Train To Summit a High-Altitude Peak

Here’s how to prepare for challenging hikes with significant elevation gain.

There are some hikes you can do right off the couch. Others require plenty of practice, sweat, and dedication to successfully complete. If your eye is on the latter, then training for the big day will make your goal much more attainable. Whether it’s a Rocky Mountain Fourteener (summit that reaches 14,000 feet or more), a yo-yo traverse in the Northeast, or any other trail with massive elevation gain, the right preparation increases your odds of success—not to mention your comfort and fun levels on the journey.

There are no shortcuts, however. Tackling a challenging hike requires full-body fitness. You’ll need the heart and lung power to hike hard for long miles (and at higher altitude), the strength to power yourself up tough terrain with a pack on, the stability to navigate rocky and uneven ground, and the flexibility to prevent injury. And you’ll need some time: two to four months before your trip if you’re already reasonably fit; more if you need to establish a basic fitness foundation. Here’s how to train specifically for a peak hike, no matter where you live or your current level of fitness.

Note: This guide is intended to prepare you for nontechnical peaks, aka summits that don’t require ropes, crampons, and/or specialized mountaineering skills. If you’re dreaming of climbing a steep or glaciated peak like Mount Rainier, you’ll need to take courses in alpine travel and/or hire a guide.

Going the Distance: Cardiovascular Fitness

Big hikes demand endurance. Improve yours through cardiovascular workouts that boost your body’s ability to deliver oxygen to your muscles. 

Everyday Workouts

Plan on doing cardio activities, such as running, swimming, or cycling, at least two to three times a week. Start with at least 30 minutes per day, and add time and intensity as you go. As you get stronger, up the challenge by adding sprints, hill repeats, or interval training to your schedule. In the gym, try the stair-climbing machine or the treadmill cranked up to its highest incline. 

Hike, Hike, Hike

Nothing gets you ready for hiking like, well, hiking (in itself a wonderful cardio workout). And if you’re training for a big peak, you’ll want to be hiking on steep terrain as much as possible. Look for trails with a manageable degree of elevation gain to start, and work up to steeper, harder hikes. Bonus if you have access to high-elevation trails, as they’ll help your body get used to the rigors of hiking in thinner air (read: with less available oxygen). Train with the boots you plan to wear on your big summit push and a loaded backpack for extra challenge. Start with 15 or 20 pounds and work up to 30 or more during your training. 

No mountains nearby? No problem. Flatlanders can train by hiking any available hills on repeat, the stairs in tall buildings, and stadium bleachers. 

Timing-wise, many people do their everyday cardio workouts during the week and hit the trail for a long training hike on weekends.  

Climbing Power: Strength Training

You might assume hiking is all about strong legs—and that’s a key part of the equation—but you’ll also need power in your core, back, arms, and shoulders for stability and hauling a backpack. 

Full-Body Moves

Aim for two to three days of strength training (aka weightlifting) per week. You can tailor your workout to the moves you like best, but be sure to target your entire body. These exercises are particularly helpful for hiking:

  • Lunges and walking lunges (try them on a balance board or pillow to work on stability, too)
  • Curtsy lunges
  • Downhill lunges (these help prepare your quads for the downhill part of your hike; do them on a gradual slope)
  • Squats
  • Weighted step-ups
  • Calf raises
  • Lat pulldowns
  • Push-ups
  • Crunches
  • Dips
  • Pull-ups
  • Hanging knee raise
  • Planks and side planks

Staying Loose: Flexibility

Flexibility work is an important part of any training program—not only does it help you do all your other workouts safely, but it aids in muscle recovery and helps prevent injuries that could sideline you. 

Stretch It Out

You can (and should) incorporate flexibility into the rest of your workouts. Go for active stretches as you warm up (such as jumping jacks, shuffling, or jogging backward) and static stretches (where you get into a position and hold it) for cooling down. Target all the major muscle groups.

A weekly yoga session is also a great idea for improving flexibility (strength, too!).

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.