Thru-Hiking Training Tips

Photo: Courtesy of Nika Meyers

Record-setting thru-hiker Nika Meyers shares her simple, yet most critical tip for pre-trail training: Listen to your body.

Nika Meyers didn’t know she’d be attempting a speed record of the 486-mile Colorado Trail until just four days prior. But in the middle of July 2021, Meyers (she/her) learned of a surprise opening in her work schedule—and decided to go for it. After all, the veteran distance hiker (having bagged the Triple Crown of the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail) had been training all summer, and she wasn’t sure when she’d get another chance.

So, on July 21, the 32-year-old toed the line at the trailhead in Denver. And at sunrise, she set off to traverse some of the roughest terrain in the Colorado Rockies. Meyers averaged about 50 miles each day. On July 30, she finished, reaching the trail’s terminus in Durango and shattering the previous record by nearly a day. Her time: 9 days, 14 hours, and 19 minutes. Though an incredible accomplishment, especially given its spontaneous launch, when asked about maintaining the peak fitness needed to set off at a moment’s notice, Meyers didn’t give the answer you might expect. Instead, she revealed an unconventional training philosophy—and a valuable approach all thru-hikers can learn from.

The Best Way to Get in Shape for Thru-Hiking

“We as a culture get so caught up in the idea of not being in shape,” Meyers says. “But the truth is it’s hard to know whether your body can hike a consistent mileage because it totally depends on the terrain.” Doing weighted step-ups in the gym isn’t going to necessarily translate to better endurance on the trail, and hiking long miles through East Coast woods probably won’t have you feeling strong on the Pacific Crest Trail’s high passes.

That’s why there’s a saying among the long-trail community: “The best way to get in shape for thru-hiking is by thru-hiking.” Meyers tends to agree. Instead of worrying about concocting the perfect training plan, she says, focus on getting outside often, learning as much as you can about how to use your gear, and committing to listening to your body when you do start the trail.

“On a long trail, you really do have a lot of time to develop your fitness along the way,” she says. “So the trick is to start slow. If someone you’re hiking with wants to do 20 miles a day right out of the gate and you know you can’t, don’t. Take it easy until you feel strong and ready for that higher mileage.”

However, while Meyers doesn’t recommend devoting your life to training ahead of a long trail, she does recommend making sure you have at least some level of base fitness.

How Much Base Fitness is Enough?

Even for Meyers’ highly competitive Colorado Trail attempt, she wasn’t hitting the weight room, tracking her mileage, or timing herself on most of her outings. Instead, her only training goal was to get outside every day. Sometimes, that meant hiking the 6-mile loop in her backyard in Aspen, Colorado. Other times, it just meant ambling the 4 miles per day she usually covers during the kids’ adventure camps she leads for work. Throughout, she only kept track of one consistent metric: how her body felt.

Meyers didn’t wait to hit a goal time or mileage to decide she was ready for a long trail. Instead, she paid attention to how she felt on training hikes. When her legs felt strong, her knees and ankles felt stable and tweak-free, and she could hit what felt like a cruising speed for a few hours at a time with her intended pack weight—that’s how she knew she was ready.

If you’re the kind of person who likes to nerd out over stats and data, you might be raising an eyebrow right about now. Bear with us. While unconventional, Meyers’ approach is actually extremely relevant to thru-hiking. On a long trail, you have a lot of time and wiggle room to get in shape, stay in shape, and finish the trail on your own timeline—that is, provided you don’t get injured. And the biggest way to avoid injury? Listen to your body. Know what strong feels like for you. That way, you can go for those big miles when it feels good—and scale back when you can tell your legs need a rest.

Developing Shoulder Strength

Of course, your legs aren’t the only thing that can ache during the first week of a thru-hike. That’s why Meyers is intentional about strengthening her back and shoulders in the months ahead of a big trail.

“I’ve spent weeks just walking around town on pavement with a bunch of water bottles or chains in my backpack,” she says. “When I go to the grocery store or walk around downtown, I have a backpack. My friends sometimes make fun of me, but you know what? I don’t always have time to go into the mountains and do a multi-night trip to stay fit. What I do have is the ability to walk through a super mundane town with a backpack on.”

The practice helps prepare her shoulders and back for the strain ahead, she says. Usually, she aims for 25 to 30 pounds—slightly more than she would carry on any given day on the trail—to strengthen them as much as possible. (If you’re not used to carrying a pack, start with just 10 or 15 pounds and work up from there, adding a pound or two every week until you’ve reached your max weight.)

Avoiding Injury

“Something I see a lot on the Appalachian Trail is people getting injured because they’re either just trying to push too far too fast, or they’re carrying way too much weight,” she says. “Developing some base fitness is important, but so is recognizing that what you carry affects your whole body.”

While Meyers’ base weight for her record-setting Colorado Trail hike was under 7 pounds, she recommends a base weight between 15 and 18 pounds for most hikers. (That translates to 25 to 30 pounds of total weight, including the weight of your backpacking pack as well as food and water.)

One of the best ways to whittle down your pack, she says, is to find a mentor who’s thru-hiked your trail before. On her own journey, friends and role models like Jennifer Pharr Davis and Heather “Anish” Anderson have proved valuable mentors, and have helped her decide how much food, water, and clothing she’ll actually need for certain stretches of the trail—and what items she’s packed out of paranoia.

“We carry our fears on our back,” she explains. “No matter how many miles I’ve hiked, reaching out to those who have done it before me has eased some of my nerves and provided valuable beta.”

The Final Shakedown

When you’re feeling good about your base fitness and have finished gathering your kit for your thru-hike, Meyers recommends taking it all on a trial run. Even a weekend backpacking trip can be long enough to learn what’s working, what isn’t, and what you’re missing.

“You also want to make sure you know how to set up your tent, light your stove, everything like that,” Meyers says. “Being prepared is a big part of safety on the trail.” Plus, as the saying goes, the more you know, the less you need. In that case, Meyers says, packing a little resourcefulness, trail experience, and a flexible attitude can go a long way toward keeping your pack weight low—and keeping your mind open to the experience ahead.

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.