Of course, the best training for any pursuit is sport-specific training. The more time you spend hiking and backpacking, the better prepared you'll be for hiking and backpacking. But it never hurts to supplement your outdoor pursuits with exercises that'll help you develop balance, strength, and agility where you need it most. Add a few of these exercises to your gym routine to get you ready for your next outing.
Increase Leg Strength and Endurance for Uphill Climbs
Recommended Exercises: Lunges, Step Ups, Squats
The stronger your legs are, the easier it's going to be to stride uphill with a heavy pack all day. But building strength isn't the only way to ensure you're able to walk for multiple miles in a day, or over a series of days; you need to build endurance as well. Exercises that isolate each leg, like lunges and step ups, and exercises that'll just get you stronger, like squats, are all good options.
Lunges: There are many lunge variations, but to start, I'm a fan of walking dumbbell lunges. To initiate the lunge, grasp one dumbbell in each hand, tighten your core, and step forward with one leg. Try not to let your knee pass over your toes. Let your back knee lightly touch the floor, stand up on to the front foot, and step forward with the opposite leg. Try not to let the dumbbells swing and keep your torso upright. You can also load up a backpack and leave the dumbbells behind. Click here for a video.
Step Ups: To prep for climbing Mount Rainier in 2010, the Stairmaster at my local gym and I got to know each other extremely well. Similarly, I found weighted step ups are a great training exercise. Choose an appropriately sized box, and with identically sized dumbbells in each hand, standing a few inches from the box, lift one foot off the floor and place it squarely on the top of the box. Pushing off of the foot on top of the box and trying not to push off of the floor, bring the other foot up to join it. Step down and repeat with the opposite leg. Click here for a video.
Barbell Back Squats: Basic barbell squats are one of my favorite leg strengthening exercises. Position yourself under the bar so it sits comfortably on your trapezius muscles, not your spine. Take a deep breath in, stand up to un-rack the barbell, and take one or two steps back. Set your feet shoulder width apart with, turn your toes outward just slightly. Keep your weight on your heels and the middle of your feet, take another deep breath, and initiate the squat by pushing your hips back as if you're about to sit down. Keep your chest high and sit down in a controlled manner until your hip crease passes below your knee. Don't shift your weight on to your toes. Stand up quickly by pushing through the floor, breathing out as you ascend. Keep your chest high, eyes forward, and back locked tight. Click here for a video.
Develop Core Strength for Carrying Large Backpacks
Recommended Exercises: Good Mornings, Weighted Planks
When you've got any amount of weight on your frame, or when you're covering uneven terrain and need to keep your body stable, there's no question that core strength is important. A strong core helps you maintain your posture and maintain stability, both of which are important if you're carrying a pack all day. Aside from walking around with a backpack for hours on end, it can be challenging to find exercises that mimic having some extra weight on your core. Give these two a try.
Barbell Good Morning: Good mornings don't just train your lower back; they're a great supplement to any posterior chain training. (Read: they're good for back and leg strength development.) With the barbell squarely on your back, keep your feet hip with apart. Using an overhand grip, bend your knees as you hinge at the hip to bend forward. The bend in your knees should be slight. Focus on sending your rear end back, and bend over until your upper body is close to parallel to the floor. Keep your back flat; there can be a slight curve in your lumbar spine. Stand up quickly. Click here for a video.
Weighted Planks: Standard planks are great, but adding a little weight into the mix can help you up your game. To do a basic plank, get in a full pushup position with your fingers facing forward and your shoulders directly over your hands. Squeeze your body and create a flat line from head to toe. Avoid letting your hips sag, and maintain a neutral head position. Have a friend gently set a weight on your back, or wear a backpack. Hold it for as long as you can, or try intervals.
Improve Balance for Stream Crossings and Rocky Descents
Recommended Exercises: Step Downs, Single Leg Deadlifts, Jumping with Accuracy
We covered step ups to build leg strength, but typically, when you climb uphill, you also have to be able to head downhill without difficulty. In addition, you need be able to accurately judge the distance between rocks if you're walking on them, and take uneven steps with both legs. Try these movements to help hone your skills.
Step Downs: Standing to the side of a box or bench, and holding two equally sized dumbbells in each hand, place one foot on top of the box or bench. Push off of the leg on the bench to stand tall, then step down while keeping the original foot on the bench. Click here for a video.
Single Leg Deadlifts: Traditional deadlifts can help you train your back and hamstrings as a unit, but single leg deadlifts will help you train balance too. Stand on one leg with a weight in each hand. Bend the leg you're standing on just slightly, keep your back flat and bend down, hinging at the hip and raising the other leg for balance. Let the weight touch the ground, stand up, and bring the raised leg to meet your other leg. Choose a weight that's challenging, but will let you keep your back flat. Click here for a video.
Jumping with Accuracy: When I first started at my CrossFit gym, one of our coaches worked to get us to develop better agility and balance by walking across and jumping between a series of flat wooden boards. On most hikes and backpacking trips I go on, there's some sort or rock hopping involved, and practicing that in advance can help you hone your skills. Using something narrow, like a two-by-four, is a great option, but even something as simple as chalk circles on the sidewalk works as well. Hone the skills at home, or at the gym, so you're ready for your next trip.
How do you stay in shape for the activities you love? How do you train for long hikes and backpacking trips? We'd love to hear from you!
Requisite disclaimer: Any exercises you read about on this site are to be attempted at your own risk. It's always a good idea to do weightlift movements with a partner and/or spotter. Any action taken based on the contents of this website is to be used solely at your own discretion, risk and liability. Always consult appropriate health professionals before proceeding with any action related to your health and exercise regimes While the information provided in this article is believed to be accurate, the author assumes no liability for the use or misuse of information.