Best Training Hikes in the Bay Area

Training for backpacking and mountaineering has several components – cardiovascular (both endurance and interval to raise anaerobic threshold), strength training, and “sport specific.”

Sport specific refers trying to mimic the activity as best possible.  For example, in mountaineering, we typically carry heavy packs up and down steep slopes over several days for anywhere from 4 to 10 hours on average.  It’s tough to mimic those conditions in the gym, but we can do so out on the trails.

Hiking Montara Mtn gives training at sea level new meaning

Beautiful single track















I would recommend hiking with the pack you will actually carry in the mountains.  This achieves several objectives – gets you more familiar with your gear, gives you a chance to see if there are any issues with the fit (i.e., waist belt digs into your hips), and best simulates the actual conditions of your climb.

Water is the best way to weight your pack.  It’s easy to calculate (1 gallon is 8.8# and 1 liter is 2.2#), it’s plentiful and can be convenient on really hot days, and you can pour it out if you need to move faster or your knees are bothering you on the downhill.

A girlfriend of mine once brought 10# boxes of trash compactor bags in her pack, but when we started to run out of daylight and needed to move faster, she couldn’t do anything with those boxes. If she had water, she could have poured it out to lighten her load.

One disadvantage of using water is that it is more dense than the actual gear with which you will fill your pack.  This makes the center of gravity feel much lower than it will be on the actual climb.

Hiking the fire roads on Diablo

Company at the summit of Olympia Peak

One standard training principle is to carry the water up to the top of your hike, pour it out, and then descend with a lighter pack to save your knees and legs.  I never did this because I find the downhill to be quite challenging.  Its also the most dangerous part of most climbs – you have gravity pulling you downward, a false step is more likely to result in a fall, and you are the most tired when descending.  I always found it really valuable to train for the descent as well as the ascent.

When I first started climbing, I took the time to research all the major steep day hikes in the Bay Area.  I calculated the feet gain per mile to figure out which hikes would give me the best bang for my buck.  Mt Diablo tops them all for being a butt kicker that really simulates the strain you’ll experience on a mountain.  Mission Peak as also great for its relentless slope and was a great hike to do when I was more pressed for time.  Others are good for variety, but I didn’t feel were as beneficial as a staple.

Hike Miles Altitude Gain Feet/Mile Comments
Mission Peak – Main Trail 6.0 2100 350 Can be very hot in summer, but bring layers and liner gloves as temp can really drop once you gain the ridge near top
Mt Diablo North Peak Loop fm Regency Gate 9.9 3100  313 Real butt kicker –  when I’m really serious, I would do this one EVERY weekend. Bring a map and lots of water, can be VERY hot in summer.
Mt Diablo – 4 peaks of Diablo 16 4700 293 Start in Mitchell Canyon and summit Eagle Peak, main summit, North Peak, and Olympia Peak. Takes ~7.5 hrs.
Del Valle to Sunol 19.5 5600 287 Long long hike that requires a car shuttle. I’ve done this twice in about 8.5 hrs
Mt Tam – Mtn Home Inn TH  6.5 1500 250 Beautiful hike. Good for variety, but not nearly as hard as top two.
Montara Mountain 8 1800 225 Start in Mitchell Canyon and summit Eagle Peak, main summit, North Peak, and Olympia Peak. Takes ~7.5 hrs.
Windy Hill – Portola Valley Loop  7.2  1400 195 This has a long flat start and the grade is not consistent, but this is a good alternative for variety.
Wunderlich Skyline Loop 10.0 1800  180 Wooded and cooler in summer.  Well-marked trails.  Gentle grade but continuous slope.  Good for endurance but not very grueling.

All distances and altitude gains are based on publicly available info, my own recollection and use of an altitude watch, or maps.  If you redo any of these maps with your own GPS, feel free to send me your stats so I can improve the accuracy of this chart.

Please feel free to shoot me any questions or share any other local hike gems you may have.  Finally, I’ll put in a plug for my friends at BodyResults.  Most of what I’ve learned, I’ve learned from Courtney Schurman who has been writing my training programs for the last decade for big objectives.  Call of the Wild clients get special discounts at

Hope this helps your progress toward your backpacking and climbing dreams!

The gang on a windy day on top of Mission Peak

Friendly tarantula on Mt Diablo in Oct

Guide to Bay Area Climbing Groups

When I first started climbing in 2004, I knew no one that climbed and all my friends thought I was completely insane.  I relied a lot on guided trips to gain skills and experience, but that was expensive and the fabulous people I met on those trips were scattered around the country.  In the years since, I have slowly built a network of great climbing partners, many of whom I have met through local organizations.

As I often get the question “How can I meet climbing partners?”, I thought I would write this brief guide to Bay Area climbing organizations and provide my personal perspective on them.  I welcome others’ perspectives on these groups as well as any groups I may be missing.

American Alpine Club Sierra Nevada Section – this regional section of the AAC is chock full of super experienced climbers who are also very social.  It can be difficult to break into the AAC community as you need to attend one of the periodic events such as the Pinecrest Climb In or the ice climbing weekend at the Lost Trail Lodge, but as a climbing groupie, I appreciate the opportunity to meet legendary climbers such as Royal Robbins, Jack Tackle, and Allen Steck.  They also have a great annual holiday dinner at Spengers in Berkeley.  The AAC offers many other great member benefits such as Global Rescue insurance for the nominal $75, but you can sign up and attend most of the events as a non-member as well.

Legendary Fred Beckey and Allen Steck at the annual holiday dinner

Annual ice climbing weekend at Coldstream Canyon near Donner

American Himalayan Foundation – although not a true climber organization, the AHF is increasingly reaching out to the climbing community to raise awareness of the issues faced in the Himalaya.  I never miss their annual AHF dinner as a chance to meet others, both climbers and non-climbers, who are passionate about the Himalaya.  They typically put on a good show with interesting speakers and this year they’ll be featuring Ueli Steck, Alex Honnold, and Jimmy Chin.  The dinner price is steep at $200; however, you’ll get a receipt for the portion of your dinner that is tax deductible (it was ~$135 in 2011).

Everest summitters John Gray, Tom Burch (former AAC SNS Chair), and Apa Sherpa (world record holder for # of summits) at the AHF annual dinner

Jim Wilson and author Emilie Cortes with Sue and Phil Eshler, the first couple to climb the seven summits together

Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit  – a mountain rescue unit for climber networking?  Indeed, if you are interested in putting your climbing skills to good instead of evil, consider joining BAMRU or another mountain rescue team.  The trainings will keep you fresh, you will meet lots of other civic-minded and technically competent folks while building positive karma by helping locate lost hikers and climbers.  If you don’t want to join, don’t forget to donate in case you need their help some day!  Membership is $40 (yes, you pay for the honor to rescue others!), but the community is priceless.

Personal Rock Skills training in Tahoe

Rock Rendezvous – I have been a member of RR for a few years, but truthfully have failed to take full advantage of their benefits.  They are focused more on technical rock climbing, offer a monthly slideshow meeting, and priority camping in high demand locations like Tuolumne Meadows.  I have met some other great partners that were members of RR.  Their membership fee is very reasonable at $35.

Sierra Club Peak Climbing Section – this activity section of the Sierra Club focuses on non-technical peak bagging, although technical rock, snow and ice trips may be offered as private trips.  They hold a monthly slideshow meeting the second Tuesday in Palo Alto which gives you a chance to learn about a new region or climb, get to know other members, and hear about upcoming trips.  Amazingly, membership and trip participation is free.  It’s a friendly open community and most of the members are extremely active climbers.

Peak climbers at the annual PCS BBQ & Gear Swap

At the top of Mt Morgan with PCSers

Sierra Club Snowcamping Section – since when was snowcamping considered climbing?  Well, having mad snowcamping skills is critical on a snow or glacier climb, and could just save your butt if you ever get stuck out in a freak winter storm.  Many of my best friends and climbing partners have come from my involvement in the snowcamping section.  Seems like folks that have a penchant for suffering also have a lot of patience, tolerance, and are easy to get along with.  They offer an annual snowcamping training series for as low as $100 (Sierra Club members early sign up) to $125 (regular sign up for non-members) and alumni trips for a nominal fee of ~$25 (note: you may be able to attend alumni trips if you can demonstrate mastery of skills elsewhere).

Snowcampers on Echo Peak summit during record breaking low temps

A few others I know exist, but haven’t had much direct experience with, are Rock Ice Mountain Club in Santa Rosa, Bay Area Mountaineering Meetup, Berkeley CHAOS, and Stanford Alpine Club.

I hope this helps you on your personal quest to form a great group of climbing partners.  Don’t forget though that the responsibility goes both ways – you need to be a great climbing partner in order to foster lasting partnerships.  You don’t have to be the strongest or fastest climber out there, but you should 1) be at your personal best, 2) accurately represent your skill level and fitness, 3) consider the needs of the team/group as well as your own, and 4) follow through with your commitments.

Happy and safe climbing!!!