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So you’ve decided to trek the Walker’s Haute Route. Congratulations! You are in for the adventure of a lifetime. Perhaps you’ve started planning your itinerary, putting together a packing list, and booking your accommodation, but have you thought about your physical preparation? Obviously, you’ve at least taken the first steps since you’ve found your way to this post, and for that your future self will thank you. That’s because being physically prepared for a tough trek like the Haute Route is the single most impactful action you can take to ensure your trip will be as enjoyable as possible. 

 

Looking down into the Matteral Valley on the Walker's Haute Route.

Looking waaay down into the Mattertal Valley. You’ll want strong legs to tackle ascents and descents like these!

 

Training for the Haute Route will make your experience exponentially more rewarding for a number of reasons, including…

  • You’ll be able to focus on the beauty of your surroundings instead of the pain and fatigue in your body.
  • You’ll eliminate the unnecessary stress of falling behind schedule due to spending longer-than-anticipated days on the trail.
  • By taking the time to prepare in advance, you’ll enjoy the anticipation of your upcoming trip and completing your trek will be immensely rewarding.
  • You’ll improve your fitness and health by working towards a goal that is exciting and meaningful.

Keeping reading to learn what you need to do to feel strong and prepared to conquer your very own Walker’s Haute Route adventure.

What’s in this post?

Hiker climbs a ladder to reach Pas des Chevres on the Walker's Haute Route

The ladders may look intimidating, but they’re actually not the most challenging part of the Haute Route.

 

How difficult is the Walker’s Haute Route?

The Haute Route does not require advanced mountaineering experience, but its challenges certainly should not be taken lightly. For one thing, it is a very strenuous endeavor. Expect to cover around 15km and 1,000m of elevation gain each day. Much of the hike requires walking on steep, loose, and rocky terrain.

In addition to the basic physical challenges, there are also some sections that are technically difficult. Parts of the trail along the Europaweg and on the approach to Pas des Chevres are very exposed and come with a small risk of falling rocks.  There are ladders and chains to negotiate at a few points along the trail as well, with the toughest being near Pas des Chevres. Additionally, some hikers opt to take a variant that involves a short glacier crossing, but that can be easily avoided.

One final consideration involves the health of your knees and overall leg strength. There are very long, steep descents on nearly every stage of the Haute Route, and these can create problems and irritate chronic injuries for those with sensitive knees.

If you approach it with a solid fittness base and some trekking experience, you should be well suited for the Haute Route. There’s no need to be too intimidated by this trek, but it’s a very good idea to train ahead of time, be realistic about your abilities and expectations, and use good judgement in the mountains.

The Walker’s Haute Route in numbers:

Total distance: 225 kilometers (140 miles)

Total elevation gain: 14,000 meters (45,932 feet- that’s about the same as climbing to the top of Mt. Everest from base camp four times!)

Average Daily distance*: 19 kilometers (11.5 miles)

Average daily elevation gain*: 1,166 meters (3,827 feet)

*Averages are based on a traditional 12-day itinerary

 

Beautiful wildflowers along the trail near Arolla on the Haute Route.

Beautiful wildflowers along the trail near Arolla.

 

I don’t live near mountains…Will I be able to get fit enough?

Okay, so hopefully the first section of this post convinced you that yes you CAN complete the Walker’s Haute Route, but also that you really, really should take our advice and train ahead of time. However, if you’re like a great many people who aspire to trek the WHR, you don’t have trails in your backyard on which to complete said training. If that’s your situation, don’t despair. We’ve known plenty of people who’ve become incredibly strong hikers without the benefit of mountain training. Here’s some ideas for flatlanders:

  • Use the stairclimber machine at your local gym. Go slow, as this torture device machine definitely induces greater perceived exertion than most sections of the Haute Route.
  • Walk or run up and down the stairs at a nearby high school stadium or similar venue.
  • Get on a treadmill and walk at a brisk pace. Play around with setting the incline to a variety of levels, ranging from 5-12%.
  • Many bridges make excellent artificial hills. Make sure the one you choose has a safe pedestrian area and then walk back and forth across that sucker a bunch of times. Sure, it’s not the most exciting option, but consider it an opportunity to build both physical strength and mental fortitude.

As much as possible, complete the above activities while wearing a weighted pack similar to the one you plan on hiking with. Commit to one or more of these moves and you might be shocked at the high level of hiking fitness you can build without ever leaving sea level.

 

Basic Training Plan for the Walker’s Haute Route

Top of a mountain pass on the Walker's Haute Route

You’ll be glad you used this training plan when you’re climbing up steep mountain passes like this one!

 

Six Months Before Your Trek: Build Your Endurance Base

As we alluded to earlier, you can expect to spend long days on the trail while hiking the Haute Route. Most walkers complete their trek in 12-14 days, meaning they’ll need to average around 15 kilometers (10 miles) per day. To prepare for extended periods of hiking, you should try to build a solid foundation of aerobic endurance. So what does that actually mean? Simply put, your body needs to be accustomed to sustaining low(ish)-intensity exercise for longer than an hour.

Like a lot of training, the best way to get your body used to moving for a long time is to-you guessed it- regularly move for extended periods of time. You can achieve this a lot of different ways, but the important factor is that you’re frequently and consistently doing cardio exercise. Aerobic activity (AKA “cardio”) includes things like jogging, cycling, walking, swimming, using the elliptical machine, or anything else that requires moderate, sustained exertion (your heart rate should be elevated, but you should be able to maintain a conversation and keep up the activity for at least 30 minutes).

Starting six months prior to your trek, aim to complete 30-60 minutes of aerobic activity 3-5 times per week. If your fitness regimen already includes this kind of thing, just keep on keeping on!

 

Three Months Before Your Trek: Build Your Strength

In order to feel great throughout your trip and avoid injury and burnout, you’ll need the endurance base you started building in the previous training phase, plus ample leg strength. Ideally, at this point in your training you should begin to increase the frequency and intensity of your hiking. Your main goal is to continue to build your aerobic endurance while also training your leg muscles for long-distance hiking. If you can’t hit the trails, you can achieve similar results by doing anything that involves incline; bike uphill, set a treadmill to high incline (4-12% grade), or spend some time on the step machine at your gym.  Heck, you could even walk the stairs at the local high school stadium if you wanted to.

Additionally, now is the time to start incorporating a leg strengthening routine into your weekly training. Many hikers neglect strength training for any number of reasons; they don’t think they need it, they don’t know how, they don’t have time, or they just find it boring (this last one is the favorite excuse of yours truly!) However, strength training plays a huge role in giving you the power needed to tackle hard climbs, build stability, stay light on your feet, and prevent injury. You don’t need to spend a ton of time in the gym to get results, either. Even just a few minutes a week in the comfort of your home can make a world of difference.

Everyone’s fitness goals are different, but we generally recommend completing the following short workout 2-3 times per week to build Haute Route-ready legs:

  • 10 goblet squats (with medium weight)
  • 10 lunges on each leg (add weight or jumps to increase the challenge)
  • 10 step-ups on each leg (weights optional)

Complete three sets of each exercise.

 

Hiker with large blue backpack walks on a trail surrounded by wildflowers.

As your trek draws nearer, it’s a good idea to start hiking with a weighted pack to simulate what you’ll carry on the WHR.

 

Two Months Before Your Trip: Put on Your Pack

Remember all of that brand new gear sitting in your closet? Now is the time to break it in! In the eight weeks or so before your trip, try get in as many longer hikes (or walks) with your gear as possible.  Think of it as a “dress rehearsal” for your trek. The benefits of breaking in your gear at this point are twofold. First, you’ll be able to test your boots, backpack, socks, and so on to ensure that they fit well during longer hikes. Second, you’ll begin training your body to hike while wearing a heavy backpack.  If you’re new to backpacking, you’ll be surprised by how much more challenging it is to hike with the extra weight.

Even if you’ve been strength training, chances are you’ll be using new muscles when hiking with a backpack. The best way to condition your body? Hiking as much as possible with that heavy backpack! In the two months before your Haute Route trek, try to complete at least one challenging hike at least once a week while wearing your pack. Your backpack should mirror the weight you intend to carry on your Haute Route hike, including food and water. Ideally, you should work up to hikes that are 15-18 kilometers (5-10 miles) long with 500 meters (1,500 feet) of elevation gain. If that’s not possible, try to complete a weekly long walk (5-10 miles) while wearing your pack and with as many hills as possible (see the previous section for more ideas on this). As an added bonus, these hikes/walks are a great opportunity to start breaking in new hiking boots and other gear.

Reminder: During this training phase, you should keep up your aerobic and strength training from the previous sections, simply replacing one of your weekly aerobic workouts with a long hike. 

 

One Month Before Your Trip: Time for a Test Run (Hike)

This stage in your training is awesome because it requires you to take a vacation (you’re welcome). If at all possible, try to take a 1-2 night backpacking trip in your local woods.  If you aren’t planning on camping along the Haute Route, you don’t need to take an overnight trip, but you should still try to fit in two back-to-back days of long, hard hiking.

This important step allows you to try out different ways of packing your backpack for maximum fit and comfort, practice setting up camp, and get your body used to hiking consecutive days in a row. It will also give you the chance to see what items you packed that you don’t need, and what you may have forgotten.

Keep up your established aerobic and strength training until 10 days to one week before the hike. In the last week before your trip, continue doing some light cardio and strength, but take extra rest days and don’t do any big, challenging hikes so your body is fresh for your upcoming adventure. Finally, pat yourself on the back and take pride in showing up to your Haute Route trek fit, prepared, and the best version of yourself!

Hiker walks uphill on the Walker's Haute Route.

Ultimately, walking long distances on hilly terrain is the best way to prepare for the Haute Route.

 

Adapting the Hike for Varying Ability Levels

Unfortunately, the Haute Route is not the friendliest trek in terms of accessibility and adaptations.  There are sections that don’t allow for shortcuts, and some of the detours can be less than perfect.  That being said, it is still possible to complete significant portions of the hike, even if you’re not able to do the whole thing. If your training doesn’t go as planned due to injury, illness, or the realities of life that inevitably creep in from time to time, there are ways to reduce the level of challenge on the trek. Here are a few suggestions:

    • If possible, consider adding an extra day or cutting out a segment to reduce the average distance you’ll need to cover each day.
    • Use a luggage transfer service to eliminate the extra demands of carrying your heavy pack (note that these do not service all stops along the Haute Route)
    • Use public transportation to avoid the more challenging stages of the hike.
    • Plan for a rest day midway through your hike. Les Haudères and Zinal make great options.  See our Haute Route Logistics article for more information about luggage transfers, rest days, and detour options.
    • Enlist a few friends or family members to come with you and rent a car. You can alternate between hiking and driving the support vehicle to customize the amount of time spent on your feet.  Plus, you’ll still be able to enjoy much of the same spectacular Alpine scenery from the road.
Clouds parting to reveal stunning views on the way to Cabane du Mont Fort.

Clouds parting to reveal stunning views on the way to Cabane du Mont Fort.

 

The Bottom Line

Move, preferably uphill and with weight on your back, as much as possible. Do this and you will be able to enjoy every moment of your incredible trip so much more. Plus, the time and effort you spend working towards your goal will make the real thing that much sweeter. I can’t stress enough how glad we were that we’d prepared for the challenge of a thru-hike like the Walker’s Haute Route, and I hope our experience can help you have your best possible trip.

 

But wait…there’s more!

If you’re looking for one-on-one support in preparing for the Haute Route, we can help! Learn more about our personalized coaching services. 

Be sure to check out our entire series on the Haute Route to learn everything you’ll need to know to prepare for this incredible adventure!