So you have your first backpacking trip in your sights. The trail is picked. You are getting your gear together. You are excited! But there is one thing worrying you… this is a big step up from your usual day hikes. Perhaps you are concerned that carrying all your gear, day after day, is going to be a serious struggle, or you may be worried that your physical condition will let you down. So what do you do?
Well, the answer to this is physical preparation and training.
For many backpackers and hikers, the idea of training for the trail seems a bit odd. Indeed, we’re often told that the only way to train for hiking is to actually go hiking, or that it’s impossible to train for a hike in the gym – you need to actually get out on some real-life trails.
However, these statements are only half true. Yes, to properly prepare for any backpacking trip, you do need to spend some significant time on the trail, in your boots with your pack on your back. There is no question about that. However, this will only get you so far.
Stop for a second and ask yourself the following questions:
- Have you ever suffered from any aches, pains or injuries while hiking (foot and knee pain are super common here)
- Do you constantly find yourself huffing and puffing when you come to a steep ascent?
- Do you get uncontrollable jelly legs after a long descent?
- Are you relatively strapped for time, and can’t commit to going out hiking 2-3 times a week?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then simply going out and hiking might not be the best preparation strategy. Instead, you need to get smart! You need to be training off the trail to help get your body fit, strong and resilient, so when you are on the trail your body will be completely ready to handle the demands of your trip.
And today, I am going to tell you how.
The Problem With Most Training Plans For Backpackers
Before we go any further, I want to share with you one of the most common problems when it comes to physical preparation and training for backpackers and hikers. The fact is, most of the information you will find on the internet about this subject is written by backpackers,not coaching professionals.
Now, this is a problem.
Building an effective training routine is both an art and a science, and it can take years to build up the knowledge and experience required to do it properly. While an experienced backpacker and ‘fitness enthusiast’ may be able to put together recommendations that might look good to the layperson, in many cases these routines have serious flaws when it comes to injury prevention, time efficiency and practicality.
So, today I am going to be sharing some recommendations which come from a coach’s perspective*. These tips represent the culmination of years of experience, countless hours of education and dozens of successful adventure clients.
*I literally spend my days training hikers, backpackers and mountaineers for their adventures – so I know what I am talking about!
When it comes to planning the best training regime for your first backpacking trip, there are three main things that need to be included:
- Structured hike training
- Strength and stability training
- Hiking specific conditioning
Each of these elements plays a particular role in getting you 100% physically ready for the trail.
So, let’s explore them now:
Structured Hike Training
As I mentioned previously, to best prepare for a backpacking trip, you need to get out hiking! There is nothing else that can prepare your body for the uneven, undulating and unpredictable nature of the trail. This is also the perfect opportunity to test out all your gear, get comfortable with your pack and identify any issues that might arise. However, before you simply throw on a backpack and hit the trail, you need to have a clear plan. A little bit of structure and planning will pay massive dividends when it comes to improving your fitness and reducing any potential risk of injury.
A few key points of hike training:
- You need to ensure each week you have a slow, gradual progression in both distance and track difficulty.
- You need to be realistic about how much hiking you can actually fit in. If you can go day hiking every weekend leading up to your backpacking trip, that’s great! But if not, then you need to plan for this.
- You need to slowly build up your pack weight.
- You need to incorporate as many specific hiking challenges as you can (i.e. if your upcoming trip has loads of river crossings, you should be practising these in your training hikes).
- You need to ensure you are giving your body enough time to rest and recover (planning rest or ‘deload’ weeks are important here).
This is what I want you to do:
- Get out a calendar and identify every weekend in which you can hike (this doesn’t have to be set in stone, but having a rough guide is important).
- Two weeks before your trip, you’ll want to schedule your longest training hike (this should be roughly the equivalent distance as the longest day of your trip).
- Now work backwards from that date and fill in the desired distances you want to hike on each day (ensuring there is a slow and gradual progression from start to finish).
- When you have time, start researching which particular hikes you have access to, which will fit those distance targets. Then put those into your calendar.
If you genuinely can’t go out hiking (because of time restrictions, location or weather) then you can replace this with some other type of walking (outside or on the treadmill). While this won’t be quite as effective as hitting the trail, (or anywhere near as interesting!) it is the next best thing.
Structured Hike Training
Strength training is one of the single most effective forms of training a backpacker can do to prepare their body for the trail. It is absolutely amazing for:
- Injury prevention
- Making a heavy pack feel much easier
- Reducing fatigue over multi-day hikes
- Making elevation gain and loss more comfortable
Incorporating some strength training into your week will be incredibly beneficial for your time on the trail.
While many backpackers and hikers are aware of the benefits of strength training, they often leave this out of their preparation routines, or simply spend their time doing hundreds of squats, lunges and step-ups. Although this approach can have some benefit, it leaves much to be desired.
A few important points for strength training for hikers:
- In your long term strength training program you should incorporate both low load, high repetition exercises (12+ reps) AND higher load, lower repetition (6-8 reps) exercises.
- You should focus on large, compound exercises which use multiple muscles at a time (small exercises like bicep curls and leg extensions aren’t a great use of your time).
- For every strength exercise you do which is targeted to the front of the body (e.g. squats, lunges, step-ups, push-ups) you need to balance it out with an exercise targeting the back of the body (e.g. deadlift, glute bridge, dumbbell row). This way you can ensure the body stays in balance, you hit all the necessary muscle groups and don’t miss something crucial!
- You need to ensure that there is a gradual and continual progression in your strength training. The body adapts to things relatively quickly, so unless you are regularly increasing your load, you are not likely to see huge improvements. Every 3-6 weeks, you should make some changes in your exercises to increase difficulty (e.g. choose a harder exercise variation, add some weight, change repetition ranges, add a pause on each repetition).
Backpackers are recommended to perform strength sessions 1-2 times a week, for 30-45 minutes at a time.
Hiking Specific Conditioning
Not many of us have the luxury of hitting the trail multiple times a week. In order to combat this, you need to be incorporating some extra conditioning sessions in your weekly training schedule. In these sessions, you can target specific aspects of fitness which you want to improve on the trail (i.e. training for legs for elevation or preparing your body to handle a heavy pack). By applying some smart training technique, you can significantly cut down the time commitment necessary to trail fitness (compared to simply hiking).
Some great examples of hiking specific conditioning:
- Loaded pack walks
- Hill intervals (or incline treadmill walking)
- Stair sessions (or step machine)
- Sled pushing
- Higher Intensity Intervals*
(*Note: this doesn’t mean just jump into a generic HIIT class at your local gym… ideally, these intervals should be targeted at hiking specific energy systems. E.g. a great interval structure for backpackers is working hard for 3 minutes followed by a rest of 90 seconds)
Depending on your time availability, backpackers are recommended to incorporate 1-2 of these sessions a week, spending anywhere from 30-60 minutes training each time.
One area of training that is often overlooked by many hikers is recovery. The body doesn’t get fitter, stronger or more resilient when you are training. The body will get fitter, stronger and more resilient when you recover from training. This means that you should be doing what you can to help aid and assist your body to recover in between training sessions. This will help ensure that you are not struck down with constant fatigue and niggling aches and pains, and will help you to constantly adapt, improve and grow throughout your training.
One way to help your body is to include dedicated recovery sessions in your training schedule. These are short and easy sessions which can help flush out waste products from the muscles, reduce muscle soreness, promote relaxation and aid your body in the recovery process. This doesn’t have to be complicated, and can simply involve some type of gentle, relaxing exercise which leaves you feeling refreshed (and not even more tired!)
Great examples here include:
- Swimming or pool walking
- Gentle cycling
- Foam rolling and stretching
Recovery sessions are recommended to be performed 1-2 times a week, for anywhere from 10-25 minutes at a time.
Your Free 12 Week Backpacking Training Program
Although I’ve tried to share some of my tips and recommendations here, there is only so much you can learn from one training article, and as I stated earlier, it takes years to properly master the art and science of exercise prescription. So, instead of leaving you high and dry to try and figure this all out for yourself, I have put together a free 12-week training program to prepare you for your first backpacking trip.
Inside, I put all of this information into action. You’ll find a clear, simple and practical program which, if followed consistently, will put you in a great physical shape for your first backpacking trip.
The program will cover hike training, strength sessions, conditioning workouts and recovery. All exercises have a video link attached. The only equipment necessary will be a set of mini bands plus a thicker powerband (any brand will do).
To get your hands on it, you can download it free here:
Need extra help?
Although my 12 week training program is a great place to start, and may be all you need to prepare for your first backpacking trip, it’s important to note that pre-made training programs do have quite a few limitations. Unfortunately, they cannot account for you as an individual, nor for any history of injury or pain you might suffer from. They cannot account for how much time you have available in the week, and they do not have much flexibility if you get sick, work gets busy or you go away.
If you are in any of these situations, and you do need help preparing for your first backpacking trip, getting a more personalised service may be a better option.
If this was something you are interested in, I highly urge you to have a look through my online personal training service for hikers: The Online Summit Program.
About The Author
Rowan Smith is the founder of Summit Strength; an online personal training service which specialises in preparing hikers, backpackers and mountaineers for their bucket list adventures. He helps everyday people get fit, strong and resilient so they can have the best chance of a safe, enjoyable and successful adventure.