Getting in Shape for Hiking Season
Maybe you’ve spent the winter regularly hitting the ski slopes,
cross-country trails, or snowshoe loops; maybe you’ve even been summiting
some iced-over mountaintops. If so, you’re likely well primed for the
upcoming summer-through-fall peak hiking and backpacking season.
Perhaps, though—like oh so many of us—you haven’t been out playing in the
snow quite as much as you would have liked, and challenging winter weather
has mostly seen you just daydreaming about great hikes you want to tackle in
a few months (and top off with our tasty
backpacking food!). Perhaps you haven’t been hitting up the gym
very often—or at all. In that case, a little physical conditioning is likely
in order so that you can get in shape for backpacking and hit the ground
running once the trails thaw out.
Here we’ll cover some basics of physical conditioning for backpacking, and
direct you to some useful links with more detailed instructions for specific
exercises and hiker workouts. Before we go any further, though, we’ll
express the usual caveat: It’s best to consult with a physician before
embarking on any new or intensified exercise regimen, and all of the below
information should be calibrated for your own specific situation, physical
abilities, and general level of health.
photo credit: Holly Mandarich via Unsplash
Conditioning for Hiking & Backpacking
To get in shape for hiking season, you want to start early. Ease into
physical conditioning several months ahead of your first significant
backpacking trek, at the very least.
The best and easiest way to prepare for hours, days, and maybe weeks on the
trail is, unsurprisingly, hiking—or, at least, walking. If your schedule and
location allows, there’s nothing better than actually taking to a hiking
trail on a regular basis to improve your strength and endurance. Try an
hike once you’re on your way to enjoy a day out, weather
permitting! But even walks around your neighborhood are beneficial—really
beneficial—and if you can weave in some steep sidewalks or stairs as
you expand your training, that’s all the better. Give yourself rest days in
between, ultimately shooting for several multi-mile outings a week.
Begin with short and level walks, whether on trails or pavement. Gradually
increase the distance and, if possible, the grade. Once you can go several
miles without tiring, add a daypack or lightly loaded backpack. Just as you
ramp up the distance and elevation you’re covering, you can little-by-little
up your packweight. In Beyond Backpacking, legendary thru-hiker Ray
Jardine recommends full water bottles as a handy way to tweak your load: If
you’re struggling partway through your training walk, you can always dump
(or drink) some of your lugged water.
Jogging, cycling, and trail-running can also obviously benefit your
conditioning, though if you’re not a regular runner or cyclist you should be
careful about incorporating them so you don’t injure yourself.
Seek Out Uneven Surfaces
Walking a paved path or sidewalk can definitely be part of your backpacking
conditioning, but it goes without saying that such a surface doesn’t exactly
mimic the typical substrates you’ll be running into in the backcountry. From
gravel or snowy tracks to actual hiking trails, carry out as much of your
training on uneven routes as possible so you’re strengthening your ankles
and feet and improving your balance.
Speaking of balance, you can work on it at home every day by just standing
on one foot and then the other for a few minutes when you get the chance.
This little (and maybe slightly silly) routine can pay off down the line
when it comes to crossing log bridges, talus fields, or steep hillsides.
photo credit Phil Coffman via Unsplash
Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Training
Your main focus in conditioning will be aerobic: oxygen-fueled
cardiovascular exercise. On a hiking trek, though, you’ll run into
situations demanding more intense, anaerobic exertion, and so you want to
also prepare your muscles and tissues for these kinds of extreme, short-term
physical activities. In a recentBackpacker article
on hiker workouts, Rich Rife of Mountain Fitness Research
suggests shooting for about 75 percent aerobic—“at a low enough intensity
that you can do it while breathing through your nose exclusively”—and 25
percent anaerobic in your cardiovascular conditioning.
Good anaerobic conditioning exercises include sprints and fast-paced stair-
or hill-climbing with packweight.
At Home or in the Gym
There’s a lot to be said for doing hiking conditioning out in the snow,
sleet, rain, or wind: Becoming comfortable with trekking in the elements is
an important part of getting ready for the wilderness. That said, you can do
a great deal of valuable training at home or in the gym when the weather’s
really lousy, or when you simply can’t spare the time for outdoor work.
Treadmills, stationary bikes, ellipticals, and rowing machines are natural
The physical demands of hiking and backpacking aren’t just about endurance:
Muscular strength is a definite part of the equation, too. Incorporate
strength-training such as weight-lifting and squats into your training
regimen to boost power.
Examples of Super-Simple Home or Gym Exercises to
Prepare for Hiking
We’ll provide links to more detailed explanations of some specific
endurance, strength, and interval-training routines useful for hikers and
backpackers. But we’ll get you started with a couple of very simple
exercises to prepare for hiking that you can do at the gym or in the comfort
of your own home.
The Wall Shin Raise: Set your heels about six inches from a wall and
lean your back into it. Lift the balls of your feet, pause for a beat,
then lower your toes back to the floor. Do 10 to 20 in a set to
strengthen your shin muscles, which needless to say are hard-working
ones out on the trail.
The Goblet Squat: Hold a dumbbell or kettle ball at your chest with your
feet just slightly more than shoulder-width apart. Lower your body down
as if to sit, keeping your upper body straight; stop with your thighs
parallel to the ground, then lift back to a standing position. Do 10 to
20 reps. The Goblin Squat is an excellent way to strengthen your legs.
The Clock Reach (viaBackpacker):
Bend your left knee slightly, then reach your right foot forward and tap
its heel on the floor, being sure to keep your hips straight and your
knee and ankle aligned. Return to your starting position. Then extend
your right foot about 12 inches to the right and tap your heel. Return
to the starting position, then reach your right foot behind you as far
as you can without changing the angle of your left knee. Return to the
starting position. Do 10 of these each with both feet. The Clock Reach
strengthens your hips and quads to make those challenging downhills a
Step Ups & Heel Downs (via
REI): Boost your balance and lower-body strength with sets of
Step Ups and Heel Downs on a bench or stool a foot or two tall. For Step
Ups, face the step and step up with one foot, raising yourself as tall
as possible, then step off. Do 10 to 20 of these before switching to the
other foot. To do the Heel Down, stand on the bench or stool and let one
foot hang to the side. Flex the toes of that foot upward and lower your
heel to just above the ground by dropping your hips as if to sit in a
chair. Return to the starting position and repeat for 10 to 20 reps
before you do the same with the other foot.
The Shoulder (or Pull-up) Shrug: Hang from a pull-up bar with your
shoulders flexed backwards—“imagine holding a pen between your shoulder
then gently move them downward. Hold for two counts, then ease back. Do
10 reps at first, gradually increasing them week by week. The Shoulder
Shrug can help you build upper-body strength for wielding your pack,
churning along with your trekking poles, and scrambling.
The Enjoyment Element
We'll reference Jardine’s Beyond Backpackingonce more for a very
important point about conditioning exercises: They should be fun, not some
dreaded chore. “Motivation is fueled by positive feedback; frustration by
negative,” Jardine writes. “If your training is not fun, then you are
extremely likely to abandon it.”
photo credit: Peter Conlan via Unsplash
House Blogs for the above information.