Wanting to try out backpacking this year but not sure where to start with actually training for a backpacking trip? I’ve got you covered. But first, let’s explain what exactly “backpacking” is. Backpacking is a multi-day hike that requires you to bring along all of your essentials for sleeping, eating, weather protection, and hydration. This reality is, many people think going on a multi-day hike doesn’t sound that difficult…until they have a 40lb pack strapped to their back, their body is aching from head to toe, and their feet are covered in blisters. While this sounds far from glamorous, this is the unfortunate reality for individuals who set out for a backpacking trip without proper training and preparation. It’s a different beast entirely than a casual day hike, and should be respected as such. When I first started out backpacking, I made just about every mistake in the book; not bringing sufficient layers, running low on food, a poorly fitted backpack, and zero physical training beforehand. Let me tell you: I sorely underestimated how much this lack of training would affect me out there. And after taking the steps to train the RIGHT way, the difference in my overall backpacking experience has been astounding.
So let’s get into the nitty gritty of how exactly to train and prep properly for a multi-day backpacking trek. *Disclaimer: this particular article will NOT cover all the recommended gear or apparel, but rather the physical training required beforehand*
1. Know your route
Before you can know how to train, you first need to understand the type of terrain you’ll be dealing with. Factors such as weather, elevation gain, scrambling, and mileage should all be considered in your preparation. Once you choose your route, start studying. And I’m talking months in advance. The last thing you want is to be caught off-guard just a few weeks before your trip by an obstacle or realization that the trail is much harder than you thought. Reading trail reviews, knowing the map well, and being mentally prepared for what type of terrain you’re facing is an essential first step.
2. Begin a fitness routine
Ideally, start training 3 months prior to your backpacking trek. A few weeks realistically won’t make too much of a difference. For a backpacking trek, there are a few forms of training you will want to focus on:
A. Strength Training
A large part of being a successful hiker (especially tougher summits and longer backpacking trips) comes from strength. Too often, we only do cardio-type workouts: high intensity, nonstop circuits, or cardio machines. Here's the reality: just because you use dumbbells doesn't mean you're really training for strength. For true, effective strength training, you should be completing 3-5 sets of 5-10 reps. Your muscles should feel WORKED by those last few reps. You will need to rest more so that you can recover and lift heavy again the next set. This means a circuit-type workout cannot be done as a strength workout. Be sure not to muddle down your strength workouts by rushing, going too light, or never progressing weights. Remember that "heavy" is relative to what you've lifted in the past, and how much you can currently lift. It is OKAY to be a beginner where 10 lbs in each hand feels heavy. You just don't want to stay there. Every 2-3 weeks, see if you can progress your weights, especially on lower body lifts (which tend to be a little easier to gain strength). I recommend completing at least 2 strength workouts weekly that cover all your major muscle groups. Just because you don't feel like you're using your core or upper body as much during hiking doesn't mean they're not at work! Below are some example movements that are ideal for building strength for hiking:
· Weighted step-ups
· Side facing step-down
· Deficit reverse lunges
· Back-elevated glute thrusts
· Back squats
· TRX rows
· TRX body saw
B. Endurance Training
The reality is, it's really tough to prepare for body for a marathon without running long distances, right? The same principle applies when it comes to long duration hikes. You must put in the time and miles in order for your body to perform well on a long hike! So while you may not be able to go out and hike 10 miles every week, there are a lot of activities you can do anywhere that will build your aerobic base. You see, hiking is an aerobic activity. This means, a steady-state, low to moderate intensity activity that is repetitive. Other aerobic activities include: jogging, biking, elliptical, stair-climber, swimming, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, What DOES NOT help with building an aerobic base: circuit training, weight training, super fast runs, sprints. A mistake A LOT of people make (including me for many years), is thinking that just because you do conditioning-type workouts (sprinting, circuits, etc), that you'll be prepped for long, strenuous hikes. It's imperative to train your aerobic system properly for long hikes. Here are some training methods I recommend for this:
· Incline walking on a treadmill for 45 minutes or more once a week
· Incorporating one long bike ride or run every week (4+ miles)
· Going for long hikes each week if you have access to do so
· Doing the elliptical or stair-climber at the gym for 45 minutes or more once a week
While doing these activities, focus on low to moderate intensity. Think about trying to breath out of your nose only (mouth closed) or being able to talk to someone the whole time without being too winded. Your pace should be slow enough to do this as you build (and it will take time).
C. Muscular endurance
Muscular endurance is the ability to repeat a muscularly taxing movement for a long duration. Most workout classes focus heavily on muscular endurance: think high rep bodyweight or light weight training. If you're completing more than 12 reps of any exercise, you're training for muscular endurance. Where this comes in handy for hiking is when you have a steep ascent, that keeps tension on your quads, glutes and calves for a sustained amount of time. You want your muscles to be able to push through that burn and keep going. Dedicating at least one day per week to muscular endurance training is recommended. This can look like:
· All of the strength exercises shown above, but done for high rep, lower weight
· Bodyweight circuits for high rep
· Most workout classes when you're exercising for time rather than sticking with the 6-12 rep range
If this all feels overwhelming, I have good news. I created a program specifically to help people get in shape for trails that incorporates all of these training modalities into an easy-to-follow 90-day program. Click here to learn more and take the quiz to see which program level is best for you!
3. Break in your boots
One of the biggest mistakes one can make when heading out on a multi-day backpacking trip is not properly breaking in their boots. While new boots may sound like a great option, if you haven’t hiked long distances yet to see how your feet feel, it’s a very bad idea. I recommend hiking at least 25 miles in your boots before going on a backpacking trip in them. Longer day hikes are best because you can see how your feet feel after many consecutive miles in one stretch. While there are many solid hiking boot brands you can consider, ultimately it comes down to how your feet feel in that individual pair. If you haven’t yet invested in a pair of hiking boots, the following brands are considered the best in the industry:
· La Sportiva
· Hoka One One
You will also want to bring along tape for feet blisters as they start to form. Even the best shoes can still leave your feet with blisters if your pack is on the heavier side or you’re hiking high mileage each day.
4. Get fitted for a pack
Having a backpack that fits you well is absolutely crucial to a smooth backpacking trip. I recommend actually going into a store like REI and getting fitted with an employee there because they will ensure you understand how to tighten and loosen in all areas, and ensure that you have a pack that fits your frame correctly. While carrying 40 lbs on your back for miles on end won’t necessarily feel wonderful even in a great pack, you certainly want a pack that can distribute weight between your hips and shoulders well.
5. Learn how to pack light
While this article is not about the gear you need for backpacking (that’s a big article topic for another day), I will quickly say that getting lightweight gear is essential. When I first started backpacking, I foolishly thought I could simply use a lot of the same items I bring with my car camping. The problem was, my standard camping items were not designed to pack down well or weigh as little as possible. If your pack weighs over 40 lbs, you need to rethink what you’re bringing and “trim some fat”. Looking for lightweight ground pads, sleeping bags, layers, food options, tent, etc will make your time on the trails exponentially more enjoyable.
Are you ready to see what backpacking is all about, or take your treks to the next level? Be sure to check out my Fit for Hiking programs so that you can head into hiking season feeling confident, fitter than ever before and ready reach new heights!