Hiking and backpacking are often strenuous activities and thus require that you are in a good shape. However, many people underestimate how strenuous hiking and backpacking are and consequently venture out unprepared. Going on a trail that exceeds your physical capabilities is not only unpleasant but also dangerous. Every year many hikers are evacuated from trails by mountain rescue services because of fatigue and exhaustion. This is not such a big problem if the location is easy accessible but usually it is not. Therefore, evacuation requires a lot of work and is, in some countries, also very expensive for the unfortunate outdoor enthusiast.
In the following we’ll explain how to get in shape for hiking and backpacking. However, note that you should always choose a trail that is appropriate for your fitness level. For example, if you plan to climb Mont Blanc and you have never ascended more than 3000 ft. (1000 m), that is probably not a good plan.
How to Train for Hiking and Backpacking?
- Why you should train for hiking?
- Activity-specific training
- Can’t do activity-specific training?
- How to track progress?
Why you should train for hiking?
If you are in good shape, hiking is much more fun because you can enjoy beautiful sights and nature rather than being out of breath and suffering throughout the adventure. Furthermore, by being in good shape you will also decrease the likelihood of incurring an injury because your muscles, ligaments and tendons will be strong and ready for strenuous activities. If you plan to do technically challenging trails, it is especially important that you are physically prepared because on such trails even a small mistake can be fatal. If you are exhausted, it is much more likely that you will make a mistake such as reach for a loose rock while ascending or stumble upon a stone on a steep trail.
What you do is what you get better at and therefore the best way to be good at hiking is to hike. However, not every hike is the same. Some trails are flat while others ascend several thousand feet. Some hikes also require a lot of gear which entails a heavy backpack while others can be done with a light daypack. Therefore, think about what kind of hikes you usually do as this will allow you to train more efficiently. For example, if you usually do multi-day trails it makes sense to regularly do day hikes with a heavy backpack so that your leg muscles get adjusted to heavy loads. In contrary, if you seldom do multi-day trails, training with a heavy backpack will bring little benefit to you – your legs will become stronger, but you will not become much faster.
However, not many hikers have the chance to regularly do activity-specific trainings. For example, if you are into mountain hiking and you live in a very flat country, you indeed won’t be able to regularly hike in the mountains. In such case you need to improvise.
Can’t do activity-specific training?
Most hikers and backpackers combine running and strength exercises when they don’t have the possibility to hike. Running is a cardiovascular exercise which improves your endurance on hikes while strength exercises can tone and strengthen the muscles that you use while hiking. However, while running and strength exercises will indeed improve your fitness level for hiking, you would progress much faster if you would hike instead. It is not uncommon that a mediocre hiker is faster than a marathoner on a multi-day hike, simply because a marathoner is not used to walk on uneven terrain or carry a heavy backpack.
To get in shape for hiking we recommend running three to four times a week. If you often hike on steep trails, try to run on uneven terrain for better effect. In case that you mostly do multi-day hikes, it is smart to go walking with a weighted pack at least once per week. If you are not used to walk with a heavy backpack start with 10 pounds (5 kg) and as you get stronger you can add more weight. To achieve progress, you should steadily increase the duration and speed of your cardiovascular exercise.
In addition to running, perform strength exercises two days a week. Focus on your legs, lower back and abs. Select up to nine different exercises and perform each exercise in three sets with ten to twelve repetitions. A good resource for strength training is the ExRx website where you can find exercises for every muscle in your body. Many hikers and backpackers do circuit-style workouts (such as CrossFit) instead of an ordinary strength training. Circuit-style workouts are also very good for building strength that is needed for hiking.
How to track progress?
To track your progress, you will have to monitor your cardiovascular exercises with a GPS watch that has a heart-rate monitor. If you are progressing, you will see that your average heart rate is getting lower and lower at the same pace on the same trail. For example, measure your average heart rate on the trail nearby and after three months do the same hike at the same speed and under the same conditions. After three months of exercise, your average heart rate should be lower at the same pace. If it is not, train harder or train less (overtraining). Overtraining is not uncommon and can have some serious long-term effects if you don’t recognize and manage it. The most common sign of the early stages of overtraining is repeated shortcomings in performance accompanied by a feeling of flatness or low energy. Other symptoms of overtraining include persistent fatigue, irritability, depression, weight loss and insomnia. If you suspect that you are in a phase of overtraining it is best to take several weeks of complete rest and only then start with easy exercise.