Get Out of Hibernation: Fitness Training for Backpacking

Propelling yourself up and downhill is one of the best ways to shake up our daily routine of walking solely on level and even surfaces. It also puts you right where you want to be: at the top of wide-open summits, taking in majestic and jaw-dropping scenic vistas, or deep within a heavily forested area where you can simply be immersed in nature. Add a 20-30 pound backpack to that equation, plus, walking long distances, and you’ve got a pretty good workout on your hands.

But that’s just it, for many of us, carrying heavy loads while hauling ourselves and our packs up a mountain — often over varied terrain — isn’t our normal, everyday thing. To put it plainly, one of the best ways to get fit for hiking is to actually go out and hike, eventually building up enough strength and stamina to do ten, twenty, or hundreds of miles on foot. While that’s certainly a great way to get ready … day jobs, responsibilities, and living far away from the trailhead might get in the way of the hiking part.

So, there’s plenty of other ways to whip that winter bod back into shape at home. From strength training to stretching and the (dreaded) cardio workout, there’s a lot of ways to get fit for the backpacking season. We talked to a couple of experts to find out how.

Strength Training for Backpacking

“Hiking makes you awesome,” says Hilary McCloy, a Doctor of Physical Therapy and U.S. Ski Team alum who’s an avid hiker, trail runner, and backcountry skier based in North Conway, New Hampshire. “Hiking is one of the best and most well-rounded outdoor sports for all ages,” says McCloy.  “Ascending a trail of any grade requires you to use many of your senses, taps into your balance systems, and activates the majority of your lower extremity and core stabilizing muscles.”

Admittedly, those muscles are not so activated as they are deactivated. Thanks to all the sitting and walking on level surfaces that we do, it’s necessary for us to turn those muscle groups on while exercising in preparation for backpacking. So, guess what? It’s leg day.

“Ascending a trail often requires repeated stepping up, which engages the muscles of your posterior chain, such as, the back muscles, gluteus muscles, hamstrings, and calves. The muscles in the front of the body — hip flexors and quads — are also engaged.” As a bonafide adventurer herself, McCloy recommends focusing on building strength in this area of the body through specific conditioning exercises that target the leg, back, and deep core muscles. Doing so will help you maintain good form, move efficiently, and prevent injury on the trail.

To start feeling the burn and increase strength try working these exercises into your routine:

  1. Planks – Don’t just do one kind of plank, do three kinds of planks to challenge and stimulate your entire body. Hold a forearm plank for 30 seconds. Hold a side plank (either on your forearm or hand) on the right and left side for 30 seconds each. Then, finish it off with a high plank (on both hands with arms straight) for another 30 seconds. Repeat three times.
  2. Squats – Standing hip-width distance, bend your knees and reach your hips back. Maintain good alignment by keeping your knees in line with your toes and hold for 30 seconds. To challenge yourself more, try holding for one minute each. Repeat three times.
  3. Lunges – Step one foot forward into a lunge with the front knee aligned over the ankle. Drop the back knee to hover a few inches off the ground, then re-straighten the back leg. Repeat this 10-12 times on each leg.

The Best Stretches for Backpackers

As your sore muscles will tell you, it’s highly likely you’ll feel more like stretching after backpacking than you would before heading out. However, it might not be such a bad idea to unroll your yoga mat and add a few poses to your routine, since regular stretching will give you better flexibility and more range of motion on and off the trail.

To sweeten the deal, stretching in preparation — as well as during and after — backpacking will help ward off injuries. Imagine how much more tension you’ll feel after a multi-day hike if you start out tight and end even tighter; or if that added tension leads to pain.

On top of all of that, as you stretch, you’ll establish a better awareness of your breath. Focus on taking deep and long cycles of breath as a way of increasing circulation, calming an overactive nervous system (which will come in handy if you find yourself in an emergency situation in the backcountry) and even improve your lung capacity for long approaches, higher elevations, or both!

Cycle through these three stretches before you head out on your next multi-day trip.

  1. Forward Fold + Shoulder Stretch – Hauling around a heavy pack creates tension in the upper body. Return to neutral with this double-whammy of a stretch. Standing with your feet a bit wider than hip-width distance apart, interlace your hands behind your back and gently squeeze your shoulders together. Take a breath in and breathe out as you fold forward with a slight bend in your knees. As your entire upper body gets a good stretch, so will your hamstrings, which become tight from miles of walking. Hold here for 3-5 cycles of breath.
  2. Thigh Stretch –  Loosen up the muscle tension in your front thigh and hip flexors before, during, and after a hike by stepping one foot forward and lowering your back knee down to the ground. As you inhale, slowly hug your legs and bend into your front knee. For some, this might be enough of a stretch, but for others, you can go deeper by placing your front hand on your front knee to stay steady, then reaching for the back foot with your other hand. Hold for 3-5 breath cycles and switch sides.
  3. Outer Hip Stretch – An outer hip stretch can relieve a tight back and give you more range of motion that radiates all the way down to your knees, ankles, and feet. Begin by laying down on your back with both knees bent. Cross your right ankle over your left knee and interlace both hands behind your right thigh. Inhale as you gradually lift both legs off the ground and pull them closer in towards you. Relax your shoulders and face. Hold for 3-5 breaths and switch sides.

Add Cardio to Your Routine

Before you immediately stop reading, adding cardio to your training doesn’t mean you have to become a dedicated runner or start worrying about PRs and Strava (that is unless you want to be one, then here’s your chance). More simply, any activity that increases your heart rate for a sustained period of time will help improve the function of your heart, lungs, and circulatory system. Ultimately, that will enable you to have better stamina while logging arduous miles on the trail, or climbing a particularly steep rock pile to the summit.

So, try to add a mere 30 minutes to your fitness routine several times throughout the week. Bonus points for those who can fit in every day. If running is your thing, then that will certainly do the trick, but there are plenty of other ways to get your heart pumping. Whether it’s a pick-up game of soccer or basketball with friends, hopping on your bike for a ride, swimming, or a HIT class (High-Intensity Interval Training), find a way to weave it into your schedule and make it fun.

At the end of the day, don’t focus so much on achieving a goal, but think of it as a good way to stay in prime condition for your time on the trail. Move as often as you can, find your edge, make it enjoyable, and hey, if all else fails, go take a hike.


Katherine Englishman brings endless positivity into this world as a freelance writer and teacher of yoga and mindfulness to adults and children. She enjoys adventures of every season in the mountains of New England and on the coast of Maine with her husband, Brian, and their pup, Candy.