Hiking Basics for Beginners – Getting Started

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Do you want an activity that you can enjoy your entire life?  Hiking will keep you mentally and physically healthy; and if done on a  regular basis could literally be life changing!

Hikes can range from an Urban Hike (walk around your neighborhood or City) to what is known as thru hiking (several months at a time).   Hiking can be intense on the mind and body and it is very important for both to be in prime condition before going.

This is information you can use to start on your journey to a lifetime of fitness and enjoyment.  Hiking is low impact and can be done at your own pace.   Hiking longer distances requires a mental and physical readiness that requires specific training so you do not get injured.    Following these steps in this guide should give you a great head start.

In this Beginners Guide to Hiking, you will learn  what you should do before you begin, exercises to get you into shape,  step by step hiking plans, basic gear to get you started and overall best practices to maintain  hiking for your entire life!

Before You Begin

 Visit Your Doctor

Before you begin any type of training, you should make sure that your body is healthy enough to hike. Taking your body beyond its limits can even put you at greater risk. First, tell your doctor when you plan to start hiking; he or she can encourage you and give you advice. If you’re over 40 and have a history of heart or health problems you should also ask your doctor for a physical exam.

Your doctor will be able to do a stress test to discover any heart conditions or abnormalities that you may have. Also, you should identify and solve other problems like flat feet, allergies or vertigo before you begin exercise or hike.

If you’ve been suffering from the blues, depression, etc. hiking is a way to naturally combat vs. taking pills.  If you would like to know more, please read my article on the 15 Mental and Physical Benefits from being Outdoors. 

Evaluate Current Hiking Abilities

Starting with a realistic evaluation of your hiking abilities will provide you with the information you need to target the training for your hikes.  People get hurt when they overestimate their abilities and then hike without a proper plan.  If you are new to hiking, then you definitely have a lot more to learn than someone who has hiked for 5 years.

What is your technical hiking knowledge?  You should not plan a hike that requires you to dredge across rivers, climb rocks, or climb steep elevations.  You can always read books or take classes to learn these skills.  REI has a Family Adventure Program which provides many different types of outdoor classes.

You also need to consider how you would deal with unforeseen situations such as getting lost or twisting an ankle.   I know of a lady who broke her femur on a hike in the Grand Canyon.  She had to be carried to a higher place in the canyon, before she could even be life flighted out.  My friend actually witnessed this, and told me that now she always hikes with pain killers in her pack.  I could not imagine the agony this woman suffered while she was waiting for help to arrive.

Lastly, enter into this training with a positive state of mind and have fun!  Don’t beat yourself up and tell yourself how fat and lazy you are for never doing this before.  Give yourself kudos for even reading this post!  If you are in a negative state, then training for the hike will not be as much fun.  Hiking should reduce stress, and improve your overall health and well-being.  There are Saturday mornings where I want to sleep in, but I opt to go hiking instead.  Once I get out there I am so happy that I did.

Additional questions you should ask:

1.What are your current physical abilities?  Is your body ready to start hiking? Can you complete the hike you are planning now?  Would you be able to hike through the worst weather that might come along?

2.Do you have the right outdoor skills?  If you were to get stranded, do you know enough to stay alive?  Knowing how to build a fire, use a compass, filter water, stay dry, and perform first aid are all skills you should have before going on any major day long hike.

3.Are you mentally prepared to challenge yourself?  How would you handle getting lost, a swarm of insects, a rattlesnake on the trail, or other unexpected events?

These questions might seem like common sense, but there are hikers in the news all the time that get stranded due to lack of preparation or stamina.

Having the stated skills above will give you more confidence and keep you in a calm state of mind if/when an emergency should arise.

Get Into Hiking Shape

Now we get into the fun part of the training!  These exercises are geared towards hiking and will get you into tip top shape no time.  To make progress faster, you will need to build up your physical abilities.  If you are a beginning hiker, it is possible to prepare your body by starting out slowly.  Keep in mind that success in one sport does not necessarily equate to success in hiking due to the different muscles used.  You might be a great swimmer and have a lot of endurance, but this may not mean that you will be able to sustain hiking in the same manner.

I’ve included exercises that emphasize both leg and core strength. Some of them can be done at the gym and others at home without the need of equipment.

 

Strength Training

If you are able to, incorporating a focused strength training program will give you excellent results. The right exercises will help you become stronger, faster and steadier on the trail. Many strength training exercises do not even need to involve dumbbells or other weights- just the force of gravity against your own bodyweight.

If you’ve never been hiking before or you are training for a long strenuous hiking trip you should start at least 4 to 6 weeks before hitting the trail. This will give your body time to adjust to the new strain on your muscles and bones and also to see some of the benefits.

Fit woman with weights

Sets & Reps for Your Arms

Having weak shoulders can lead to upper back pain, as well as shoulder and neck injuries.  Plus, you need upper body strength to use trekking poles, which can take a whopping 25 percent of the load off your knees.

Start with light weights and increase the load as you gain strength, skill and confidence. Exercises  can be described in terms of sets and repetitions. A set is a series of lifts followed by a short rest and repetition is also called a rep -it’s a single lift from start to finish. A person doing a series of curls with a dumbbell might do four sets each with eight repetitions for a total of 32 reps.

One exercise to try is the angled, standing arm curl.  This will Isolate your biceps and forearm flexor muscles for even development across your arm.  This will prevent tendonitis from repetitive use of trekking poles.

Reps 10 (each side) Sets 3 Rest 30 seconds

 

How often? It is important to rest in between your strength training sessions. Taking one day off in between the workouts gives your muscles a chance to repair and regrow themselves. Many people who go to the gym will establish a workout routine that follows Monday, Wednesday, and Friday or a Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday schedule. Which ever schedule you choose just be sure to add a rest day in between your workouts.

Work on Your Lower Body

The major muscles in your legs are your hamstrings, quadriceps and glutes and are often  the limiting factor in how many miles you can hike. It is difficult to hike when your legs turn to Jell-O or start to cramp up on you. Having stronger legs will help you tackle elevation gains,  a heavy backpack or long mileage days.

These exercises are also excellent for training for those ups and downs on a trail when it goes from flat to sloped. When you’re going up and down on uneven trails, it places more stress on your muscles and joints especially your knees. The steps and switch backs which are put in by trail builders to lessen elevation gains can cause hikers knees to rebel.  You need a combination of high-impact leg exercises with pulse racing endurance workouts to replicate the training you’re going to encounter on the trail.

If you prefer the gym, try these three lower body exercises to increase the muscles on your legs:

Stair Climber. Choose a program on the computer that mimics the up-and-downs that you would go on on an actual trail. Place both feet in the stirrups and then stand tall with your hands resting lightly on the handrails. Start with 15 minute sessions and add more time and then increase resistance as you progress. For an advanced workouts, wear a backpack and start with a 10 pound load.

Walking lunges. Start with your feet together and then hold a 5 to 10 pound dumbbell in each hand with your hands down at your side. You’re going to step forward with your right leg landing on the ground first. Lower your body by flexing the knee and hip of the extended right leg until the knee of your last leg is right above the floor. Then, push up with your front leg to bring both your feet together and stand upright. Now lunge forward with the opposite leg. Do 10 lunges and then alternate between your opposite legs. For a more advanced work out you could increase the weight of the dumbbells.

Box jumps. Start by facing a 12 to 16 inch tall exercise step or a box- one that you can jump on. Keep your face forward with your torso upright and place your feet shoulder width apart. Dip your knees and upper body and then drive upward with your arms and jump with both legs at the same time. The goal is to land on the box with both feet. After landing extend your body operates a full height and don’t crouch. Jump down from the box and then repeat this process; to begin, do three sets of 6 to 10 reps resting one minute between each set.

Work on Your Back

It is very important that your back is in good condition as well; if you’ve ever pulled it then you know how bad it can hurt. The muscles in your torso in the front and in the back of  your body is your central pivot for walking, lifting, and jumping in almost every kind of motion. For hikers, these muscles keep a backpack tight to your body and will also help you stay balanced on those trails. Practicing these exercises gives your body a strong foundation for your movements on the trail.

Shoulder shrugs. Start by holding 5 to 10 pound dumbbells at your side and stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Lift your shoulders up towards your ears without moving your arms. Then, slowly lower them. Be sure to keep your arms straight and lift only from your shoulders. Start initially with three sets of 10 reps.

Rowing machine. Start by leaning forward with your arm straight and your shins vertical. Slowly lean back first pushing with your legs and then by pulling with your arms. Keep your elbows close to your body and then move from your hips. You should finish with your legs straight and your arms bent upward and the rowing handle at your stomach. Begin with five minutes and then add more as you get stronger.

Back extensions. Begin by lying facedown on a mat with your arms folded in your hands underneath your chin. Keep your feet and hips on the floor and then lift your chin and chest about 3 to 5 inches off the ground. Hold the pose for about 10 seconds and then slowly lower your arms back to the mat. Do five sets of 6 to 8 lifts.

 

No Gym, No Problem- Exercises at Home

 

Wall sit: This exercise is great for increasing quadricep strength which comes in handy during those steep descents. This one is especially beneficial for those with knee problems.

Squats: This exercise is great for all around leg strength and is one of the best leg exercises you can do. If you do have a history of knee problems, start with the wall sit and/or modified versions of the squat until your leg strength improves.

Crunches: Lower abdominals/core strength.

Calf raises: Will increase ankle and calf strength. The stronger your ankles, the less likely you are to turn or twist them when walking over uneven terrain. Also, stretch your calves after finishing the exercise

Leg raises: These are good for upper abdominals/core strength.  To give your lower back support, place your hands underneath your buttocks, palms facing down.

Pushups/ Chin Ups: all excellent in rounding out your overall pre-hike strength program.

 

Stretching & Aerobic

Stretching your muscles during or after workouts increases flexibility, improves your circulation, and relieves stress.  Stretching your legs and back after a long day of hiking can drastically reduce aches and pains you might feel the next morning. Great stretches to include are the  quadriceps, calf, hamstring, groin, pelvic and back.  Hold these stretches for a count of 10 to 15 seconds and then repeat three times before switching to a different stretch. You should always keep the movement smooth and under control and should not bounce because this could cause pain and injuries.

You can also incorporate yoga into your hikes. Read this article for more in-depth information on incorporating this great fitness routine.

Aerobic

Your pulse is the RPM gauge for your cardiovascular system. The faster your heart beats the harder it’s working and the more health benefits you will have. The fitness level will really kick in when your heart rate reaches a level known as the intensive training zone. If you’re able to keep your heart rate in this zone between 20 to 30 minutes at least three times a week your cardiovascular fitness will sore. Here’s how to find your training zone:

  1. Subtract your age from 220. The result is your maximum heart rate or MHR.
  2. Now multiply your MHR by 70%- this is the floor of your intensive training zone
  3. Multiply your MHR by 85% -this is the ceiling of your intensive training zone
  4. If you want to go to slower pace multiply MHR by 50% and 70% to calculate the floor and the ceiling of your moderate training zone.

Here’s an example using this formula with a 45-year-old man. With a maximum heart rate of 175 bpm his intensive training zone will range between 122.5 and 149 bpm.

To find your pulse place two fingers on the palm side of your wrist below the base of the thumb. Count the beats for 10 seconds and then multiply by six to get your heart rate per minute.  A fit bit can be a very helpful device to keep track of time spent exercising, heart rate, and overall fitness.

 

On The Trail Training

 

I discussed in-depth training that you do off the trail because often times it can be difficult to actually go hiking away from the city 3-4 times a week. When you can actually train on a trail for those larger hikes this is ideal. So in addition to your gym workouts and your weekend runs, you do need to put some miles in on a real trail using your actual gear.

These sessions are called shakedowns in the hiking world. It’s a bad idea if on the first day of a long epic hike is the first time you’ve worn your equipment on the actual trail. I know of someone who did this on an eight day backpacking trip. On the first day at the end of 14 miles she was exhausted and her feet had blisters. For those longer hikes, you must take your training on the dirt trail itself.

The pedals on the stair climber at the gym are not the same as the rough and rocky terrain that you get on a trail. Shakedowns will help you identify any possible problems that you may have with your body and your equipment. You should plan your shake down at least a week before your actual trip so you can fix any problems that may develop. Here are some ways that you can add some realistic hiking situations to your training routine:

  • Run on the trail instead of a road
  • Hike if you can during the same temperature
  • Wear hiking boots and socks during your work outs/walks
  • Add weight to your backpack using heavy books or canned food
  • Use the shakedown to test alternative care set ups such as different socks or bug repellent’s

 

Hiking Training Plans-Step by Step

If you are just starting out with your hiking journey then the best approach initially is to increase the number of miles you walk each day and to build your endurance slowly.  There are 3 plans below- the first is geared towards first 12 days of walking and the other two are for helping you plan your actual hike.

This first chart is a sample plan to get you started since it is a nice gradual increase of mileage.   You should start by walking as close to this plan as possible, but if you can’t do not get discouraged.  Just pick up where you left off.

 

Day Miles Minutes
1 ½ 15
2 ¾ 20
3 1 25
4 0 Rest
5 2 45
6 2 40
7 0 Rest
8 2 40
9 3 60
10 0 Rest
11 3 60
12 3 60

 

 

Use the 10% Rule

You can use the 10 percent rule as a guideline to help you plan a series of hikes that will prepare you for your goal. Start with the goal distance and elevation gain on week 10, the week of the actual goal hike, and work backward, subtracting roughly 10 percent each week for 10 weeks. As you train, try to hike with the pack weight you plan on hiking with on your goal hike.

For example, let’s say you’re interested in hiking to Paradise Park from Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood. This hike climbs 2,300 feet of elevation over 11 miles. If you give yourself 10 weeks to train for this goal, your training plan would look something like this:

Week Miles Elevation
1 4.2 800 ft
2 4.7 900 ft
3 5.2 1,000 ft
4 5.8 1,250 ft
5 6.5 1,375 ft
6 7.3 1,525 ft
7 8.1 1,700 ft
8 9 1,850 ft
9 10 2,000 ft
10 11 2,300 ft

 

This next example is one that I am actually going to follow.  I am planning a Grand Canyon hike in July.  This is a 10.2 mile hike down and back up with an elevation change of 3,840 ft.   I hike on a regular basis; and is way more strenuous than my regular hikes so I will need to train.

 

Week Miles Elevation
1 4 1,000 ft
2 4.2 1,300 ft
3 4.7 1,500 ft
4 5.2 1,800 ft
5 5.8 2,100 ft
6 6.5 2,500 ft
7 7.1 2,800 ft
8 8 3,200 ft
9 9 3,500 ft
10 10.2 3,840 ft

 

Having a type of plan like this in place will keep you on track (no pun intended).  Without following some type of guidelines, your throwing your hike to the wind and crossing your fingers that you’ll be able to make it.  The right mindset is that you KNOW for sure that you’ll be able to reach your goal.

Train on the Stairs- Last Resort

If you are not able to actually go hiking on a consistent basis, another option- although not ideal is to train on the stairs.  I knew of a lady who was preparing for a 50 mile hike on the Rae Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon National Park.  Aside from going  to the gym 3-4 x’s a week; she wears a 25 lb pack and walks up and down the stairs (4 flights) and then will walk once around the track.  She then returns to the stairs, goes up and down and then around the track. She repeats this for an hour and a half.  I know – this doesn’t sound like very much fun.  However, this type of a training is a must to prepare for those longer hikes.

 

Best Practices to Hike For Life

Hike in Beautiful Locations – You should take your walks/hikes where you enjoy them.  If you do go on a hike, and then don’t enjoy it,  ask yourself why?  Could it be the location?  Did you go too far so you were very tired by the time you got back?  If you have done this and quit as a result, I encourage you to get back into it.

I live in the desert, so if I want to only drive 30 minutes to go hiking I’m going to be among the cacti.  I know some hikers that do not enjoy this scenery at all, but I think it’s beautiful.  I took this image below of my friends on a hike in Sedona. Sedona is a hikers heaven, but I don’t always have time to travel there just to go hiking.

 

Two hikers climbing Bear Mountain

 

Join a meet up-  If you don’t have friends that like to hike, then you can join a meet up.  Meetup.com is a place where you can connect with others that like to do the same things as you.  Activities include dancing, tennis, and off roading to name a few.  More specifically, Meet up has  numerous hiking groups to choose from.    If you live in the Phoenix area and would like some new friends to hike with, check out my Hiking, Biking, and Socials MeetUp.

 

Hike Light at First-  For these shorter hikes you can begin with just carrying water and first aid kit.  No need to weight yourself down when starting out in highly populated areas.  Of course as you start to get stronger and go on longer hikes, you will be carrying a pack and include more items in it.

Stay Committed –  If you really want to get started in hiking and get in shape for it, you need to stay committed to the times you set aside.  These are the big rocks in your life (Exercise in general should always be one) and don’t let anything else get in the way of them.  No excuses!

How to Fit Training into a Busy Schedule

Getting fit at work

We spend so much time on the job that we have to  squeeze  our exercise into the early morning or late evening -times when we would rather be sleeping.

If you work at a desk then you are at risk for being sleepy and lazy during the day. Fortunately getting fit on the job is not as hard as you think. Here are some ways that you can get some exercise into your daily routine while you are at work:

  • Take a walk during lunch
  • Visit the gym during your lunch break
  • Set an alarm on your computer to remind you to stand up and walk around
  • Schedule standing or walking meetings instead of sit down conferences
  • Take the stairs rather than the elevator
  • Use a standing/sitting desk
Walk whenever you Can

You don’t have to get ready for a marathon to get in shape for day hiking or backpacking, but you definitely will need to spend more time on your feet. Driving is so common nowadays that walking more than 100 yards at a time can be rare. To increase your daily walking start by incorporating some following activities in your schedule for 20 to 30 minutes a day at least three times a week:

  • Take your dog for a walk
  • Run errands on foot instead of driving
  • Take a walk during your lunch break or even after dinner
  • Opting for stairs instead of an escalator or elevator
  • Turn the lawnmower self propeller off when you cut the lawn
  • Get off the subway or bus one stop early and walk the rest of the way to your destination
  • Deliberately park far away from the grocery store

To keep your feet blister free you can even wear the trail shoes or hiking boots you plan to wear during your hike to help break them in. I did this for with some new hiking boots I bought to hike the Grand Canyon and it helped tremendously. For a 15 mile hike I did not get one hotspot.

 

Conclusion

Hiking can be a lifelong activity, keep you in super shape mentally and physically, and can be a great way to spend time with friends. Here are the main ideas to remember:

  • Before you begin any training see your primary care physician make sure your body is healthy enough to hike.
  • To improve your overall hiking fitness strengthen the muscles in your legs and back and work on your cardio.
  • Make sure you know what to do in case of emergencies, be prepared and have the essentials with you.
  • Follow a specific plan to help you reach your goal.
  • Have fun and hike with friends!

I would love to hear about your hiking experiences; please leave a comment below.  Happy Hiking!

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