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Backpacking Fitness

Hike Solo (and Keep Your Sanity)

Prepare your mind and body ready to fend for yourself in the backcountry.

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Hitting the trail alone lets you avoid coordinating logistics with others, move at your own pace, and rest when you want. But unlike group hikes, solo adventures require a new level of confidence and safety. Part of training for a solo trip is increasing body control and confidence. Functional movement training can reduce your risk of injury by strengthening your core, improving movement skills, and increasing body awareness so you can make better decisions on the trail.

The Expert: Marissa Lyons is the founder and head coach of Ascent Fitness in Tacoma, Washington, a body-affirming coaching facility that empowers diverse athletes to move with joy and intention.

Physical Competency = Self Confidence

The best way to improve confidence on the trail is to get stronger and practice a variety of movement skills. These can come in handy when you cross creeks, balance on ledges, or tackle other natural obstacles. Practice functional movements alone or mix them in with your standard strength training exercises two to three days per week. Slowly intensify the demand on your joints and tissues by ramping up over time.

Balancing

Start by walking on a narrow path such as a sidewalk curb or 2-by-4. Try to walk backward and forward with your head up and arms down. Once you feel confident, add to the challenge by putting a backpack on, turning around on the surface, or walking sideways on the balls of your feet like you would on a narrow ledge. Set a two-minute timer and try to maintain your balance for the duration. If you fall off, hop back on and keep going. You can combine balance practice with strength training by doing lunges or squats while balancing.

Jumping and Hopping

It’s important to practice jump landings, because this will be the best way to prevent injury if you have to catch your bodyweight. Start on your toes and drop into a squat; let your arms swing naturally by your sides and float out in front for balance. Once you can do this comfortably and with control, start doing little jumps—either forward to a target or down from a raised surface.

Start with a distance you feel comfortable with and slowly increase as you gain confidence. Practice in sets of five reps with some rest to recover before jumping again. The key is to absorb the impact through your legs so you barely make a noise when you land. Another useful exercise is single-leg hops to a target as if you’re jumping from rock to rock in a creek or boulder field. Mark a spot just out of reach of a comfortable step. Swing your right leg back and then forward, propelling your body to the target. Repeat using your left leg. You will initially land on your right leg and bring in your left leg to assist with the landing.

Crawling

Crawling is a great way to build muscles for core and shoulder stability; it can also help you move under obstacles on the trail. Some favorite pre-hike exercises are the bear crawl, army crawl, and crab crawl. Perform three sets of each of the following for 30-second increments.

Bear Crawl

Start on all fours with your knees under your hips and your hands under your shoulders. Grip the floor with your toes and lift your knees. From here, move forward by using your opposite hand and foot. Go slow at first to give your arms and wrists time to adjust to carrying your bodyweight. You can also drop your knees down to the floor to help.

Army Crawl

Lie on your stomach and lift yourself onto one forearm and thigh. Push yourself forward with your leg while pulling with the opposite arm, then repeat on the other side.

Crab Crawl

This movement can be useful for descending a steep hill. Sit down, putting your feet in front of you and your hands by your side. Lift your bum and scooch forward.

Vaulting

Practicing vaulting and climbing prepares you for scrambling up rocky trails and clearing fallen trees.

Hand-Foot Vault

Find a flat, raised surface such as a bench and place your right hand and left foot on top. Step your right leg through the gap between your hand and leg to the other side and stand up. Practice on surfaces of different heights while wearing a backpack for more of a challenge. Most hikers will place a foot on top of the obstacle when vaulting, but if you feel comfortable, practice placing a hand on the surface and jumping your feet over (this is more difficult with a full pack). Once you have the movement down, try running toward the object and vaulting in one fluid motion. Use a box, bench, or a downed tree. Make a game of it by putting a 2-by-4 on some boxes and spend two minutes vaulting over and crawling under it.

Strong Muscles Last Longer

In addition to your functional movement practice, maximize your gains with focused strength training, which will work to stabilize your joints, increase endurance, and make you more capable of varying movements. Choose one squat, hinge, pull, push, and core exercise to do two times per week. Aim to lift a challenging weight for four to eight reps. Do each exercise for two to five sets. Here are some accessible strength training exercises:

HINGE: Glute bridges, single leg deadlifts, deadlifts, kettlebell swings

SQUAT: Weighted step-ups, goblet squats, back squats, lunges

PUSH: Push-ups, floor presses, overhead presses

PULL: Inverted rows, pull-ups, bent-over rows

CORE: Dead bugs, hollow holds, planks, farmer carry

Young woman hiking in nature
(Photo: mapodile via Getty Images)

Alone and Loving It

By Casey Lyons

The cumulus cloud bank spread out along the western horizon, right on schedule. I observed it from the first krummholz beyond treeline. I still had another 2,600 feet to gain (then lose) over Lake Ann Pass before a tree would stand taller than me again.

But I had three things going for me: I was alone, I was in shape, and I was on day eight of a 10-day, 170-mile circuit around the Collegiate Loop in Colorado.

Fitness is a form of intimacy, and being alone is the purest hit of hiker freedom. You make decisions by yourself for only yourself based on this special knowledge of yourself. You put your life in your legs.

I trucked up, traversed with apprehension at the gathering gloom, stood at the pass in such a wind that I could lean into it like a ski jumper, and reached the far-side treeline just as the first rain drops hit. And still, the next day held a bigger challenge.

Fourteeners don’t exactly call to soloists, but 14,003-foot Huron Peak stood just half a mile off my track. What better capstone to a life-list trip? I floated past scads of gasping hikers, bent forward on their trekking poles like elephants with the forelegs of cranes. Fresh morning light fell on the densest concentration of Fourteeners in the Lower 48, trees clinging to their flanks like a bathtub ring.

Several hours later I was back on my track when I crossed over North Fork Clear Creek, blabbering its siren song for a day-nine-dirty hiker on one of the last hot days of summer. A suitable distance off trail, I stripped down, waded in, and let the water steal my breath. Some pleasures are best experienced alone.


From 2022