The Surprising Secret to Successful Backpacking: Weight Training

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When guiding trips in the mountains, I get clients of all shapes and sizes. One day I’ll be working with a professional snowboarder, the next with a guy working a desk job who didn’t train at all for our expedition. I like working with people of different backgrounds and helping them succeed— that’s part of what I love about guiding.

What surprises me, however, is when I get someone who appears to be physically fit but who still struggles on the trip. Shouldn’t an ultra-marathoner be a natural? But while folks in this category may have incredible cardiovascular fitness, they can have difficulty carrying heavy loads. And that’s the thing about backpacking: You not only need to have super-strong lungs and legs, but also strong back and core muscles. And if you can’t get out backpacking every weekend, the best way to train these important muscles is to hit the gym.

No matter your athletic background—pro, desk jockey or weekend warrior—here are some exercises to help you be strong and have a blast on your next mountain adventure:

1. Sit ups with a plate

The exercise: Like sit ups, but harder. Lie on your back with your knees bent, and with your arms rigid hold a plate up above your head. Sit up while keeping the plate in line over your head, and then relax your back down again still holding the plate. Repeat.

Sets: 4

Reps: 10

Weight: Start with a 10 lb. weight, then increase to 25 lbs. over time. It should be hard but not impossible for you to complete all the reps in the set.

2. Ankles to bar

The exercise: Wrap your hands around a pull-up bar. Lift your feet off the ground and with a slow, controlled motion (no swinging). Raise your ankles as high as the bar and lower them back down. If you can’t lift your ankles that high, try bringing your knees to your armpits or your knees to your chest, and build up from there.

Sets: 4

Reps: 8

Weight: However much you weigh. This exercise may make you want to eat more salads.

3. Deadlift

The exercise: A weight-training classic. This will strengthen your back, core, shoulders and legs all at once. Set a weight-lifting bar with plates on the ground, then squat and wrap your hands around the bar shoulder-length apart. Keeping your back and arms straight, stand up by straightening your legs and bringing your shoulders back. Lower the bar back down by bending your knees and continuing to keep your back straight to avoid straining it. Repeat.

Sets: 4

Reps: 8

Weight: If you haven’t weight-trained much before, start with just the bar. Add 5 lb. weights on each side, then 10 lb. weights on each side, then 25 lb. weights on each side. You should be able to just barely complete the 8 reps; if they’re too easy, increase your weight, and if you can’t get through the reps, decrease it.

4. Burpee

The exercise: According to legend, this exercise originated with a man named Lieutenant Thomas Burpee during the American Revolutionary War when he used it to condition the soldiers under his command. It’s basically a combination of a squat-jump and a push-up. Start standing, then set your hands flat on the ground by your feet. Kick your feet backward so that you are now in a plank position. Do a push-up, then jump your feet forward toward your hands and leap into the air as high as you can. Repeat.

Sets: 6

Reps: 10

Weight: You.

Head on over to REI's Expert Advice for more Backpacking: Training Tips and Exercises.

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