Goal Hiking Training Tips

hiker with poles in the Swiss Alps
The author in the Swiss Alps. Photo © Melissa Ozbek.

Goal hiking can be the most rewarding adventure of your life: a little bit scary, extremely exciting, and something you can feel inordinately proud of having accomplished. Maybe your goal is to hike once a week for a year, or take on a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail. For me, it’s high up in the mountains—places like Mount St. Helens and Camp Muir in Washington State, and Half Dome and Mount Whitney in California. Whatever your goal, hiking training is essential.

Why pursue goal hiking? I personally love getting fit, pushing through my boundaries, and reaching new, exciting places. I also love the adventure, the scrappiness of pursuing it outdoors, and the peanut butter cup blizzard I treat myself to at the end. Most of all, I love feeling like I’ve conquered something—not the mountain, but the real struggle to reach an ambitious goal. I come back again and again for that rush of adrenaline and that badass feeling of accomplishment. I think you might, too.

Here are some tips for training and completing a goal hike.

1. Hail a hiking buddy.

There are lots of benefits to recruiting a friend, partner, or family member: Safety, sharing the ups and downs of the adventure together, helping motivate each other, brainstorming which routes to take, what time of year to do the hike, and what to bring, as well as dividing logistics between yourselves.

2. Train consistently.

Look at the distance and elevation gain of your goal hike and work backwards. I generally take 3-4 months to gradually build up to the distance and elevation gain, supplementing it with physical activities to increase my fitness. I time it so that two weeks before my goal hike, I’ve completed its equivalent, or thereabouts (I don’t sweat it if it’s close). For me, consistent training builds a mental framework of confidence so that when I’m out there on my goal hike, I feel strong and ready knowing that I’ve put in the hard work.

3. Stretch it out.

A 5-minute daily stretching routine can help prevent injuries, increase flexibility, alleviate soreness, and just help you feel like you’ve greased the machine. For me, it truly does make a difference in how light, flexible, and ready I feel for the next day’s workout.

4. Focus on finishing.

If this is your first big hike, your goal is to safely finish. That’s it! You’re testing your limits and working towards something that is special to you. Let your purpose and excitement guide you, not speed. Anyone can train for a goal hike: You don’t have to be a seasoned hiker, or expert outdoorsperson. Take your time, and take it step-by-step.

5. Treat mental prep with equal importance as physical prep.

Invest in a quality topo map and study your route. Read up on other people’s experiences on blogs and forums. Check the weather, sunrise, and sunset. Carefully evaluate your 10 essentials. Call up the nearest ranger station and ask questions. Check parking passes and permits twice. Leave a trip itinerary with family or a friend. Why all the fuss? When you put in the mental work as well as the physical, you’re increasing the probability of a safe and successful hike.

6. Practice self-compassion.

You may have a bad hiking day, feel tired, or at some point ask yourself if it’s worth it. Remember that one or two bad days isn’t the measure of all your training—it’s just a bad day. Give yourself time and try again. Step back on your training, or talk it through with your hiking buddy. As my friend Grace says, “Be your own best friend.”

So how you do get started goal hiking? Ask around to your friends, family, and trusted groups you belong to. You never know—maybe someone you know has always wanted to try a certain hike, or is at least willing to be your partner in crime.

Think about what excites you—is it the mountains? An alpine lake? From there, consider the seasonality of your goal hike—chances are there’s a good annual window to do it. Whatever your goal, remember that it’s a privilege and a joy to explore the wilderness. Focus on your training and preparation, and breathe in the beauty as you go. Happy hiking!

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