The Wonderland Trail – Mount Rainier

The Complete Backpacker's Guide to Exploring the 93 Mile Trail

Fitness – Preparing for a Long Distance Backpacking Trip

Being in excellent shape before you start the Wonderland Trail will greatly amplify your enjoyment of your vacation. In contrast to out of shape hikers, physically fit hikers enjoy the scenery more, get injured less frequently, and even see more wildlife (because they hike alertly and quietly). The average hiker will cover the 93 mile trail in 10 days. For most hikers this is a big jump in activity from their daily lives so training before the trip is essential for enjoyment and safety.

The key to any training program is to increase your daily exercise very gradually. Increasing your daily exercise too quickly puts you at a high risk of injuries that could derail your training program by preventing you from exercising for weeks or even months. A good rule of thumb is to increase the number of miles that you walk, run or hike by no more than 10 percent a week. For example, if I run a total of 20 miles this week, I should run no more than 20+0.10×20=22 miles next week. My running partner usually ignores this rule (it is pretty hard to follow if you are excited about an activity!) and I frequently have to run alone while he nurses injuries.

When preparing for a long backpacking trip like the Wonderland Trail, the core elements of a good training program are progressively longer hikes with a backpack to develop strength and balance and vigorous daily exercise to develop physical endurance.

Hiking with a backpack is an essential part of a good training program for obvious reasons. Carrying a backpack over rough terrain uses your core, leg, and foot muscles for balance in a way that everyday locomotion does not. A training program that includes many day hikes and at least two 3-5 day backpacking trips will strengthen your muscles and turn you into a sure footed mule.

Being fit for the trail is not just about strength and balance however. Hiking the Wonderland Trail requires significant physical endurance. Long before you leave for the trail teach your body to expect heavy exercise many days in a row. While daily backpacking would be the ideal way to prepare for your trip, backpacking is not always convenient. No matter — there are many ways to improve your endurance. Cycling, swimming, running and playing sports can all improve your endurance. Find an activity you like and gradually increase the number of days you exercise and the amount of exercise you do each day. Before you are ready to hike the trail you should be comfortable exercising vigorously for an hour or more at least five days a week. Whatever your choice of vigorous exercise, it should be more difficult than hiking with a backpack– remember you are only training for an hour (or a few hours) each day, but you are planning to hike for 6-10 hours each day – make up for the shortened time with increased intensity.

If you exercise vigorously for an hour or more each day and hike and backpack on the weekends you should comfortable hiking the Wonderland Trail. This is the minimum required for an enjoyable trip however. If this is all you do, you will likely be tired and sore for the first few days of your trip, but by the fourth day your body will begin to adjust to the increased workload and you will start feeling strong and energetic.

Before I hiked the Wonderland Trail the first time, I ran around six miles most days on relatively flat terrain. I walked and biked and had a moderately active lifestyle and I went on a few three-day backpacking trips. I was sore and tired the first few days on the trail but by the end of the trip my pack felt light and my step was high.

Finally, if your trip is fast approaching and, despite your good intentions, you are not in as good of shape as you should be there are two things you can do. First, call the Wilderness Information Center and see if they can adjust your campsite reservations to accommodate lower mileage days and days off mid trip. Secondly, take a serious look at what is in your pack. Reducing your pack weight will reduce the strength and endurance required to complete your daily hikes. Browse the ultra light backpacking section to see how you can reduce your pack weight.

– Ruth Thompson – 2011