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August 2003

Body Of A Backpacker

It's lean, it's mean, and it can last forever.

Backpackers get no respect as athletes.

Truth be told, the term athlete is rarely applied to us, and we’re seldom mentioned in the same breath as the ultrafit devotees of cycling, distance running, or adventure racing. Perhaps it’s our own fault–no one lists exercise as the reason to hit the trail, we don’t shave our legs and wear Lycra, and we’re way too busy fraternizing with Mother Nature to parade our tanned hard bodies around the local gym.

But that doesn’t change the facts: Backpacking is great exercise. No other sport combines endurance training, weight-bearing workouts, and a low injury rate in such an enticing package. When properly trained, a hiker’s body is just as honed and fit as those of other athletes. The problem is, our sport never gets compared to these pursuits.

Until now. We decided it was time to put our money where are mouths are, and fund an ambitious physiological study of the backpacking body. To that end, we rounded up eight hardcore hikers and sent them to the Human Performance Lab at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine (BCSM) in Colorado. Not surprisingly, our trail rats aced the tests–but even we were shocked at just how superfit they are. In fact, the results offer compelling evidence that backpacking might be the very best thing you can do for your long-term health.

So here’s a well-deserved (and well-substantiated) dose of fitness hype that offers an exercise in inspiration.

The Guinea Pigs

We began by recruiting a captain for our all-star team: 41-year-old Triple Crown King Brian Robinson. “Flyin’ Brian” is the only guy we know who has lived on the trail 24/7 for nearly a year. Next, we selected two long-haul specialists: two-time Appalachian Trail thru-hiker Terry Norton, 39, and world-famous mountaineer “Big Wall Pete” Takeda, 38, who does more backpacking just approaching his climbs than most people do in a lifetime. We also signed up two ultralighters whose exploits toe the line between hiking and trail running: 51-year-old Colorado Trail speed record holder Buzz Burrell and Hong Kong Trailwalker winner Stephanie Ehret, 40. For a little family drama, we added Buzz’s 23-year-old son, Galen Burrell, who recently returned from a multicontinent backpacking trek. We rounded out the group with 38-year-old Cathy Chittum, an avid dayhiker, backpacker, and cross-country skier, and self-proclaimed “mellow” backpacker Eileen Lambert, 29.

The Lab

We sent our group to BCSM for a serious, scientific gut check. The lab, packed with state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment, offers physiologic, biomechanic, and nutrition consultations to recreational athletes and Olympians alike. There, Neal Henderson, the center’s coordinator of sport science, joined fellow exercise physiologist Paul Kammermeier and certified athletic trainer Denise Knutson in subjecting our volunteers to a seven-test protocol designed to measure aerobic capacity, cardiovascular health, body composition, and flexibility.

The Science

Hiking is stressful–in a good way. “Backpacking provides the body with a stress, and it adapts,” says Paige Holm, a sports physiologist at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. For instance, to cope with increased energy needs, muscle cells produce and expand existing mitochondria, an organelle that powers the cell. “You also get an increase in oxidative enzymes that help your cells use oxygen, and a protein called myoglobin that helps with oxygen metabolism,” says Holm. Backpacking demands extra work of your muscles, so they grow more capillaries. It may sound complex, but the bottom line is simply empowering: The more you backpack, the more your body can produce energy.

Hiking also helps your heart. When you’re humping over steep trails, your muscle cells hunger for more oxygen, which prompts your heart to beat faster. Over time, that extra work enables that organ to pump more blood with each stroke.

Other benefits are more obvious. Long, low-intensity workouts-like an 8-mile day with a 40-pound pack–build endurance and lean muscle mass. Moderate to high intensity workouts-that same 8-mile day with 5,000 feet of elevation gain and loss thrown in–give you a fifth gear. And all those hours of full-body exertion burn fat faster than Jenny Craig. But only scientific testing will reveal the scope of these benefits.

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