Be Strong, Hike Long
Strength is such an integral part of being prepared for a long, multiday backpacking trip, or even keeping a local hike enjoyable. These adventures are workouts on their own, but cross training to be prepared for steep climbs and descents (even descents can beat up your legs!) is super important to having a good time, or keeping up with your more experienced friends.
I’ve run ultra marathons up to 100 miles, done multi-day backpacking trips, and participated in endurance rucking challenges: each of these has made me more and more interested in endurance strength training. I’m always reading up on strength training for backpackers, trying to expand my limited knowledge base, and incorporating what I learn into training.
Without further ado, here are my favorite strength workouts to get ready for your backpacking and hiking adventures.
Remember, getting strong is a long-term goal. If you’re new to strength training, even a few sessions will help you with backpacking. It’s a mental game, and just feeling strong (having gone through a few good workouts) is a great place to start.
Let’s get strong so we can adventure farther, more often, and for many years to come.
I’m not going to talk much about form here. Do some research if you’re not familiar with some of these exercises & workouts. For most leg exercises, and to prepare for backpacking, most of your weight should be in your heels, and your pelvis should be in a neutral position. That’s a good place to start, but be sure to watch some YouTube videos if you need to learn more.
Best Exercises for Distance Adventures
1. Lunges: an essential backpacking exercise
Lunges are my favorite strength exercise for backpacking. Period. I prefer to hold a 25lbs plate at chest level, getting my shoulders, back, and biceps in on the action. Lunges are amazing for a few reasons…
- You’re on your feet: lunges imitate walking, and you’ll be doing plenty of walking out there on the trails.
- The weight is focused on your glutes: if you lunge correctly (not arching your back or extending your legs too far), your glutes should really be on fire at the end of a set. This is fantastic because when you’re climbing trails, your glutes are going to do a lot of the work. They’re huge muscles, and you can really lean on their size & strength while backpacking. Learn to turn them on with lunges. Remember to keep your legs at 90 degree angles! This helps to prevent extending too far.
- Lunges can be a full body exercise: pickup some dumbbells, hold a plate or sandbag, or (best yet) put on a weighted rucksack. Don’t go too crazy with weight in training (high quality and high-ish volume is great for getting ready for backpacking), but these tools can give your back, shoulders, arms, and core more challenge, and all of these big muscle groups play a significant role in distance hiking.
I like to stand in place while doing weighted lunges, pushing backward to return to my starting place on each rep. Walking lunges are great too, but I find it’s a bit easier to take advantage of your momentum when walking (making the exercise a bit easier). I feel like I get more bang for my buck staying in place.
2. Box Jumps and Step-Ups
I recommend keeping box jumps unweighted (for the sake of balance and safety), but feel free to add some weight to step-ups. Sandbags, dumbbells, kettlebells, and plates are all great options. Don’t think box jumps are more intense just because they’re more explosive, if you do step-ups for long enough, with weight, you’ll be panting like you just sprinted a mile.
For these exercises, you don’t really need any equipment. The height of the jump or step isn’t that important, especially because your uphill steps while backpacking will likely be short. I do like my Yes4All Plyo Box for training. It’s easy to put together, super sturdy, and quite affordable. It’s held up very well (without the slightest creak or groan) even with the total weight of a step-up exceeding 250 pounds.
When doing step-ups, go slow and controlled down. This will keep tension in your leg muscles for maximum engagement and efficiency. For box jumps, you can step down or jump down.
The view while doing step-ups and box jumps in your gym or living room won’t be quite as pretty as it will on the trail, but you’ll be glad to have some vertical climbing experience under your belt.
Pro Tip: a stair master is a wonderful (and painful) machine for getting accustomed to the uphill climbs you’ll likely experience while backpacking. It’s like step-ups without the downward motion, so perhaps it’s a bit more specific and intentional.
3. Rucking: the most functional workout for backpacking
Rucking is basically urban backpacking. You load up a pack, walk out your front door (or drive to the local park), and get your sweat on.
It’s that easy: pick up a pack, put a bunch of weight in it, and go for a walk. Even if you’re not able to access hills, a flat walk will give you a good idea for how your pack should fit and feel, and what it’s like to spend extended periods of time under weight. You don’t need steep hills to get stronger.
If you have access to a treadmill or stair master, hop on that and raise the elevation or intensity here and there to imitate the intensity of climbing steep trails.
If you’re new to wearing a weighted pack–if you haven’t been backpacking before–you should train with the pack you’ll hike with to get accustomed to it. You’ll also want to gradually increase your volume–don’t do too much too soon. It’s a good idea to increase mileage or time by no more than 10% each week, with a lower volume rest week every so often.
Listen to your body and enjoy the process of getting your legs, back, and shoulders strong. You’ll be glad you spent the time!
How Often to Strength Train
Two strength workouts per week focusing on your lower body, core, and back are enough to get ready for a backpacking trip. You should spend a lot of time throughout the week on your feet: running, jogging, long walks, and weekend hikes are great daily/weekly workouts for backpackers. You could ruck, walk, or run every day to improve general fitness, and cross training exercises like cycling, swimming, and martial arts will greatly affect your overall fitness.
Hayden Hawks, one of the best ultra marathon runners in the United States, once told me that nothing trumps fitness on the trail. Specificity in training (how close your training environment is to the adventure) and strength will never out-match general fitness.
Run, walk, jog, swim, hike…spend time outdoors and on your feet, and you’ll have an excellent time backpacking.
The best workouts for backpacking are the ones that improve general fitness, strengthen your legs, and familiarize you with your gear (mostly your pack).
Put it all together
Here’s what I’d recommend to a new backpacker who wants to get fit for a multi-day trip with a bunch of elevation gain:
- Walk/jog/run for at least an hour a day, building to this point over a few weeks/months if you’re currently sedentary. Myself and others have seen huge benefits of being in good running shape on the trail (probably in line with the “general fitness” advice above), but walking will absolutely suffice. Keep the walk at a brisk pace, a speed you could easily hold a conversation at. Feel free to take a day or two off this per week.
- Do a pretty hard lunge-focused workout two to four times per month. Build up over time, never going to the point where you won’t be able to walk for a few days. Mix in core & shoulder exercises like planks & standing dumbbell presses. This workout is also a great time to mix in box jumps and step-ups, but I’d keep lunges as the primary focus. Can you build up to 100 steps holding a 25lbs plate at your chest? Give it time and enjoy getting stronger!
- Unless you have specific fitness goals outside of backpacking (and those are good to have), I’d exercise for an hour or two each day, doing exercises and workouts you feel like doing. It’s easier to build habits when you have a plan, but sometimes it’s nice to wake up and do whatever feels right. Maybe that’s a 3, 5, or 10 mile walk. It might be a row machine workout. Perhaps today is the day you get familiar with lunges: my favorite cardio, strength, and endurance workout for backpacking.
Do you have a favorite workout for backpacking? Let me know in the comments so I can try it.