Have you ever waited too long to get in shape for hiking or your big backpacking trip? Like suddenly it’s June 1 (or July 1!) and you panic because you wish you’d started working out months ago?
If so, I’m right there with you. In fact, I almost never feel ready for a big trip. I always worry I should have done more!
The good news is, it’s never too late to get in better shape for hiking or backpacking. Even if you’re a bit behind, just start where you are and keep moving forward.
Today I’m going to share five simple tips you can follow to start getting in shape for your backpacking trip. I’ll also give you some “homework” so you can start putting them into action.
Ready? Let’s dive in into hiking fitness.
1. Get a “long hike” in at least once a week
Good endurance training revolves around long workouts where you stress your body with exercise volume (but not intensity). Just like marathon runners do long runs, hikers can do long hikes.
Your long hike should make up 25 to 50 percent of your total training hours for the week. The duration might range from one hour (if you’re new to hiking or currently in your off-season) to over 12 hours (if you’re at your training peak or tackling your goal).
Each week, increase the duration of your long hike by 5–10 percent. And every few weeks, take a break and reduce your long hike duration by 50 percent. This allows your body to consolidate all the hiking fitness gains you’re making. Yes, well-timed resting actually makes you stronger!
Check out Colorado’s most inspiring training hikes:
- Day Hikes Near Denver for Any Ability
- The Meg-List of Scenic Alpine Lake Hikes in Colorado
- Colorado’s “Easier” 14er Mountain Hikes
2. How to train smart for hiking fitness during the week
Unless you live in a cabin in the mountains (lucky you), you won’t be able to hike and climb every day. That’s OK. You can still train for hiking and backpacking.
For cardio, that means more low-intensity aerobic workouts. Aim for 30 to 70 minutes three to four times a week. Once you’ve got a solid aerobic base, make one of those workouts a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workout and one a lactate threshold workout (see below).
The best cardio exercises for hikers are weight bearing and force you to step uphill. For extra resistance, wear a backpack. Some ideas:
- Running, especially on an incline or hilly terrain
- Climbing stairs (real ones or on a stair mill)
- Walking uphill on a treadmill
3. After a few weeks, add some high-intensity workouts
A quick and easy way to make sure you’re working at the right intensity is to use ratings of perceived exertion (RPE). This is a 0–10 rating scale in which zero represents rest and ten represents all-out effort.
About 70–80 percent of your weekly workouts, including your long hike, should be performed at moderate intensity, or RPE 3–4. This stimulates the adaptations your body needs to hike very long distances while carrying a pack.
As you build a solid base of fitness, consider adding some interval work to your program. Intervals are short bursts of hard exercise that are followed by rest periods, then repeated.
For example, if you’re a runner, you might do 5 one-minute sprints and then walk one minute in between sprints. If you’re not into running, you could do a similar workout on an elliptical machine, with battle ropes, or while performing squat jumps or any other exercise that gets your heart pumping.
Here are two kinds of interval workouts that are helpful for backpacking and long-distance hiking:
- Lactate threshold intervals: Performed at an RPE of 6–7 and usually last from 3 to 20 minutes. Gradually work up to 30 minutes of total interval time.
- High intensity interval training (HIIT): Performed at an RPE of 8–9 and usually last 30 seconds to 3 minutes. Gradually work up to 12 minutes of total interval time.
At first, give yourself plenty of time to recovery between intervals. As you get stronger, gradually decrease the work-rest ratio to 4:1 for lactate threshold intervals and 1:1 for HIIT. This will get your muscles used to working in a slightly acidic environment, which will help you exercise for longer at higher intensities.
Get inspired with these world-class backpacking routes:
- Bucket List Backpacking Routes in Colorado
- Nepal’s Most Incredible Trekking Routes
- Unbelievable Multi-Day Hikes in Europe
4. Pump some iron
Weight training has many benefits for endurance athletes (that’s you). Lifting twice a week will help improve your endurance on trail, prevent injury, and reduce post-hike soreness.
A lot of women worry that lifting weights will make them bulky. And if you’re new to strength training, you may notice your skinny jeans getting a little tight around the thighs and calves. But in order to really bulk up, you’d have to lift very heavy weights. The fact that you’re doing a ton of cardio during backpacking training will also limit the muscle mass you can build.
In the early stages, there’s no magic strength training program you need to follow. Just work your major muscle groups, including your core. Group fitness classes like Bodypump and Core Power are great ways for beginners to ease in.
If you’re training with free weights or machines, focus on exercises in which your hands or feet are in a fixed position. These exercises train multiple muscle groups, and they also mimic your body’s natural movements. Some examples:
- Standing calf raises
- Step ups
- Leg press
- Push ups
- Pull ups
- Sit ups and crunches
Early in your program, train with moderate weights. Perform three to four sets of 8–12 reps for each exercise. You should feel tired at the end of each set but still able to finish with good form. Be sure to rest between sets.
If you’re training for a big backpacking or mountaineering goal, you’ll want to add power and endurance phases to your training. These should last six to eight weeks each:
- Power: 6 sets, 4 reps, heavy weights
- Endurance: 2 sets, 15 reps, lighter weights
5. Be hard (in the) core
Finally, be sure to dedicate at least 15 minutes per strength workout to your middle. Strong trunk muscles will improve your stability and movement efficiency while backpacking and hiking. They also help you to carry a heavy pack without fatiguing and reduce the risk of back pain.
Here are some of my fav core exercises:
- Hanging leg raise
- Sit up
- Reverse crunch
- Plank (front and side)
- Russian twists
- Wood choppers
- Cable crunch
- Windshield wipers
- Stability ball rollouts
Let’s start getting in shape for backpacking and hiking today! Some steps to take:
- If you’re just working out here and there without a plan, start keeping records. Write down the date of each workout session, the duration, and what you did. Include weights, sets, and reps for any weight training exercises.
- Once you’ve got a handle on how much you work out, it’s time to make a plan! Include 2 strength sessions and 2–3 cardio sessions, and a long hike each week.
- Continue to record your workout durations. Try to increase your total training hours by 5–10 percent each week.
- Every 3–5 weeks, cut back and take a break! Reduce your workout volume by 30–50 percent to allow your body to consolidate all the awesome gains your making.
Thinking about making the leap from dayhiker to backpacker?
That’s awesome. You’re going to be so happy you did. And we have a step-by-step roadmap to show you how to get there!
Lady Dirtbag’s Guide to Freedom is a backpacking manual by women for women. This ebook walks you through everything you need to know to plan (and survive) your first backpacking trip. No more guesswork and anxiety! We’ll show you how to pack, what to eat, and even where to pee.
Got questions about getting in shape for backpacking? Pop them in the comments below and we’ll do our best to answer.
Thanks for reading and happy hiking!
Meet Miss Adventure Pants!
Sarah Maurer is a fitness coach who helps transform day hikers into backpackers, mountaineers, and ultra-endurance hikers. Catch up with her at her blog Miss Adventure Pants, her Facebook Group for backpackers in training, or on Instagram.