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Backpacking: Training Tips and Exercises

Backpacking_Train_Cover2

Spending multiple days hauling a pack weighing 40 or more pounds up and down uneven terrain will challenge you in countless ways. From head to toe, you’ll need strength coupled with a solid level of cardiovascular fitness.

Spending time to get physically prepared—along with investing in appropriate gear, from boots to backpack—is critically important for a more enjoyable journey.

Set a Training Schedule for your Backpacking Trip

If your goal is to complete a three- to five-day backpacking trip, you’ll want to prepare with a consistent level of cardiovascular training, some higher-intensity intervals and sufficient resistance work to build strength and endure the miles ahead. Assuming you're starting at an average level of fitness (check with your doctor before starting your training program), 12 weeks of training before your event is a good goal to shoot for.

Sample Training Week

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

Saturday

Sunday

Cardio

Steady state

30 to 60 minutes

Intervals

30 minutes

Steady state

30 to 60 minutes

Active recovery

20- to 30-minute walk

Intervals

30 minutes

Active recovery

20- to 30-minute walk, training hike, or 90-minute steady state

Active recovery

20- to 30-minute walk, training hike, or 90-minute steady state

Resistance

3 sets of each exercise

None

3 sets of each exercise

None

None

None

None

Cardio Training for a Backpacking Trip

If you plan on knocking out 10 or more miles a day during your backpacking trip, you’ll need to perform at least three (ideally five) days of cardio training per week beforehand. Moderate, steady-state exertion levels will be very important. While high-intensity workouts are especially popular right now, you need to train the energy system that will be under consistent use during your backpacking trip.

Duration: Your cardio workouts should last 30 to 60 minutes and include a mix of walking / hiking and cycling or elliptical training to help you avoid overuse injuries.

Interval Training: If you do five days of cardio, include two higher-intensity workouts focused on intervals to develop your anaerobic energy systems for when you’re pushing your pace or dealing with a steeper section of trail.

Start your interval workouts with a five-minute, moderate-intensity warm-up (4 to 5 on a scale of 1 to 10). Intervals should include 30 to 90 seconds of high-intensity work (8 to 9 on the intensity scale), followed by a light-to-moderate recovery period of up to two minutes. Continue this work-recovery ratio for 20 to 40 minutes and finish up your workout with a thorough cool-down.

Training Hikes

In the months leading up to your trip, try to do a day hike every other week, not only to build your cardio fitness, but to help you get used to wearing a weighted backpack. Over time, progressively increase the distance and elevation of your hikes as well as the weight of your pack. The idea is to build up to an intensity level that approaches what you will experience on your trip.

These hikes will also help you become more familiar with your equipment and learn how to make appropriate clothing choices based on temperature and conditions.

Resistance Workout for a Backpacking Trip

When you’re out on your trip, you’ll be moving up and down with varying loads while setting up your tent, collecting water from a lake or stream, and lifting and lowering your pack. The weight of your backpack raises your center of gravity and increases the stresses on your muscular system more than if you were just walking unencumbered.

Resistance training is key to getting your body ready for the stability challenges and impacts of moving over uneven terrain.

Frequency: Be sure to include at least two (preferably three) days of resistance training in addition to your cardio workouts.

Your resistance workout can be done on the same day as your steady-state cardio workouts, but be sure to do the resistance workout first to ensure you are not overly fatigued when performing these exercises. Interval workouts should not be performed on the same days as strength workouts.

Warm-up: Be sure to do a five- to 10-minute warm-up prior to your resistance-training workout. The warm-up should include two to five minutes of light aerobic activity followed by two to five minutes of some dynamic stretching.

Step Ups

Step_ups_A
Step_ups_B

Repeat for 10 to 20 reps on each side.

  • Stand facing a 12- to 24-inch step, plyobox or bench.
  • Step up with your right foot and fully extend your right hip and knee (be as tall as possible).
  • Bring your left foot back down to the floor and repeat for 10 to 20 reps before performing the same movement with the left foot leading.

Heel Downs

Heal_Down_A
Heal_Down_B

Complete 10 to 20 reps on each side.

  • Stand on a plyobox or bench and let one foot hang off the side.
  • Flex your free foot (toes lifted up) and lower it down to the floor.
  • Focus on pressing your hips back as if you’re sitting down on a chair. Be sure to control the movement, letting your heel hover above the ground before returning to the starting position.
  • Complete 10 to 20 reps before performing the same movement with the other leg.

Rotating Upward Chop

Rot_Upward_Chop_A
Rot_Upward_Chop_B

Complete 10 to 20 reps per side.

  • Attach a resistance band to a low anchor point and grasp both handles with both hands while standing in a lunge with one foot forward. There should be tension loaded through your torso and into your near-side glutes.
  • As you come up out of your lunge, pull through your upper body and torso turning away from your front leg. Pull the handles at an upward angle across the front of your torso and let your feet pivot so that you are facing in the opposite direction from where you started. Your arms will be straight in front of your body. Focus on keeping your shoulders and hips aligned and pointing in the same direction.
  • Control the opposite motion on the way down and then power back up and through for 10 to 20 reps.

Lateral Pillar Bridge (Side Plank) With Hip Dips

Lateral_Pillar_A
Lateral_Pillar_B

Complete five to 10 repetitions.

  • Begin on your side with your supporting elbow under your shoulder and your forearm perpendicular to your body. Stack your top foot onto the bottom foot.
  • Raise your hips up into a plank, creating a straight line from your head to feet. Your entire body should stay in alignment throughout the exercise.
  • Slowly lower the hips down and then back up to the plank position, pressing into the ground with the bottom forearm.

Modification: If this movement is too challenging, bring your top leg in front of your lower leg to assist your core by adding a center support.

Dumbbell Biceps Curl to Front Squat Shoulder Press

Bumbbell_A
Bumbbell_B
Bumbbell_C

Perform this exercise for 10 to 12 repetitions.

  • Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and hold a dumbbell at each side in a neutral/hammer position.
  • Press the hips back and squat down as if you’re about to sit in an invisible chair. Keep your back and neck in a neutral position throughout the movement.
  • Try to bring your thighs parallel to the floor. As you drive your hips and torso up, use the upward momentum generated by your glutes to assist you as you press the dumbbells up overhead.

The nonprofit American Council on Exercise (ACE) educates, certifies, and represents more than 53,000 fitness professionals, health coaches, and other allied health professionals

This publication is not intended to provide medical advice on personal health issues, which should be obtained directly from a physician.

Related Articles

Thru Hiking: Training Tips and Exercises

Backpacks: How to Choose

Hiking Boots: How to Choose

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