I first dreamed of hiking Mount Kilimanjaro when I was 12 years old, after my dad and I watched an IMAX movie about the trek. Even though I learned a lot about the iconic mountain from the film, nothing could have prepared me for what I would experience on my way to the summit almost 13 years later.
You won’t fully understand the feeling of seeing a mountain you’ve dreamed of for the first time until you’re standing in front of it, but there are a few things you can do to get mentally and physically ready for a journey like this one. Whether you’re getting set to tackle Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, the Inca Trail in Peru, Everest Base Camp in Nepal or even the W Circuit in Patagonia, a few tips can set you up for a memorable trip. This advice from travel expert Chris Duncan, who’s been in the outdoor and adventure travel industry for about 16 years, will get you prepped for an epic hiking adventure.
Start training ASAP
When it comes to preparing for a major trek, Duncan recommends that you begin as soon as you’ve finalized your travel plans. “For example,” he says, “most people book a trip like Kilimanjaro between 6 to 12 months before travel,” he says. “This gives you plenty of time to adequately prepare.”
Tip: Don’t overdo it! Duncan suggests that you ease up on your training as the trip gets closer to avoid risking injury right before you’re about to depart.
Mix and match your workouts
“Anytime you’re training for something special, it’s good to have variety,” says Duncan. “Try combining lighter exercises, like long walks to break in your gear, with more rigorous cardio workouts. Weight training isn’t for everyone, but if you have the option, a combo of weights and cardio is useful. It keeps your workouts interesting and strengthens your back, legs and core, which helps you on a long trek.”
Test out the terrain
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Practice hiking on different terrain and inclines as much as possible. Research the route you’re planning to trek, and find ways to incorporate similar terrain into your practice hikes – that might mean hiking local trails or even flights of stairs if you live in a flat area. The Kilimanjaro trek, for example, varies from dirt roads to single-track hiking trails to stair-like rock formations to scree slopes; in some seasons, you might even be hiking in ice and snow at the summit.
Tip: Bring a pair of hiking poles on the trek. “[They really help] you when climbing a mountain, and also when you’re coming down because they have quite a bit of stability and help take some of the weight off your knees and the backs of your legs.”
Gain some altitude awareness
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There’s no telling how your body will react, but according to Duncan, “The more prepared you are, the better chance you give your body of adapting once you hit altitude.” In addition to the tips above, he recommends training for an extended time at a lower intensity to get used to being active for long periods of time.
Take a good look at your trip itinerary to understand how many hours you’ll be hiking each day. One thing to know: distances can be super deceiving once you add elevation and altitude into the mix. On Mount Kilimanjaro, I hiked around 10km (between six to seven hours) per day. Expect your pace to be slow and steady because of the elevation gain – I often heard my guides say “pole pole,” which means “slowly slowly” in Swahili.
It’s not going to be easy, but going with a group tour means you’ll have a team of hikers and mountain experts on the trail with you. “Guides and crew are there to support you physically and mentally,” says Duncan. “They know better than anyone what it takes to get to the top.”
Tip: If you’re worried about how your body will respond, talk to your doctor about getting a prescription for Acetazolamide (or Diamox), which can help keep your altitude sickness under control.
Break in your gear
“Make sure you get used to your equipment before you get to the mountain, so there aren’t any surprises,” says Duncan. This includes wearing your hiking boots on the treadmill, on your walk to work, and on local practice hikes. You’ll also want to load up your pack to make sure it’s comfortable when it’s filled with what you expect to be carrying, and that it fits you well on your training walks. Check out our tips on how to fit a backpack and how to pack a backpack.
Tip: Rather than testing individual pieces of gear, it’s better to figure out how everything works together. For Duncan, this means training in the exact boot-and-sock combo that you’ll have on your trek and wearing your daypack with different layers, including puffy coats.
Essential items for hiking trips
- Hiking boots, quality hiking socks and liner socks. Break in your boots at least a month before your trek, and leave the cotton socks at home. “Look after your feet on your hike,” says Duncan. “Make sure they’re dry and blister-free.”
- Layers are a must as it can be hot, humid or rainy as you climb.
- Comfortable hiking clothes, like convertible pants, make it easy to adapt on the mountain.
- A daypack to carry your water, snacks and camera.
- A down jacket will keep you warm when temperatures drop – plus you can roll it up and use it on a pillow on the plane.
- Dry bags and pack liners can be the difference between a good night’s sleep and a horrible one. “Once something is wet, it’s hard to get dry,” says Duncan.
- A water bladder and insulated water bottle. On MEC Adventures trips, your guides will provide and treat all the water you need – you just need to be able to carry it.
Join a hiking trip with MEC Adventures
Now that you know how to prepare for hiking treks, why not join MEC Adventures on a trip? We’ve got guided trips heading to Everest Base Camp, Mount Kilimanjaro, the Inca Trail, the Salkantay Trek in Peru and the W Circuit in Patagonia.