Trekking on a long hike over backcountry hiking trails with a heavy pack can really take it out of a backpacker.
The physical process of carrying that heavy pack requires various muscle groups in the lower back and hips as well as robust leg muscles and core muscles. Backpackers and hikers who go trekking with a heavy pack can prepare for this taxing pursuit with the right training program that will build strength in their hamstrings and those key muscle groups over time.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it once more: the best way to make sure you’re in shape enough to make it through a long day of trekking in the backcountry is to keep yourself on a perpetual training program that’s less strenuous so you can head out to the hiking trail or campsite whenever you please knowing your body can handle it.
Some backpackers acclimate themselves to the high elevation gains of high-altitude backpacking and hiking trips using a stair machine at their local gym. Of course, using a stair machine for strength training and a treadmill for some cardio are both effective ways to condition oneself in preparation for a backpacking trip that will cover long distances.
However, as far as we’re concerned it can be much more fulfilling to get out of your local gym for your training program. The great outdoors is what it’s all about and backpackers can embrace that philosophy be breaking away from the local gym to do floor exercises or cardio workouts by trail running or build their leg muscles and hamstrings on an outdoor staircase.
Many hikers are surprised to learn that the majority of the support the human body provides that heavy pack used in trekking comes from the hips. That being the case, it’s really important to exercise your glutes. Your glutes are engaged any time you raise your thigh to the side, rotate your leg, or thrust your hips forward. Frequent hikers and backpackers will recognize these movements as being quite commonly employed while trail running or backpacking on a backcountry hiking trail. There are tons of exercises that are simple to remember and easy to execute just about anywhere that will help backpackers work out their glutes to improve the degree to which they can support a heavy pack on their next backcountry adventure.
While it’s a sure thing that putting oneself on a training plan to prepare for backpacking will reap rewards on the hiking trail when one can keep trekking without losing breath or lug a heavy pack long distances without a second thought, one of the greatest rewards of a training program is that hikers and backpackers can stay out in the backcountry longer and probe deeper to more remote locations without worrying that they will get overtired before they reach their intended campsite or return to a campsite already set up.
If you felt a long day was a little too long on your last backpacking or hiking trip or had to give up before the end of a long hike, then a backpacking training program is just the solution you need. Read on for a comprehensive run-through of training plans, their benefits, and some particulars about specific exercises and take our final verdict into consideration when you’re planning how you’ll be training for backpacking.
Cardio in a backpacking training plan
Cardio, or aerobic exercise, is the go-to form of physical enrichment many people begin with when they want to lower their body weight or get into better shape. It’s hard to detract from good cardio exercise. It’s beneficial for improved respiratory health and builds quadriceps and leg muscles and improves hamstring strength. Whether you’re on the treadmill at the local gym or trail running in the backcountry, cardio is great strength training for the muscle groups in your lower body.
There are many activities that are hobbies in their own right that are fantastic cardio workouts like biking, swimming, and competitive sports such as football or tennis. If you’re just starting out and haven’t been on a rigorous training plan before and want to test your limits, cardio is a great place to start to see if you are able to run long distances without losing your breath.
In addition to being a good diagnostic test of your present condition, cardio can also be done out in the backcountry itself, or at least on an outdoor path at a local trail or national park. For newbies, it’s best to start cardio like trail running or jogging on a soft surface like sand in order to protect injury to your ankles and knees. Don’t overdo it on the cardio; it is good preparation for backpacking but it’s best done in tandem with other aspects of a fully engaging training program like weight lifting, floor exercises, and training hikes. There are plenty of activities that can be included in a backpacking training program that will keep your heart rate elevated just as well as cardio exercises.
Floor exercises in a backpacking training program
To map out a truly versatile training program and get in great shape for a backpacking trip, floor exercises are the way to go. It’s easy and engaging to train the most critical muscle groups with simple exercises that require nothing or almost nothing in terms of extra equipment. These exercises can work out your glutes, leg muscles, core muscles, hamstrings, quadriceps, and other muscle groups in your lower back and upper body that are engaged in the action of lifting a heavy pack. If you’re generally pretty busy and can’t find a few hours for cardio or some strength training at your local gym, try these exercises next time you have 15-30 minutes of free time and want to do something productive. Make sure to do some warm-up stretches or a brief jog to avoid injury during exercise.
People do lunges all the time in the middle of normal daily activities. They really build the muscle groups around your knees and improve strength in your leg muscles. Executing a lunge exercise is really simple but also rather easy to do incorrectly. You can lose all the benefits of lunges if your form is wildly incorrect, so make sure you pay attention to key form basics like a straight back and the positioning of your feet during the exercise. Here are the steps to do lunges correctly:
- Put one foot in front of the other about as far apart as they would be when you take a step. Don’t over-extend or else you could lose your balance or create too much strain.
- Your bodyweight should be more or less resting on your front leg.
- While keeping the knee of your front leg behind the toes of that leg, bring your upper body straight down by bending the rear leg. The front leg will naturally bend as well.
- Keep your chest up and come straight down with your upper body. Don’t move forward at all. Do 10 reps on a single leg and then switch to the other one.
Step-ups are another great workout for your leg muscles that also strengthens other muscle groups that are involved in lifting a heavy pack and in standard locomotion. The movement required for this exercise is essentially the same movement humans make when going up steps. All you’ll need is a step of some kind. It can be an outdoor staircase or a specifically-designed bench at the local gym, just make sure it’s high enough to present a good challenge and not so high that you’re overextending yourself. Here’s how you do the perfect step-ups:
- Place one foot on top of the step. Your hip, knee, and ankle should form a 90-degree angle together with the knee at hip-level but no higher than that.
- Step up and touch the step with the tip of your free foot. You don’t have to go super quickly for this exercise to be effective. Concentrate on your form when you first try step-ups.
- Keep your chest open by placing your shoulders back and keeping your spine straight.
- After you touch the top of the step with the tip of your free foot, drop back down with that same free foot. Don’t go too quickly, especially if you have trouble with your knees already. Do 8-10 reps on each single leg and then switch to the opposite one.
Step-ups work out your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and other leg muscles that are integral to backpacking. For an extra glute workout, try extending your free leg behind you rather than touching the tip of the toe on top of the step. You can also do a knee lift in front of you rather than touching the tip of the free foot on the top of the step. To do this, keep the free leg bent at the knee at 90 degrees and bring the knee level with your hips. Doing step-ups with the knee lift variation included will provide additional hip flexion, which as we’ve already mentioned is one of the most important parts of the body to work out in a backpacking training program.
Single-Leg RDL (Romanian Deadlift)
The single-leg deadlift is a super useful exercise that will build up your single-leg muscles and give you enough strength to be explosive off that single leg, which will be handy if you need to sprint while you’re hiking or trail running or you need to jump to catch on to a particular branch or ledge out on the hiking trail. This type of movement is driven by the glutes and hamstrings which is exactly what the single-leg deadlift works out. To get this phenomenal workout to strengthen your leg muscles, glutes, and hamstrings the way it’s intended to do, here’s how you should execute it:
- Put one leg out in front of you in a knee-lift form; that is, with the knee bent at a right angle and raised just about to hip-height.
- Lean your upper body forward until you feel your hips start to open up. There will be some tension in the muscles if you’re doing this part correctly. Your bent leg will naturally swing under you and eventually go behind you.
- Make sure your hips are opening up. Once they are opening up each and every time you lean your upper body forward, you can begin to stretch your leg out completely straight once your torso is bent and that leg is out behind you.
- Make sure the toe of the foot that winds up behind you at the end of the single-leg deadlift is always pointed at the ground. Many people erroneously have it pointed outward or toward the back of their other foot, but that’s not the correct form and will not lead to good hip flexion.
- One full rep of the single-leg deadlift is executed when you have bent over and extended one leg behind you and then reversed that movement so that that leg is once again in front of you at a 90-degree angle. Do about 10 reps and then switch legs.
Additional exercises for a backpacking training program
These floor exercises should be mixed with cardio and training hikes to effectively build up core muscles and provide strength training that will prepare you for the hiking trail. If you want to build a training program that works for you, then you should make sure to start it in enough time before your planned backpacking trip. Give yourself at least two weeks and up to several months if you’re able. If you plan to tackle a thru-hike, then you’ll probably want to start your training plan about a year in advance.
Remember that these training programs aren’t meant to get you completely ripped or prepare you for a strongman competition, but rather to prepare your leg muscles and lower back for a heavy pack. That means an effective training program should involve strength training to improve your core muscles.
If you do have access to a local gym, you can probably pick up some additional exercises there. They should have specialized equipment like a kettlebell, with which you can do a kettlebell swing, which looks like it will only build upper body strength but will in fact also build core muscle strength. If you have access to dumbbells or other weight training equipment, you can include them in the floor exercises we already listed. However, if you are just starting a training plan and you don’t intend on stopping even when your next backpacking trip is completed, then the best advice is to start slow.
If you’ve never been very active before, then don’t try to add dumbbells to your floor exercises right out of the gate. A good rule of thumb is to wait until you can successfully complete 100 reps of step-ups, lunges, and single-leg deadlifts before you add additional weight or start to make changes to the exercise. Trust us, it won’t take you too long before you’re working out like a madman. Just have some patience when you first start your training plan.
Pairing up for your training program
If you want to improve group morale with the same people who will accompany you on your backpacking trip, then including them in your preparatory training plan will certainly do that. Each and every backpacker or hiker who has done some form of backpacking training program knows that it’s much easier to follow through with your plan when you have at least one other person who will hold you accountable if you don’t show up or don’t complete all your reps.
In addition to that, it’s just more fun if you have some friends who know how much effort you’re putting into your strength training in preparation for the backpacking trip. It will be that much more satisfying to take in wide-open backcountry views from the hiking trail if you’ve spent lots of sweat and tears training yourself and building up muscle strength.
Designing your training plan
Don’t sprint out of the gate and try doing tons of hardcore exercises for four or five hours every single day, especially if you aren’t used to being on any kind of training program normally. At first, do a couple of hours every day of these floor exercises whenever you have the time. Do at least one longer cardio exercise like trail running or treadmill jogging for an hour at least once a week. One day a week, do a calmer activity that still keeps you in motion, like yoga.
After two weeks or so of this, you can start to add extra hours, extra cardio, or extra exercises to your training plan so that you continue to build strength. Add an extra run and make sure when you have comfortably arrived at 100 reps of the floor exercises that you can add some extra weight with dumbbells or other equipment at the local gym if you have access to one. Measure your progress with distances or weight levels so you can keep track of how well your training plan is working.
When backpackers and hikers take a step on the hiking trail, their quadriceps fire to handle their body weight. This firing destroys a bit of muscle each time it happens. Over the course of a long hike, the quadriceps fire thousands of times. This destruction of muscle is what causes muscle soreness the day after a long hike. The only way to avoid this annoyance is to build up your quadriceps with a robust varied backpacking training program. The same rule applies with other muscles such as the glutes, as well as muscle groups in the upper body and lower back that will take most of a load of a heavy pack out on the hiking trail.
It’s not about pumping yourself full of iron as much as it is about making sure your body can handle the rigor of a hiking trail or rucking excursion. Even more importantly, it should be about you building up enough strength in your hips and hamstrings to keep going even further out into the backcountry. Always make sure to warm up for about 20 minutes before you begin exercising and drink plenty of water just like you do when you’re out on the hiking trail.
If you start a training program according to the steps we’ve prescribed here, then you’ll start to see improvement really fast and you’ll have noticeably increased ability on training hikes and in your daily activity in general. Be patient and give yourself time to learn all the ins-and-outs of your training program and you’ll be sure to see great results from your training for backpacking.
Bonus tip: Watch this hiker’s training program for backpacking trips in the Grand Canyon for more tips!