How to Train for Backpacking

How to Train for Backpacking


Backpacking in the Marble Mountains

What You Will Learn

  1. Sport-Specific Training: Emphasize training tailored to backpacking to ensure your body adapts correctly, enhancing your readiness for the trails.

  2. Building Cardiovascular Endurance: Learn sustainable methods to increase heart and lung health for enduring long treks more comfortably.

  3. Joint Stability and Muscular Endurance: Follow a science-backed plan to strengthen joints and muscles, including expert-recommended exercises for backpackers.

  4. Active Recovery Strategies: Integrate nutrition, foam rolling, and stretching into your routine to maintain balance and support your body as training intensifies.

Training Schedule for Backpacking

Frequency is one of the most important variables when it comes to training, both on a macro and micro scales. It’s critical to zoom out and look at the big picture of where you want to be before your trip, and have the ability to zoom back in and focus on the workouts today and this week.

Macro Cycle: When to start training

Achieving the best results takes time; last-minute training hikes won’t fully prepare you for the rigors of backpacking with a heavy load.

For those with a moderate activity level, we advise 8-12 weeks of dedicated training. If you’ve been consistently active in the past month or so, a 6-8 week preparation may suffice. However, for those starting from a more sedentary lifestyle, consider extending your training to 12-16 weeks.

As a rule, begin your training sooner than you think necessary. This extra time allows for adjustments should any unexpected obstacles arise during your preparation.

Micro Scale: a Week of Training

Highlighting the critical role of Sport-Specific Training—simulating the actual conditions you’ll encounter—it’s crucial to engage in consecutive training sessions regularly. If you’re planning a 4-day backpacking journey, anticipate carrying a weighted pack, covering significant distances, and navigating elevation changes daily. This necessitates tailored training. While consecutive 4-day hikes might not be feasible for everyone, incorporating back-to-back training sessions can effectively prepare you. However, if the chance to undertake consecutive hikes arises, seize it to maximize your readiness.

Training Hikes for Backpacking

Ensuring a gradual entry into training, it’s vital to start with manageable activities and progressively increase intensity over time. A broad perspective is essential for mapping out a successful training journey. Consider a novice backpacker with minimal training, facing a 12-week countdown to a 4-day hike covering 7 miles daily with 2,000 feet of elevation gain. This scenario underscores the need for a structured approach, emphasizing steady progress from basic to more challenging preparations.

Rucking: Carry that weight!

We strongly advise gradually increasing your pack weight to mirror your anticipated trail load closely. While some suggest limiting this to 80% of your trip’s load, a more effective strategy involves exceeding this percentage in the final weeks of training. This approach ensures your actual pack feels lighter when you hit the trail.

Consider using everyday household items to adjust your pack weight. Beyond traditional gear, items like water bottles offer a practical, adjustable solution for simulating your expected load, making it easier to tailor your training to real-world conditions.

Heart Rate Zone Training

Heart Rate Zone training has become a key focus in fitness, particularly for its role in optimizing workout efficiency. However, before investing in high-end gear like heart rate monitors, it’s essential to grasp the core objectives of this training approach.

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic

These two training types utilize different metabolic pathways and fuel sources. The anaerobic system, while crucial for short bursts of high-intensity activity, isn’t designed for sustained endurance efforts. To enhance endurance and VO2Max, training should balance both zones: approximately 30% dedicated to anaerobic to boost VO2Max and a significant 70% focused on aerobic training in Heart Rate Zones 1-2. This strategy not only strengthens your aerobic capacity but also increases mitochondrial density in cells, leading to more efficient energy (ATP) production.

PRactical Application

On the trail, simple self-assessments can help determine your current heart rate zone:

  • Aerobic Zone Indicators: Can you breathe comfortably through your nose? Are you able to hold a conversation in full sentences? These signs suggest you’re effectively training in the aerobic zone.
  • Anaerobic Threshold: If you find yourself gasping for air, unable to speak, you’ve likely hit the anaerobic zone. Slowing down can help you return to an aerobic state, which is more sustainable for improving long-term speed and endurance.

Incorporating extensive aerobic zone training is surprisingly effective in increasing your speed over time, proving that endurance training is about more than just pushing your limits—it’s about training smart. Finally, we highly encourage you to get a vast majority of your cardiovascular training in during sport-specific efforts, including anaerobic training.

Strength Training for Backpacking

Is weightlifting necessary?

Strength training, though sometimes underestimated in outdoor training regimes, plays a crucial role in enhancing performance and minimizing injury risks. However, accessing a gym or traditional weightlifting equipment isn’t a prerequisite for success. The essence of strength training lies in resistance training, which can be effectively achieved through bodyweight exercises. Leveraging gravity as a natural form of resistance, you can prepare with just a yoga mat, foam roller, durable hiking boots, and a well-fitted backpack.

Walking Lunges

Equipment Investment

Remember, practice as you’ll perform! While you won’t be lifting traditional weights on your hike, the act of hoisting a backpack, setting up a bear hang, or ascending with a loaded pack mirrors strength training’s functional movements. Subsequently, incorporating tools like adjustable dumbbells, kettlebells, bosu balls, stability balls, resistance bands, and TRX straps can significantly enhance and diversify your preparation. These tools are designed to create a proprioceptively enriched environment, mimicking the unstable conditions of the trail and building your resilience for the adventures ahead. Check out our in-depth Home Gym Guide here!

Stability Training

Stability & Balance

Stability, especially in joints and balance, is crucial not just for enhancing longevity and the ability to continue enjoying activities as we age but also for the immediate benefits it brings to backpackers navigating unpredictable terrains. Furthermore, enhancing stability helps mitigate the risks of injury and improves efficiency on the trail.

We recommend incorporating both static and dynamic exercises to build core and lower body stability. For the core, engage in exercises that maintain a steady position as well as those requiring movement to challenge balance. For the lower body, focus on exercises that solidify your stance and others that incorporate movement, adapting to changing conditions. Implementing a 4/1/2 tempo—where ‘4’ is the eccentric phase, ‘1’ the pause, and ‘2’ the concentric phase—can significantly improve your neuromuscular connection, However, for static holds this tempo will not be applicable. This methodical approach ensures a comprehensive development of the stability needed for backpacking’s varied demands.

Static Core Stability

Dynamic core stability

Leg Stability

Strength Training

Leg Strength

Upper Back Strength

A Cornerstone of Fitness

Strength endurance training holds transformative benefits for backpackers, focusing on enhancing the contractile strength of muscle fibers and their capacity for sustained, repetitive action. This training is crucial for enduring long treks and mastering steep ascents, directly impacting your ability to navigate challenging trails with ease.

Selecting exercises that mirror the demands of backpacking ensures your training is as effective as possible. While traditional strength exercises like heavy deadlifts build overall muscle power, movements like step-ups offer a more direct benefit, closely simulating the action of climbing and carrying loads over uneven terrain. Incorporating these targeted exercises into your regimen will significantly boost your trail readiness and endurance.

Plyometric Training

Enhance your reaction time

Plyometric training is a crucial component for any hiker or backpacker’s fitness regimen, involving dynamic exercises that focus on jumping, hopping, and reacting to the external environment. This type of training is invaluable for enhancing your balance and coordination, essential skills for traversing the unpredictable and often uneven terrain of hiking trails. Incorporating plyometrics into your routine ensures you’re well-prepared for the physical demands of the trail, even if you’re not literally jumping or skipping your way down the PCT.

However, it’s important to note that individuals with specific injuries, especially those related to the spine, might need to exercise caution with plyometrics. If you have concerns, consulting with a physician or reaching out to us for an evaluation is recommended before adding these exercises to your program.

We’ve selected three of our favorite plyometric exercises designed to boost stability, endurance, and power, making them perfect for hikers and backpackers looking to improve their trail performance.

Stability Plyos

Two leg plyos

single leg plyos

Active Recovery

Foam Rolling

Static Stretching

Mobility Training

Stretching and foam rolling are crucial for your training routine. They aid in recovery, enhance joint flexibility, and help prevent injuries. Integrating these practices from the start of your training can ward off both immediate and long-term injuries, ensuring you stay healthy on your journey.

Daily foam rolling and stretching, even for just 10 minutes each day, can significantly impact your well-being. Ideally, aim for 20-30 minutes to maximize benefits. 

Not sure where to start? Check out our YouTube Channel for guided mobility routines!


Nutrition is vast, yet we’ll focus on essentials. Firstly, ensure you consume enough calories, particularly as your training intensifies. Additionally, eat sufficient carbohydrates to maintain glycogen for long hikes. Finally, get enough protein and fats for recovery and nutrient absorption. For more comprehensive nutrition strategies, explore our “Eat for Endurance” video on YouTube or dive into our custom training programs for tailored nutritional advice.

Backpacker's Bootcamp

Finally, consider elevating your preparation with our Backpacker’s Bootcamp. This program encapsulates the essence of this guide and expands on it, ensuring you’re perfectly primed for your next grand adventure. Curious to learn more? Explore our Backpacker’s Bootcamp here and see how we can support your journey. To give you a taste of what’s in store, we’re offering a 7-day free trial. It’s our way of showing you the potential for adventure without the pressure. Let’s get after in the backcountry this summer!

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