How to Train for Hiking and Climbing Mountains
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Ever look at the mountains and think how great it would be to hike around them or even climb them? With a bit of motivation, dedication, and persistence, you can get up there too!
We talked recently with Carl Swedberg of Pro Sports Club on how you can train for hiking, do harder hikes, or even climb mountains. You can catch our recap YouTube video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MVwt2jkAzfs&feature=youtu.be
But if you’d rather read, here’s how you should train for hiking in the mountains!
Why should people even consider getting outside?
The Japanese language has a word: “shinrin yuku” which means “forest bathing” and is a therapy recommended specifically in Japan but is gaining traction elsewhere. This therapy is used to improve a person’s health with nature.
Then the Norweigan language has the word “friluftsliv” (pronounced free-loofts-liv) and literally translates as “open-air living”. This word reflects their drive to get outdoors any way that they can and their knowledge that being outdoors makes them better people.
While the English language doesn’t quite have either of these words, we know from multiple studies that being outdoors lowers your blood pressure, reduces stress, improves mood and focus, boosts the immune system, and does so many more great and beneficial things for you and your health.
To say that the last twelve months have been stressful is an understatement. Life as we knew it was upended and we’re all suffering from Covid-fatigue. But taking time to get outside, get away from cities and people and your phone, and immersing yourself in the woods, by the water, or at the top of a mountain, can help you feel better.
Couch to Mt. Si in Washington, USA (or another harder hike near you)
The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Similarly, the best way to work up to harder hikes is to start with walking and then build upon that. Here are a few ways you can start training to get hiking or hike harder trails!
Walking. Get out and walk but be careful while pounding that pavement. It can be hard on your feet if you are just starting out, so if or when you can, take to the trails or fields and enjoy the softer dirt and grass beneath your feet. Making sure that your walking/running shoes are comfortable is also important to keep your feet from hurting.
Start tracking your steps. You may already have a fitness tracker or watch that does this, but if not, most phones have this feature built in, or you can download an app for it. Making a goal of at minimum 5,000 steps per day can help build your habits. Try to strive for more steps too if you’re reaching 5,000 easily. If you live in a city and walk to the store or work, it can be a lot easier to reach these goals than if you’re in the suburb and need to use your car to go anywhere, but you can walk around your house while on the phone, circle your house on little breaks, or take a walk around your neighborhood or block to get your legs moving.
Pick up the cardio. Work on your cardio 3-4 days a week for 20-60 minutes each time (working up from 20 to 60) and build up from walks to easier hikes. You can also take bite-sized bits of harder hikes and work at finishing them over time. Slowly chipping away at hikes can help you build discipline too. It forces you to not have summit fever and take it mile by mile.
Strength Training. While super important, strength training can be simple: squats, lunges, and working on a range of motion for your body. If you’re new to strength training, it can be helpful to hire a personal trainer for one or two sessions to get a basic routine and make sure that you’re doing things right.
Finally, be sure to vary your activities so you don’t force too much stress on any one part of your body with too much repetition. Break up runs with bike rides or ellipticals and find other ways to work your body out.
How to create mountaineers out of strong hikers?
If you’re dedicated, have the time, and figure out the specifics, you can go from hiking to climbing mountains. It can take three months of solid, dedicated training to go from harder hikes to larger mountains though. You’ll need to get more into cardio, strength, and varied workouts, as well as learn some new skills. And you can’t take week or month-long breaks from your workouts. It’ll set you back and reverse your progress so you always need to keep pushing forward.
If you can’t beat them, join them. One of the best things that can help you become a mountaineer is literally joining them. Joining an organization like The Mountaineers who actually wrote the book on mountaineering, can help you learn the skills, make friends, and make connections in the community to work up to standing on peaks. There are other different mountaineering groups and clubs too, you can likely find one in your area!
Get a guide. There are lots of different guiding services that can help take you up mountains. They’ll help get you there and take a lot of the work off of you. You’ll still need to be fit, but guides make mountain climbing much easier. There are guides that'll take you up mountains like Mt. Adams in Washington and will help teach you the necessary skills.
Training: Add intensity to your workouts to keep increasing your fitness. Increase your cardio to five days per week and bump up your strength training from 45 to 60 minutes. Focus on longer and more sustained workouts at a steady pace rather than on a high heart rate. Most of mountain climbing is just a slow, steady pace so you just need to go through the motions and can distract your mind with the latest shows.
Also, vary harder training weeks with easier ones and do interval training. Your elliptical, treadmill, and bike likely have interval programs you can use for this if you have access to one or more of these.
Strength Training. Keep strength training simple. Start out with 10-15 reps for endurance. Lower reps are meant for power development but that’s not what you want to focus on right now. Add reps and complexity and variability to these workouts to get even stronger. Progress the sets to build your strength and endurance. Take 30-60 second rests between reps to be efficient and be rapid in the workout. Don’t check your email between reps because those 60 seconds go by quickly! And don’t forget to focus on the whole body: squats, lunges, core, calf raises, single-leg stands, bicep curls, overhead press etc. will all help get you up that mountain.
Mental Training. Finally, it’s not just physical strength you need to get up mountains. It’s largely mental as well. Mountaineering can be drudgery, it’s relentless, and hours of less than ideal conditions. You need mental fortitude to be able to get up mountains. You could be the fittest person in the world, but with the wrong mental mindset, you’re not going to climb any mountains.
Drudgery. Then there’s a workout that combines both mental and physical training for you. Use a spin bike or an elliptical and crank up the resistance to where you’re doing about 30-40 rpms for ten minutes. After ten minutes, go do something else such as walking on a treadmill, before going back to the elliptical or spin bike for another round. This is a hard mental grind but you should work up to doing this 3-4x each week. It helps train you for bigger mountains when you have long approaches, makes you have focused, continuous energy, and works on the muscle endurance of your fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Other: If you live in the greater Seattle area, you’re probably familiar with Mt. Si. It’s been a historical benchmark for figuring out your fitness to climb Rainier. If you could get up Mt. Si in less than two hours with a 30-40 lb. pack, you were probably physically ready to attempt to climb Rainier. (As an fyi, generally, women’s packs weigh less than men’s because they’re smaller and their gear is slightly lighter.) The bare minimum of mountaineering fitness you want to have is being able to gain 1,000 feet of elevation gain per hour of hiking with a 30-40 lb. pack.
When working to train for these and adding weight to your pack, adding water weight will help you out. It gives you the training weight you need on the way up, but you can dump it out before heading down to save the impact of the extra weight on your knees.
Training where it’s flat. For those of you who may live somewhere flat without a lot of hills or mountains to train on, staircases and stepmills are your friend. Work up to being able to wear your hiking pack on them to get used to carrying the weight. And don’t hold onto the sides of machines, you need to do the work yourself. If you’re supported by the sides, it negates the steepness/grade and the work you’re doing.
For people who can’t go to gyms, just get out there and run, walk, go uphill if you can, or get your own machine as well as dumbbells, spry bands, and use your body weight and gravity to train.
Pretty much anyone can be a hiker or a mountaineer with the right training. And the views you’ll see on your hikes or at your summits will just draw you in more. Get out there and get training!
And if you're looking for another way to learn more, you can check out our Mt. St. Helens Snow Skills course. It'll teach you basic mountaineering skills and how to camp in the winter. Two necessary things to get out there year-round!