Hillwalking Fitness Tips for the Beginner

pen y fan, Wales. A hill walk not for the faint of heart.
Pen Y Fan, Wales. A pretty tough climb, even if you’re already hill fit.

I’ve been using this hillwalking fitness tips for beginners guide for a number of years now. The core components have been borrowed from my military training. Some of the more intense training recommendations are based on a very hard course during which I spent many months marching over huge hills. But don’t worry – this training plan has been built with the beginner hillwalker in mind.

This schedule works equally well for anyone looking for a hiking training plan. If you’re not going to be travelling over hills simply follow the plan and switch your venue e.g. if your route will be along woodland tracks and trails, then walk them instead.

How to Train When Life is so Busy

Planning your hillwalking and hiking activities is a big deal and this post on expedition planning has many useful tips you can use. At the heart of every journey is the need for fitness. But life is hectic and very few of us have a huge amount of spare time in which to get fit. This means we need to focus on the exercises that will help us get fit fast.

By using this training program you can get fit for the hills and hiking in only two sessions per week. Other training factors will come into play, but in the main these can be achieved during your working and home life.

The schedule for you training sessions is: one training session during the week and one at the weekend. Starting off will be a little slow for some, but I’ve done this for a reason. The first 8 weeks of this plan will cover hillwalking fitness tips for beginners. Weeks 9 – 12 are where the plan gets difficult. To cater for those of you who are already relatively fit and fast on your feet I’ve added some additional training days in red.

Why You Need to Be Hill Fit

Any kind of physical activity can be arduous. Quite frequently we find life and the great outdoors throws some unexpected hazards our way and how our bodies respond can mean the difference between a successful trek and an early bus home!

Hillwalking Fitness Basics. Getting Fit at Home and Work

Much of you fitness regime really does start at home. Think about simple actions that will raise your heart rate and get your lungs fired up.

Before we get into the more intense training plan, here are a few basic ways you can start on the path to hillwalking fitness:

  • Walk everywhere. Cardio fitness is key and even a brisk walk is enough to stress the system and improve your aerobic capacity.
  • Don’t use the lift. Walk up the stairs. A few years back I was consulting for KPMG. Frequent meetings were arranged, but always on different floors. My mate, Ollie, and I used walked to every meeting, even if it meant climbing 10 flights of stairs.
  • Hit 10k every day. Steps, that is. 10,000 steps is the equivalent of three miles and 300 calories burned.

These exercises won’t turn you into an Iron Man contestant, but they will make a marked difference to your fitness.

How fit is fit enough? I’ve been running, trekking and hillwalking since I was about 13 years old. Does this make me naturally one of the fittest hikers on the planet? No! Fitness is a game and you need to play to win. A constant focus on training and cardiovascular health are key to ensuring your hill days and long walks go off without a hitch.

This might seem obvious to many of our readers, but some hillwalkers take the fitness aspect with a pinch of salt. After all, how hard can it be to walk up a hill? And who needs proper walking equipment when a pair of trainers will suffice?

It’s story time (I know many of you like these so I’ll keep them going). Experience (skills) and fitness are the two most important components of and hiking or expedition plan. I use the word expedition loosely as it can have many meanings. I have no wish to tell anyone how to phrase their hobbies and ambitions.

Many moons ago, on an Army course I’ve mentioned in other posts, the assembled candidates and I were driven to the Brecon Beacons for a first taste of what one instructor called, “A nice little walk around the hills.” Let me put that into real terms: 30km wearing army-issue backpacks, boots and clothing. The pack, or bergen as the British Army likes to call it, was 44lb of equipment. Over the duration of the course this weight was steadily increased. Add in an extra 18b in the form of an old SLR rifle, 2 litres of water and marching rations. Each of us lumbered around the hills with a pretty sizeable weight on my back.

We set off at sunrise. The first obstacle we had to navigate was the affectionately termed ‘VW’ valley on the east/West side of the climb to Pen Y Fan. The naming of this sharp rise and fall of this formation refers to the fact that, when viewed on a map, the shape resemble the Bold agen logo. The truth for any candidate is that this represent a location where many potential recruits to unit voluntarily withdraw I.e. Elect to go back to their parent unit rather than face the hellish rigours of the course.

As I climbed the first leg of the valley the rain set in. Worse was to come. We were walking in early spring, a time when the weather can turn on a coin and bring misery to hikers. As the clouds assembled the temperatures dropped and the needle dipped below 0 C. Angry clouds spewed rain that hammered down and froze on my equipment. The cold bit deep.

30 minutes earlier I’d been walking in the sun, the temperature was a comfortable 14 C. The vicious cold and rain forced me pull up the hood of issue smock.

Soon the hill fog rolled in and blanketed the terrain. This was hillwalking in the extreme!

I kept on walking, down into a valley and up the other side. After a time a vague shape formed in the mist. I increased my pace until I came alongside one of.fellow course attendees. He was having a bad time. He was sweating hard and his breathing was ragged and laboured. Mr. R was not having a good day on the hills. Another Mr R, not me.

My first instinct was to stop him from walking and do a quick health check. Pulse, parlour, etc. Apart from being fatigued he seemed fine, so I asked is he was having any problems. His reply stunned me, “This is way harder than my brother said it would be. The only training I did was a few long walks.” As you can no doubt guess, his hill fitness was lacking.

We continued to walk over VW valley and after a time it became apparent that is wasn’t simply that he’d failed to build up his hillwalking fitness. The soles of his boots were worn down to the point that they had almost no grips. Good footwear is essential when you’re on the hills and Mr. R had made his already miserable time on the Brecon Beacons even harder.

A Simpler Approach to Hillwalking Fitness

Hillwalking Fitness Tips for the Beginner: start small, work up to the big hills.
Find a small hill on which to start your training.

I have not doubt that most of you are not in the Army. Any serving soldiers are unlikely to need my suggestions for getting hiking fit. These really are hillwalking fitness tips for beginners.

You can train on the flat, in the woods and on roads. But to condition your body, build strength in your legs and forge a powerful cardiovascular fitness you’re going to need to get onto the hills. They don’t have to be epic. No mountain climbing needed. Even a short, sharp incline is enough to start your train. Recent research has shown that 10 seconds sprints on even small inclines will produce huge improvements to the muscle mass of your legs. Beside, you can venture out on long walks over huge hills when you’ve finished this programme. 

I recommend training in the walking gear you’ll wear on the hills. At a minimum you should wear the same footwear you’re be wearing on the hills. Breaking in your boots, or shoes, is important as it helps reduce the number and severity of blisters you’re going to get. Check out this article I wrote a piece on how to prevent blisters and make your hiking days more comfortable.

Take your rucksack. Even on short training sessions. Use it to carry your food and essentials such as your waterproof jacket, gloves, hat, etc. Some people chose to carry their water bottles inside their pack, but I disagree. Your water should always be to hand – preferably in a carrier on a belt. It’s all too easy to skip water breaks simply because it’s too much hassle to stop, take of your rucksack and rifle through it in search of your water. Dehydration can kill.

Don’t rush to get fit. On so many occasions I’ve seen people push too hard and too fast and expect their bodies to adapt in a very short space of time. Fitness – hillwalking, or any other kind – doesn’t work that way. Think of this fitness plan as a long walk over hill and dale. Every step you take is one of progress. You’re going to enjoy this journey.

Unlike my rucking fitness plan this one will start off with a few sedate walks before stepping up a gear.

An Overview of the Hillwalking Fitness Plan

I promise you no gimmicks. Everything one of these hillwalking fitness tips for beginners is tried and tested. The steps have been borrowed from a number of different sources: British Army training pamphlets, experts in fitness and my own personal experience of walking many miles over hills, mountains and everything in between.

The total plan is 12 weeks long.

I heard a collective groan! “Why twelve weeks?” I hear you ask. Because time and time again research has shown that six weeks is the optimal timeframe to build base layer of fitness. Once you’ve laid the foundations of strength and cardiovascular fitness you can then build upon it.

The key to getting fit for your hillwalking days is to apply later after layer until your training sessions and days on the hills are are breeze.

Your training plan will take the form of two sessions per week – one on a weekday, the second on a weekend. There is a split on the best time to train – some people like to exercise after work, or at lunchtime. Others, like me, prefer the mornings before setting in to start work. The combination of an early start and training at sunrise feels amazing. Research indicates that morning training sessions are an ideal way to elevate your metabolism and kickstart the calorie burning process. Your heightened metabolic rate can remained in a heightened state for up to 24 hours and burns more fat than if you had started the day without exercising.

One vital consideration: from week four onwards you’ll be adding more weight to your rucksack. Don’t carry dead weight e.g. dumbbell plates, etc. Only pack equipment that will be of use in an emergency.

Here’s a quick quick outline of how this works:

Weeks 1 – 4 is for base fitness

Weeks 5 – 8 will introduce weighted packs into this training plan

Weeks 9 – 12 are for the ramp up into hill fitness

Bear in mind this hillwalking training plan for beginners might feel too easy for intermediate hikers. If this is the case then simply skip weeks 1 – 4 and jump into week 5.

I’ve also added some more advanced training sessions for anyone ready to take their training up a notch. Advanced training tips are marked in red.

Week 1 Easing into Hillwalking

This first week is a gentle stroll in your training. Some of you may find this easy, but bear with us. Use these first sessions to get accustomed to your hiking shoes and walking gear. Treat any hotspots on your feet and pad any areas where your kit chafes.

Tuesday – easy 2 mile walk on path. 35 minutes. A fairly brisk pace on this one as we want to get your heart and kings used to working.

Thursday – 3 miles walk in paths. 60 minutes. Rucksack weight: essentials only. Today we’re slowing the pace and adding 1 mile to the distance. Don’t rush to finish this session; enjoy it.

Sunday – 50 minute easy walk. Rucksack weight: essentials only. Take it easy and enjoy the time on your feet. If possible find somewhere green and leafy to enjoy this training session.

Week 2. Feeling a Little Fitter

You may not actually feel fitter just yet, but your body is already starting to adapt. For most people, the muscle gains and improved cardiovascular fitness won’t be noticeable until between 3 to 6 weeks. But rest assured your body is already changing.

Tuesday – 35 mins walk on paths. A repeat of week one. Don’t be tempted to increase the pace, even if it feels too easy.

Thursday – 45 mins walk on paths. Rucksack weight: essentials only. Now you should be feeling good – these walks are getting easier, or are you getting fitter?

Sunday – 50 minute easy walk. Rucksack weight: essentials only. A nice recovery session after Friday’s dash. Stick to fields, tracks and footpaths for this session.

Week 3. Can you see the changes?

If you can’t see any exercise-induced changes yet, you will do by the end of this week. The combination of increased activity and calorie burn will have kicked starting the process of weight loss. 

Tuesday – 40  mins walk on paths. Maintain a steady pace.

Thursday – 50 mins walk on paths. Now you should be feeling good – these walks are getting easier, or are you getting fitter?

Sunday – 1 hour 20 minutes at a steady pace walk. Rucksack weight: essentials only. Find some woodland and public footpaths, and pick up the pace. The aim of today’s session is to place get to the point where your breathing is heavier than usual. Don’t go too hard though.

Week 4. Nearly Ready for the Next Stage in Your Hillwalking Training Plan

The first month of your training is almost done and by now you should be seeing improvements in both your cardio and muscle tone. There are some tips on building muscle and stretching exercise later in this article.

Tuesday – 45  mins walk on tracks or footpaths. Add a little speed to your walk. Try upping the pace until you’re breathing hard, maintain for two minutes and then ease off.

Thursday – 55 mins walk on paths. Rucksack weight: essentials only. Keep it steady. This walk should feel good.

Sunday – 1 hour 30 minutes at a steady pace walk. Rucksack weight: essentials only. Head out onto the trails and tracks whet your appetite for what’s to come in the next four weeks. Pretty soon we’re going to be training on hills with all your gear. As with last Sunday, aim to work hard enough that your breathing is heavier than usual.

Well done, week one is over and you should be feeling pretty good. Your body is adapting and is ready for the next stage of training.

Week 5. Upping the Speed and Weight.

Last week you added a little weight to you rucksack. In the next four weeks we’re going to add more weight and a little more distance. The longest walk you’ll complete on this training programme is 2 hours and the heaviest you’ll carry is 25lbs. 

Tuesday – 50  mins walk on tracks or footpaths. Keep the pace steady, no racing.

Thursday – 60 mins walk on paths. Rucksack weight: essentials + 10lbs. Up the pace of your workout. A good gauge of intensity is your breathing – you should find it difficult to have a conversation. If you don’t have a training to chat with, feel free to talk to yourself (ignore the strange looks you’ll get)

Sunday – 1 hour 40 minutes at a steady pace walk. Rucksack weight: essentials + 15lbs. Once again, go and train on terrain similar to where you’ll be hiking and hillwalking. Take it a little easier today, especially if you worked hard on Thursday.

Week 6. Taking Your Hiking Training Up a Level.

This week we’re going to add a little more weight. Timings will remain the same as in week 5. The key here is to get your body accustomed to carrying more weight on your hikes and hill walks.

Tuesday – 50  mins walk on tracks or footpaths. Keep the pace steady, no racing. Add 15lbs to your load.

Thursday – 60 mins walk on paths. Rucksack weight: essentials + 15lbs. As with week 5, you should aim to train at a pace that make conversation difficult.

Sunday – 1 hour 40 minutes at a steady pace walk. Rucksack weight: essentials + 20lbs. Go outdoors, hike in the woods and enjoy the wild spaces. If you feel 20lbs is a little too much, drop the extra weight back down to 15lbs.

Week 7. Hello Hills!

Now it’s time to acquaint yourself with some hillwork. The first few sessions won’t be too taxing. For anyone following the additional training days marked in red we’ll be replacing alternate Tuesdays walks with some hill shuttles designed to boost your cardiovascular fitness.

Tuesday – 20 mins hill reps. Warm up with a brisk 5 minute walk. Find an incline – not too steep – and sprint up it for 10 seconds. Walk back down to the start point. The aim is to complete 3 sets of 3 reps with a two minute break between each set.

Thursday – 60 mins walk on paths. Rucksack weight: essentials + 15lbs. Brisk pace today. Try to maintain a constant speed throughout the entire session.

Sunday – 1 hour 30 minutes hill work. Rucksack weight: essentials + 20lbs. Take this first hill training session easy. Add 20lbs to your rucksack. 

Week 8. Time to Peak.

By the end of week 8 you should be feeling pretty amazing. If you’ve worked out twice a week you’ll be reaping the benefits. Anyone following the three times a week hillwalking and hiking training plan will be that little further ahead.

Tuesday – 20 mins hill reps.

Warm up with a brisk 5 minute walk. Back to the hill for some more shuttle runs. Same format as week 7: 4 sets of 3 reps with a two minute break between each set. Try to cover a little more distance in your sprint.

Thursday – 60 mins walk on paths. Rucksack weight: essentials + 20lbs. Brisk pace today. Try to maintain a constant speed throughout the entire session.

Sunday – 1 hour 30 minutes hill work. Rucksack weight: essentials + 25lbs. If you’re feeling good go ahead and up the pace as you climb.

At this stage of the programme some people like to have a rest week, or ease off their hillwalking training sessions. The choice is yours, but I would suggest you see the plan through.

Week 9. On the Downhill

During weeks 9 and 10 we’re going to push a little harder. The aim is to bring your body to a near-peak state, after which we’ll tail off the training in readiness for your big day out.

Tuesday – 25 mins hill reps. Warm up with a brisk 5 minute walk. Back to the hill for some more shuttle runs. Same format as week 7: 5 sets of 3 reps with a two minute break between each set. Work hard on the uphill, jog back down to the start line.

Thursday – 60 mins walk on paths. Rucksack weight: essentials + 25lbs. Keep the pace up high. By the end of this session you should be out of breath and feeling a little fatigued. Don’t work too hard.

Sunday – 1 hour 40 minutes hill work. Rucksack weight: essentials + 25lbs. No more weight will be added. From this point on only times will increase. Aim to set a steady pace this isn’t tiring.

Week 10. The Last Gasp!

Only two sessions this week as you’ll now be easing off the pace and distance as your big hillwalking day approaches.

Tuesday – 30 mins hill reps. Warm up with a brisk 5 minute walk. The last hard shuttle runs of this plan. 6 sets of 3 reps with a two minute break between each set.

Thursday – 60 mins walk on paths. Rucksack weight: essentials + 25lbs. Pick up the pace until you can feel the effort on your heart and lungs. If you can’t maintain a fast pace consider bursts of 5 mins fast walking followed by 1 minute at an easy pace.

Sunday – 1 hour 40 minutes hill work. Rucksack weight: essentials + 25lbs. Same as week 10.

Week 11. Easing Off Your Training

This week we’re going to drop the Tuesday session.

Thursday – 40 mins walk on paths. Rucksack weight: essentials + 20lbs. Keep your walking pace steady. Your perceived exertion should be around level 5 to 6.

Sunday – 1 hour 20 minutes hill work. Rucksack weight: essentials + 25lbs.

Week 12. Ready for the Off

And you’re done! Well done, one more day of training and then it’s time to test your fitness on a big hike.

Thursday – 30 mins walk on paths. Rucksack weight: essentials + 20lbs. Keep a brisk, but comfortable pace.

Sunday – The big day! You’ve worked hard over the past 12 weeks and now it’s time to reap the benefits of your training. Happy trails.

Other Ideas to Incorporate into Your Hillwalking Training

We’ve reached the end of the first in what will become a series of hillwalking fitness tips for beginners. There are many other ways to improve your fitness – hiking, hillwalking, or otherwise – and I’ll be documenting those as we move forward. In the next installment we’ll explore how you can best use weights to build up the raw muscle power you’ll need for big walking events.