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Do you need strong arms for backpacking?

I’ll get right to the answer on this one before going into detail: no, you really don’t need strong arms for backpacking, although they do help a lot. Strength doesn’t play a huge role in backpacking unless the trail demands it. Still, it’s good to keep yourself in good backpacking shape, which does include at least a little bit of upper body strength. 

Upper Body Strength is useful, not required, when backpacking

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Backpackers come in all shapes and sizes; some of them have strong arms, and others don’t. On the vast majority of backpacking trails, it really doesn’t make a difference how much weight you curl with, or whether you curl anything at all. 

Most of the time, you’re just going to be walking. While it’s nice to have arms you can depend on for tricky sections of trail, setting up camp and hunting for firewood, your arms don’t have a lot to do with the universal aspects of backpacking. Modern backpacking equipment and well-maintained trails make it easy for nearly anyone to choose a trip that aligns with their body’s abilities. 

That said, it’s not like having upper body strength is completely useless. You’ll definitely appreciate working on your upper body as you train for backpacking, even if you get by with skipping arms at the gym. 

Where do strong arms come in handy on a backpacking trip?

  • Tough trails: The more often a trail puts you on all fours, the more you need your arms to perform. 
  • Hoisting your pack: This one is minor, but hoisting a 40-pound pack several times a day is a lot harder if you haven’t lifted weights in a while.
  • Using trekking poles: Poles give you balance, but they also spend more of your energy. Having arm muscles that can endure several hours of using trekking poles is a very good thing. 

Some trails demand strength, but trail choice is up to you

There is one situation where being able to do a few pull-ups makes a big difference: when the trail calls for scrambling. Scrambling is the middle ground between hiking and technical climbing, requiring the ability to pull yourself upward and onward over rocky sections of trail. 

On trails like that, strong arms are a must; without upper body strength, you’ll be exhausted and sore at best. At worst, you could put yourself into real danger of falling, or be forced to turn back because you can’t take it. I’ve turned around a few times on hikes that were harder than I expected, and there’s no shame in it, but it still isn’t a fun mistake to make.

If you don’t have strong arms, or if you simply aren’t looking for that type of adventure, you don’t have to worry. The types of backpacking trails that actually do require strong arms are both rare and easy to spot.

What muscles are most important for backpacking?

There are five muscles/muscle groups that are critical for backpacking, and – no surprises here – they’re all in the lower body and legs.

  • Calves: Every foot of elevation on the trail means your calves are going to be active participants in getting you where you’re going. Backpacking puts a high demand on your calf muscles, so train and stretch accordingly!
  • Hamstring muscles: often overlooked in favor of strengthening the quads, your hamstrings play an important role in hiking speed as well as balance and injury prevention.
  • Quads (thigh muscles): The stronger the thighs, the easier the miles. Plain and simple, and same goes for elevation.
  • Core muscles: These are important for all aspects of hiking, but they’re also crucial when it comes to being able to carry the weight of your pack without injury, exhaustion, or soreness. Backpacks can get really heavy, and you want a solid core to help you lug it all.
  • Glutes: Hike further, faster, and more efficiently with a set of toned buttocks; easy as that!

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