Monday, January 31, 2011

How to // Training & Conditioning for Backpacking

When we went on our first backpacking trip (of our adult lives anyway) in 2009, we covered only four - mostly flat - miles in the first day. I was pretty out of shape at the time and became a sweaty mess almost as soon as I hit the trail. The trip was still great, because backpacking is all kinds of rewarding. Had I put a little bit of energy into training though I might have avoided a lot of needless suffering.

The more you work before the trip, the less you work on it.

The core of my personal training program is regular distance running and bike commuting. I love the outdoors and I hate being in the gym - so I've chosen sports that keep me outside

1) Walking/Jogging

Any exercise is better than no exercise. Just getting up and moving around for sustained periods a few times a week is enough to kick start your metabolism and give you a huge energy boost. You're not going to be able to work your way to peak performance without breaking a sweat - but walks around your home or the occasional jog are a good way to get started on your way to fitness. If you're injured, they're also a low impact way to get yourself moving as well.

2) Running

It was not love at first sight for me with running. I started running to train to climb Mt. Whitney. I didn't begin with a program, I just tried to go out and run for as long as I could. I stopped a lot, I was sweating a lot, and it generally just made me feel bad about myself.

After about three months of awful things started clicking for me though. I'd go for my required run and then challenge myself to do more. Now, trail running is just about my favorite thing to do. Powering up big hills and flying down the other side fills me with pure child-like joy. On long distance runs I've literally began crying tears of joy for no reason. Once it clicks, running is amazing.

Pacing is Key

The key that unlocked running as pleasurable activity was finding a gear I could lock into a sustain. The tendency I've seen early on is to run way too fast especially at the start of a run. Expect to start at a pace around 13:00 to 15:00 minutes per mile. Learn to listen to your heart and lungs like you would a tachometer and keep it out of the red or you'll burn out your lungs and your legs.

Walk Breaks

The first question most people ask me about running is "Do you take walk breaks?". The answer is a resounding yes! To illustrate why: try hold your arm up to your side for 15 minutes. Now do the same thing, but every 5 minutes, put your arm down for 10 seconds. You probably didn't have to actually do that to know that it's a lot easier if you take just a brief pause to rest your muscle. The muscles in your legs react the same way, giving them just a few quick breaks makes a big difference in recovery and performance. As counter-intuitive as it seems you actually run faster by taking short breaks.


Cycling is perhaps my favorite way to get in my exercise. It can be as easy as you want it to be or as intense as you want it to be. Need a break? The bike keeps you going. The beeze in your face keeps you cool and dry unless you're really getting after it.


If there was one thing I would add to my training program, it would be swimming. There is a reason the most in-shape people I know are swimmers/surfers. Swimming can be done in any weather (if you have a heated pool) - unlike running. It's impact-free so you can stay injury free, also nothing builds up your pipes quite like swimming does. Swimming is especially valuable for high-altitude backpacking.


Cross-training is anything that isn't part of your base cardio workout. It could be yoga, or weight lifting, or kickboxing class, or zoomba. It should be low impact and center around some kind of resistance (even if its the resistance of gravity/your own body like yoga). I personally like doing yoga because I find it relaxing and it engages muscles that would normally get neglected. If one of your goals is to lose weight, balancing cross-training and cardio will help you do that.

Pro Tip: Make a Plan

There are lots of great resources online for making a good training plan once you understand the foundation they're all based on.

Beginner Training
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
XT 30m Walk Off 15m Jog 15m Jog Off Long Hike


Intermediate Training
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
XT 30m Run 1hr Bike 30m Run 1hr Bike Off Long Run or Hike

Notes: Alternating running and biking keeps the impact lower. For cross-training I like yoga, it practically feels like an extra day off. Take additional days off if you need them too, just not the Long Run. The short runs build strength and the long run builds endurance.

Advanced Training
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
30m Run/XT 45m Run Bike Ride Track Run Bike Ride Off Long Run

Notes: At this point you should be able to take on just about anything. This is my also my marathon plan so it more than qualifies for backpacking training. The bike rides are 2, hour long easy rides (my commute to work actually). This is a lot of exercise so best judgement is key. Listen to your body and make judicious use of extra rest days. I frequently skip my Monday run after a big Sunday Run.


  1. I've found kayaking to be the best training activity for back-packing. It is an outside activity that can be enjoyed after dark and provides core development for torso, abdomen, lower back, and shoulders. By kayaking a 2-3 evenings a week I have been able to transform from desk jockey to wilderness explored in a few short weeks.

  2. Great comment Marvin. I excluded Kayaking and Skiing (which is great for strength, stamina, and balance!) from the list because of accessibility. For those with access though they are excellent training choices.

    Kayaking is a fantastic way to build upper body strength. On the one occasion I've had to go I felt my arms for days and days and I was only out for a couple hours. I'd think it would need to be supplemented with hiking or running though.

  3. Thanks for all the tips about getting in shape for long hikes/backpacking. I think the best way to get physically ready for a hike, would be to experience it first hand. Hiking on trails and other inclined woodsy areas would be the best practice. The environment at the gym would not prepare one for the climate at which a hike would take place.