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Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb

Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb

By Michael Lanza

When three friends and I decided to attempt to thru-hike the John Muir Trail—221 miles through California’s High Sierra, with numerous mountain passes ranging from 11,000 to over 13,000 feet in elevation—in just one week (backpackers traditionally take three weeks)—the plan seemed like a wild dream. Hike 31 miles a day for seven straight days through some of the biggest mountains in the Lower 48? It was an agenda for lunatics. So we started training. Seriously training.

Although it would prove to be one of the physically hardest things any of us had ever done—and one of the most rewarding—three of us made it, and the fourth member of our team was fit enough to finish, but had to bail out because of severe blisters. (Read my story about that crazy adventure.)

Since then, with a small group of very fit and experienced friends, I’ve hiked very long days from the Grand Canyon (including a one-day, 44-mile and 22,000-foot, rim-to-rim-to-rim hike) to the White Mountains, the Tetons and Wind River Range, and a 50-mile dayhike across Zion National Park. And I’ve climbed numerous peaks via technical and non-technical routes, including the Mountaineers Route on 14,505-foot Mount Whitney in California’s Sequoia National Park with my 15-year-old son, who was also motivated to train hard for that.

If you’re planning to climb a big mountain or take a challenging backpacking trip or long dayhike, you may be wondering how to train properly for it—especially if, like many people, you don’t live in a place with easy access to the mountains and don’t have the freedom to spend endless hours training on trails.

So for regular people with normal lives who aspire to occasionally elevate life, here’s an everyman’s (and woman’s) guide to getting yourself physically ready for the mountains of your dreams.

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About The Author

Michael Lanza

A former field editor and primary gear reviewer for Backpacker Magazine, Michael Lanza created The Big Outside to share stories and images from his many backpacking, hiking, and other outdoor adventures, as well as expert tips and gear reviews to help readers plan and pull off their own great adventures.


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  1. Avatar

    Thank you so much for this! This will be very helpful as I am planning my first mountain hike- Pico Mountain in the Azores Islands. Certainly not a big mountain by some standards but I’ve never done anything like this.

    • Avatar

      Hi Casey, thanks for the comment. I’ve never been to the Azores. Please recommend some hikes there. Good luck, too.

  2. Avatar

    What an amazing article. Unfortunately we do not have enough snow in Australia to practice some of these hikes. The scenery at Lizard Head Peak looks incredible.

    • MichaelALanza

      Thanks, Richard. You will have to go to New Zealand or come to the U.S. to find some snow!

  3. Avatar

    I’m hiking Grand Canyon, south rim to north rim, about 21 miles in 1 day. Do you recommend a 3 week taper prior to the hike that matches what the Marathon runners do for their tapering? For example, I would hike 80% of my peak weekly miles 3 weeks out, 60% of peak weekly miles 2 weeks out, and essentially nothing but resting/stretching/eating right, the last week?

    • Michael Lanza

      Hi James, really good question. You may be thinking this out even more than I do, but in general, I train on a four-week schedule, with week 1 being the easiest, building up to an exhausting week 4. And if I’m planning a big hike or climb, I schedule a taper week, or week 1, during the week prior to my hike or climb. In short, I taper for a week, but I’m training hard up until a week before the hike.

      That said, I’m also careful to avoid over-training. If I find that I’m not recovering from a workout within a day or two, and that I’m tired exercising even after a rest day, I dial back the workouts for maybe a week.

      Good luck with your rim to rim. Great hike. I hope you’ve seen my story about it:

  4. Avatar

    Good tips. I will have to work some of these exercises into my morning routine.

    I would add that it helps to block some time first thing every morning to work on yourself. It can be hard the first couple of weeks, but once it becomes a routine, it is much easier to make sure the stretching and light exercise are done daily. A little morning mindfulness will also helps with getting better sleep and rest, as I try to wrap up work and life for those epic adventure holidays.


    • MichaelALanza

      Good tip, JZ, I have a regular morning routine myself.

  5. Avatar

    Great, great article…..will need to bookmark this link! I live in sunny, FLAT Florida and don’t have even hills at my doorstep. These simple exercises will work great for me, even as a basis to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Thank you again!!

    • michaellanza

      Thanks, Carl. You can train for the mountains anywhere.


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photo of Michael Lanza

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside and former Northwest Editor at Backpacker magazine. Click my photo to learn more about me and my blog. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside now to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. And click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

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