Rule #1: Do not start the trail without any training. The Arizona Trail thru-hike will test you in ways you never anticipated, so your physical condition should be the least of your worries. Without proper training, you will succumb to injuries, as well as the possibility of not reaching water sources or food quickly enough.
It’s important to get that out of the way before anything else. If you want to successfully thru-hike the Arizona Trail, it’s highly recommended you devote at least two months to getting into proper shape.
How to Get Into Shape for the Arizona Trail
The first thing you’ll want to do is buy a hanging scale so you’ll have a good estimate on just how much weight you’re training with. This will increase over time so it’s important to know when you’re carrying 10lbs, and when you’re ready to upgrade to 20lbs.
Once you’ve done that, go on a hike within your normal comfort zone, and add five pounds to your pack. For some people, their comfort zone is 3 miles, for others it’s 20 miles. I actually started out doing closer to 3 miles initially, so don’t get discouraged if that’s where you are. It will improve as you train.
Try to get a hike in every day if you can. This will not only help to get accustomed to the extra weight, but will also get you acclimated to hiking every day.
Once you find that you can easily do what’s in your comfort zone plus the extra weight, begin to increase the weight to 10-12lbs. If your initial comfort zone mileage was less than 10 miles, try adding on another couple of miles to your distance.
Continue this pattern, hiking as frequently as possible, until you’re comfortably hiking over 10 miles with 25lbs on your back. This should come easily within a couple of months assuming you’re able to get out most days of the week to train. Remember not to increase your weight by too much at a time, nor a comfortable distance. Doing so could cause an injury which could affect your timing to start the trail. Just keep in mind that two months will be plenty to get your body into good shape and ready for the trail.
Avoid Shin Splints
You might think that the only types of terrain you want to train on are remote hiking trails since that’s what you’ll be spending a lot of time on. While this is true, you’ll also want to spend some time training on some not so natural surfaces like dirt roads and pavement.
Shin splints are a very real injury that affect both northbound and southbound thru-hikers. Even the fittest hikers, easily hiking 20 miles a day when not thru-hiking, have been forced off the trail due to these seemingly minor and insignificant nuisances. They are very real though and can creep up from out of nowhere.
Northbound thru-hikers tend to get hit with them mostly coming out of the Huachuca Mountains in Sunnyside Canyon. The lengthy downhill segment is something most people training tend to overlook, and it catches up with them there. Similarly, southbound thru-hikers find a lot more dirt roads than they were expecting, triggering the injury through too much flat ground walking. Sadly, no one’s immune to them, but you can help your body prepare for them.
When I did my training, I was fortunate to have a dirt road loop accessible from my house with a few hundred feet of elevation gain to boot. Though this certainly isn’t necessary, throwing in the occasional flat ground in your training will help your shins strengthen to be ready for their bigger tests ahead. Likewise, during your first couple of weeks on the trail, it’ll be important to remember to take it slow when descending or walking on dirt roads regardless. You’ll find it much easier to adapt to life on the trail if you’re taking it slow and easy at first until you find your rhythm. Doing so will help you avoid leaving the trail to heal.
Maintain a Healthy Weight While Training
It’s tempting to think that since you’re about to hike over 800 miles, that you can build up an extra reserve of fat since you’ll most likely burn more calories than you can sustain. In fact, it’s actually a very bad idea.
You want to hit the trail in as healthy of a state as possible. Extra weight that you normally don’t carry will not only slow you down, but will also force your body to work harder, exhausting your resources quicker.
Continue to eat in the same patterns as you normally do. During training, you’ll probably notice your metabolism increase naturally if you weren’t already hiking 20 mile days regularly. Adjust your diet as necessary of course to maintain a healthy eating habit, but just don’t gorge yourself at every meal simply because you know you’ll burn it off.
Obviously everyone’s different and each person will find their rhythm in different ways. What’s most important though is to make sure you budget an appropriate amount of time prior to getting on the Arizona Trail, or any long distance hike, so that you’re ready and able to hike all day without overexerting yourself.
For me, two months was just the right amount of time. I wound up with a minor shin splint injury during training where I could take a few days off to allow it to heal before resuming again. Likewise, my training allowed me to go from doing 3 miles each day comfortably to about 17 miles each day once I started the trail. This of course increased after a couple of weeks into the trail, but could have been catastrophic without proper training.
Welcome Variable Weather
Inevitably, it’s going to rain, or depending on your location, snow when you’re supposed to be training for the trail. Don’t back out. Use the variable weather conditions to test your equipment and experiment with how you’ll keep everything dry in wetter conditions. You’ll want to feel comfortable and confident in your setup before trying it all out for the first time. Likewise, use the cold to find out how many layers you want to bring, and which ones. See if your shoes are comfortable in the changing conditions. There are a lot of things you’ll want to have tested when the clouds roll in on the Arizona Trail.
You also won’t have the luxury of taking a day off of the trail just because it’s cold and raining, so you might as well get in the mindset of being outside in every condition thrown at you. That will also help you to be more comfortable on the trail when it does actually hit.
Essentially, you want to feel comfortable and ready to hit the Arizona Trail once your start date arrives. If storm clouds roll in, you don’t want to be worried about whether or not your setup will work. You don’t want to look up at a mountain and wonder how you’re going to get over it. Your muscles should be ready for climbing, descending, and road walking, because you will do a lot of each.
Prepare properly, and you’ll find the trail rewards you greatly.