The Long View of How to Train for a Thru-Hike

I was a big guy.  Although I had planned and dreamed of doing the Appalachian Trail, I spent that New Year’s night in the shadow of the Eastern Sierra in possibly the most unhealthy and least-AT-fit point of my life.  Which, ironically, is exactly when Janna and I decided we needed to make a plan to hike the AT.  That was the 2012/2013 blend.

The Point to Get Away From

As a teacher, my first three years were spent constantly stressed and watching my body break down by building weight up.  Long days followed shortened nights in an endless cycle.  I would teach all day, using up every minute of prep time planning or working one-on-one with students, and then return home late in the evenings.  A barely-masticated meal would be proceeded by hours of grading, planning, and evening classes attempting to earn my Master’s.  To compensate my fatigued and exhausted state of mind, I would plunge into meals rich in salts, fats, and sugars.  My hours of sleep averaged 3-4 hours a night.  Working out?  Hell no.  Didn’t happen.  My forays outside became truncated, often twisted up with my equal growing vitriol towards Arizona.  Its perceived lack of seasons, homogeny, and sprawling urban ethos left me feeling isolated from the wild.

My weight increased steadily and the feeling of being stuck in a cinderblock tope city tightened.  My negativity spiked and my self-confidence spiraled.  In an attempt to get out and away, Janna and I headed to Lone Pine, CA on the edge of the Eastern Sierra range.  I loved the place and its blatant feel of “winter.”  We explored Death Valley, Whitney Portal, and drove through the desert/mountain interface.  We talked a lot.  About life.  About our lives and the relation of how we were living compared to what we wanted.  The AT surfaced as goal once sought for and then quietly blanketed away.  We pulled it back up and planned.  What would it take to get ready for it?  Finances needed to be in order, Master’s degrees finished, more experience in the education world to be better teachers, etc.  And then…fitness and the mental fortitude to adventure for weeks and not weekends.

Setting the Goal of Doing the AT through Steps

I self-examined.  Damn.  I was nearly 100 pounds heavier than I had been in college.  The physical cost alone seemed to make the AT unfeasible.  We both felt that we wanted to conquer the AT as already fit, with a mental fortitude to push through challenges.  Plenty of AT-hikers successfully complete the path without serious or even any previous outdoor know-how and with a minimum of prep.  That was admirable to us and inspiring.  However, we wanted to go on the trail already pushing and not just learning to push.

We set out a series of yearly goals that we hoped would prepare us for the AT (and be a mutually sufficient place to pause our personal/professional lives).  The initial goal was four years, but a mountain biking accident set that back so that we arrived at five years out.  As teachers, we could use our summers to travel and explore the outdoors in a scaffolded process.  Our goals are outlined below.

  • Summer 2013 – Complete a week-long supported bike tour across Ohio (GOBA).  (This goal was reassigned to the following summer when a mountain bike accident forced me into months of recovery.)
  • Summer 2014 – Complete a week-long supported bike tour across Ohio (GOBA).
  • Summer 2015 – Do a self-supported cycling tour from Vancouver, Canada to the border of California/Mexico.  The initial plan was to do this in one summer.  However, we were struck by a car outside Lompoc, California (only 6 days from the end!).  We would finish the following summer.
  • Summer 2016 – Backpack the John Muir Trail.  Successfully done from a North-to-South sequence.  We also spent the first week of our summer before the JMT finishing our bike tour from Lompoc, CA to the Mexico border.
  • Summer 2017 – Thru-Hike Sobo the Appalachian Trail.  
South Mountain where I cut my teeth on getting fit.

South Mountain where I cut my teeth on getting fit.

Completing the Prep

It was one of the most difficult endeavors I’ve ever done – losing 100 pounds.  When I got back from that trip, I embraced road cycling, trail running, hiking, rock climbing, and other outdoor sports.  I changed my eating and owned my time in a more disciplined fashion.  I balked at the gym and made the outdoors my recreational area and workout zone.  I filled my diet with plants and changed my lifestyle.  I began a love affair with the Arizona wilderness that has blossomed into a full-fledge passion for the biodiversity, unique geography, and ecology of the Sonoran Desert and southwest.  My life changed as I inched ever closer to the AT.

As my fitness grew, my mental fortitude concurrently embraced the comforts and discomforts of the wild.  The tectonic shifts required in the 5 year plan for initial goals required daily incremental change.  The following training points helped me to lose weight, be in the wild, embrace discomfort, and become physically fit.

How to Train for the Long View

(or at least what worked for me)

1.  Be Outdoors

The first thing I did when I decided to lose weight and get fit for the AT was be outside.  I teach in south Phoenix near to South Mountain Park – one of the largest city parks in the nation.  I headed there EVERYDAY after school.  No exceptions.  A thru-adventure requires being outdoors so I got myself outside.

2.  Work Out No Matter the Temperature and Condition

No matter what, I always train outdoors.  Phoenix is fucking hot.  You can literally die in the summer from it.  And though beguiling, I’ve been in sub-freezing temperatures with snow on the mountains around the city in winter.  I train outside in every condition.

It may be 118 or 20 degrees, but I train outside in what the weather offers.  Rain, sleet, relentless Sun that scorches the skin.  I am out in it.   Darkness is something to be loved and adds a new element to the mix.  If you only prepare on the good days, you’ll never build the skills and knowledge that come from the bad.  Likewise, you’ll never get fit if you only workout when its pleasant.  On the trail or the road (if you cycle), you never have control over the weather and you will experience it all.

You’ll never know your body and its limits as intimately as you do as when you are challenged by the environment.  Never give yourself an excuse.  Those mind-pummeling days on the trail in the worst conditions will be more bearable when you can look back and recall being a badass in discomfort during your training.

To be clear, push yourself in unfavorable conditions, but don’t be reckless.  Know your body, its limits, and the dangers of the conditions.  Don’t go running in a lightning storm on an exposed peak just to have it serve as reference for later.  In the heat, bring water, salt, and know when to turn it around.

3.  Choose A Local Challenge – Set Your Mind to It and Relentlessly Attack It

Almost every day of the week, I either cycle up South Mountain or do some sort of trail run up/through it.  I chose it because it honestly made me feel badass, and perhaps more importantly, provided a rigorous physical endurance challenge.  It pushed me to be more fit and gain elevation.  It was the thing to conquer everyday after work.

The first time I rode a bike up South Mountain, I struggled to the top where my two friends sat waiting for 45 minutes.  I didn’t take 45 minutes to ride up.  Instead, they rode to the top and then waited 45 minutes.  That’s how much of a struggle it was to me.  Now, I can speed up it.

Not everyone has a mountain or canyon nearby.  That’s okay.  Find something local and accessible.  Even if it’s just raw distance.  Attack it.  Make it your task to conquer it consistently each week.  It’ll make you stronger and prepare you for some parts of the terrain you will face.

4.  Use Weekends and Vacations to Prepare

As teachers, we have breaks that Janna and I leveraged for training and adventure.  You may have more or less time.  Take whatever time you have and use it to your advantage.  Go camping, get away, or just work out.  If you are building up to a hike over time, set some individual outdoor goals over breaks that will help prepare you for your trek.

5.  Maximize Your Time

Be disciplined.  Everyone has many responsibilities, some more than others.  With whatever free time you have, take a moment to be in the outdoors.

6.  Explore Locally and Regionally

For me, exploration is part of the appeal of a thru-hike.  I enjoy heading off in a random direction down an unknown trail and seeing what I stumble upon.  Take time on weekends or time off to go someplace new.  The spontaneity of stumbling upon a creek in a canyon or an overlook from a peak helps you know what you have to look forward to.  Likewise, you may find that exploring finds you in areas common and lackluster.  Know that a thru-adventure may present the same.

7.  Don’t Look Down on Your Area – Use It to Your Advantage

You don’t have to live in a burgeoning outdoor mecca town to experience the outdoors.  Find the places people overlook in your area and seek them out.  I spent most of my life growing up in Ohio and when I head back there to visit family and friends, I pull up Google Maps and seek out green spaces.  The midwest is very developed, but there are a ton of state parks, city parks, and green spaces where you can explore.

Elevation gain is always something I have difficulty obtaining lots of in Ohio.  However, I am still able to find small hills.  Then, I attack them over and over.  I go in the mud, the rain, and the cold and will race up and down these mounds.  Local former farming fields that have been converted to city green space?  I run back and forth on mower-cut grass paths, making miles out of what would normally be a evening walk for most people.  Find beauty in the world around you.

8.  Find Inspirational People/Books.  Fill Your Time with Them

From reading personal accounts of thru-hikers to the advice or outdoor sages, take the experiences of others to serve as your motivation.  Especially when you begin to doubt whether it will happen or life gets in the way of your preparations, reading always realigns my vision.

9.  Learn from More Experienced Adventurers

We can always learn from others.  Ask questions about gear, preparation, cooking, travel, how to train, etc.

10.  Avoid the Gym

This may draw the line for many who feel that snow or poor weather keeps them indoors.  In that case, I refer you to my above points.  To me, the gym is a soul-sucking enterprise fleshed out with anxiety and awkwardness.  Your hike is not indoors.  Neither should you.  Embrace the discomfort and find strength in all the conditions of the outdoors.

The gym can be good to hit up every once in a while, but make sure your training comes from outside.

11.  Train for Races

Races help me stay on track.  It’s easy to feel dissuaded from preparations when your hike is in a nebulous “future.”  Races serve as concrete benchmarks that keep me on track.  I try to aim for off-road events that help mimic the future thru-hike.

12.  Embrace Discomfort

The first few days of each of my thru-adventures so far have always left me with the uneasy sense of, “Can I do this?”  You can.  Problems will arise and others will seem more prepared than you.  Accept it and move forward.  In moments of questioning, rely on the mental fortitude and the challenges you have conquered so far.  Your hike will be another challenge to conquer.

13.  Mimic What Will Be Required of You

When doing your workouts or adventures in preparation for your hike, try to match your terrain to the challenges you will face on trail.

14.  Choose The Moment.  Don’t Be Intimidated

I use a mantra in moments when I experience self-doubt.  “Choose This Moment.”  When I mountain biked the White Rim Trail through Canyonlands National Park, I got caught on the upper plateau in a driving rain storm.  The temperature dropped like 30 degrees, the clay-dirt mudded up, and I found myself splattered with Earth while pushing against the raging rain.  It was easy to draw in and want to stop.  Instead, I lifted my head, took in the pinion pines and chaparral studded hills.  The clouds were stark against the red stained land.  It was beautiful.  I chanted to myself the above mantra and pushed forward.

I plan to do the same on the AT.  I encourage the same of others.

15.  Set Scaffolded Goals.  Push When They Don’t Work Out

Just like I use races to set benchmarks, I also set summer goals to prepare my fitness and fortitude for the AT.  Twice, my efforts were lain wayside by unforeseen events.  First, I got in a mountain bike accident and collapsed my lungs.  It took months of recovery and surgeries to get back to a point where I could ride again.  This happened right in the beginning of our multi-year plan and it would have been easy to arrest all efforts.  Our supported bike tour was delayed a year.  Instead of dropping out, I dug in and tried harder.

When we got hit by a car on a self-supported bike tour, Janna and I made a commitment to return the following summer and finish.  When you set goals and don’t meet them, take a breather.  Plan, think through your current problems, and know you can solve what’s at hand.  Push when things don’t work out.  On extended thru-adventures, there will be moments that throw everything askew.  Think through them and be reasonable.  If a thru-adventure is ended, life will continue.  Just make sure that you get back into the outdoors, even if you are unable to return to the trail.  The wilderness is the true medium, the trail just a path through it.

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Comments 2

  • Kate G : Jan 6th

    I’ve been trying to write something about how I wound up planning since fall of 2014 to thru-hike this year, which feels like I’ve been ramping up for a long time, but you really went long range and went a lot bigger with your intermediate goals than I did! Impressive! Great advice, too, and so much of it lines up with my own thoughts and experiences. It sounds like you are very ready for your thru-hike and I look forward to reading more about it. I also envy your proximity to South Mountain! I visited Arizona for my 40th birthday since I’d never been to the desert and my partner and I did some hiking around South Mountain and loved it.

    • Forrest Radarian : Jan 6th

      I appreciate it and glad to hear someone has also taken the long view of an approach!


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