Backpacking Fitness Training and Why Sport Specificity Matters

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Why Worry?

The more physically prepared you are for your backpacking outing, the more enjoyable the trip will be. But backpacking fitness training isn’t just a question of fun or convenience; the farther you go into the backcountry, the more self-sufficient you should be. Having the fitness to get yourself in and then hike out safely is the least you can do to ensure your own safety, especially if you find yourself facing inclement conditions.

Sport Specificity

Simply put, the principle of sport specificity states that in order to get better at a given activity you should practice that activity. So one of the best ways to build fitness for backpacking is to hit the trail as often as you can, using progressively longer hikes to not just build fitness but increase your confidence on the trail.

Even if you don’t have time for a lot of long hiking or camping trips, you can still apply the principle of sport specificity to gym workouts by choosing exercises that mimic the aspects of backpacking you’d like to get better at.

Gym Machines

The stepmill–a short, never-ending escalator that you climb up as the steps roll down toward you–is a great simulation of what it feels like to hike uphill over broken ground. You can also use a stair climber or a treadmill set to its highest incline setting (usually 10 percent to 15 percent). If you don’t have access to any of these gym machines, find a steep hill in your neighborhood and make it a part of your morning or evening walks.

Heavy Packs

Backpacking fitness training isn’t just about logging trail miles; you also have to train the muscles of your core, hips and legs to carry a heavy pack. Pack your backpack as if you were going backpacking, then weigh yourself while wearing the pack. Set the pack aside and weigh yourself again, then subtract your own weight from your weight with the pack.

You can certainly do your treadmill, stepmill, stairmaster or walking workouts wearing your full pack; this is also a good way to break the pack in and make sure it fits comfortably, and that you’ve loaded it evenly. But tramping around with a loaded pack can attract a lot of attention, and some gyms might object to you wearing a pack on their equipment. For a more discreet weighted workout, invest in a weight vest that weighs about the same as your full pack.

Balance and Core Training

Balance training creates the agility you need to navigate uneven terrain with less risk of tripping, falling or twisting an ankle. It also builds strength, endurance and coordination in your abdominal, back and hip muscles. Easy ways to work core and balance training into your backpacking fitness workouts include:

  • Standing on a wobble board, or balancing on one leg, while doing exercises like biceps curls and overhead presses.
  • Planting one or both feet on a wobble board as you do lunges or squats.
  • Performing floor exercises like crunches or push-ups on a balance ball.
  • Doing upper-body weight-machine exercises (like the chest press or lat pulldown) with one arm at a time. If you do this, use less than half the amount of weight you’d use for both arms and pay careful attention to keeping your torso in proper alignment throughout the movement.

Further Reading