Staying in Thru-Hiking Shape during the Winter

Winter can pose a challenge to those trying to train for a thru-hike next summer. Nose biting cold, closed trailheads, and short days can be obstacles to taking a pack outdoors. Yet, in the nine thru-hikes I’ve done, the trails I’ve enjoyed the most are the ones where I start the trail in shape—which means training in the winter. The best parts of a thru-hike are enjoying the views without distraction from muscle pain or the burden of a pack, all made possible by winter workouts. The following are a few tips for fun and indoors winter thru-hiking training:

Find an activity that works your feet and ankles: Although not a standard training for long distance cardio activity, I enjoy indoor rock climbing because it builds my footwork. Many hiking newbies have asked me “how do I know where to put my feet?” usually in reference to rocky or root-filled places like the Appalachian Trail. Climbing forces athletes to think about foot placement, in addition to building core and upper body strength and balance—all which help with carrying a pack.  Rock climbing also prepares me for mental challenges on a hike such as dealing with exposure and heights.


Build the core: Backpacking for months on end isn’t just about strengthening leg muscles. Having a strong core is essential to keeping balance and holding a heavy pack. I enjoy practicing yoga, which aids in upper body strength and overall balance. I started yoga after my thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail to repair and restore parts of my body that got injured during the thru-hiking season. In addition, yoga taught me patience and tricks like meditation and breathing which can help through some of the mentally challenging parts of a thru-hike.

Practice with a pack: Before I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, I lived in a cold place and was busy with school, but found that I could double-up training time with commute time by weighting down my pack when I walked to class. Now, I run errands with a pack filled with a few water bottles or a dumbbell.  Just feeling the weighted pack for a few minutes on a walk can mentally and physically prepare the body for the sensation of a long hike.


Hit the treadmill, elliptical, stationary bike, and stairs: The secret bullet to training for a thru-hike is no secret. Activities like running, cycling, and stair stepping all help strengthen the most important muscles for thru-hiking. One easy method to work this into your daily schedule is by biking to work or errands. When it’s too cold outside, I like setting the treadmill to a 10% grade and sustaining a 3.5-4 mph pace. It’s not quite running, but is good practice for what I’ll be expected to do on the trail in a few months. The elliptical and stationary bike are easy on the knees, which will need to be in tip top shape for a season of thru-hiking. Reps on the stairs are useful to train for steep hikes like the Appalachian Trail.

Stay active with something you enjoy: Badminton might not be the standard advised training for a thru-hike, but any activity that keeps you on your feet can be a great way to break into thru-hiking. The same can apply for all sorts of non-endurance activities like ballroom dancing or even ping pong. If you enjoy an activity, you are most likely to stay with it and reap the physical benefits over many months. This can translate to being in better shape when hiking season comes.

-Liz Thomas
Twitter: @eathomas

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