Training for Backpacking: How to Get in Shape Before Your Big Trip

Backpacking isn’t just a casual walk in the woods. If you’re looking for the longer, more rigorous challenge of training for backpacking, you’ll have to get yourself in shape to handle the trail.

Handling a backpacking trip requires strength, balance, and extreme endurance. And if you jump onto the trail without preparation, you could end up with the dreaded hiker hobble.

You’ll need to condition yourself to walk a long distance and carry a heavy load–day after day. Whether its weight training, cardio, or practice with a pack, we’ll walk you through what it takes to get into peak condition.

Here’s how to get in shape–physically and mentally–for your next backpacking adventure.

Why Is Training for Backpacking Important?

If you think you can just jump off the couch, put on hiking boots, and hit the trail for a backpacking trip, you might have to think again.

Backpacking can be hard on the body. Long days of lifting 30 to 40 pound packs with food, clothes, tents, sleeping bags, stoves and more is a lot to have pulling down on your shoulders. And walking 10 to 15 miles per day on uneven trails and elevation gain isn’t an easy feat.

It takes balance, strength, and endurance to make it on the trail without injury.

Just remember that the goal of your training isn’t necessarily to get yourself into top shape.

Without the physical and mental stress of taking on a challenging hike, you can be more relaxed and fully in the moment to appreciate your beautiful surroundings. Plus, good training will let you focus on everything else you need to prep for, like your backpacking gear checklist.

Being in shape to do longer trails quickly without putting a strain on your body can help you make the most of your vacation time. Hiking faster could mean the difference between being able to do a backpacking trip and sticking to day hikes.

Overview of the Backpacking Training Plan

It takes a lot to be able to tackle a backpacking trail. But the good news is: getting trained for backpacking isn’t as hard as you might think.

Even if you don’t have hours and hours of spare time to train for a big trip, you can get the maximum benefit with only a little bit of extra effort a day.

This training guide will help you prepare your body over the course of 6 to 12 weeks to hike the distance you want to hike and carry the weight of your backpack.

It’s best to start training at least 6 to 8 weeks before your trip. It also helps to start with a good base level of conditioning, including a moderate ability in walking, jogging, biking and more. You should at least be comfortable with cardio and aerobic exercises.

If you don’t have a base of conditioning and you’re starting from scratch, it might be best to give yourself up to 12 weeks to train for your backpacking trip.

Key Muscle Groups to Exercise

Carrying a heavy backpack on your back and shoulders puts a strain on a lot of your muscles. Here are some arm, back, and shoulder muscles that you should focus on in your training regimen:

  • Trapezius muscles at the base of the neck
  • Abdominal muscles
  • Upper and mid back muscles (between the shoulder blades)
  • Lower back muscles
  • Shoulder of the arm used to load and unload the pack
  • Rotator cuff of both shoulders

And of course, you’re supporting all of this weight on your own two legs. Not only that, but you’ll need to tackle high elevation, steep walking trails, and you’ll need to squat and stand with all the weight on your shoulders.

For leg muscles, its best to focus on these two:

  • Calves
  • Thighs (especially upper thighs)

The following exercises will help you train these muscles, but if you’re seeking out the assistance of a personal trainer or you’re tackling the gym alone, be sure to focus on these muscle groups as much as possible.

Start with the Basics

Always start with some basic exercises to warm up your muscles and pick up your heart rate. A proper warmup can also protect you from common hiking injuries, like an ankle sprain or pulling a muscle. Here are a few exercises to start with:

  • Stretching (focusing mostly on legs and shoulders)
  • Running or walking on dirt/sand
  • Using a resistance band to strengthen muscles
  • Doing crunches to build core strength
  • Squatting and lunging with a weight
  • Doing pushups or pull-ups
  • Biking outdoors or on a stationary bike

These exercises can be done at any time of the day. It’s a great way to fit in a little extra conditioning at the beginning or end of your day–or even on your lunch break.

Train for a Day Hike

The first step towards learning how to backpack is first getting yourself comfortable with a day hike.

Whether you’re an experienced day hiker or you haven’t been out hiking in a while, it’s a good idea to start slow before pushing your body too far. Here are some steps you can take to build yourself up to longer, more challenging hikes.

1. Start by Walking

First, just take yourself out for a walk about two or three times a week. Make sure to keep the pace casual, but not too slow.

Move briskly enough to get your heart rate up and try to keep it there for about 30 minutes. You can also challenge yourself by maintaining that pace up and down any hills that are in your path.

2. Wear Hiking Boots

Even if you’re just going for a walk around the block, try wearing the same shoes you’ll be wearing on your hike.

The easiest way to get blisters is to walk a long distance in shoes you’re not familiar with. Try to pick out solid hiking boots with good grip. Wearing thick socks will also help you ward off blisters.

3. Carry a Backpack

It might look a little silly to wear your full backpacking pack on a regular walk. But you can try wearing a lightly weighted daypack on your walks.

This will help you get used to carrying weight while you walk and start developing your shoulder muscles. Then you’ll be prepared to carry your essential gear.

4. Use Step-Ups to Build Endurance

Since most people aren’t used to carrying weight while walking, the most important part of this part of training is getting used to the backpack.

First, weigh your pack to see what the total weight is. Start with just 20 pounds and step up onto a bench, stool, or stair that is about 16 to 18 inches high. Do this about 5 times.

Add 5 pounds each week until your pack has reached the weight that it will be on the hike. Do this exercise about 3 times per week.

5. Hike on the Trail

Now it’s time to actually try out some hikes on the trail. Begin with some shorter, less strenuous hikes.

Pick some short hikes that will challenge you without exhausting you. You can gradually increase the length and elevation of your hikes–as well as your backpack load.

Start Hitting the Gym

While you’re getting practice for the hike itself, you can hit the gym to supplement your training. Here are some exercises you can focus on:

Cardio Is King

Cardio is one of the best ways to train for backpacking. It mimics the activity of walking and will help you build up the endurance for a long hike.

Start out with 3 sessions per week at about 30 minutes each. Gradually increase the length and intensity of your cardio workouts.

This doesn’t just mean running on a treadmill. You can also use the elliptical machine, stair climber, or stationary bike.

These machines can help build your stamina and cardiovascular strength. It also lets you focus on certain muscle groups in your lower body and strengthen them.

Don’t have a gym membership? No worries. Cardio is easy to do outdoors.
You can go for outdoor runs, go biking, or just find a building with stairs and get climbing.

Put Pressure on Your Legs

Leg exercises are a great way to build your lower body strength for hiking. But putting more pressure on the legs with resistance band workouts is a great way to kick it up a notch.

Try tying a resistance band around your legs, just above your knees. There should be tension when you stand with your legs at hip-width.

Stand up straight, tighten your core, and walk sideways. Be sure to maintain the band’s tension between your thighs.

Keep Your Core Strong

Having a strong core is an important part of hiking. It will help you balance and stay stable on an uneven trail.

This can include any exercises that strengthen your abdominal muscles and pelvis. Complete these core exercises a few times a week at about 10 to 15 minutes per session.

You can do crunches, planks, and sit-ups on your own, or use gym equipment to enhance the experience.

Try holding yourself up on a bar with your arms, holding your legs straight, and lifting them up as high as you can. You can also do an easier variation of this exercise where you bring your knees to your chest.

Don’t Forget to Pump Iron

While lower body strength is key, don’t forget to work on weight training.

You won’t be carrying a huge weight on your upper body, but you will be carrying a substantial weight for a long period of time. This means that weight resistance programs can help prepare your whole body for the strain of day-long physical exertion.

For upper body weight training, focus on your back and shoulders. Exercises like pushups, pull-ups, and dumbbell presses can help you prep for carrying the backpack.

Head to the Climbing Wall

You can also head to an indoor or outdoor rock climbing wall if you want a good full body workout. Not only does it strengthen your cardiovascular system, but it can also help you build lean muscle.

It’s good for your lungs, it strengthens your sense of balance, and can help you build muscle in both your upper and lower body.

Use the World Around You

Training doesn’t just have to take place on the trail or in the gym. You can use the resources in the world around you to prepare for your big trip.

Take the stairs whenever possible. If you can, you can even try doing stair exercises on stairs in your home, office, or neighborhood. This makes for great pre-trail conditioning and will prepare you for steep or uneven conditions on the trail.

You can also try walking or biking places instead of driving. If you live within distance, walking to school, work, the park, or the store can get you a little extra conditioning.

Jogging or running is also a great training option to improve your overall cardio conditioning. You can also try wearing a backpack while running, but keep in mind that the weight could be difficult to balance and it can be uncomfortable.

How to Get into Peak Shape for Backpacking

When it all comes down to it, the key to training for backpacking is just to practice, practice, practice.

Give yourself the time to get ready, both physically and mentally. Get yourself ready for what days of hiking with a heavy backpack will feel like–and the strain it can put on your body.

Just remember, being properly conditioned for a hike does more than make you a better backpacker. It will let you truly appreciate the beautiful terrain you’re passing through.

Keep building your stamina, balance, and strength with these exercises and you’ll be on your way to your next backpacking adventure in no time.

Looking for another outdoor adventure to try out? Check out our article on cross country skiing so you can put your new strength and stamina to good use.

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