The most common doubt that beginners have expressed to me before their first backpacking experience relates to their physical ability. My typical response to these doubts is “if you can walk unassisted and without pain, you can go backpacking.” (And please do try backpacking if that response describes you!)
While that statement is generally true, it is admittedly a bit of an oversimplification. While being able to walk is certainly a base requirement for backpacking, it alone won’t get you to the most beautiful views or remote places. It won’t make you comfortable hiking more than a few miles per day. In order to do those things, you do need to become fitter.
The fitter you become:
- The more exotic and remote your destination options become
- The more ground you can cover in the limited time that you have to explore
- The less time you’ll spend with stiff muscles and achy joints after a hike
- The less prone you’ll be to injuries on the trail (and in your life away from the trail)
- The better you can keep pace with any of your hiking buddies
- The more you can enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells around you without being distracted by soreness and fatigue
- (Perhaps most importantly) The hotter you’ll look in your hiking gear*
Now, How to Get Fit
Again, none of the following are requirements for getting started in backpacking, but they will ensure that you have a safer, more comfortable, more effortless adventure. So do one or do all (but try for all).
Walk: Walk as often as possible, and for as long as possible. This will prepare many of the joints, muscles, and connective tissues that you’ll use while backpacking for the long periods of repeated movement that you’ll be putting them through on the trail. Try to walk at a pace that’s a little faster than comfortable sometimes. This will improve your low-level cardio performance so you’ll feel less winded on the trail.
Walking is a healthy thing to do all around. It’s good for heart health, metabolism, cognition, stress relief, and it might even help shave a few pounds from your mid-section (which is weight that you won’t have to carry around on your next hike).
I often walk barefoot or with barefoot style footwear. It helps improve my balance, lower-leg strength, and foot dexterity, all of which can reduce risk of injury. (I also think that grass or sand between my toes feels awesome.)
Squat: Get low. Not on your tip-toes, with your knees way out in front of you and your butt resting on your heels — but with your heels down, back straight, and your butt out behind you. Like this. Now get up. Now get low again. Repeat until exhausted. Now do this two more times, and repeat 1 – 3 times per week.** If you can’t do it on your first try, don’t worry. Here’s a great way to transition over time.
Squatting is a key exercise to prepare for backpacking for a few reasons:
- Nature calls. Unless you’re going to do a completely fasted hike (which I don’t recommend), you’re probably going to be digging and filling some foxholes in the backcountry. The proper squat is THE most natural, most efficient way to eliminate waste. In fact, it’s how we’d all be doing it if we didn’t have the modern toilet.*** Having the ability to easily get into and out of a low squat will add a great deal of comfort to your wilderness experience.
- Injury prevention. Distance runners are starting to catch on, and a good physical therapist will tell you — strength training will help prevent injuries related to physical activity. Squat training will help condition your lower extremities for work and stabilize your joints, which will help prevent knee and ankle injuries on the trail.
- Uphill climbing. The more weight and/or volume you put into your squat workouts, the faster and less winded you’ll be while climbing uphill. All of the muscles that are key in propelling you up a mountainside (glutes, quads, hamstrings, etc.) are conditioned by doing squats. Also, it’s typically the uphill climbs that you’re feeling in your legs for days after a vigorous hike. Having a workout routine that includes squats will greatly improve your recovery time. Lunges are also great training for uphill climbing, so if an upcoming hike includes serious elevation gain, add some weighted lunges to your preparation.
Aside from enhancing your backpacking experience, there are a TON of reasons to add a routine squat workout to your regimen. Resistance training can increase bone density, and the resulting lean muscle mass has been correlated to greater longevity and preservation of cognition. Squatting targets a huge group of the body’s largest muscles, so doing routine squat workouts will have major metabolic and hormonal impacts that can help you lose fat and speed up muscle growth (even in muscle groups unrelated to squatting).
EXTRA CREDIT: Once you can do a bunch of squats with proper form, start doing some of your squats & lunges while holding something heavy. Training with added weight will make hill-climbing even less painful. If you really want a challenge, hold that heavy object over your head while doing squats or lunges. You’ll tighten up your trunk really quickly with this trick, which will help you support the weight of your pack more effortlessly, and help you keep your balance while hiking (among other benefits).
Stretch: Just as important as strength training for injury prevention are joint mobility and flexibility. (Plus you may need to increase hamstring flexibility and ankle mobility just to get into your first proper squat.)
I don’t do any slow, static stretching right before a hike, as that may increase risk of injury or cause early fatigue. Instead, I try to do most of my flexibility work in the days, weeks, and even months leading up to my hikes.
On the day of your hike, a half mile hike on an easy section of trail may be all of the warm-up that you need. If the trail is strenuous from the get-go, maybe do a few quick dynamic (bouncy) stretches, a couple of bodyweight squats, and some knee lifts or can-kickers. But don’t overdo it. Over-stretching and too much warming up can zap a bunch of energy that you’ll want to save for the trail.
Long, slow, static stretching definitely has its place — and that place is after a tough hike. Do a bunch of it after your hikes, especially if you’re about to crawl into your sleeping bag for the night or if you’re about to be stuck in a car for an hours-long ride back to civilization.
Sprint: Forget jogging 3+ times a week (unless you’re into that). Sprint once a week or once every two weeks for a few months leading up to your trip. You can get a sprint workout done in under 15 minutes, and you get a TON of bang for your buck. It has all of the great cardiovascular benefits of jogging, plus the hormonal and metabolism enhancing benefits of resistance training. Your hiking buddies will be impressed with your performance on the trail if you make this a habit.
You can use a beach, lawn, hill, stationary bike, rower, burpees, or even a treadmill, but here’s my favorite method: go to the nearest local hill (which are pretty small in Illinois), and walk up it. Then walk down and jog up it (slowly if you like) and walk back down once more. Then I sprint up the hill at 50-75% effort for 10-15 seconds, and walk back down. That’s my warm-up.
After I recover my breath and heart rate from the warm up, I run up the hill as fast as I can for 15-30 seconds. The time depends on my mood that day, and you may want to start with 15 second intervals. I walk down, catch my breath, and do it again. Each time I run it takes a little bit longer to catch my breath. The point is to run as fast as possible, so imagine that you’re crossing a busy freeway or being chased by a bear.**** By my 7th or 8th repetition I’m ready to lose my breakfast. My workout is done as soon as I’m feeling this way (or sometimes one interval beforehand). Don’t be surprised if you feel this way after your 3rd or 4th repetition on your first few sprint workouts. I sure did.
I like to do a cool-down walk which I don’t consider to be part of my 15-20 minute warm-up and workout session, but it’s probably advisable to include with some stretching in your post workout.
As you progress, you can make your rest intervals shorter to fit in more sprint intervals, or increase the duration of the sprint intervals up to 30 seconds. Once you get pretty good at these, you may even want to check out Tabata sprints. If you’re using a bike (regular or stationary) or running on flat ground, you may need to increase the length of your sprint intervals to get your heart rate up to where it would be when doing a shorter, but more difficult, hill sprint.
Sprinting may not be a good workout for you if you’re just coming off of the couch and getting into fitness, but once you’ve spent a few months walking, squatting, and stretching (among other things), you might be in fine shape for your first sprint workout. Go easy your first time around to see if you’re ready. If you feel good and recover quickly, give it a bit more next time.
Go Backpacking. Perhaps most importantly (and certainly most fun), get out and do it. Actually engaging in a given activity is the best way to physically adapt to that activity. I find that hiking is a great workout that doesn’t feel like exercise at all. So I’m always training for the next great hike without feeling like I’m training.
If you’re the type who likes a physical challenge and you already have some level of fitness, go ahead and jump into more strenuous hikes. Just be sure to plan for the increased water needs, and don’t bite off more than you can chew as far as wildlife, remoteness, and technical & navigation skills are concerned.
There are a ton of exercises that you can do at home to promote overall fitness (push-ups, pull-ups, planks, burpees, kettlebell swings, etc.) and I highly recommend all of them. But the tips outlined above are targeted specifically to add some fun, comfort, and safety to your backpacking adventures.
Stay healthy, stay on the trails, and lift your pack with your legs, not your back. And post your questions, comments, or favorite stretches and workouts in the comments below.
*Just kidding. It’s hard not to look like either a dork or a lumberjack in hiking gear, no matter who you are or how much you work out.
** If you can’t do squat exercises for medical reasons, do a Google search for alternatives to squats. If you can’t do any of those, talk to your doctor about whether wilderness backpacking is right for you.
*** Some people think that a return to squatting would alleviate certain bowel issues. (Links to funny, slightly inappropriate advertisement)
**** But you NEVER, EVER run from a bear in real life. Seriously. You’ll die.
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