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Backpacking fitness: How to train for backpacking

how to train for backpacking cover photo

Backpacking is a wonderful way to get in touch with yourself and with nature, but it’s not exactly a walk in the park…

Even though that’s exactly what it is.

Anyway, this guide aims to teach new backpackers how to train for backpacking, because being in shape makes every mile that much easier to love!

Backpacking fitness, defined

walking trail in a forest with green moss

Fitness is often talked about as a black-and-white, clear-cut distinction between “fit” and “unfit”. That’s fine for general conversation, but it doesn’t really help you evaluate yourself, and it doesn’t take into account the myriad of different factors that define individual fitness.

That means it’s a bad idea to take generic fitness concepts and apply them to complex human beings (you and me included).

Today, more and more trainers, dietitians, and fitness experts are expanding the way they talk about fitness. It’s not just about hitting arbitrary goals like “8-minute mile” or “225 pound bench press”. It’s about achieving the fitness that actually helps you live your life (backpacking trips included).

There are a few questions you should ask yourself when deciding on a fitness goal:

  • What is my ideal lifestyle, and what type of fitness promotes that?
  • What are my unique obstacles and setbacks? Can they be overcome, or do they need to be adapted to?
  • How much time and money can I reasonably invest in fitness?
  • Are any of my goals going to be unhealthy for the rest of my life?

What does it mean to be “in shape for backpacking”? What does ideal condition look like?

Okay, now onto backpacking. What does it look like to be in shape for backpacking? Is it just being toned and maintaining solid cardio? Surely those are two huge parts of backpacking fitness, but that’s not all. Instead of focusing on quantitative goals (hiking speed, leg strength, etc), let’s look at backpacking fitness through the lens of experience.

More than anything, you want your training program to lead you toward a better experience, not just a better body. After all, what is your body – and a grueling training regimen – good for if it can’t make your backpacking trips better?

When you build your personal backpacking training plan, think of these things:

  1. How much time do I want to spend catching my breath vs enjoying the views?
  2. How often do I want to be taking ibuprofen to treat muscle or joint pain?
  3. How many miles am I planning to hike?
  4. What about elevation gain?

How to train for backpacking: 3 crucial focus areas, in order

Man with a backpack on a dirt trail

There are only so many hours in the day, and it’s hard to give equal balance to all areas of fitness. This makes it necessary to focus on what’s most important, and give as much of the rest of our time to what is less important.

Here are the three most important aspects of backpacking fitness:

Cardio

More than anything else, your heart and lungs need to be ready for the demands of the trail. You’re going to be hiking anywhere from 6-30 miles per day (learn more about daily mileage here), and a lot of those miles are going to be tough with lots of ups and downs.

Building cardiovascular health is difficult but not complicated. At the end of the day, it’s all about getting the miles in. Sure, you can get more detailed with it, setting a target heart rate, per-mile pace, or endurance goal. But, all you really need to focus on is increasing your capacity to hike, without burning yourself out.

Flexibility

People stretching their arms

A stretchy muscle is a healthy muscle. There’s really nothing more to it than that; strong muscles that aren’t flexible are prone to tears, strains, and chronic pain. Stretchy muscles are prone to none of that.

Unfortunately, flexibility is easily the most overlooked aspect of physical fitness, at least in the Western world. Don’t make the same mistake people have been making for decades – truly devote yourself to becoming more flexible!

It’s not just about being able to touch your toes when you’re 55; it’s about avoiding injury, fatigue, and cramping. Backpacking is incredibly demanding, and the more flexible you are, the easier it is to meet those demands.

Beyond that, though, flexibility is a huge part of recovery. The more flexible you are, the easier it is for your body to bounce back from a tough hike and prepare itself for the next day. On a multi-day hike, that’s a benefit that cannot be discounted.

Strength

weight training for backpacking

Weight training is great, but weight training alone is not going to prepare you for anything other than simply lifting more weights. You should incorporate strength training into your plan, but it shouldn’t be the foundation of it.

It’s important to build and maintain strength for backpacking, but it should never take the place of cardio days and long stretches.

A note about joint and muscle health

Joint pain is incredibly prevalent in today’s world, and chronic joint pain is no longer just an older person’s issue; more than 25 million people under the age of 40 have chronic knee pain.

What does this mean for backpacking? Think of the demands of a backpacking trail:

  • hard, unevern, sometimes unstable ground
  • lots of elevation gain and loss
  • few places to sit and take pressure off of your joints for more than a minute or two

That all combines to form a nightmare for people with joint pain. If you’ve got bad knees, ankles, or hips, joint health should be a big part of your training program. Supplements, stretches, and consults with medical professionals are all in order. That way, when you finally hit the trail, that nagging joint pain can be minimized to the point that you can truly enjoy every mile.

7 Tips for developing a training routine

People with backpacks on a scenic trail

Since your training program will depend heavily upon who you are and where you’re headed, it’s not that helpful to just say “hike 5 miles per day”. That’s bad advice anyway, so let’s discuss some tips that will help you get on track to be in shape for your next backpacking trip:

Wear your weight

A lot of backpacking has to do with weight, and it’s not just the ultralight people bragging about how low their base weight is. Your pack weight – the total weight of all the gear you have – is going to have a huge impact on your energy levels, joint comfort, and more.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense to go on training hikes without a pack on, because you’re going to weigh 20-40 pounds less than you will on the trail. Training without your pack weight means your lungs, muscles, and joints won’t be as prepared as they should be.

Focus on elevation gain, not just miles

More often than not, it’s the elevation that’s going to hurt. That means that a solid backpacking training plan should account for the elevation gain that lies ahead. Strength training, hill repeats (going up and down a steep hill over and over), and maybe a little time on the StairMaster are all great ways to prep for steep inclines.

Consider trail running shoes

Trail running shoes are lighter and more breathable than hiking boots, making them great not just for runs, but for working on your hiking speed and staying comfortable while you train. In many cases, the design of trail running shoes helps support and strengthen the ankles, which is a major plus. And, contrary to popular belief, high-top shoes don’t actually stop sprains, or reduce the risk of sprains.

Pain doesn’t always mean gain

The old-school cliche has always seemed a bit ridiculous, but we’ve mostly accepted the underlying message as truth: it hurts to get better. While that’s true in many cases, being sore for days on end is not beneficial and can actually halt progress in its tracks. Backpacking training shouldn’t have you icing up or taking anti-inflammatories on the daily – if you’re uncomfortably sore, it’s time to dial it back.

You’re gonna have to hike

Where I live, the hikes are boring, take a while to get to from the city, and generally don’t feel “worth” the drive. It leads to a big lack of motivation for me, because all I really want to do is just fast forward to my trip! But, there really is no way around the need to go on long hikes, at least once or twice a week, during most stages of a backpacking training program.

You should aim to be hiking roughly 85% of your trip’s daily mileage during your long hikes. If you’re hiking 10 miles per day on your backpacking trip, you’ll want to be getting at least one 8-9 mile hike in each week by the end of your training period.

That’s a significant time commitment, one that is hard for most people with jobs, families, and friends to keep. But, if you really want to aim for being 100% prepared, the miles have to be completed.

Stretching is crucial

NFL quarterback Derek Carr credits a stretching routine with helping him feel younger, looser, and better able to bounce back. Backpacking is intense, but it’s nowhere near the level of intensity or roughness as pro sports. If stretching works for Derek Carr (a guy who gets tackled a lot more than his quarterbacking peers), it can work for backpackers, too.

Whether it’s yoga, calisthenic stretching, or partner stretching, placing a large emphasis on stretching makes everything better. You can hike faster, further, and push your muscles to the limit, all while risking fewer injuries and recovering twice as fast as your non-stretching buddies.

For full transparency, I hate stretching, I hardly do it, and I suffer for it every day. Maybe one day I’ll follow my own advice…

Train for at least three months

A month just simply isn’t enough time to get in shape for backpacking unless your base fitness is already above average. Going from the couch to the trail takes time, and beginner backpackers should start at least three months before their trip begins.

Next up, we’re going to go over an outline of a fitness plan that assumes you’ve got 15 weeks between now and the day you hit the trail.

A 15-Week Fitness Training Plan for Backpacking trips

Rather than getting super deep in the weeds, this training plan is an outline that you can use to craft your own workout schedule that flows at your own pace and fits into your life. Consider the daily mileage and elevation gain for your trip, as well as the amount of time you have to dedicate to workouts during the week.

Then, start developing your 15-week backpacking training plan:

Weeks 1-5: Base building

How do you build cardio without getting burned out? It’s all about base building.

Base building: an important beginning stage for any fitness journey, base building is less about improving and more about getting your body comfortable with movement and your heart ready for the harder workouts to come.

Most running and cycling experts recommend at least two months of base building before you really start to focus on getting faster or going further. While backpacking isn’t the same sort of cardio workout, it is an endurance exercise that relies on a strong heart and lungs. So, a few weeks of base building is in order.

How do you go about base building? It’s actually really easy, both in concept and in practice. Just hike slower. If you have a heart rate monitor, or your smartwatch has one, you should aim to keep your heart rate in Zone 2 for the entire hike.

Often, this means:

  • Taking more rest breaks, even if you feel like you don’t need them.
  • Moving slower to keep your heart rate down
  • Being a bit frustrated at how easy it feels.
  • Short hikes should be 30% of your trip’s daily mileage
  • Long hikes should be between 50-60% of your daily mileage.

Weeks 6-10: Reach new heights

Watercolor painting of a hiking trail
This image was created using DALL-E 2

Now that you’ve gotten over a month of base building in, you can focus on improving. Here’s a little of what that looks like:

  • Increase mileage each week, with your long hikes approaching 85% of your daily mileage
  • Added focus on muscular strength (optional, but this is the best time to do it)
  • Feeling challenged by the intensity, dealing with light to moderate soreness (but only the good kind)

Weeks 11-14: Ready for a backpacking trip

By the time you hit week 11, you should have a couple dozen workouts under your belt, which means you’ll be feeling really good about where you are. In these last few weeks, the intensity isn’t going to increase too much.

So, while you should be working harder, you should have also made enough progress that you aren’t feeling sore or exhausted by any of your workouts.

You’ve already completed the ramp-up; this is more like cruise control.

What weeks 11-14 should look like:

  • Long hikes at or above 85% of your daily mileage
  • Very little soreness, not feeling exhausted after a workout or sluggish throughout the day
  • Focus on maintaining strength and cardio, less on improving
  • Staying stretched and loose as a matter of habit

Week 15: Rest, stretch, and get stoked

Wooded forest in autumn

One week before your trip starts, it’s time to slow down. During this week, you’re going to be packing, making arrangements at home, doing laundry, and trying to finish up work before your time off starts. Naturally, that means less time for workouts; it also happens to be very healthy to ease off the gas before your trip.

There is very little to gain from going extra hard in the final week, although it’s tough to resist the temptation that tells you to sprint to the finish.

Your body will appreciate the extra rest, and you’ll be able to head into your backpacking trip with a gas tank that’s 100% full.

After all, you are training for a backpacking trip, so the goal shouldn’t just be to get in shape, it should be to feel 100% ready to rock!

More on what that looks like:

  • Short hikes, keeping it under 40% of your daily mileage
  • Lots of time devoted to stretching and resting
  • 3 total workouts or less

There is one exception: people who are already in great shape (who probably aren’t reading this anyway) don’t really need to rest too much, even though it’s still a good idea.

Backpacking exercises you can do at home, outside, or at the gym

Need a little inspiration as to specific exercises and workouts? Here are a few to try out first:

At the Gym

StairMaster

The more elevation gain and loss you’re expecting to face on a backpacking trip, the more time you need to spend on the stair master at the gym. Very few people truly enjoy this machine, but it is undeniably beneficial.

Aim for at least 10 minutes each time you head to the gym (or at least build up to 10 minutes over the course of a few weeks). 10 minutes will roughly approximate the demands of a very steep incline over about a half mile of trail.

Laps in the pool

Want to be in the best shape of your life? Swim a few hundred meters, a few times per week. It doesn’t use your muscles in the same way as backpacking does, but the cardio and strength training that swimming provides is impossible to beat.

Rowing machine

Man using a rowing machine
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

Similar to swimming, rowing is a full-body exercise that targets important muscle groups, improves cardio health, and has a low impact on your joints. The older I get, the more I find myself gravitating toward the rowing machine for a workout that is intense only in the right ways.

The good old treadmill

It takes a truly unique person to engage in a devoted love affair with a treadmill, but the need to do training hikes and long miles can’t be avoided. So, if you do most of your training at the gym, make sure the treadmill is part of your weekly routine.

Leg machines

You can be in perfect backpacking shape without ever touching the leg strength machines at the gym, but it’s no secret that stronger calves, thighs, and hamstrings are going to help you crush those miles. As long as you make sure those maxed-out muscles are staying loose and flexible, it’s never a bad idea to focus on leg strength at the gym.

On a Trail

Green forest with a dirt path
Photo by PhotoMIX Company on Pexels.com

There’s not a whole lot you can do on a trail other than hike it. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t vary your training hikes to maximize improvements. Let’s take a look at a few different ways you can use local hiking trails to get yourself ready for a backpacking trip:

Hike

First off, just go on a hike! Long hikes, short hikes, whatever it is – the more trail miles you put down, the better off you’re going to be. If you’re fortunate enough to live close to a long trail or large park, it makes sense to simply hike as often and as far as you can. A few long hikes, dropped into your weekly schedule, make all the difference in the world.

Run

Trail running is a great way to get in shape. It’s more demanding, but it means you can progress further while spending less time working out. You’ll get roughly the same workout on a 5-mile trail run as you would on a 7-8 mile hike, but the run will take up less than half the time!

Hill repeats

Is there a big hill nearby? Go out and hike it, up and down, over and over. It might feel a bit repetitive, but this is the backpacking version of sprints: intense, short bursts that make you a much better backpacker overall. It’s a great workout for elevation gain and loss, and it’s a more accessible hiking workout for people who don’t live close to extensive trail areas.

At Home

Calf raises

When it comes to hiking and backpacking, one of the muscles you should never ignore is your calves. Calf muscles are incredibly resilient and useful. The stronger your calves are, the less work your other leg muscles are required to do. It takes the load off of your thighs, which means you can hike longer, faster, and with less exhaustion.

Squats

Woman doing squats
Photo by Kampus Production on Pexels.com

Important though your calves are, it’s going to be hard to make it far without strong thighs and glutes. Squats take care of both of those muscles at once. Doing a few sets of 10, a few times per week, will make a big difference in your trail readiness.

Push-ups

Your upper body isn’t nearly as important as your lower body, but you can’t go out there and scramble up a mountain with arms that haven’t seen a workout in years! Push-ups are an efficient way to target several muscle groups that are important for backpacking. Just like squats, a few sets of 10, a few times per week, can have a massive impact.

Stairs

Got stairs in your house? Use them! The stairs where you live are a resource you can use to train your legs for elevation, and they’re always going to be there. Even just going up and down your stairs 10 times can have a noticeable impact on your backpacking fitness.

Yoga

People at a yoga class

So far in this section, we’ve largely ignored flexibility. That’s not because it’s not important; rather, it’s just because you can cover the entirety of your flexibility needs simply by doing yoga or stretch routines. Spend at least 1 hour per week stretching or doing yoga, and you’re going to be miles ahead of nearly everybody else (possibly even literally).

It’s about trail-readiness, not mirror selfies

The fitness world is almost hopelessly addicted to visual results (gains you can see in a photo) rather than practical results (gains you feel inside your body). The more weight a person gives to how they look rather than how they feel, the more likely it is they aren’t going to achieve their fitness goals because they aren’t taking a holistic approach to their health.

So, when you start training for your next backpacking adventure, keep in mind that the visual results tell only a fraction of the story. Also remember that by focusing on practical results, the visual results typically come shortly after!

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