Most of you probably came here for information on what kind of running regimen you should be doing or which gym exercises are best for training for the West Coast Trail (WCT). I’m going to say it right off the bat, as long as you are not in terrible shape, the physical part of training should not be your priority. The most important things to train, in my opinion, are: 1. pack weight; 2. gear that fits; 3. knowing how to use your gear; 4. and, physical strength and endurance. I’m going to go over some tips for training in these four areas.
I am going to assume, for this, that you are not trying to finish the trail in 4 days and are completing it in the usual 6-7+ days that most people take.
Lighten Up Buttercup
In my experience, pack weight can make the biggest difference in whether a hike is easy or hard. When my group hiked the WCT, we had pack weights ranging from 25 lbs to 50+ lbs. The people with the lighter packs were able to move quicker and always seemed to have more energy. If you’re going to spend time and money preparing for the trip, I would put those resources into reducing your pack weight. There are a few strategies for doing this.
If you don’t have a kitchen scale, pick one up from amazon (they’re like $15) and weigh everything you plan on putting in your pack. A little tip, use a large bowl on the scale for the bigger/ more awkward items. Make a list of all of the items and their weights. Myself and a lot of backpackers use the site www.lighterpack.com to keep track of our gear and their weights. The site makes it easy to categorize your gear and tweak what you’re bringing. You can also carry over your gear entries for other trips.
Once you have weighed everything (including your pack), figure out how much it will all weighs together. Some people will say 40-50+ pounds is an acceptable weight for the WCT; I will argue that, with today’s technology, 20 lbs or less for men and 15 lbs or less for women (without food or water) is easy to do with minimal cost. Spend some time looking at your heavier items and see if it is time to replace them with something lighter (the big culprits are usually tent, sleep system, and cook system). Look at the smaller items you have and see if they are essential. Do you really need a full sized container of sunscreen or 5 pairs of socks? (the answer is no)
I’m going to do a full blog on how to lighten up your pack, but in the meantime, weigh your gear and try and either replace heavy items with something lighter or reduce/eliminate items.
Fit It to Win It
Fit is focused primarily on your footwear and pack. Having a pack or footwear that doesn’t fit will cause you almost as much angst as having a super heavy pack. A pack that doesn’t fit will give you joint problems and will also make 30 lbs feel like 50. If you already have a pack, load it up with all of your gear (maybe add a few extra lbs for fun) and go on a 5-10 km hike with it. Make sure there are no areas rubbing or poking painfully and that you don’t develop any joint pain (particularly your back).
If you do not have a pack, make sure to go into a store with a wide variety and get fitted by one of the salespeople. Ask to have your back measured using one of the fancy devices they have; this will dictate what size pack you need. When you know what size you are, start trying on packs. Stores have weighted bags available – put at least 20 lbs into the packs you’re trying on and walk around for 30-40 minutes. If a pack isn’t comfortable, first ask the salesperson for tips on how to adjust it. If it still isn’t comfortable, ditch it. I tried on 6-7 backpacking packs before settling on the one that was the most comfortable and within my target weight range. Remember that everyone is a different shape and what works for your best friend may not work for you.
Trying on footwear is the same approach as a pack. Once you’ve decided whether you are going with boots or trail runners, head to the store and get a salesperson to help you out. Bring the socks you will wear on the trail. The three things I make sure to look for are heel hold, forefoot fit, and length. Incorrect fit in the heel or forefoot will lead to blisters. People often get footwear that is too short as well. Walk down a steep decline with them and make sure you don’t get any jamming on your toes from the front of the shoe/boot.
Knowledge is Power
If you’re an experienced backpacker and are bringing gear you’ve been using for years, you’ll have no problem here. If you are new to backpacking and/or have some new pieces of major gear (e.g. pack, cook wear, sleep system, etc.), go on an overnight test trip before the big trip. My entire group did an 8 km overnight hike a month before hiking the WCT and it was great for everyone to try out new gear and practice using gear after a winter of non-use. There were definitely some tweaks and changes made to gear based on the practice trip. A month gave us enough time to order new gear if needed, as well.
If you cannot get out on an overnight, even just practicing rehydrating and cooking some meals or filling up your pack and hitting a trail for a day hike will be great for identifying any issues in your system.
Hustle for the Muscle
I will start off by saying that you must be at least of a moderate physical fitness to hike the WCT (if you have light gear that fits and you know how to use it). I think a good benchmark for judging moderate fitness is whether you can complete a 5km jog in 40 min or less. Getting to a fitness level that is better than that will make the hike easier and more enjoyable. You should also do more than just run or go for walks – hiking variable terrain will be your best simulation of the hiking conditions, but I recommend some additional exercises.
Walking stairs while skipping steps (with a weight vest or pack) will be an excellent exercise. Your glutes and quads really take a beating when doing big steps over logs, onto boardwalks, or propelling yourself up the ladders. Walking stairs, but skipping 1-3 steps at a time, will help get your legs ready for these challenges.
Introduce some sort of cardio into your routine. Either go for 5+ km runs or longer bike rides to get your cardiovascular system working.
Hike! Like I said previously, hiking will most accurately reflect the toll the WCT will take on your body. Try to find hilly hikes that have some difficult terrain to maneuver around. The hikes will also be a good opportunity to load up your pack and try out some gear. If needed, you can also break it your footwear while completing the hikes.
In summary, don’t let the physical aspect of the hike intimidate you too much. Get to a moderate fitness level (or beyond) and make sure to train and prepare in all the others areas so that you are ready for the hike. The WCT is beautiful and exciting – the last thing you want is to have that experience ruined by not adequately training for all aspects of the trip!