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Training for Backpacking
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Maia Jordan
(maia) - MLife

Locale: Rocky Mountains
Training for Backpacking on 04/29/2014 21:50:27 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Training for Backpacking

Marko Botsaris
(millonas) - F - MLife

Locale: Santa Cruz Mountains, CA
Re: Training for Backpacking on 04/29/2014 22:33:54 MDT Print View

Perfect David! This is exactly what I wanted to read just now.

Rex Sanders
(Rex) - M

Locale: Central California Coast
Re: Training for Backpacking on 04/29/2014 23:23:45 MDT Print View

Thank you. This will improve my own, meager, training efforts, and helps explain why they didn't work as planned.

An important principle for me: I can't exercise for the sake of exercise. It must be disguised as fun!

-- Rex

Andrew Wilson
(andreww) - MLife

Locale: Vosges
Aerobic Base on 04/30/2014 03:55:26 MDT Print View

Thanks for this measured, and well supported piece. A recent article in Backpacking ignorantly suggested increasing the lactate threshold as the most important thing for hikers--a bizarre thing to advise, for it is only applicable for seasoned endurance athletes who already have reached the limit of their aerobic fitness, which, to be honest, represents few us us. This sort of trendy, scientific-souding advice will only cause more injuries in the mountains.

I'd add even more emphasis on the so-called aerobic base. Most people jump right to intervals, and skip base building--I suppose because fully aerobic activity seems too easy to count as "training." It should be the other way around--if you skip anything, do the base, and skip the intervals, as hiking, even up hills, should only very rarely enter go anaerobic--if you find yourself burning and wheezing, you're simply not in good aerobic shape.

I've had great success running with a heart rate monitor to keep me honest, and I can imagine the same thing for training for a hike. Over time of consistent training, you'll be able to do much more work for the same effort--and not enter into that anaerobic zone, from which it can take days to fully recover, during which you're much more likely to get injured. There's lots written on it, mostly for the endurance crowd, who have quite refined the art of managing efficient energy expenditure.

From my own experience, I also +1 for adding weight to training hikes and daily activities. Muscles react relatively quickly, but it can take months or even years for the stabilizing muscles, connective tissue and bones to gain strength necessary and "smarts" to complete sustained endurance efforts as a weight-bearing 8-day JMT without pain or injury--which is much more fun than suffering.

Slaton Whatley

Locale: Catalinas, Saguaro, Grand Canyon
Thanks for this Article! on 04/30/2014 08:46:42 MDT Print View

It made my morning when I saw this post. I've always enjoyed the idea of being as fit as possible for my trips. I think a lot of people in the outdoor world (climbing, mountain biking, kayaking, etc....) can see backpacking as a bit of a lazy man/woman's sport. And while I definitely see people who don't represent the epitome of fitness on the trail this doesn't have to be the case!

Going light shouldn't be a way to deal with the fact that we aren't in good enough shape to carry heavy weight. I love the idea of being in great shape, able to carry heavy loads, but then choosing not to and going as light as possible. Moving fast, light and efficiently through harsh and rugged terrain really gets me excited!

Thanks for the post and I hope to see some more like this!

Ben Crocker
(alexdrewreed) - M

Locale: Kentucky
Training for Backpacking on 04/30/2014 09:11:36 MDT Print View

Thanks for the article. I took away several good things.

I find it interesting that your article focuses on preparing for a long hike. This is such a common type of training effort. I see it even more commonly from friends training to run a marathon or other race. I think most people find it fairly easy to keep motivated to train for an upcoming run or hike. I so often, though, see those same people do absolutely nothing in the weeks and months after the run or hike is over. They often revert back to being in worse physical condition than when they start.

I do sometimes wonder if the very focused training is good, long term, for most adults. If we lose all motivation after the run or hike is over, have we really done much good. I think a comparison can be made to crash dieting; after the weight is lost, most crash dieters gain the weight back.

I think finding something that continues to motivate is key. Many people love aerobic/anaerobic sports that require us to chase a ball and can keep motivated longer in soccer or volleyball than we can doing interval training on a track. Honestly, for me, and I think most people, motivation is the key. If I can play soccer, volleyball, and tennis in the same week, I am not going to burn out, even after years. I can not say the same for grinding out interval training and checking my heart rate. Then I can mix in a little of the more grueling exercises and not feel a loss of motivation.

I frequently find myself training for a big trip too. But in the end, I find motivation is the key. Do something you love to get in shape if you can. I encourage play over exercise.

Hk Newman
(hknewman) - MLife

Locale: Western US
Re: Training for Backpacking on 04/30/2014 09:27:16 MDT Print View

Good summary of periodization applied to backpacking. Think everyone tries to get some smaller hikes in before a big hike, but this article gives more specific tips to invigorate those "training hikes".

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
Re: Training for Backpacking on 04/30/2014 10:14:25 MDT Print View

I agree Ben, exercise is all too often neither particularly healthy nor sustainable. Beyond anything my hope here is to show that a lot of folks can do structured training with fairly modest alterations in what they already enjoy doing week to week.

John Fiely
(Fielybird) - F
Re: Training for Backpacking on 04/30/2014 11:05:52 MDT Print View

Thanks! As a 59 year young flatlander from Ohio
I have discovered several helpful ways
to prepare for GC loops JMT etc
Hike with an overweight pack. I work up to
1.5 times my real weight so 60# training pack
for a 40# hiking pack Carry this up and down
stairs High step ups Around the area with
best hills Up and down a steep local dam,
spillway is best
Build weight slowly!
Skip a day every two or three and swim bike
run and hit the weight machines I go for low
reps and higher weights and get help from
gym trainer
The steep inclines seem to help with
stretching with all that weight on board
Love now light feeling
pack at the trailhead!
I think the all year swim keeps is base
Perhaps the hills steps and dam are
my intervals
Will be making a few improvements
Thanks again

Marko Botsaris
(millonas) - F - MLife

Locale: Santa Cruz Mountains, CA
Re: Re: Training for Backpacking on 04/30/2014 11:17:35 MDT Print View


Sounds like a grind. So glad I have some mountains in my backyard! Like Ben, for me it wouldn't work unless I could fool my brain into thinking it was fun. However, good excuse to carry my heavy tent on some training trips. :-)

Edited by millonas on 04/30/2014 11:18:12 MDT.

Dan Parisian
(Ezmate) - MLife
Nice post on 04/30/2014 12:00:28 MDT Print View

I like the article - it's the kind of thing I strive to do before a hike.

I live in Houston, so it's impossible to find any sort of hike to replicate a mountain adventure. I typically build my base on a treadmill at 15-18% incline or a stairmill. Intervals always suck, but I do believe they help a LOT.

When prepping for a trip, I concentrate on weight loss, too (i.e. I don't eat whatever I want just because I'm working out regularly). A lighter body is easier to haul up a pass and is less likely to get injured. I did the JMT a couple years back & I was lighter than I had been in over 10 years - I was hiking stronger than a couple of teenagers I met!

Travis Bernard
(DispatchesfromtheNorth) - M

Locale: Ross River
Warning - Long post on 04/30/2014 13:49:46 MDT Print View

Great article Dave.

Ben, I couldn't agree more that doing something that you enjoy and are passionate about is key to staying in shape. I also think that integrating exercise into your daily life is a great way to keep solid physical base-shape. I read an article a few years back that looked at communities around the world that had the longest life expectancies, and one thing all of these communities had in common was that their day-to-day lives included lots of 'chores' that kept them in shape. And if I remember correctly, the respondents in these communities DID NOT go to the gym or 'train' to stay healthy. Many indicated they'd never even been to a gym.

I'd say we are lucky, but my girlfriend and I made a concious choice to live out in a small cabin with few amenities. It's allowed us to live simpler lives, but it's also kept us in great shape because our chores provide us with regular workouts.

Heating with wood means I'm busy year round bucking, hauling, and stacking wood. Over the winter I usually dedicate 2-3 hrs per week splitting wood and stacking it. In summer, rather than pay good money for a pump to water our garden beds, I walk down to the lake each morning and fill 2 5-gallon buckets and walk it uphill. And whenever possible, we add other tasks to our routine that we can do by hand rather than mechanization. It often saves money too!

All of these day-to-day chores are ingrained in our routine, and we do them without second thought (mostly because we have to), but it definitely keeps us in better health than we would be otherwise.

And having a dog ensures that we are out walking on our local trails at least 30-45 minutes per day. To keep it fun we mix up running, walking/hiking, bikjoring, and skijoring/snowshoeing in the winter. Never have I been in better shape since getting a dog!

Obviously, folks living in urban centres might have to search a little harder than us to find exercise in their daily routines, but it's not impossible. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator, riding your bike/running/walking to work everyday, staying on top of yard work, DIY projects that involve you doing the work yourself rather than paying someone to do it for you. These are all things that can keep you in good base-shape, and with time become just another part of your life.

That's not to say that training isn't important. But to avoid that diet-like approach to training (work hard for a specific goal, then crash and burn on the couch) I think the key is both doing things you love to do, and integrating exercise into your daily life. Add to that a good training regiment to meet specific goals, and it's icing on the cake.

Speaking of which, I'd better get training. Summer is coming up quickly...


Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Re: Training for Backpacking on 04/30/2014 17:46:26 MDT Print View

"my hope here is to show that a lot of folks can do structured training with fairly modest alterations in what they already enjoy doing week to week."

+1 Which you have shown very well. Excellent article!

I might add that as one ages, maintaining a slightly lower level of the base building period year around is far easier than letting oneself get out of shape and then having to start from scratch to get to the point where serious base building can begin. Ideally, IMO, base building should be a well calibrated increase in the volume of what you are already doing as part of your way of life. Pretty much the same goes for strength training, especially core, and light aerobic threshold workouts as well, hopefully in an environment that approximates what you are training for, so that the small muscles involved in stabilization and proprioception can be stimulated as well.

Mike M
(mtwarden) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Re: Training for Backpacking on 04/30/2014 19:37:10 MDT Print View

thanks for the article Dave! I concur with several that commented that a year round training regime makes things much easier :)

having big trips, races or other events on the horizon have always helped me keep motivated; it's one of the main reasons I sign up for numerous races throughout the summer- I'll never be a competitive runner, but the races keep me training

for specificity, other than backpacking, trail running is tough to beat- your core gets a great workout, your balance improves immensely, all of your small accessory muscles are recruited and you're building your aerobic capacity effectively.

when you can run up mountains, you'll find walking up them is a sheer joy :)

I also think strength training, with an emphasis on compound movements adds to your overall fitness- I like to mix body weight exercises with more traditional weight training exercises

with time almost always being a factor (for me anyways), the ability to cover more ground definitely adds to my enjoyment

Jimmy D
(byocarbon) - MLife

Locale: El Rio Colorado
A Question on Conditioning the Feet on 05/01/2014 19:55:15 MDT Print View

Great article - just what I needed to read. But I need to quantify training for the 'agony of the feet.'

As someone who trains primarily on a road bike, I have found that 8 hours or so a week of cycling gets me in great cardio shape for backpacking and addresses most of the musculature needs for backpacking. A weekly day hike or so will round out conditioning my leg and core muscles for say a 3 to 4 day backpacking trip at maybe 20 miles a day. But 60 or 80 miles on a rocky trail will absolutely thrash my feet - no blisters, no sprains, just completely exhausted foot muscles, connective tissue, etc.

The question is how much conditioning is really needed for getting the feet in shape? Obviously much more than I do, and as AndrewW above states - probably very accurately - that the "it can take months or even years for the stabilizing muscles, connective tissue and bones to gain strength necessary and "smarts" to complete sustained endurance efforts." Can anyone help me quantify this? Miles or hours per week of different activities? And is it just time on the feet that matters, or does adding more weight speed up the process?

Also, for what it is worth, Chris Carmichael's "Time Crunched Cyclist" and "Time Crunched Triathlete" books help quantify cardio training needs that at least for me translate into backpacking fitness. Anaerobic training is probably stressed more than really needed but it does make those long uphills actually enjoyable.

Eugene Smith
(Eugeneius) - MLife

Locale: Nuevo Mexico
Re: Training for Backpacking on 05/01/2014 20:14:30 MDT Print View

Nailed it.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
Re: A Question on Conditioning the Feet on 05/01/2014 21:24:41 MDT Print View

It is a very good question Jim.

I think multi-year cycles of lots of backpacking, hiking, and training for both results in connective tissue and balance muscles which are predisposed to deal better with consecutive days of foot pounding terrain. Legs strong enough to walk light, especially on descents, make a big difference as well, along with a light as possible overall body+clothes+pack weight.

However, there is no substitute for specific training in the months leading up to a big, foot pounding hike. The JMT is a perfect example here, as even when it's smooth the dirt tread isn't far removed from concrete. If I were aiming to do the JMT in a week starting on August 1st of this year, I know that for me foot fatigue would be the limiting factor every day of the trip. Starting this week I'd try to get in ~15 miles of walking with a decent load on hardish surfaces each week. Sidewalks count. This in addition to hill intervals. Come June and July I'd be doing big backpacks at least every other week, with a focus on selecting routes which go on well-maintained (and thus hard surfaced) trails. 5-6 good tough overnights and a bit more walking during the week would get the job done.

I cannot be overstated that in this particular case specificity is king. Prior to my first wilderness classic most of the big backpacks I had done were on harder surfaces, where foot fatigue and pain was the limiting factor. In Alaska, off trail and mostly on softer surfaces, joint stress became the limiting factor. Strong legs and lungs were vital for both, but the details were drastically different.

Jimmy D
(byocarbon) - MLife

Locale: El Rio Colorado
Re: Re: A Question on Conditioning the Feet on 05/02/2014 10:37:07 MDT Print View

David - thanks, that is just what I needed. 15 miles a week with a decent load is what I need to start with, then build it up from there. (I've got 600 miles on the Arizona Trail to do over the next two years, so this will get me a good baseline in between trips.)

Andrew Wilson
(andreww) - MLife

Locale: Vosges
Foot stresses on 05/02/2014 11:13:28 MDT Print View

In my long distance hikes, I, too, have found foot adaption the limiting factor. At the beginning of the PCT, twenty miles was killer; after two months of gradual increases, 30 miles was almost easy. The demands of long distance hiking are mostly of recovery. For this, the healthiest diet and a very healthy aerobic fitness are most important--as these minimize the chance of repetitive stresses, the nail in the trail coffin.

Jason Elsworth
(jephoto) - M

Locale: New Zealand
Training on 05/02/2014 16:56:23 MDT Print View

A really great article. My time available for training is pretty limited, but I can see how I could still adapt the ideas here to my own situation. Years ago I trained using a HRM to slowly build a strong base. I found it to be very effective. When I was starting out it showed me that I could run at a very, very gentle pace and still benefit. Without a HRM I would have run a lot harder and would have found the whole process a lot tougher and much less sustainable. One other point I would make is that it is vital to maintain your health as well as your fitness. I know from personal experience that some health problems can be very tough to fix and really undermine any efforts to improve your fitness.

In terms of foot strength I found that going bear foot and/or with minimalist footwear day to day has helped me. I also spend a lot of each day on my feet and this has helped.

Edited by jephoto on 05/02/2014 16:58:54 MDT.