> >
Getting into shape for backpacking

Getting into shape for backpacking

Last updated:
Originally published:

Planning a backpacking trip is a great motivator to get out and exercise, but what's a good workout routine for preparing for a backpacking trip? Here's everything you need to know to start building your fitness plan for the next hiking season.

Planning a backpacking trip is a great life hack to stay motivated to exercise.

Scheduling a backpacking trip on the calendar is a fantastic motivator to get out and exercise. Your trip is going to suck if you're out of shape! I'm not always a big fan of exercising, but nothing works better to get me into running shoes than an approaching backpacking trip. This realization has been one of my favorite life hacks and I always try to have a backpacking trip on the horizon.

If you can’t remember the last time you raised your standing desk out of the seated position, you dread the gym, but you love backpacking, I encourage you to borrow this life hack. Plan a backpacking trip and make it your excuse to exercise.

The source of your motivation is the ingredient that can make all the difference in achieving your goals.

Before making big changes to your exercise plan, go get a physical.

Just as getting up from your easy chair to shovel snow can be dangerous, so can starting a new exercise routine. All those trips to the Dirty Burger may be catching up with you. A sudden spike in your blood pressure could send a wad of plaque sailing into your heart or brain and turn off the lights.

Before you start a new workout routine, go visit your doctor for a physical. Tell your doctor what you plan to do. A doctor might be able to spot an impending problem before it blows up in your face. At the worst, your doctor may propose some treatments and a few changes to your plans.

Want to measure your gains? Start by making a Day 0 record of your fitness.

If you’re like me, you probably enjoy measuring progress.

It's easier to value the effort you're making when see a steady improvement toward your goals.

If you’re starting on a new path to better physical fitness, visiting your doctor has some added benefits of recording baseline measurements for your health. Get a copy of your blood pressure, your resting heart rate, your weight, perhaps even a lipid profile. At the least, calculate your body mass index (BMI).

Can you run a mile? If not, can you walk a mile? Go use bipedal locomotion to travel a mile and time yourself. Travel at a pace where you’re just out of breath enough to make conversing uncomfortable. When you get to the end of a mile, stop and record your pulse (count beats for 15 seconds and multiply your count by 4).

Can you do push-ups? How many? How about pull-ups? Take a selfie in some level of undress. The more measurements you have, the better the summary you’ll have of your current fitness levels.

I’d encourage you to print all these values and your picture on a single sheet of paper. You now have a solid day 0 marker from which you can measure all your progress.

To prepare for long-distance backpacking, focus on a blend of aerobic fitness and strength training.

How much exercise should you get? The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends exercise targets for the general U.S. population. They suggest aiming for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week plus 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity.For the most benefit, they recommend increasing this to at least 150 minutes per week of vigorous activity OR 300 minutes of moderate intensity activity. To top this off, you should do muscle-strengthening activities targeting all major muscle groups at least twice per week.

It's okay to do activities that blend both vigorous and moderate intensity activity, and in fact, "interval training" might even give you faster gains.

Let’s face it, for most of us, that’s way more exercise than we always get. When I work my exercise routine up to this amount, I find that I’m primed for backpacking. Everybody is different, but meeting these government suggestions is probably enough for you to feel pretty dang strong on your next backpacking trip.

Know what counts as vigorous activity.

The Mayo Clinic provides a good definition of vigorous activity. Vigorous activity should feel challenging. Your breathing should be deep and rapid, conversation should be difficult without pausing to breath, and you should begin to sweat after a few minutes.

If you feel like you’ve lost your breath, and can’t catch it without resting, then you’re above your target heart rate.

Another way to gauge vigorous activity is via target heart rate.

Tip: Subtract your age from 220 to get an estimate of your maximum heart rate. Vigorous activity should get your heart rate to 70% to 85% of this figure.

For example, if I’m 30 years old, this method estimates my max heart rate would be 220 - 30 = 190 bpm (beats per minute). The threshold for my target heart rate for vigorous activity would then be 190 x 0.7 = 133 bpm. The upper limit would be 190 x 0.85 = ~162 bpm.

Moderate activity should feel challenging, but not so challenging that conversation becomes difficult.

The Mayo Clinic defines moderate activity as being between 50 and 70% of your maximum heart rate. For a thirty year old, this would be activity between 95 and 133 bpm.

Your go-to exercise should be the one you like the most (or hate the least).

What kind of exercise is right for backpacking? Hiking is of course a great activity for becoming a stronger backpacker, but most of us don’t have much time outside of weekends. Saving workouts for the weekends will not cut it. The truth is, it doesn’t really matter which exercise you choose. The important thing is that it gets your heart moving, and that you actually do it regularly.

Any exercise that can get your heart rate up to the realm of vigorous activity is a good way to prepare. Running, cycling, swimming, dancing, cross-training, and rowing are a few examples that can do the trick. Pick your favorite exercise so it’s easier to motivate yourself to get out the door.

Don’t forget strength training. Your body will point out any muscle groups you miss when you're on the trail.

In addition to a regular aerobic activity, you’ll need to improve muscle endurance. Backpacking taxes muscle strength and endurance, so mix in regular general-strength workouts along with aerobic workouts.

There are many approaches to strength training, and it doesn’t mean you need to sign up for the caber toss class down at the Timber Gym.

I alternate between yoga for strength (f.y.i., yoga can be brutal) and a simple dumbbell and bodyweight routine. During the workday I like to stand up and do a set of squats once or twice per day. This is sufficient to keep me feeling strong.

woman doing yoga
Nothing is easy about this picture. Yoga is a great way to target both strength training and flexibility.

There are many different practices that are great for strength training, and I recommend that find the practice you hate the least. The strength training article on Wikipedia is a great place to start if you are new to the subject. Note that if backpacking is in your future, don’t skip leg day.

Most gyms as well as community colleges offer various strength training classes. If you’re new to strength training, this is the best way to go.

It never hurts to have an objective set of eyes on you to make sure you’re keeping proper form and not picking up bad habits that lead to injury.

If classes aren’t your thing, workout videos are the next best approach to having a teacher. Exercise in front of a mirror if you have one. Pay close attention to your form, and try to keep it as close as you can to the demonstrations on the video.

Policing yourself is the only way to catch bad habits when you workout alone.

Try scheduling regular time for your workout. I schedule mine the same I schedule meetings and dentist appointments. If you find it hard to keep up your exercise habits, I encourage you to schedule your week on Google Calendar. Your coworkers don’t need to know your 5:00 PM “appointment” is a yoga class.

Example weekly workout schedule to prepare for backpacking.

Day Morning Evening
Monday 50 minute run Walk the dog for 20 minutes
Tuesday Strength training Walk the dog for 20 minutes
Wednesday 50 minute run Walk the dog for 20 minutes
Thursday Strength training Walk the dog for 20 minutes
Friday 50 minute run Walk the dog for 20 minutes
Saturday 2 to 3 hour hike
Sunday Walk the dog for 20 minutes

Always do a warm up before exercising (and know why you're doing it).

What’s the point of warming up? In part it’s to ensure your muscles can get enough fuel delivered for when they need it. When muscles are inactive, many of the capillaries aren’t getting much circulation. The muscles can be cool, the blood can be stale with lower oxygen levels and waste products.

Hemoglobin in red blood cells fetch oxygen from our lungs and deliver it where we need it in tissue like muscles. Hemoglobins love oxygens as much as my dog loves tennis balls. And just as my dog doesn't want to let go of the ball without trading for a treat, a hemoglobin takes some convincing to release its oxygens.

Certain factors cause hemoglobin to change shape so it lets go of oxygen more easily. Increases in acidity, CO2, temperature and a special chemical called 2,3-BPG all do this.

Easing muscles into action provides more time for these factors to increase. A gradual warm-up allows capillaries in the muscle to open and flush stale blood away. As the muscles begin do work, factors like C02, 2,3-BPG and temperature start increasing. As this happens, hemoglobins start dropping more oxygens when they pass by.

If a muscle cell (or any cell) can't get as much oxygen as it's using, it can become injured. When you warm up a muscle, you're helping to build up a robust supply chain to deliver more oxygen. This way it can get the oxygen it needs when you ask it to go full steam.

So what's the point of warming up? In part, it's to literally warm up the muscles you plan to use. Ease a muscle through its entire range of motion. You want the capillaries to open and flush fresh blood throughout the muscle. When the muscle does work, it will start releasing heat from metabolism and produce the factors it needs to get more oxygen delivered.

Let your cardiovascular and respiratory system know it's time to spin up. That way you’re less likely to break or injure muscle cells in a way that doesn’t help you to grow stronger.

Give yourself regular check-ups to make sure you're on track with your exercise goals.

Try scheduling these out at 90 day intervals on your calendar. I do something similar to the baseline assessment I recommended earlier, but usually without involving my doctor. Stop by the drug store to take your blood pressure, weigh yourself, measure your run time, and see how many pushups and pullups you can do.

For running, use an app like Runkeeper to track your progress. If your averages aren't on-track you’ll know right away that you need to push a bit harder.

Does it really need to be complicated? Why all the measurements?

Your fitness needn’t be complicated. It’s good to see your doctor regularly and keep track of your blood pressure, but you don’t need to go looking for more metrics to record. As long as you get out and do some type of physical fitness, that’s great.

Why do I like to keep a physical fitness journal? I find it hard to motivate myself to stay in shape, and by keeping a journal and measuring my progress, I find that it’s easier for me to reinforce my exercise habit.

Know how to avoid training injuries.

Sitting at a desk all day, I have had several training injuries over the years when I decide it’s time to get back into shape.

Everyone has different fitness capabilities. The perfect fitness improvement program for your neighbor won’t necessarily be perfect for you. Listen to your body and back off if something hurts.

Practice the 10 Percent Rule to avoid overtraining.

Many sources recommend limiting increases in your training volume to no more than 10% per week. This is a commonly used rule of thumb for avoiding injuries. This simple formula isn’t a target, but a “do not exceed” limit to help you avoid injury. Respecting this rule is the only way I’ve avoided training injuries as I’ve gotten older.

Pay attention to aches that don’t go away after three or so days.

A little pain is normal following workouts and essential to improvement, but it should subside in a day or two. An ache that stick around longer can indicate an impending overuse injury.

To improve, you need to push yourself. Your body will respond by growing stronger afterward when you're resting.

Rest is essential to getting into better shape. You have to push yourself to improve. Pushing yourself means progressively increasing challenge. Your muscles, bones and connective tissue require small doses of damage for strengthening and growth to kick in. But without time off, the microtraumas won’t be able to heal, and they’ll fester into serious overuse injuries.

But too much time off can lead to injuries if you’re too inactive. Your rest day doesn’t need to be spent entirely on the couch. Try to spend some time doing a low-impact activity like walking.

Train with a full pack weight the week before your backpacking trip.

If a backpacking trip is just around the corner, I like to spend the week before pushing harder than normal while wearing my backpack. I’ll load up my pack with a few gallon jugs of water and then go push hard on the hilliest day hike in my area.

Backpacking uses your body a bit differently than running or weight training. Even if you're in great shape, you can feel some aches and pains as your body adjusts to carrying your pack. Exercising with your pack can cut down on the adjustment aches and pains that can hit after a few days on the trail.

If you exercise extra hard before a backpacking trip, spend your last few days resting and recovering with low-impact exercise only.

Don't have time for a workout? You might benefit from High-intensity interval training.

If fitting 450 minutes of aerobic training plus two hour-long strength workouts into your week seems laughably impossible, you might benefit from high-intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT is a form of cardiovascular exercise where you engage in intense bursts of activity followed by resting phases. It’s painful, but it’s over fast, and HIIT might provide similar or better results than traditional training.

HIIT has been gaining a lot if interest over the last few years following some surprising studies around the world. There are several different HIIT regimens named after the researchers who published the studies. One popular practice is called the Gibala regimen.

A 2009 study by Dr. Martin Gibala of McMaster University in Canada describes this following method. People who practiced this routine three times per week had similar gains compared to people who practiced traditional moderate aerobic exercise five times per week.

The Gibala Method for HIIT

  • Warm up using a light jog for 3 minutes.
  • Sprint for 1 minute, pushing to hit your max heart rate.
  • Slow down to a walk or slow jog for 75 seconds to catch your breath.
  • Repeat 8-12 times.

With the Gibala method, your entire workout is over in 21 to 30 minutes.

The point of HIIT is to briefly reach your maximum heart rate. The stress signals your heart and muscle cells release may be enough to start the cascade of biochemical changes that we associate with being physically fit.

HIIT is not the kind of thing you should try without getting a green light from your doctor. Hitting your max heart rate is a terrible idea for many people and could lead to a serious medical emergency or death.

“Phys Ed” columnist for the New York Times, Gretchen Reynolds goes into detail on HIIT in her fantastic book The First 20 Minutes. This book is an excellent survey of recent studies in physical fitness, and provides evidence based advice for improving your health.

If HIIT is too intense for your tastes, you can still benefit from traditional interval training.

If you’re not quite ready for HIIT, you might be interested in interval training. Interval training has long been a popular workout routine in many sports. For running, it involves mixing in a handful of sprints into your run. If you’re not up to jogging yet, interval training would be mixing a few short jogs into your walk. Once you begin to get out of breath, back off and drop back down to a recovery pace.

This has long been a staple of my fitness routine when I’m trying to get back into shape after some months spent living in an ergonomic chair. The gains I’ve seen using interval training are leagues faster than when I take a slow-and-steady approach. And compared to HIIT, I don’t have to deal with the sensation that I’m flirting with heart failure.

If you’re interested in learning more about interval training, good old Wikipedia is a great place to start.

Improving your fitness is an investment in yourself, your happiness, and your odds of sharing a long life with the people you love.

If you pick up any book on fitness, you'll hear a chorus of the same benefits of exercise quoted. People who exercise have reduced mortality by any cause. Exercise reduces cancer risk and heart disease. It also increases neurogenesis in the brain, the formation of new brain cells. This wards off age-related cognitive decline, boosts mood, and makes you more resilient under stress.

It seems like any one of these benefits would be enough to motivate anyone. But if you're like me and find it hard to get out the door to exercise, you might need a little extra boost to your motivation. I encourage you to schedule a backpacking trip on your calendar, and see if this helps to motivate you to exercise more.

Don't wait to get in better shape for your next backpacking trip. Determine where you are now, recognize your goals, choose an aerobic activity and strength training routine, and make it a regular part of your week.