How I’m Training for My AT Thru Hike

First, Some Advice I’ll Be Ignoring

Advice about training for a thru-hike seems to go to two extremes. At one end of the spectrum is the “No Training = No Problem” approach that often sounds like this:

There’s no way to train for a thru-hike – just hit the trail and you’ll get your trail legs in a few weeks.

The other extreme is the “Drill Sergeant/Who Said This Was Supposed to Be Fun?” approach:

You’ll never make it to Katahdin if you’re not hiking 20 miles six days a week with a full backpack at least a month before you get to Springer.

In between the extremes, there’s the soft middle:

Just train as much as you feel comfortable doing. No one knows you as well as you. Don’t push yourself, you might get injured.

In fact, any of these three training approaches might work. If you have the time and discipline to log daily 20-milers months before you start your thru hike, that’s fantastic. You’ll be doing hero miles in Georgia and you’ll be at Katahdin in no time. Or not at all.

And if you want to wait to the Springer Approach Trail to start getting into shape, that’s been done before too. You’ll get to Katahdin eventually. Or not at all.

But for most of us, we land somewhere in the middle. Or at least I do.  Just not the soft middle. If I’m not challenging myself, I’m not training.

Some Lessons Learned While Training for My Past Long Hikes

I’m no triple crowner, but I’ve learned a few things from past longer-than-a-month treks that I’ve been leaning into as I train for my April 2023 thru hike:

  • Start early. The sooner you start working out, the easier the first few weeks on the trail will be. Starting early not only gets you into shape, it helps you figure out what gear works best for you while there’s still time to try out alternatives.
  • Start now. When’s the best time to plant a tree? 20 years ago. When’s the second-best time? Today.  The same principle applies to training.  Even if starting two months ago would have been better, starting today is better than not starting at all.
  • Ease into your training. Start with distances and loads that challenge you a little and build from there. Your specific starting distances and pace will depend on what shape you’re already in. To avoid injuries and burnout, don’t push yourself too hard too soon.
  • Be consistent. Logging some miles every day is better for you than just logging huge miles once per week.
  • Train for endurance. Endurance training for a long hike is different than endurance training for a marathon. Yes, you want to be able to do long distances (eventually), but a thru hike is not a race (for most of us). Unlike running your local Rock-n-Roll marathon once a year with a week to recover enough to walk downstairs without pain, a thru hike requires that you get up and do it again the next morning. And every day after that for five or six months. That’s why consistently training every day is so important.
  • Include some long hikes. Long hikes are important too, because you’ll learn a lot about your body and your gear, especially your shoes and pack. Some setups feel fine at mile four but become unbearable after mile 10.  You don’t want to be in northern Georgia’s backwoods and 150 miles from the nearest REI when you realize your gear isn’t working for you.
  • Bring your backpack. Maybe not at first, or every day, but within a week or two start walking with your pack, gradually increasing the load each week. Climbing is tougher with a loaded pack, and the extra effort not only microwaves your training, it helps you work through some of your bring/don’t bring gear decisions. You also might learn some lessons about the best way to load your pack. Or, just possibly, that your one-pound UL pack is really, really uncomfortable.
  • Train in bad weather. It’s easy to talk yourself into skipping a workout because it’s cold, rainy, snowy, dark, hot, windy, etc. Nasty weather is an excellent opportunity to try out your foul weather gear, as well as to learn important things about your resilience. Or so I hear. I live in Arizona – we don’t have bad weather until May when it hits 140F. In the shade. Which is one reason I plan to be in the mountains of Virginia by then.
  • Plan for a few hiccups. Life happens. You will miss a training workout or two. Or a week of them. When it happens, don’t quit. Just get back on the horse and start anew.

But the biggest lesson I learned training for my previous long walks is …

Training Miles Suck

Compared to thru-hike miles, that is. I don’t care how cool your favorite training loop is (mine’s fantastic!), it cannot compare to the thrill of waking up along the trail, setting out and seeing things you’ve never seen before, and finally chipping away at a bucket-list adventure you’ve been dreaming about for two decades.

I’ve never had motivation problems on my long hikes, even months into them.  Every morning I’d roll out of the sack ready to walk and excited “to see what I see.” But I can’t say the same when I’m lacing up my shoes to hike the essentially the same training loop I’ve done nearly every day for the last three months. Yeah, yeah, I need to enjoy the journey and keep my eye on the goal, and all that…but there’s nothing like the real thing, baby.  In the meantime, I’ll keeping plugging away, and embrace the suck.

My 2023 AT Thru Hike Training Regimen

My training regimen has evolved over the past eighteen months and probably will continue to change in the remaining two, but I started out with three basic elements:

  1. Weight loss
  2. Mental preparation
  3. Physical training

Weight Loss. The COVID-19 pandemic was not kind to my waistline or cholesterol levels. So, in September 2021, I changed my diet. Since then, I’ve dropped about 40 pounds which is, not coincidentally, more than the weight of my loaded backpack. I’ve still got some flab left I hope the trail will take care of, but can already feel the difference in my knees, back, and uphill stamina. I’ve got no regrets about this part of my training, and I’d much rather shave another 10 pounds from under my beltline than take half that amount out of my pack.

Mental Preparation. I’ve heard a lot of successful thru hikers say that staying on the trail is 90% mental and only 10% physical. True, but not being in decent physical shape could drive you mental. has lots of great information to help with mental preparation. Just pop “mental preparation” into their search bar for loads of fantastic advice. Or check out Zack Davis’ excellent book “Appalachian Trials.” I’d like to think all the books, vlogs, blogs, and maps I’ve digested over the past two decades has helped my get my head and expectations in the right space, but I suspect some things can only be really learned by doing. Until then, I’ve done what I can.

Physical Training. My thinking about getting into prime thru-hiking shape has evolved more than any other aspect of my preparation. When I started training in earnest last November, I had a pretty ambitious plan. First, I planned to keep working with my personal trainer three days a week, but we’d shift to mostly leg work to build strength around my knees and ankles and to improve my flexibility. That plan has worked well, other than the grim reality of every day in the gym being leg day. Ugh. I think I’ve done every variation of squats, lunges, and deadlifts known to humankind.

Next, I set up a hiking schedule, starting with 4-5 miles treks three to four times a week. My schedule called for gradually increasing the frequency and mileage until I was hiking 10-12 miles six days a week for at least a month before I left for Springer Mountain. My front door sits right down the street from Phoenix’s South Mountain Park, one of the largest city parks in America (~26 sq. miles). The park offers more than 100 miles of excellent saguaro-studded trails with numerous 1,000-foot climbs. I can walk out my front door and find dozens of scenic hikes ranging from 1-25 miles with steep 1,000-foot climbs and descents. One sweet little four-mile loop I especially like has 1,100 of elevation gain with a 3/4-mile 25% climb. This week, the poppies and brittlebush started to bloom along my favorite loop. It’s a perfect place to train.

A month after I started my training routine, my legs definitely felt stronger. I was climbing well, and I’d wake up without any serious soreness in my feet or legs. My knees, however, are pretty stiff when I climb out of bed, but improve after I walk around for a few minutes. Such are the indignities of age.

Even though my hiking plan started out great, it started sputtering after the first month. I stuck with it until I was doing my favorite four-mile loop three to four times a week, and logging 8-11 mile hikes two or three times a week on the other days. The problem wasn’t that my legs couldn’t keep up with the work. The trouble was the time commitment and my motivation because, you know, training miles suck.

I spent the next few weeks forcing myself to get out and hike, feeling guilty if I did less than my target distance. If life intervened and I missed a day or two, I’d feel even worse, like I had doomed my thru hike to failure. Then, a former thru-hiker messaged me with the “Drill Sergeant” approach he had relied on, assuring me that if I wasn’t logging daily 20s, I wouldn’t be adequately prepared. His advice messed with my head.

An Epiphany

Then one day, while catching my breath at the high point of my “inadequate” four-mile loop, I had an epiphany. If I got in good enough shape to be hiking daily 20-milers with a full backpack, I should be on the trail, not training for it. Also, my thru-hike plan doesn’t call for logging 20-mile any days until I reach Virginia. Even then, such long days will be the exception, not the rule. Finally, I remembered that I’d trained a lot less for any of my past long hikes with similar daily mileage and terrain, and those went great. If I went with the Drill Sergeant approach, I’d need to up the daily miles in my thru-hike itinerary, which would cut weeks off my adventure. I don’t want to cut weeks off my thru hike. The Drill Sergeant’s hike was not my hike, so I choose to respectfully decline his advice.

Since then, my training has taken a much happier trajectory. My goal still includes upping my daily mileage and doing longer hikes, but if on any given day I can’t free up the three to four hours it takes me to hike 10+ miles, I’ve committed to at least hiking my four-mile loop, even on the days I’m hitting the gym with my trainer. That gives me a something-is-better-than-nothing bonus, as well as building up my resilience and recovery for the routine of every-day hiking required for thru hiking.

I still plan to hike 8-12 miles six days a week in the final two weeks before I get to Springer. That mileage fits with the daily distances I’ve planned in Georgia and North Carolina, as well as my time constraints here at home. But now, I’m a little more relaxed about getting to that point. Because, after all …

This is Supposed to be Fun, Right?

That was the last part of my hilltop epiphany. Too often, I find myself getting sucked into debates about the “right” way to train, the “right” gear, the “right” way to hike. All that can turn training and preparation for my once-in-a-lifetime journey into unpleasant chores. So, whenever I feel myself getting sucked into the vortex of internet rancor, I try to remember to relax and enjoy the journey. My updated training regimen might turn out to be complete bollocks, but I’m confident it will all work out once I finally start chasing the white blazes.

See you on the trail.

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Comments 8

  • Jenny Reed : Feb 7th

    Great post and thoughts on training! Hike your Hike for sure! Hope you see you out there and wishing you a great thru!

    • Jon : Feb 9th

      Hi, Jenny! See you on the trail…

  • Steffen Wiehr : Feb 7th

    You are taking a ration approach, with lessons for us all!

    • Jon : Feb 9th

      Thanks for reading & commenting, Steffen!

  • Jeff Kasper : Feb 8th

    You’re absolutely right about the mental part. For me i don’t want to know how much my pack weighs. I just know i can carry it. I don’t want to be constantly thinking about that number.

    • Jon : Feb 9th

      Hi Jeff. I couldn’t agree more about not thinking all the time about the number. That one or all the others. Enjoy!

  • Kara Wise : Feb 9th

    I love your article!! Thanks for sharing your training with us. I’ve been in the gym a lot, but need to get more miles in with my pack on. It’s hard when the sun sets at 6 to get a good hike in!

    • Jon : Feb 11th

      Thanks for reading Kara! Best of luck with your training & see you on the trail.


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