Improve Your Backpacking Fitness
Originally written for and published by Wilderness Culture
A backpacker needs endurance, strength, and mobility to climb mountains and since the sport itself is not always a possible training method, I've provided the best options to get in adventure-ready shape with what most people have access to. This way, you will be ready for the big climbs and long days so you can enjoy the trails.
It won't take a summer of hiking to be in peak condition if you start now with these options!
1. Put In The Miles
I know many backpackers and hikers that can't stand to run. I was one of them until I started trail running. Trail running puts you in the state of mind and terrain of backpacking, building your fitness through bursts of energy to get up a steep hill and building the stamina to keep a strong pace. You may also find yourself as motivated to push through the ups and downs while running like you would on a long distance hike.
Find some nearby trails so you can get a run in each week, improving your cardiovascular health and endurance. And bonus points for finding a trail running group, which has the added benefit of a community to help you stay consistent and improve!
By maintaining the ability to run on trails, back-to-back, full hiking days won't be as challenging!
2. Functional, Time-Under-Tension Exercises
Hiking with a pack requires upper and lower body strength that lifting heavy weights (or trail running) won't prepare you for. The long burn of carrying a backpack up a mountain is most similar to functional, time-under-tension exercises, basically keeping the muscle under strain or resisting the weight. You can build massive strength without a gym (light to medium weights are optional) by doing compound exercises that require you to hold a challenging position—think wall sits!
Additionally, many exercise programs miss one of three movement patterns that daily life and backpacking require you to use simultaneously.
Of the three movement patterns, which include moving forward and back or up and down (Sagittal plane), moving side to side (Frontal plane), and moving rotationally (Transverse plane), we neglect rotational movements. For exercise to be functional we need to include moving in all three planes.
Alexia Clark is the resource I recommend for functional, time-under-tension exercises that build backpacking strength. I haven't come across anything better and the videos on her Instagram are a great starting point.
3. Practice Injury Prevention
A backpacking trip is synonymous with aches and pains. My through-hiking partner and I always compare what feels sore at the end of the day and at what point in the day our shoulders started to hurt. The good news is that training muscles that are still sore (i.e.the sport of backpacking) doesn’t damage or slow the recovery process. In fact, being sore is just increased sensitivity from our body's immune cells responding to inflammation and doesn't impair our ability to train again. However, injuries are a concern no matter what your athletic history is and especially for those who aren't physically prepared.
Injury prevention starts with warming up. I find Eimanne Zein's warm up to be the most effective before running and backpacking.
I also recommend the application of Taoist advice of "yin and yang" to all exercise routines. While movement and activity (yang) support our physical fitness, we need the opposing force of recovery and relaxation to balance it out. Whether you have found foam rolling, yin yoga (tension release practice with less movement), ice or Epsom salt baths to provide the relaxation you need, enjoying this time is key to keeping up the routine. Plus, hitting the massage ball, your favorite yin moves, or the icy water of a river or lake while on the trail will allow you to continue maintaining your mobility.
4. Eat Like an Athlete
Although I backpack for the experience of being outdoors and enjoying nature, backpacking is an athletic event. Your body is challenged to do something it doesn't do 75% of the time (if you are mainly a summer hiker), so stepping up your nutritional game is only fair.
To increase your energy, vitality, and recovery on the trail, learn about your body's nutritional needs before and after exercise and the key nutrients that fuel fitness. For this, I recommend Brendan Brazier's book, Thrive. As the Formulator and Co-Founder of Vega, Brazier explains nutrition from an athletic perspective that inspires the athlete within us all.
5. Whatever fits your life
At the end of the day, the goal is to feel capable of completing your bucket list trails. The advice I've given on training, recovering, and eating like an athlete is going to make trails a lot easier and more enjoyable. However, any effort you put into your health and fitness is going to create results.
If life is feeling busy or overwhelming, ask yourself each day what you can do- a walk before work, a jump rope session before showering, the trampoline park with your kids, a hike on the weekend. All will move your body, so discover and incorporate whatever fits your life.