong core can prevent many of the most common hiking injuries. Crunches, sit-ups, ab roll-outs, and planks are just a few exercises to improve core strength.

Leg Work

Your legs will likely be sore after your first hike, no matter how much you prepare. However, boosting leg muscles can greatly reduce the soreness you experience during and after your hike. Lunges and squats work the legs, gluteus, and core to improve your overall hiking experience. Use resistance bands while performing squats and lunges to make them more difficult. 

Upper Body Work

A strong upper body and back are essential for hikers who carry packs. Push-ups, pull-ups, planks, and rows can improve upper body strength, so you can carry more supplies without soreness. 

Range of Motion

Improving your range of motion can prevent injury and soreness. Use resistance bands to strengthen your muscles throughout their full rotation and extension. Resistance bands are especially helpful for strengthening the stabilizer muscles around the knees and ankles. 

Additional Ankle and Knee Work

The knees and ankles endure the most wear and tear from hiking. They're also the most likely areas to become injured. Walking, and eventually running, in the sand or on uneven surfaces can help build the stabilizer muscles around the knees and ankles to prevent overextension and help avoid injury. 

Training at Home or the Gym

You don't need a lot of costly equipment to get in shape. All the exercises listed above and more can be performed with a few simple pieces of gym gear. 

Training Shoes

The shoes you use to get in shape for hiking are different from the trail shoes you'll use while hiking. The aggressive tread of hiking shoes can make training at home or the gym more difficult and less comfortable. A quality cross-training or trail running shoe is recommended for the workouts leading up to your first hike and all the workouts you perform between hikes.

Free Weights

Hikers working out at home will want to equip their home gym with a set of dumbbells. Weights will help you strengthen your upper-body muscles, so you can carry heavier packs farther. 

Resistance Bands

Resistance bands can be used to strengthen and stretch your leg muscles. Resistance band exercises can help improve range of motion before hiking and ease soreness, such as shin splints and muscle cramps, afterward. 

Training Safely

The most important part of getting in shape is doing it safely. Start slowly and increase your pace as you feel comfortable. Add resistance and repetitions as your training advances to build endurance.

  • Discuss your fitness level with your doctor to create a safe training plan.
  • Listen to your body. Do not perform exercises that are painful or put excessive strain on your muscles or joints.
  • Create an exercise routine and stay consistent.
  • Warm up for five to 10 minutes before your workout.
  • Take rest periods for roughly 45 seconds between exercises.
  • Allow your body the time it needs to recover. Take additional rest time and recovery days as needed. 

Top 5 Training Exercises for Hiking

Several specific training exercises are ideal for hiking. The following are our top five exercises to help you prepare for your first day hike and stay in shape for more strenuous adventures.

Lunges

Lunges are simple bodyweight exercises that can be performed at home or the gym. Hold dumbbells or use resistance bands to make lunges more difficult.

  • Start in a standing position.
  • Step forward with one leg and slowly lower yourself toward the floor until the leg is bent at a 90-degree angle. 
  • Use your legs to push yourself back to a standing position, bringing your back foot forward. 
  • Repeat this exercise with the other leg. 
  • Perform this exercise 15 times on each leg.
  • Hold equal weight dumbbells in both hands or use resistance bands to intensify your lunges.

Step-Ups 

Hiking constantly involves stepping onto or over rocks, logs, and more. Step-ups can help build the quad and glutei muscles needed to tackle these obstacles with ease. You will need an aerobic step, training box, or the bottom step of your stairs for this exercise. 

  • Start with your right foot on the ground and your left foot on the top of the training box or step. Your right knee should be bent. 
  • Step up onto the box until your right leg is almost straight. Bring your left leg up until it is hovering about 1 inch above the box. 
  • Pause for a moment and balance on one foot.
  • Return your left leg to the ground, and your right foot to its starting position. 
  • Repeat the exercise 15 times with your right leg then 15 times with the left. Gradually build the number of reps as you feel comfortable.

Your step-ups can be made more difficult by adding weight or increasing the height of the step or training box. 

Side Plank and Leg Raise 

Planks are some of the best training exercises that work for several major muscle groups. A single plank can build core muscles, gluteus, leg, and oblique muscles. Strengthening all of these muscles can improve your balance, endurance, and overall strength. Adding a leg raise to this plank exercise builds strength in the muscles that support your hips while hiking.

  • Lie on the ground on your right side. Support your body weight with your right elbow under your shoulder. Your forearm should be on the ground perpendicular to your body.
  • Engage your core while raising your hips off the ground into a side plank position.
  • Lift your left leg until it is more or less in a straight line with your head. Keep the leg straight.
  • Return your leg to starting position and repeat this exercise for 10 reps on each side. 

Raise the top leg higher to increase intensity or lower to reduce intensity. 

Lateral Band Walks

Your knees undergo a lot of strain while hiking. Strong hip abductor and glutei muscles protect the knees, and lateral band walks are ideal for strengthening these muscles. 

  • Position a resistance band around both legs slightly above your knees with your thighs parallel. There should be tension when the legs are spread shoulder-width apart.
  • Bend your knees, engage your abs, and push your hips back, lowering into a squat position. Your weight should be shifted to the heels. 
  • Hold this squat position, raise your hips, and step your right foot in the right direction. 
  • Lower your hips fully into a squat position again, then raise your hips slightly and bring your left foot to meet your right. 
  • Repeat the same maneuver on the opposite side, alternating sides for each rep. 
  • Perform 15 reps, increasing the number of reps as you feel comfortable.

Squat Curl Overhead Press

The squat curl overhead press is an exercise that works upper and lower body muscles at once. This allows you to accomplish more strength training in a shorter amount of time. You'll need strong upper body strength for carrying your pack and supplies while lower body strength will provide the endurance you need to accomplish your hiking goals. You'll need a set of lightweight dumbbells to perform this exercise. 

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. 
  • Hold the dumbbells at your sides. 
  • Lower into a squat position, bringing your thighs down until they're parallel to the floor. 
  • Push up to the starting position, then perform a simultaneous curl with each dumbbell. 
  • Press the dumbbells up over your head with your palms facing each other.
  • Return to a neutral position and repeat this exercise for 15 reps.

Numerous other exercises can benefit your hiking, including squat variations, push-ups, plank variations, hamstring curls, and more. Diversifying the exercises you perform in your workout plan can make training more interesting, helping you stay consistent. 

Create an Exercise Routine

You should begin training for your first hike weeks before you head out on the trails. Your training schedule should include at least two days per week of strength training, at least three days per week of cardio exercise, and two non-consecutive days of rest. Hikers heavily rely on the leg, core, and back muscle groups, so creating a training plan that focuses on these areas can help you hike longer and harder. Speak with a certified trainer or your doctor to discuss your training plan before you begin. He or she can help you create a safe and healthy training schedule based on your strengths, weaknesses, and overall health. 

Additional Ways to Build Endurance

Changing certain aspects of your lifestyle can improve your overall health and help you get in shape for hiking. The following are a few simple actions you can take in your daily life to help improve your fitness for hiking.

Walk Often and Briskly

Walking is one of the best ways to get in shape for hiking, especially if you do it briskly on various types of terrain. Novice hikers should begin with a short walk, then incorporate regular walking into their training routines. Walking can be performed in your neighborhood, at a local park, at the beach, on a treadmill, or at a track. Increase your speed as you feel comfortable. Over time, you should be walking briskly at a speed that increases your heart rate and makes you sweat.

Use the Stairs

Taking the stairs instead of an escalator or elevator is a simple lifestyle change that can build core and leg muscle groups. Ascending and descending stairs is one of the best ways to mimic the motions you'll perform when hiking trails that are not flat. 

Exercise with Others

One of the best ways to stick to your fitness routine is to exercise with others. Workout partners can hold you accountable and provide the motivation you need to exercise when you're not feeling inspired. Working out with others makes the exercise experience more enjoyable and leads to an overall more active lifestyle.

Training for Elevation Gain

Many of the world's most epic hikes involve serious elevation gain. Elevation gain is also something you'll likely experience on hikes in your area. The gain may not be as drastic, but not being prepared can be uncomfortable and dangerous. Training for hiking at elevation means improving your cardiovascular ability and muscle strength. Improving cardiovascular ability means increasing the rate at which your blood is able to carry oxygen to your muscles. Walking or running up steep hills is one of the best ways to train for hiking at elevation, but you don't have to live near the mountains to begin training for elevation. Walking and eventually, running stairs can provide a similar effect. Expert hikers express the importance of checking in with yourself. You can not hike long distances using 100 percent of your energy the entire time. It's important to slow down or take a water or lunch break when you feel like you're maxing out. Training for elevation gain also means training for hikes at higher altitudes. The following are several tips to keep in mind when hiking at higher altitudes. 

  • Use high-intensity exercises to increase the rate at which your body can intake oxygen. Cardio fitness is essential. You should be able to hike all day at a fast pace in a low elevation before venturing up high. 
  • Get comfortable by hiking with a heavy pack at lower altitudes. 
  • Hike the stairs at a local football stadium or practice sprints on steep hills.
  • Don't skip the weights. Weight training helps build the muscles that will support your body and provide stability when the environment becomes harsh. 

Eating the Right Foods

Nutrition is an essential part of getting in shape, especially for a strenuous activity like hiking. Food fuels your exercise, and the right foods can improve performance. The experts at Harvard Medical School suggest starting each day with breakfast. Breakfast helps replenish blood sugar lost throughout the nighttime fast, providing the glucose muscles need to perform optimally. Choosing the right fuel for breakfast and throughout the day can improve your performance and help you get in shape for hiking more quickly and effectively. 

Carbs Are Energy

The experts at Mayo Clinic suggest consuming 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories in carbohydrates, especially if you're exercising. Complex carbs in fruits, whole grains, beans, and many vegetables will fuel your body longer than simple carbs found in processed foods.  

Pack the Protein

Protein aids in the processes of building and repairing muscles and can improve the results you see from your training regimen. Harvard Medical School experts suggest adults consume .36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Your body may require even more protein if you're cross-training or hiking often. Discuss your training program and nutritional requirements with your doctor before making any drastic changes.

Consume Healthy Fats

Fat is a major fuel for aerobic exercise. Calories from healthy unsaturated fats can fuel long workouts, such as endurance hikes. Healthy fats are found in seeds, nuts, olive oil, avocados, and more.

Maintain a Balance

Every human body is different. You'll likely discover foods that fuel your workouts best, and others that make you feel sluggish or uncomfortable. Listen to your body and aim for a balance of complex carbs, healthy fats, and lean proteins. The right balance of nutrients can help you get in shape for hiking healthily and effectively. Consult your doctor or nutritionist to create a nutrition plan for your training and hiking lifestyle. 

Your First Hike

Your first hike should be a simple day trip. Embarking on an overnight backpacking trip will only result in extreme soreness and possible injury. The key to getting in shape for hiking is starting small and building your stamina from there. A good choice for your first-day hike is a beginner-level trail. State and national park websites rate trails based on difficulty. Beginner hikes are typically level or with a slight incline. They're usually less than three miles long. Research hikes in your area to find a beginner trail for your first hike. Numerous websites are available, in addition to state and national park websites, to help you locate hiking trails near you. Completing this first beginner hike will help you determine if you're ready to increase your training and advance to moderate or moderately strenuous hikes. 

Preparing for More Strenuous Hikes

Getting in shape for a thru-hike or backpacking trip is different from preparing for your first hike. Similar to preparing for a day hike, you'll want to create a training schedule with your doctor or a certified trainer. This schedule will be more strenuous than a schedule to simply get you in shape for your first hike. Begin training for a moderately strenuous, strenuous, or very strenuous hike at least eight weeks before your big adventure. Vary your workouts each session to achieve the full-body strength needed for long-distance hiking with weight on your back. Incorporate longer day or trail running hikes into your training schedule roughly a few weeks before your strenuous hike. These hikes should be at least 60 minutes in length and can take the place of your cardio workout days. Carry the same pack you plan to carry on your trip while performing these training hikes. It is never safe to jump directly into a strenuous hike. Build your hiking skills from beginner hikes to moderate intensity hikes and advance to higher intensity adventures from there. 

Monitoring Your Fitness Progress

Creating the physical stamina needed for a thru-hike or other strenuous trail hike is a process that will require hard work and dedication. Monitoring your fitness progress every couple of weeks will show improvements and help keep you motivated. It will also show you when it's time to increase the intensity of your workouts to reach your hiking goals. Working with a certified fitness professional can be beneficial, as a trainer can help you monitor your progress and alert you when it's time to intensify your training. 

It's Time for the Trails

Getting in shape for hiking means staying in shape for hiking. Even the most avid hikers can benefit from regular cardio and strength training to maintain the fitness level needed to accomplish hiking goals. One of the most tried-and-true ways to stay in shape for hiking is to get out on the trails and hike as often as possible. Daily hikes can provide your body with the muscle memory needed to tackle difficult terrain, long distances, and even a multi-day hike once you're ready. The key is to create a training plan that incorporates hiking, strength training, and cardiovascular exercises. Staying consistent with this training plan will help you get in shape and keep you in shape for future adventures. Always speak with your doctor before beginning any type of strenuous workout plan. Heading onto the trails and exercising amongst untouched natural beauty is undoubtedly worth the effort you'll put in to get in shape.

Courtney McCaffrey is an outdoor writer with over 10 years of experience creating content about her various adventures around the world. Courtney is also an experienced snowboarder and surfing instructor. She has extensive travel experience in countries such as Mexico, Central America, Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, and beyond.
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