Backpacking is just as exhilarating as it is exhausting. There are many miles to cover and elevation gain and loss to deal with, all with a heavy pack on your back. Prepping for a backpacking trip isn’t just about packing your essentials, like a lightweight backpacking tent or a down-filled sleeping bag. It’s also about fitness. Developing and sticking to a solid backpacking training plan is one of the most important things you can do to get ready for an upcoming trip. This is especially true if you’re coming out of a long winter of being cooped up inside.
The good news is, even if you’ve been spending more time on the couch lately, our guide on how to train for backpacking will help you build a program tailored to your needs so you can show up at the trailhead ready to conquer anything.
In this article, you’ll learn:
This guide is designed to help you build a custom fitness program that fits your unique needs. Everyone is different and so is each backpacking trip. We all have different starting fitness levels, time constraints, and even health concerns. Similarly, every backpacking trip has a different distance and elevation that you must be ready for.
Therefore, a general “one-size-fits-all” training plan simply isn’t as helpful as one that fits you perfectly. That’s why our guide is focused on giving you the knowledge you need to develop your own plan. Before we get into plan specifics, let’s start with goal setting.
Before you hit the gym or home weights, don’t make the common mistake of kicking off your new exercise regime without first considering what exactly you are trying to accomplish. If you just want to simply “get in shape,” the odds are pretty high that you’ll either quit before you get real results or embark on your backpacking trip still not truly prepared for it.
What we mean is, it’s important to be specific about your goals. Start by taking a look at your trip itinerary. Ask yourself these questions to gauge the demands your body will have to meet:
Knowing the answer to these questions will help you build a training plan tailored to you and your trip’s demands and intensity. For example, if you’re hiking 36 miles over four days (averaging 9 miles per day) with a total elevation of 11,500 feet while wearing a 26-pound pack, you need to prepare for that specific scenario.
Instead of just telling yourself to “work out more,” incorporate into your training program purposeful exercises that will help you get ready to handle those demands—such as planning day hikes of 7-8 miles while carrying about 20 pounds in your pack. It’s also important to orient your weight training and cardio around the weight, distance, elevation demands specific to your trip.
Once you set your goals, you are ready to plan out your training program. But first, these three basic principles will help you focus on what you need most and customize a fitness plan for your specific trip:
More than anything, you want your workouts to prepare you to complete every mile of your trip without exhausting yourself. Of course, the trails will wear you out, but being completely exhausted while hiking in the mountains is a recipe for disaster.
So, if you are forced to choose between a workout that will increase your stamina and endurance or a workout that’ll give you stronger calves, choose endurance every time.
Whenever you can, try to wear some extra weight when you’re training to help build your strength and endurance. If you’re walking or jogging, a weighted vest can simulate the feeling of trying to cover that distance while wearing your pack; this makes your training more realistic and effective.
Similarly, wearing your pack with 50-80 percent of your planned weight in it (throw in your sleeping bag, backpacking sleeping pad, and other gear) while doing your exercises will help you become stronger and more balanced. Wear your pack while doing squats, lunges, and even push-ups.
If you don’t have your gear list complete yet as a new backpacker, you can put clothes and small dumbbells in your pack to simulate the weight.
A backpacking training program is a feat in and of itself. It can be easy to lose sight of why you’re training and turn to exercises or workouts that may not necessarily help you on the trail. Always remember that your main goal isn’t to look better, lose weight, or even get stronger—it’s to prepare your body for the trip, and nothing else.
Another reason to keep your perspective is that it’s very easy to go overboard in training programs. If you put all your energy into training, don’t rest enough, or don’t ease up the week before your trip, you’ll arrive at the trailhead exhausted. You want to start your trip feeling amazing, not sore and tired from a months-long training program that you took too far.
With that, let’s start to plan out the specifics of your backpacking training plan:
If possible, you should try to start training at least three months before your next trip begins. That gives you 12 weeks to get in shape, push yourself to improve, and make progress at a healthy pace. Six months of training is too much and will likely lead to laziness. One month isn’t enough and will likely lead to you overworking yourself and developing muscle injuries.
A three-month training program also gives you some room for error. If you miss a workout due to sickness, soreness, or life simply getting in the way, a 12-week training program is long enough that you can adjust to those setbacks.
Now, let’s take a look at how you should map out your training program.
Below, you’ll find a basic roadmap that will allow you to tackle each month of training in a way that will ensure you arrive at the trailhead ready and excited. The key is to start slow and increase the intensity over time, giving your body a chance to recover and build muscle and endurance.
Each month of your training has one goal: prepare you for the next stage and ultimately for your trip. That means that at first, it won’t feel like you’re doing enough. That’s intentional; the goal is to use the time available to prepare your body in a healthy and manageable way.
Unless you’re a gym rat, odds are you aren’t in the best shape of your life week in and week out. The first month of the training plan will focus on building basic fitness and preparing you for elevation gain by building leg and core strength.
In this month, you’ll spend your time working out the rust in your muscles and joints, getting yourself ready to improve. If you’ve spent the last few months cooped up inside, doing simple things like a few sets of pushups and squats might be a lot harder than you remember.
Also, you’ll focus first on building your strength, then later in the program this will allow you to build your endurance. So, instead of three cardio days a week, the first month you should only do two cardio days and three strength training days (weight lifting). Of course, if you’re already in solid condition strength-wise, don’t spend extra time in the area you’re the best in.
Remember, this is the month where you’ll deal with the most soreness, sluggishness, and desire to quit. That’s why it’s important not to go overboard immediately—you’ll quit before you have a chance to get in shape and see real results.
This month is where you start to push yourself. Add intensity to each of your workouts: more weight, more miles, and deeper stretching and balancing exercises. By the end of month two, you should start to see visible results in the mirror, and feel stronger each week. Some soreness might return on heavy workout days, but it should fade quickly.
This month, you should incorporate trail running and short hikes carrying most of your pack weight if possible. The more your workouts feel like being out on the trail, the better.
If you start to feel like you’re going too hard, let off the gas a little. It’s better to develop endurance over time than go overboard and be forced to take a few days off to recover. After all, backpacking isn’t a sprint or even a jog. You want to get your body into the rhythm of exercising more frequently, not pushing yourself to the edge and then resting.
Now, it’s time to really kick things into gear. Each workout should feel pretty intense—still not going overboard—and have you feeling like you could do anything, even, well, climb a mountain. This is the month that the intensity will prepare you for high elevation gain, high mileage, and high altitude hiking.
At this point, your weightlifting days should be minimal and you should be incorporating lifting that gets your blood pumping. Cardio and training hikes should take up the majority of your time and be accompanied by stretching and yoga to stay limber.
Adding weight while jogging or walking is a must—you should be comfortable carrying 80 percent or more of your pack weight for at least a few miles. You and your pack should feel pretty intimately acquainted at this stage. Ideally, each week, you should hike, run, and walk roughly the same distance as two days of your trip. For example, if you’re doing a 40 mile, 5-day trip, you should try to hit at least 16 miles per week, if not more.
If you can, try to do at least one or two full-day hikes early in the month; hiking 8 miles or more with your pack on during a day hike will be a true test of your preparedness.
Once you reach the week before your trip, it’s time to let off the gas. Don’t stop working out completely, but lower the intensity by about 25 percent. This will keep your body running efficiently while still saving your energy for the trail. Two or three days before you leave, cease workouts altogether, save for maybe a light walk and stretching.
It sounds obvious, but it can be easy to lose track of your actual goals over the course of a long training plan. Remember that the end of your three-month training plan isn’t the finish line, it’s your starting point.
Ok, now that you know what a 3-month plan should entail, let’s look at the day-to-day. A basic week spent training for your backpacking trip should look something like this:
OK, you’ve stayed with us this far. Let’s wrap up with some specific exercises you can incorporate into your training regime.
Generally, there are three different places people work out: at a local gym, in their living room, or at a park. Rather than grouping our exercise recommendations based on the type of fitness, we’ve grouped them by location because your options are grouped that way. Plus, you need to focus on each type of fitness, whether you spend your workout time in the gym, at home, or outside.
Also, we recommend spending a lot more time outside than you do in the gym after the first month of the training program. The closer you get to your trip, the more you need to focus on mileage and less on strength. If you want to learn how to train for backpacking, these exercises will help you get into tip-top shape.
1. Leg Press
The leg press is a weighted machine that lets you target your thigh and glute muscles, which you’ll be relying on heavily to get you up mountain trails with lots of elevation gain. It’s a pretty intuitive machine; simply sit in the chair, set your legs shoulder-width apart, and push the weight 10-15 times per set.
Even though leg presses are easy to use, they do come with one major risk. Pushing too fast can lead to you hyperextending your knees, which will destroy your training routine and possibly put you in a hospital. Don’t let that scare you though; just push the leg press slowly and don’t overload it with weight.
The leg press puts all the weight on your thighs and glutes, so you won’t have to use that much weight to get a great workout. Do four sets of 10-15 reps, no more than three times per week. This is a great “Month 1” exercise because it builds muscle quickly.
2. Weighted Rows
Using a weighted rowing machine will build upper body strength and even improve your balance. The back muscles it engages will be very useful when carrying a fully-loaded pack, helping you not only carry the weight but also deal with the way it changes your center of gravity.
On weight-training days, doing four sets of 8-12 reps will do more for your backpacking fitness than bicep curls or a bench press will. It gives you a great workout for your biceps and back and will help you pull yourself up over rocks and downed trees while on your trip.
3. Stair Climber and Jacob’s Ladder
These are two different machines that accomplish the same function: they force your body to move in a way strikingly similar to heading up a steep incline. The stair machine is essentially a never-ending set of stairs; spending 10 minutes on it each time you hit the gym will work wonders for your fitness.
The Jacob’s Ladder is a bit harder to visualize, so it helps to just watch a quick video. If your gym has one of these, spending five to 10 minutes on it a couple of times per week is enough to seriously improve your ability to scramble and climb on tough mountain trails.
4. Treadmill Running
This one doesn’t need much explanation: if the gym is your favorite place to work out, this is where you get your miles in. Aim to do 1-3 miles on the treadmill per workout in the first month, 2-5 miles in the second, and 4-7 miles in the third.
The best part about treadmill running is that most machines include some type of programmed trail running workout that will automatically increase and decrease the incline, just like elevation gain and loss on a real trail. Using a treadmill isn’t as good as trail running outdoors, but in the dead of winter, it’s way better than being on the couch.
5. Resistance Band Leg Exercises
Many different leg exercises using a resistance band will help strengthen the minor muscles in your legs. Doing this will improve your balance and reduce soreness in your knees and ankles. They might not seem as difficult as they should be, but difficult isn’t the goal, helpful is.
Ah, yes. Good old push-ups. No matter what you’re training for, push-ups are always a good idea. They build anaerobic endurance and upper body strength, which makes them a huge compliment to running and leg-strength exercises.
Different people have different push-up capacities, so it’s hard to recommend a number. The amount of push-ups you do is less important than simply doing them. On upper body or strength days, do whatever number of push-ups feels challenging but possible for you. If that’s 50, great. If it’s 15 half push-ups done on your knees, that’s just as good. Just make sure that you are challenging yourself and that you increase the number, even by just a few, over the course of the training routine.
2. Squats, Bicep Curls, and Shoulder Press Combos
This is a total-body exercise that nobody should skip. Squats, bicep curls, and shoulder press combos work all your major muscles at the same time, which is great for people who don’t have the time or lack the endurance to do long workouts.
Take two medium-weight dumbbells and hold them at your sides with your feet shoulder-width apart. Keeping your back straight and using your legs, squat down until the weights touch the floor. Then, use your thighs and glutes to power yourself back to a standing position, simultaneously curling the dumbbells. Then, finish the rep by pressing the weights above your head and gently bringing them back down to starting position.
It’s a complex-sounding exercise that should feel very fluid and natural in practice. This video will show you the proper form in case you’re having trouble visualizing it. Doing four sets of 10-15 reps a few times a week is an excellent way to build strength and muscular endurance that will help you crush the trail. If you’re not out of breath after doing a few sets, you’re either doing it wrong or you’re already in phenomenal shape.
3. Planks, Crunches, and Side Raises
These three abdominal workouts should be part of your routine more days of the week than not. A 60-second plank, followed by 25-50 crunches, and completed by 10 side raises on each side is exactly what your core needs. A core that is engaged, challenged, and strengthened will give you the balance and endurance you need to feel energized and stay safe at every stage of your hike.
There are many, many different abdominal exercises you can do to strengthen your core; feel free to incorporate your favorites. The important thing is to engage your core almost daily. Some days, a couple of sets of crunches after a run is all you’ll need. Other days, you should do a more complete abdominal workout. By the end of three months of training, you should have core strength that lets you handle any trail.
4. Weighted Lunges
How have we not gotten to lunges yet? Apart from squats, they are perhaps the most important exercise you can do to prepare for backpacking. They engage every muscle in your legs and even help improve your balance.
Grab two medium-to-heavy dumbbells and do sets of 10-20 lunges (5-10 reps for each leg). You can also throw some bicep curls into the lunge routine to make it a more total-body exercise. Alternatively, you can ditch the dumbbells and wear your pack with 80 percent of the weight in it.
5. Weighted Calf Raises
On any incline, your calves are going to be doing some pretty serious work. They’re the muscle that, if you train correctly, will take some of the workload off of your thighs and make hiking easier. More importantly, though, strong calves and ankles are hugely important for balance.
1. Running and Walking
This is the most important aspect of training. Getting in a few miles a week at first and then ramping up to a mileage close to your total trip is paramount to success. A good goal pace, when running on mostly flat ground, is between 8 and 9 minutes per mile.
2. Jump Squats
Jump squats combine cardio with strength training, and, on top of that, they’re just a lot of fun. Doing four sets of 10 jump squats will give you more strength, endurance, and explosiveness that will propel you faster and farther on your trip. One note: this is one exercise in which wearing your pack is a decidedly bad idea. Be safe and save the extra weight for other exercises.
Find a park bench or a set of stairs and put one foot on it. Then, take slow and smooth steps up and down, 10 reps each leg. Just like lunges, this is a motion that your legs need to be extremely familiar with.
4. Mountain Climbers
Mountain climbers are another great exercise that both builds muscle and gets you sweating. This exercise will also improve your balance because it’s fast-paced and requires a bit of coordination to sustain for a full 30-60 set.
Want to know what it feels like to hike up 800 feet in 30 minutes? Doing five sets of burpees for 45 seconds each will get your heart racing about the same amount. Burpees are a great way to build muscular endurance and simulate the tiredness and breathless feelings you’ll have at the end of a tough section of your hike.
Backpacking takes dedication and focus, but developing a training plan that includes day hikes, strength training, and a lot of cardio will prepare you wonderfully. Whether it’s your first backpacking trip or you’re a seasoned mountaineer, the elevation gain, long-distance hiking days, and intensity of the trail each demand a lot of training.
How far away is your next backpacking trip? Are you feeling ready, or have you yet to start training? What training tips do you have for other hikers? We’d love to hear all your thoughts and questions in the comments below!
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