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  • Writer's pictureDale Hill

Train for the Trails

Where to start if you're new to hiking.

San Gorgonio Elev. 11,501.6 feet, the highest point in Southern California

People new to hiking may easily feel intimidated by peaks as imposing and challenging as "Old Greyback" shown here. However, you'll be surprised to learn it is easy to build (or fine-tune) your fitness to tackle everything from neighborhood nature walks to epic adventures through pristine wilderness areas such as this.

There are three principal areas to focus your efforts:

Many hiking sites that address preparation and conditioning will lump strength and cardiovascular training together as 'off-season' activities, but as a Personal Trainer, I can't overemphasize the importance of regular strength and cardiovascular training for overall health and wellness. This can be achieved at home, with minimal equipment, ideally a couple of days a week focused separately on strength and cardio. Hiking specific activities can obviously provide both strength and cardio benefits as well.

Start Walking (more)

This may seem oversimplified, but the best place to begin is simply walking more, regardless of current activity level. As with all the training tips I'll provide here, you need to consider your current level of fitness and limitation based on underlying health conditions. Always check with your physician before starting any new fitness program. In its most basic form, walking is free and accessible, you don't have to have the latest wearable technology or the most expensive shoes to get out and stroll through your neighborhood.

Walk with Purpose

Never give up your simple walks, but there comes a time when you need to add a purpose to your outings by changing one (or more) of the following:

  • Distance

  • Elevation Gain

  • Load

There's no need to go overboard right out of the gate, this matrix shows how you can manipulate distance and elevation gain to increase the difficulty of a hike. Progressing through the quadrants from H1 to H4 is just one way to approach your preparation. Note that I don't list a specific number of miles or a particular level of elevation gain, you have to find your starting point based on current ability and experience. Additionally, there's no rule that you have to tackle these in sequence, just understand that as these variables increase, so too will the difficulty and effort required.

Keep in mind, this is geared toward the person just starting out, for example, if your goal is to hike your first 14,000-foot peak you will likely want to have a time-phased training plan tailored to that goal that systematically adds elevation in 300-500 feet chunks and addresses hiking at higher altitudes.

What you carry when you hike depends a lot on the trail that you're following, at a minimum it's recommended to be prepared with the '10 Essentials' on any outing. Beginning with a comfortable day-pack and these items is a great way to start out. Hydration Tip: Keep in mind that many hikers fail to carry enough water, factor in the length of time you'll be hiking if other water sources are available along the route, and what the weather conditions are. It's recommended to drink 8 oz of water every 15 minutes during moderate exercise. Most hydration packs are measured in liters, so that's about 1-liter per hour, water weighs 2.2 pounds per liter, during extended summertime hikes, with no other available water source, I've carried as much as 10 liters of water, or 22 pounds!

Another factor to consider as you start out is the nature of the trail conditions, trails are typically rated using the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) I've summarized Class 1-4 below, Class 5 is when you get into strict rock climbing.

Expect that your average moving time will decrease as the Class of the trail increases. Also, just because a trail is rated Class 1, doesn't mean it's not going to be a challenge, the first "Fourteener" that I hiked was White Mountain in the Inyo National Forest, and it was a Class 1 hike all the way up to the peak at 14,242 feet!

Strength Training

A total-body workout performed twice weekly on nonconsecutive days that addresses the seven major movement patterns is a great place to start to build a basic level of fitness. For hiking, the primary goal is to build muscle endurance as opposed to raw strength or pure hypertrophy (muscle size).

"I only want to hike, why not focus just on the lower body?" Your body doesn't operate in isolation, while your lower body is collectively working to keep you moving, your core stabilizes, assists with balance, and helps share the load of whatever gear you're carrying. Most people use the term core interchangeably with the abs, but it really encompasses everything except your limbs; your chest, shoulders, and back muscles all contribute to the structure that supports your body. Finally, your arms and grip strength play a key role in clearing obstacles from your path and climbing up and over rocks and boulders, not to mention being essential in a self-rescue situation.

How we move. Human movement is often grouped into seven categories and exercises are categorized based on the primary movement used in each. Exercises can be bilateral (both limbs) or unilateral (single-limb) and sometimes may involve multiple categories (as noted below with the push-up).

  1. Squat

  2. Hinge

  3. Lunge

  4. Push (horizontal and vertical)

  5. Pull (horizontal and vertical)

  6. Rotate (broadly covers all movement of the core or trunk, includes anti-rotation, flexion/anti-flexion, extension/anti-extension)

  7. Gait or locomotion

In a simple total-body program, you may create three supersets. A superset is a pair of exercises that you alternate between for a designated number of sets and repetitions (generally 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps for muscle endurance). Complete the required number of sets in the first superset before moving on to the next.

To complete this workout, you would do 12-15 Goblet Squats, rest 30-seconds, then do 12-15 Push-ups and rest 30-seconds, that's one set, complete that one or two more times before moving on to the next grouping. You can pick 6 different exercises for Strength Day 2 and rotate between those two basic workouts for your strength days. There are plenty of fitness books, magazines, and websites where you can find all sorts of workouts, with many online workouts offered for free. Speaking from experience, it's time and money well spent to hire a Personal Trainer to learn proper form and technique, at least for a few sessions.

Cardiovascular Training

The CDC recommends that all healthy adults aged 18–65 yr should participate in moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, or vigorous-intensity aerobic activity for a minimum of 20 min on three days per week. I'm often asked what's the best cardio to do and my reply is simple: the one you like and will do consistently. There are obviously some forms of cardiovascular exercises that are gentler on the joints or are low-impact and there are those that require special (and often expensive equipment), so access, personal preference, and injury history can all play a role in the mode you ultimately settle on. Personally, I enjoy cycling, kayaking, walking, and my stationary rowing machine. Any activity that allows you to get, and maintain, your heart rate in the designated aerobic zone for your demographic, works just fine.

Bringing it All Together

There's a lot of information here, but it comes down to getting outside and start walking, increase your distance and elevation gain as you go. Incorporate two days of total-body strength training and at least two days of dedicated cardio activity per week and you'll find that you feel better and more energized.


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