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A family trek in Olympic National Park. Photo by Jenny Genge.

Tips for Mental Preparation Ahead of a Big Hike

When taking on challenges like a hard run, hike, bike ride or backpacking trip, mental preparation is just as important as physical conditioning. By Craig Romano

As I crossed the finish line in the Boston Marathon, reached the California Coast by bicycle from New Hampshire, summited Mount Shasta, completed a run around Mood Hood in a day, and finished a grueling backpacking trip across Olympic National Park’s Six Ridge, déjà vu set in. It was as if I had done this all before. And in a sense I had! For in my preparations for these events, I had continuously visualized successfully completing them. 

When taking on challenges like a hard run, hike, bike ride or backpacking trip, mental preparation is just as important as physical conditioning. A strong and well-trained mind can often motivate a body that wants to quit. Your mind is a powerful force to help you get things done — or not. It can guide you or dissuade you, reinforce your confidence or lead you down the path of self-defeat. A conditioned mind can help you reach your full potential — whatever that means for you. 

Craig stands near a ledge on trail with a view down to a lake below.
Craig taking in the view after a long climb. Photo courtesy Craig Romano.

I thrive on physical challenges and the feelings of self-fulfillment, confidence and contentment upon completing them. But it’s the entire process — from inception to planning, training and visualizing the outcome — that makes me a stronger and healthier person mentally and physically. And it’s this holistic approach to mental and physical conditioning that helps give my sense of being more purpose.

When I was 14 years old, I made a pact with my best friend to bicycle across the country after graduating from high school. He upped the ante by suggesting that we bicycle around the country instead. I agreed and in the 4 years before the trip, there was hardly a gap in time that I didn’t visualize that trip and my desired outcome. I visualized how that trip would play out, hardships and glory alike. I did not allow my mind to talk me out of it nor play out a scenario where I did not complete my goal.

By the time we set out on packed bikes from New England heading to the West Coast via Florida, I was comfortable in my new environment, confident in my ability, and determined to face and overcome any hardship anticipated or unforeseen that could derail (yes, bad bike pun intended) us from completing our goal. I had spent 4 years visualizing what this ride was going to look like and how it would play out. Eight months after setting out, we returned to our homes having bicycled 13,000 miles through 41 states. I of course was overjoyed with my accomplishment — but not in disbelief. I knew I was going to do it. Never doubted that I would complete it. Never considered an alternative. I invested 4 years preparing for it and it paid off.

Craig hiking along a hillside with a valley of larches below.
Craig hiking through larches in the fall. Photo courtesy Craig Romano.

Mind and body, together

Of course only a fool would believe that mind power alone will get you to your goal. We went into this grand around-the-country ride as experienced bicycle riders. I did my first century bike ride (on a 40 lb. 10-speed mind you) when I was in the eighth grade. I biked regularly through my high school years and had a solid base and knowledge. 

On the road we would often remark in our youthful cockiness that everyone has a huge childhood dream — but the difference between everyone and us was that we actually lived ours. Youthful cockiness aside, it’s true that if you are sincere about making your dream come true that physical and mental preparations are required to make it happen. So if your goal is to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, Wonderland Trail — or any trail that feels like a challenge to you — mind power alone won’t carry you through it if you aren’t physically prepared for it. It’s important to be realistic about what your body can do, and set and train for your goals with all of that in mind. 

I am always amazed at what I can do physically — even as I have gotten older. And there are many folks out there of all ages and backgrounds that continue to amaze me with their physical accomplishments. But we all have external and internal critics, and if we listen too closely to them, we’ll never be able to realize our potential and embrace the amazing life experiences awaiting us. And no matter your physical fitness level, don’t let the idea of dreaming big become elusive. The best way to go for the big one is by incrementally building strength and confidence along the way.

When I first started running in my 20s I could not have imagined myself running a marathon — never mind ultra-trail running well into my middle age. I remember the joy and sense of accomplishment of running my first 5K and the desire shortly afterward to do more. The more I trained and conditioned, the more I realized that I could go farther — and someday do a marathon. I drew up a training plan, overhauled my diet and set my goal. And through months of training runs and recovery walks and hikes, I continuously visualized myself running over the marathon finish line. I also read encouraging and inspiring articles and books, watched inspiring movies, listened to mood-enhancing music and surrounded myself with positive people who also encouraged and inspired me.

Rocky mountain rises behind a still lake in late afternoon light.
Photo courtesy Craig Romano.

Now is the time for dreaming big

So now, as the winter and spring rains fall and snow continues to pile up in our mountains, it’s the perfect time to start preparing for your summer hiking or trail running adventures. Set your goals and don’t be afraid to set them high. Give yourself a challenge. 

Once you make your goal, start the necessary preparations. Begin the research process. What will doing this adventure involve? More mileage than you ever did before? Start doing regular hikes or runs and incrementally increase the mileage as you move forward. More vertical than you’ve done before? Hit the local snow-free mountains and start conditioning. West Tiger, Mailbox, Si, Mica Peak near Spokane, Mount Defiance in the Columbia River Gorge, Oyster Dome, Whatcom’s Stewart Mountain all make for excellent training grounds for ascent conditioning. 

Will your goal involve snow travel, river fords and other route challenges? Sign up for a class with The Mountaineers or another organization and start practicing new skills. Meet folks with similar goals and go-get-em attitudes and forge new friendships and support systems to help you follow through. Hiking and running partners not only make for good company, they keep you committed to your goal and they can help challenge you to make you stronger.

Education is a powerful motivator too. Get the necessary guidebooks and maps for your hikes and runs. Peruse WTA trip reports and other online sources with information on current conditions and how to face the challenges your particular trail might present. And, most importantly, start training your mind to believe in what you are going to do. Continuously visualize yourself on that hike or run and how good and strong you will feel while doing it. Visualize too the exhilaration and pride you will feel upon cresting that summit, reaching that backcountry lake, completing that multi-day backpacking trip or finishing that grueling ultra-run. And visualize that you are more than capable of accomplishing what you set out to do. 

I’m working now on preparing for my next round of big trail adventures and challenges. I hope you are, too!

Craig Romano is a guidebook author,

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.