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Physical Fitness and Backpacking: The Why, How, and What of Training for Your Next Trip



If you’ve read our Learn Page, you know we feel it’s important that backpackers prepare physically for trips. You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete, or even in “great shape” to do this sport, but a little physical preparation goes a long way on the trail. In this post, we’ll discuss why training is important (especially for more ambitious treks), what types of training you can do to prepare for your next trip, and how to set up a training plan if you aren’t accustomed to exercising.

Note: We aren’t personal trainers but we can tell you what the experts say, and what works for us. Use your best judgment and speak with your family physician or health care provider if you have questions about your physical capabilities.

Why Train?

There are many reasons to train for backpacking: It makes for a more enjoyable trip, it allows you to travel more safely, it expands your capability and range of possible hikes, and it creates a healthy habit that extends into other areas of your life. We’ll talk a bit about these in the text below. There are, of course, many other reasons to get in shape in general.

Reason #1: You’ll Enjoy Your Hikes

If you’ve ever been backpacking in, let’s call it “less than optimal” shape, then you probably understand what we mean when we say it can put a damper on your trip. In other words, it takes the enjoyment out of hiking when you are constantly struggling to catch your breath and make it up the next hill without becoming overly exhausted. Backpacking in certain areas, under variable conditions, and with a lot of gear can be physically strenuous. Getting in shape before your hike takes the edge off and allows you to focus more on your surroundings, the people with you, and the fun of the trip.

Reason #2: Safety

Although backpacking is a relatively safe sport, every year hikers encounter problems on the trail and find themselves in dangerous situations. If you aren’t up to the challenge physically, you will be distracted and not thinking about safety. Physical exhaustion can quickly lead to mental exhaustion, which in turn leads to an array of safety problems in the wilderness. You need to have your wits about you on the trail, and being physically fit goes a long way in determining how you will respond to unforeseen challenges.

Reason #3: You Can Do More

Once you get into backpacking, you will want to challenge yourself to longer, more remote, or more strenuous trips. If you love backpacking like we do, you never want to have to tell a friend “no” when he or she asks you to participate on a trip of a lifetime. But the fact is, if you aren’t physically able to complete a trek, you won’t be able to go. Some backpacking trips are more strenuous than others. We would venture to say that almost anyone can backpack, at any age, and at almost any level of physical fitness. However, don’t let your fitness level limit your range of possibilities.

Reason #4: It’s a Good Reason to Build a Great Habit

How many physical fitness New Years resolutions last a month or two, then inevitably fade? If this sounds like you, then backpacking could be the motivation you need to finally build that exercise habit you’ve always wanted. Training for your next trip provides you with a clear goal and a deadline. You know you have a certain number of days/weeks/months before the big adventure – use this to your advantage and make a training plan with goals and milestones that fit your timeframe. Many of us would love to be in better shape than we are now. Use backpacking as the reason for getting in shape and you’ll have a habit that is beneficial to all areas of your life.


Types of Training for Backpacking

The types of exercises that can prepare you for backpacking can be broken down into three broad categories: Strength, endurance, and mobility.

Strength exercises involve resistance training, which functions to build muscle. Endurance exercises are those that improve your cardiovascular fitness. Mobility exercises provide you with a greater range of motion, which will help prevent excess soreness and stiffness on the trail.

In his Backpacker.com article, Jordan Smothermon (head coach at StrongSwiftDurable in Jackson, WY) offers some fitness advice for getting in shape for hiking. We agree with Smothermon in his assessment that the minimum exercises to prepare for strenuous backpacking include:

1. Crunches

2. Squats

3. Lunges

4. Push-ups

5. Step-ups

Beyond the basic exercises above, you can incorporate:

1. Leg curls

2. Leg extensions

3. Band walks

4. Chest press

5. Bicep curls

6. Tricep extensions

7. Rows

8. Pull-ups

9. Shoulder press

10. Calf raises

11. Lat pull-downs

12. Running/walking/biking/swimming

13. And more...

Check out the Exercises Guide from Bodybuilding.com for a complete list.

Try to focus on improvement over time. If you can only squat your body weight right now, that’s fine, just make sure that you gradually add weight and continue to challenge yourself over time. The same goes for any exercise: Don’t settle for what you can do right now. Instead, push yourself to improve every week and you will be surprised at the results you will see.


Making a Training Plan

If you are not used to exercising at all, start small! Begin by focusing on building good habits, and don’t try to overload yourself with unrealistic goals. The unfortunate truth is no matter how motivated you might feel right now, you will likely experience periods where you wont want to exercise and you’ll come up with almost any excuse not to. This is why starting small; 5 minutes per day, 10 minutes per day, etc., is a good idea.

Start by walking a few times per week, at the same time every day, for short periods. You can also mix in some short, less strenuous hikes if you have access to a local trail. Gradually increase the time you spend exercising, the intensity of your workouts, and challenge yourself to do more with less time.

When you’re ready, or if you are already accustomed to exercising, you can begin working out in a gym in addition to endurance exercises like walking or running. Lift weights to build muscle and improve strength. If your gym has a pool, consider swimming to improve your cardiovascular fitness and mobility. Try stretching to improve mobility further, and consider signing up for a group class such as yoga, aerobics, or CrossFit.

Set goals and a timeframe! As mentioned above, you can use your next trip as a deadline for you to complete your training goals (but don’t just stop training after your trip!). Below is an example of a training plan for a trip that is just over two months away (9 weeks from today). You can make your own training plan using online resources (see the links below) or by consulting a personal trainer.

Daily Training Plan

Mondays: 1 hour in the gym for chest and triceps strength training

Tuesdays: 30 minutes to walk, bike, run, or swim for endurance training

Wednesdays: 1 hour in the gym for back and biceps strength training

Thursdays: 30 minutes in a group class or stretching for mobility

Fridays: 1 hour in the gym for legs and shoulders strength training

Saturdays: Rest, but stay active – go for a walk or a hike

Sundays: Rest and refuel. Plan for the next week

Weekly Training Plan

Weeks 1-3: Concentrate on strength training and building your exercise habits. Don’t skip!

Weeks 4-6: Continue improving strength by adding weight to your workouts. Build endurance by increasing the distance and intensity of your walks, runs, bike rides, or swims

Weeks 7-9: Increase intensity of all workouts. By this time you should be seeing noticeable improvements in strength and conditioning. Try doing some short hikes with a loaded pack to test your fitness level.

Starting training can (and should) be challenging. But don’t let the idea of training intimidate you. Like we said above, if you aren’t used to doing a lot of exercise, start small! Set goals you know you can achieve and gradually change those goals to push yourself a little harder. You will be surprised at how quickly you begin to form excellent fitness habits and you’ll experience awesome changes in your health, wellness, and overall satisfaction with backpacking and with life in general.

Resources and Links:

Backpacker.com Complete Training Archive for Hikers of Any Age: http://www.backpacker.com/skills/fitness/hike-forever-ultimate-hiking-workouts/

How to Get in Shape for Hiking. (2015). Backpacker Magazine Website: http://www.backpacker.com/skills/fitness/how-to-get-in-shape-for-hiking/#sthash.pLsUSwJz.dpuf

REI Conditioning for Backpacking: http://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/conditioning-backpacking.html

Bodybuilding.com – A great resource for fitness plans, nutrition information, and motivational articles: http://www.bodybuilding.com

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