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The Best Cardio Machines To Get Fit For A Hard Hike

You probably know cardio is an essential part of getting fit for a challenging hiking trip. And, while shorter hikes are the absolute best way to prepare for a longer hike, many people don’t have the luxury of getting on trail more than once a week.

One way to train for a hike off trail is by using cardio machines at the gym. But with so many options available, how do you know which one is best for hiking?

The answer largely depends on your individual needs and preferences.

Treadmills, ellipticals, stair climbers, and other machines are all popular choices for cardio workouts, but each has its own benefits and drawbacks.

Treadmills simulate walking or running better than any other machine, making them a good all-around choice for hikers. Ellipticals provide a low-impact workout that can help strengthen your heart and lungs without putting too much strain on your joints. Stair climbers offer a high-intensity workout that can help build endurance and prepare you for steep inclines on the trail.

Ultimately, the best cardio machine for hiking is the one that you enjoy using and that helps you achieve your fitness goals. With that being said, let’s break down the pros and cons of popular machines in more detail.


Hardcore exercisers often look down their nose on the elliptical. The common criticism of the elliptical is that it’s too easy on your body, therefore it doesn’t adequately prepare you for demanding activities.

While there is a little truth to that argument, the elliptical trainer is a great low-impact option that can be a solid choice for hikers who have a history of injury, are under a lot of stress, or do other demanding workouts. The low-impact nature of the elliptical is a boon for anyone who wants to develop their endurance without beating up their body.

In the end, your heart and lungs don’t really care how you’re exercising them. All that really matters is that you work them out consistently and deliberately.


  • Great low-impact machine to reduce wear on the body or keep intensity in check
  • Involves the arms, which can improve ski and/or trekking pole efficiency
  • Can increase resistance, helping strengthen legs for steeper climbs


  • Doesn’t fully prepare you to support your bodyweight
  • Reduced improvements to bone and ligament health compared to walking or running

Stair Climber

The stair climber is a popular choice for hikers wanting to build endurance and strength. This machine simulates the motion of climbing stairs, which can be especially helpful for hikers who will be tackling steep inclines on their hikes.

The stair climber requires the user to step fairly high on each step, helping improve hip flexor strength to a greater degree than other machines.

While it can be tempting to rely on this machine to train for a hard hike, it is typically best to use it just once or twice a week for higher intensity workouts. The remainder of your workouts would prioritize steady, low-intensity cardio.


  • Good way to prep for steep, difficult climbs
  • Repeated weight-bearing impacts helps build stronger bones and ligaments
  • Can increase resistance, helping strengthen legs for steeper climbs
  • Trains hip flexors, glutes, hamstrings, and quads effectively


  • Doesn’t adequately prepare the body for descents
  • Trains ankles and calves less than other machines

Jacobs Ladder

If you have access to one, the Jacobs Ladder is an incredible cardio machine. It’s a good way to mix up your conditioning workouts with a challenging yet low-impact full-body exercise.

The great thing about the Jacobs Ladder is that it is actually self-powered. The faster you move, the faster the ladder moves. You don’t have to worry about it outpacing you or holding you back because it responds directly to your input.


  • Low-impact cardio, easy on the joints
  • Develops full-body strength and coordination
  • Can add variety to high-intensity workouts


  • Difficult to keep intensity in check; poor choice for low- or moderate-intensity workouts
  • May not be available in many gyms
  • Too large and expensive for most home gyms

Stationary Bike

While it shouldn’t be the only thing you use, I like using stationary bikes to train for a hard hike.

The ability to quickly and easily adjust how hard you push is one of the biggest advantages to the bike. Overall, it’s easier to switch between coasting on a bike or really hammering it hard, especially compared to other cardio machines.

This makes biking a great way to develop your stamina and cardiorespiratory endurance while limiting stress from higher-intensity activities, such as running.


  • Low-impact, effective conditioning
  • Very easy to increase or decrease intensity
  • Great choice for both high- and low-intensity workouts


  • Doesn’t prepare you for traversing over terrain
  • Doesn’t prepare you to support your bodyweight
  • Limited core and upper body engagement (unless using an air bike)

Row Erg

When used with good technique, a row erg, rower, or rowing machine taxes just about every muscle in your body.

Most rowers either use air or water for resistance. Water rowers have a smooth, consistent resistance. Air rowers have adjustable resistance. As you row harder, the resistance increases exponentially.

Either way, using a rower is a great tool to use to train for a hard hike. They are easy on the joints, build significant full-body strength, and, when used for intervals, can develop the mental fortitude necessary for a challenging summit.


  • Easy to adjust intensity
  • Develops full-body strength and conditioning
  • Can help develop good hip and ankle mobility
  • Mentally challenging when performed at intensity


  • Relies heavily on form, much more so than other machines
  • Repetitive movement can make it tough to use for longer periods


Though there are plenty of other options, a treadmill is still going to be the best cardio machine for most hikers.

The ability to adjust the incline, change the speed, and easily track your distance are all great features. But the real benefit of the treadmill is the fact that you are actually on your feet, placing one foot in front of the other.

In order for you to be truly prepared for something, you have to actually perform the movement itself at some point in your training. This training principle is called specificity.

As far as specificity for a hard hike is concerned, there’s no other machine that can really beat the treadmill.


  • Most closely resembles the challenges of a hike
  • Can easily simulate uphill climbs
  • Strengthens calves, feet, and ankles more than other machines
  • Can easily wear a pack to train for the backcountry
  • Builds bone, tendon, and ligament strength more than lower-impact exercise


  • Doesn’t fully prepare you for unstable, uneven terrain
  • Impacts joints and tissues more than using other machines; greater need for recovery between workouts if running

Building Your Endurance For A Hard Hike

Remember, just because the treadmill most closely resembles the challenges of the trail, that doesn’t mean it’s the only machine you have to use.

Many of the other options listed here are fantastic ways to develop your cardiorespiratory endurance. At the end of the day, what your heart and lungs really need is consistent, sustained training.

The don’t care what machine you’re on.

As far as endurance is concerned, most people would do best training 3-5 days per week, depending on the difficulty of their goal hike. The harder and longer the hike will be, the more endurance training you need.

When building fitness programs for myself and my clients, I like to have the most intense workouts at the beginning of the week, then taper to long, low-intensity workouts by the weekend. This helps reduce the wear and tear on your body while training the energy systems you need for a hard hike.

Here’s what a week of endurance workouts could look like using some of these machines:

Monday: 30 minutes of hard bike or Jacobs Ladder intervals
Tuesday: Full-body strength
Wednesday: 45 minutes of walking at steep incline on treadmill, with loaded pack
Thursday: Full-body strength
Friday: 20 minutes each (60 total) of easy rowing, biking, and elliptical
Saturday: Hike or 60+ minute easy walk on treadmill
Sunday: Rest

Want some help putting together a plan to reach your goals? Work with us to get the guidance and accountability of an experienced coach. Book a free call here or learn more here.

If you are looking for something to make the difference in your fitness, keep this in mind while shopping around:

Fitness should empower you to do the things that excite you.​

You deserve a program that helps you become confident, strong, and capable in the outdoors (and in life). That’s exactly what we do.

All the best,

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