June is National Get Outdoors Month. Here at MDA, we’re spending the next couple weeks teeing you up to have your best summer yet in the great outdoors with posts to inspire you to get into nature.
Today we’re talking about how to train for backpacking. Let’s start with the most obvious question: what IS backpacking? Backpacking is simply multi-day hiking where you carry all your gear on your back.
Say you’re going out for a day hike carrying water, food, and basic survival gear, but you return to your car the same day you set out. That’s not backpacking.
If you’re trekking across the country, but someone else is sherpaing your gear from one sleeping spot to the next, that’s not backpacking either.
In a nutshell, backpacking is essentially a long hike with more gear and more details to think about because you’ll be spending at least one night—but possibly many more—camping out. I think of backpacking as a kind of endurance sport. As with any endurance sport, you want to train for your event. You probably wouldn’t enter a half-marathon this coming weekend with minimal or no training. You could, but it would hurt a lot less, and your chance of success would be significantly greater, if you took the time to train. Same goes for backpacking.
The good news is, if you already have a solid fitness base, you are well on your way. Now you just need to tailor your training to get ready for your backpacking expedition. The particulars depend on how long you’ll be out there, how much weight you’ll be carrying, your current fitness level, and the type of terrain you’ll encounter. Still, the general principles remain the same. You’ll need to prepare for:
- Time on your feet
- Carrying weight
- Walking over uneven ground
- Climbing (going up and down hills, stepping over logs, etc.)
Lower body strength is key, of course, but so are core, upper back, and shoulder strength, ankle and hip strength and mobility, balance, and, of course, stamina. Here’s how to begin.
Training for Backpacking: Getting Started
Let’s start with some general advice before moving on to some specific exercises you can use to prep your body for the adventure ahead.
First and foremost, give yourself enough time to prepare. Make a training plan commensurate with the demands of your trip. Experienced, fit hikers can probably set out on a short one- or two-night outing with minimal training. If you’re mostly sedentary and planning a seven-night thru-hike (point-to-point backpacking trip), you’ll need considerably more lead time—several months or more.
Don’t just focus on strength or endurance. I said it already, but it bears repeating: proper training covers strength, endurance, mobility, and balance. Think about stepping up onto a rock or fallen tree, crossing a river by hopping from one wobbly stone to the next, walking uphill over loose shale. That’s a lot of balancing on one foot and keeping yourself upright as nature and gravity conspire to pull you down. Single-leg exercises, BOSU balls, wobble boards, and the like can be invaluable training tools.
Do at least some of your training in the same gear you plan to use on your trip. Make sure your shoes don’t cause blisters and your sports bra doesn’t chafe. Wear your backpack on shorter hikes.
Try to replicate the environment you’ll encounter. You probably can’t do all your outdoor training in the exact same conditions you’ll encounter during your adventure, especially if you’re traveling to a different part of the world. That’s fine, but do your best to anticipate factors that are likely to impact your experience. If your trip will take you up the side of a mountain, find hills to train on, or plan to do a ton of step-ups at the gym. Do you need to train for hot or cold weather? High altitude? Humidity? The more extreme the environment, the more important it is to prepare accordingly.
Think of yourself as an athlete! It’s easy to get caught up in searching for the best ultralight gear, weighing the pros and cons of various tents and sleeping pads, but your most important piece of equipment is your engine—that’s you! (Part II of this series will talk more about the gear and other considerations.) Remember to test out fueling and hydration during training hikes.
Exercises to Get Ready for Backpacking
The following are a sampling of the types of exercises you can use to get ready for backpacking, but it’s by no means an exhaustive list.
Walking, hiking, rucking
As a dedicated Mark’s Daily Apple reader, I’m sure I don’t need to convince you that walking is awesome, full stop. Spending lots of time on your feet is also one of the most important things you can do to prepare for backpacking. If you haven’t already made a concerted effort to minimize your sitting and incorporate frequent movement and walking throughout the day, now’s the time to start!
You’ll also want to take some of those walks into nature. Voila, now you’re hiking! Carry a weighted pack, and you’re rucking. Rucking in the woods is fantastic, but also throw on the rucksack to stroll around the block or walk your kids to school. (Mark has a dedicated post on rucking coming soon.)
Gradually increase time, distance, and how much weight you carry. Try to hit different terrains—rocky, sandy, muddy, level, steep. These challenge your body in different ways and can be great for strengthening feet and ankles.
Go super Primal during hikes: pick up logs and rocks along the trail, carry them for a while, then put them down. Check out the ideas here.
Primal Essential Movements
This isn’t just a shameless plug, I swear! The Primal Essential Movements, plus variations, are perfect for getting ready for your big backpacking adventure.
After walking and hiking, squats are probably going to be your biggest ally. Do as many—and as many different types—as you can. Mix in sets of barbell squats, resistance band squats, and goblet squats, to name a few.
Split squats, where one foot is in front of the other in a lunge position, also challenge your balance, so make these a priority, too. Even better, do Bulgarian split squats where your back foot is elevated.
To further challenge your balance, try one-legged pistol squats or squats with one or both feet on an unstable surface like a BOSU.
Push-ups and Pull-ups
Walking for hours at a time carrying a heavy backpack is no joke. Your shoulders, chest, and upper back need to be up to the task.
Working at a computer all day causes tight pecs, rounded shoulders, and forward head posture (aka tech neck). Carrying a pack can exacerbate these issues. This post and this post offer some solutions.
Core strength is critical for balance and keeping your pelvis and spine in proper alignment. In addition to traditional planks, do side planks and the exercises in this Primal At-home Core workout.
Let me put in a plug here for Pilates, as well. It’s not only great for core strength and mobility, but many of the moves also target various muscles in the upper and lower body. For example, glute bridges are a classic pilates move that is super useful for backpackers.
This is just what it sounds like: stepping up on things. Step up on boxes at the gym or stumps in your backyard. Climb stairs or hit the stairclimber at the gym (just watch your heart rate if you want to keep it aerobic). For some high-intensity work, try Mark’s favorite, the versaclimber.
Once you are ready to add weight, wear a weighted backpack during step-ups for a fantastic workout.
If your expedition involves serious elevation gain, you can use this handy stair elevation calculator to plan some workouts that approximate the feet/meters you need to traverse.
Plyometric exercises are incredibly effective and efficient for building strength and stamina, and they’re great for those feet and ankles.
These can include:
- Box jumps where you use both feet to jump up on an elevated platform
- Ski jumps where you jump laterally (sideways) from one foot to the other
- Burpees with a jump at the top
- Squat jumps where you lower into a squat and explode upward as you stand
Or any number of alternatives. These videos from the Mark’s Daily Apple YouTube Channel offer tons of ideas:
There’s arguably no better way to target the hamstrings. Make sure you use proper form to avoid straining your back. Avail yourself of the many deadlift variations to keep things interesting—Romanian, sumo, hex bar, kettlebell—and include one-legged deadlifts to once again work on balance and foot and ankle strength.
We’re obviously huge fans of sprinting around these parts. Sprinting uphill has two distinct advantages for backpacking training: (1) lower risk of injury compared to regular (flat) sprints and (2) extra hill work.
Ok, that’s more than enough to get you started. There’s a good chance you’re already including a number of these moves in your regular workouts, which means you have a good foundation on which to build. I’ll end by mentioning ancestral rest positions. They aren’t exercises per se, but they complement your workouts by building ankle and hip mobility, stretching and strengthening the lower body, and getting you out of that chair, which is doing your body no favors.
That’s it for today. Stay tuned for part II in which we talk gear and more. This post is your sign to get outside today! And let us know in the comments where you like to go hiking and backpacking.
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