You might also be interested in this post I wrote, it’s a detailed 3 month training plan to get prepared for the AT.
1. Walk barefoot on asphalt
I learned this tip from a Special Forces sergeant I met at Air Assault school. He said every-time he needed to prepare for a deployment he would spend two weeks walking on asphalt with a loaded ruck, barefoot.
I’ve been using this technique and it works great for building up the calluses. You can keep it short – half to one mile is all that’s required. Be conscious of rocks, glass, and other sharp objects!
2. Heavy squats and deadlifts
I’ll harp on this point until the cows come home because I think it’s extremely important. Having strong legs and a strong back will make your trip easier and dramatically lower your chances of getting injured.
Overuse injuries are common on the trail – your tendons and ligaments(and sometimes your bones) just aren’t conditioned to the constant stress of hiking with weight. Heavy squats and deadlifts will strengthen your connective tissues in addition to your muscles which leads to a lower incidence of overuse injuries. During basic training we had two soldiers who got rolled back to another class and another who got medically discharged because they developed stress fractures in their legs and feet. Over half the platoon had problems with their knees or hips at some point. I didn’t have a single issue and I attribute it to years of heavy squats and deadlifts. When your legs are conditioned to supporting 500+ pounds walking with a 45lb pack isn’t a big stressor.
3. Keep a Kettlebell by your desk
I’ve been keeping a kettlebell by my desk and doing KB goblet squats anytime I think of it. Over the course of a day it adds up to a couple hundred reps. This will really help you build up endurance and conditioning for long days of hiking.
Alternatively if you don’t have a KB you can simply do air-squats. Just do more.
I recommend sets of 25+ reps 5 times a day.
4. Buy a scale
You can get a digital hanging scale from Amazon for $10. In the Army when we go on ruck marches you’re given a weight requirement for your pack(usually 45lbs). And without fail guys were always coming in too heavy or too light. Not on purpose – it’s just difficult to gauge the weight of a pack due to its bulk.
Buy a scale so you can train with a known weight. If you haven’t been using a scale I can guarantee that you’ll be surprised at how much your pack actually weighs.
5. Use a standing desk
You can build your own standing desk for $22 using parts from Ikea, here’s an article on how to do it.
Nothing can truly condition you for being on your feet all day everyday except by being on your feet all day everyday. Plus a standing desk helps improve your circulation, helps you be more productive, and will help you burn more calories.
6. Don’t neglect your upper body
When I ran my CrossFit gym I had a client who was an ultra-runner. He signed up for CrossFit because he wanted to strengthen his upper body. He’d recently ran a 100 mile race out in the desert and was pulled at the 97 mile mark because he fell too far behind the pace time. And it wasn’t his legs that gave out – it was the muscles along his thoracic spine. He became so fatigued that he lost the ability to hold himself erect or swing his arms properly.
Your pack should sit mostly on your hips but it will still pull on your shoulders. I recommend doing pull-ups, push-ups, and KB farmer’s carries. That will hit all the major musculature of your upper body.
The main reason thru-hikers drop out is because they let doubts and fears overwhelm their mind. Any reasonably fit person can finish the Appalachian Trail if they’re persistent.
Build that mental fortitude. Meditate. Catch the negative and self-defeating thoughts before they can destroy your dreams of a thru-hike.