training for backpacking

Get in Shape for Backpacking!

You’ve selected the when, where and length of your first trip. Now the REAL fun starts! While there’s lots to do before you set out, your immediate step is to start training now.

The good news is that you are about to embark on an activity pretty much anyone can do, regardless of age or experience. The bad news is that carrying a pack that weighs over 30 lbs. is tough on your body, and you need to train.

The pleasure you experience on your backpacking trip is directly related to what kind of shape you are in. In other words, the better physically prepared you are, the more comfortable your trip will be, which translates into more joy, happiness, elation, etc.

You don’t need to be an Adonis to enjoy your trip – I’m currently a little overweight and still backpacking like a champ – but like all other aspects of backpacking, you do need to be prepared. Specifically, your joints and muscles need to be capable of handling the physical demands of hiking multiple miles over multiple days, all with a heavy pack on your back.

There are countless articles, blog posts and websites dedicated to providing elaborate, detailed, intricate exercises to prep you for your trip. If you want to investigate them, by all means, knock yourself out! It certainly won’t hurt and can only help.  But many people simply don’t have the time to go all-out like that, and you don’t have to!

training for backpacking
Training hike with a half-full pack.

The simple fact is that you need to be able to walk long distances with a heavy pack on your back, so get out there and do as much hiking as you possibly can.

You should alternate between long, short, strenuous and easy hikes.  Change it up frequently.  If you like to jog, trail running is a great cross-training activity (it utilizes some different muscles and works the lungs harder).

Speaking of cross-training: cycling, stair climbing, elliptical training and rowing are also great supplemental exercises.  And if you can find the time, weight training is also super helpful and I highly recommend it.  But if all you can do is hike with weight on your back, that’s enough.

What if you live in a place without accessible hiking areas nearby?  Then walk! Walk your favorite neighborhoods, along city streets or through local parks. Find hills and walk those. Will people look at you funny if you are walking the streets of Chicago with a 35 lb. pack on?  Yes, but who cares? Most people will be curious about what you are doing and will provide you with tons of enthusiasm and support once they find out.

backpacking training city
Training hike in the city with a buddy includes the Golden Gate Bridge!

What if you live in a place that is too rainy/snowy/cold/hot/humid right now to train properly? Get a gym membership and spend time on the treadmill, stair climber and/or elliptical machine – and wear your pack at the gym! No excuses.

The bottom line is you can train anywhere in the world and it doesn’t matter if you don’t have access to big mountains.  The beauty of this hobby is that you can strap on a pack and go walking anywhere, which means training properly is always an option.

Here’s a general set of guidelines* for total newbies with little-to-no recent hiking experience and for those whom may not currently be in the best shape of their lives:

  • Start out hiking or walking just a couple of miles three times per week with little-to-no weight on your back (i.e., carrying a daypack with water and snacks is fine).
  • Every two weeks, up your mileage by one single mile.
  • When you can comfortably hike six miles at least once a week (with shorter hikes at least once a week as well), start adding weight.  Start with a 15 lb. day pack.
  • Up the amount of weight your carry by 5 lbs. every two weeks.
  • Get to the point where you can successfully carry 35 lbs. on a six mile hike at least once a week.
  • How many miles per day do you plan on hiking during your trip? Start building to where you can comfortably carry at least 35 lbs. for that many miles (i.e., if you plan on averaging ten miles per day on your trip, make sure you are semi-comfortable carrying 35+ lbs. for at least ten miles once a week or more).
  • In a perfect world, each week includes at least three hikes: one longer, but easy; one short, but strenuous; one long AND strenuous.  Be able to carry 35+ lbs. on each hike.
  • If you already know your pack is going to weigh more or less than 35 lbs., adjust your training plan accordingly.

You do not need to train every day. People sometimes think they must hike 10 miles every day, with a pack on, in order to be prepared and that’s simply not true. I don’t know anyone who has a lifestyle conducive to hiking 10 miles every day! The truth is that your body will have to do some of the adapting and strengthening out on the trail during your trip. If you can fit three days of training in per week, that’s pretty awesome!

Lastly, consider some of the helpful smartphone apps out there to help you track your progress.  Pay attention to your distance for each hike, how long it takes you to do certain distances over time (e.g., are you getting faster at that nasty, mountainous 4-miler?), and also keep track of elevation gain/loss (make sure you are doing lots of ups and downs as Mother Nature is rarely flat).

I prefer Runkeeper because it specifically includes hiking as an activity and is simple to use with tons of features (and free for the basic version, which is all you really need).

training backpacking
Resting during a HOT training hike!

When I trained for the 220-mile John Muir Trail, I started training the second week of January for an August start date.  By the time May rolled around, I was hiking anywhere from 2-5 days a week.  I carried my pack filled with all my gear (35+ lbs.) on most hikes.  One hike each week was 10 miles long or longer, and about once a week I would give my body a break and hike without the pack.

training for a backpacking trip
Feeling good on the JMT thanks to proper training.

By the time August rolled around, I was more than physically prepared for my trip! My body handled the demands of that strenuous trail much better than most people I met, regardless of the fact that I was still a little overweight.  My muscles and joints could handle it and my body and mind were used to it. Success!

Training in your running shoes is fine to start, but soon you are going to need some real hiking shoes or boots. Next up: my personal shoe shopping horror story!

*I am not a doctor nor a personal trainer! You should consult with your physician before starting any exercise program. Everybody is different and you should tailor your training program to fit your specific capabilities and needs.