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Home » 12 off-trail exercises for Backpacking: Get in shape for your trip

12 off-trail exercises for Backpacking: Get in shape for your trip

Backpacking and hiking are amazing ways to spend time and connect with nature, but nobody said it was easy. In fact, the difficulty of many trails is precisely what’s appealing about them. This means, however, your body needs to be prepared; being out of shape on the trail can be miserable and sometimes even deadly. These 12 exercises for out-of-season or out-of-shape hikers and backpackers will help prepare your body to crush the trail!

best exercises for hiking and backpacking

How We Chose These Exercises

  • Aerobic Intensity: Rather than doing simple squats, we’re recommending different exercises that target the same muscles but get your heart pumping more. The idea is to train your heart and lungs all the time, not just when running or swimming. That way, your body gets accustomed to being out of breath and making power movements like squats at the same time.
  • Similar Motions: Many of the exercises you’re about to see are intended to replicate the movements you’ll be making on a steep mountain trail. Whether it’s scrambling over rocks, pulling yourself up and over a steep portion of the trail, or the knee-jarring descent after you summit a peak, these exercises are designed to prep you for whatever the trail throws at you! Not only will your muscles be ready strength-wise, but they’ll also be familiar with the movements and demands that accompany a strenuous hike or backpacking trip!
  • Muscular Strength: Your legs need to be strong, yes, but so do your arms, core, and back. We chose exercises that’ll build muscles across your entire body, which helps you tackle the trail faster and takes some of the impact off of your joints.

12 Great Exercises for Hiking and Backpacking

1. Jump Roping

You won’t find this exercise on many other lists, but jump roping is actually one of the best things you can do. It improves your agility, balance, and timing, all the while improving your cardiovascular health. In fact, jumping rope for 20 minutes a day has the same effect on your endurance as a two mile run!

More than that, jumping rope can also help strengthen your knees and ankles for high-impact activities like hiking. If you’ve got a trip with a steep descent coming up, incorporate a jumprope into your workout routine- you won’t regret it!

Person jumping rope in a gym

2. Jump Lunges

Why “jump” lunges and not normal lunges or squats? Doing your lunges with a jump in between instead of the standard “lunge in, lunge out” motion gets your heart pumping crazy fast and builds explosive muscle strength. Over time, you’ll notice that your muscles are just as strong but not as bulky, keeping your body tight and strong the way you need it to be!

jumping alternate lunges GIF by Hockey Training
Jump lunges, from Giphy

3. Running

“Well, duh!”

Yeah, I know- this one is about as obvious as it gets. The longer you are planning to hike in a day, the more miles you should be running each week in preparation. If you’re aiming for 12 miles a day, you should train by running at least 4 miles, 3-4 times per week. You can start small and build up to that distance, too.

No matter what, though, make running a major part of your workout routine- failing to do so will leave you shockingly unprepared for the trail! If you can, try to run on trails or paths that have some decent hills; this will further prepare your legs (and especially your knees) for your trip.

man running on a trail in the woods

4. Crunches

Core strength is one of the most important things about overall fitness, but it’s most people’s least favorite thing to do. If you’re not big on ab workouts, start with 4 sets of 20 crunches, four or five times per week. Even if you never get a six-pack or burn off any belly fat, you have to make sure you develop core strength.

Strong cores are crucial for balance and stamina, no matter what type of sport or activity you’re training for. So, tell your “I don’t wanna” to go away and get it done! I hate ab workouts with a passion, but the times that I actually do them give me a noticeable boost.

If you’re already in pretty good shape, you can add planks, side planks, and side raises to the mix. If you’re not? Do your crunches for the day and move on to something more enjoyable!

work out eating GIF by Robert E Blackmon
from Giphy

5. Curls with Overhead Press

Bicep curls are great, but adding an overhead press makes them even more beneficial. Take two dumbbells and stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Curl both weights, and, in one fluid motion, extend your arms all the way over your head. This will work your biceps and deltoids, toning and strengthening your arms in one simple exercise!

Start with 4 sets of 10 reps. If you want to go for even more tone, do 15 reps for each set. If you’re feeling adventurous or find this exercise a bit too easy, add a squat to each rep for a full-body experience! Having strong arms isn’t that important for backpacking, but you’ll still love the benefits.

GoodLife Fitness fitness workout gym healthy GIF
Part one, bicep curl. Part two, this ^ (from Giphy)

6. Push-Ups with Weighted Rows

This one isn’t for the faint of heart. If you already hate doing pushups, this one won’t excite you very much. Take two dumbbells and get into a pushup position. Do one pushup, then pull your right arm, weight in hand, up to your chest and lower it back down. Then do the same thing with the weight in your left hand, and move on to the next pushup.

This will build core and chest strength just like a normal pushup; however, it also strengthens your arms and shoulders. It (imperfectly) replicates some of the motions of scrambling on rock. Pulling the weight up is similar to pulling yourself up a steep trail. Do four sets of 10 reps, two or three times a week, and you’ll see results you’ll love!

Pushup rows hiking exercises

7. Lateral Pull-Downs

If you don’t have a gym membership, this one might not be feasible for you because it requires a machine. You can do it with a set of resistance bands attached to a door in a pinch, though! Lateral pull-downs are a great exercise that prepares your arms and back for the demands of a steep “scrambling on all fours” type of trail. If you have some ambitious trails planned, doing 4 sets of 10-12 reps a couple of times per week will go a long way!

You can also do pull-ups if you’re in great shape; I am not, so lateral pull-downs are all I can handle!

man doing lateral pull down exercise

8. Rowing Machine

Bored with running but still want to get some cardio in? The rowing machine is perfect for you. 15-20 minutes of rowing will burn just as many calories as running and give your joints a break from high-impact running. It’s not going to prepare for for hiking as well as running will, but it’s an excellent alternative for those days when you’re feeling sore, tired, or simply frustrated with your normal exercises for hiking.

From Giphy

9. Swimming

Looking for a full-body workout that’ll get you in great shape without destroying your joints? Do some laps in the pool! Swimming is almost universally recognized as a great way to get in shape that protects your knees and builds cardiovascular strength. If you have access to a pool, try to swim 800 meters or so every time you use it! If you can get up to 2,000 meters of swimming in one workout, it’s safe to say you can handle just about any trail there is!

swimming in a lake for exercise

10. Hiking

What better way to get in shape for hiking and backpacking than to simply go hiking? If there are trails near where you live, you should spend time on them each and every week. Even a few miles of hiking can work out the rust and soreness in your body and get you ready for longer, higher trails down the road.

Hiking for fitness in the woods

11. Step-Ups

If there is one motion that you’ll repeat more than any other, it’s walking up an incline. The best way to train for this is by forcing your legs to repeat that motion, over and over and over. If you have an exercise step you can use that, but I just use the bottom step of the stairs at my apartment. Put one leg on the step, and step up using your thighs and calves; repeat this 15 times before switching legs.

Once you do 4 sets on each leg, your legs will be burning and your heart will be pumping. I do them a few times per week because my knees are pretty weak and I need to strengthen my legs to compensate. It feels exactly like hiking up a steep section of trail, and doesn’t leave me terribly sore the next day the way that a stair climber does!

12. Calf Raises

These are one of the simplest exercises for backpacking, but they’re important nonetheless. You can do them with or without weights, single-leg or double leg, on a stair or on flat ground. No matter what, though, calf raises are crucial hiking exercises. They not only build leg strength, they also improve your balance and control and reduce the risk of ankle injuries.

Because you’re going to be hiking many miles and your calves naturally have more endurance than other muscles, you should do lots of calf raises- more reps than any other exercise. I typically do 5 sets of 25 reps (125 total) when I do them with both legs; single leg calf raises are more like 4 sets of 15.

When Should You Start to Train for Hiking?

You should train for hiking as early as 3 months before your next hiking or backpacking trip. While you may not need all three months, a 12-week training program gives you enough time to improve at a healthy pace without burning yourself out. If you don’t have three months to train, do as many of these hiking exercises as you can each day between now and your trip date.

Be wary of overworking yourself; your muscles won’t improve if they’re completely destroyed, and you’ll have to take time off that will ruin your progress! Respect your body’s limits and work with it, not against it!


The best exercises for hiking are the ones that give equal attention to your muscles and your cardiovascular health. Hiking is a great way to lose weight and gain muscle at the same time, but the real focus should be on endurance when it comes to trail performance. Aerobic workouts are ideal, but don’t neglect running and hiking whenever you can. We hope you enjoy your training and you feel better than ever when you hit the trailhead!

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