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Backpacking Fitness

Master Class: The Gym Free Fitness Plan

Use this no-cost, do-anywhere training program to enhance hiking strength and speed this spring.

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Bite the Bullet

Gym workouts are always easier, especially when days are short and trails slick. But training on trails builds the best hiking fitness, so suck it up and get out there. Make these adjustments to enhance safety: Wear reflective or light-colored layers, train in traction devices or mini crampons if it’s icy, bring a whistle and/or a cell phone, pack a headlamp, and inform someone of your plans (use an auto-alert system like or train with a friend.

Increase Baseline Conditioning

Starting from ground zero? Use the first month to build strength slowly and avoid injury.

Step-up cardio workouts.

Running—or any aerobic activity that boosts your heart rate (top right)— increases cardiovascular health and lung capacity, and will help you maintain trail-ready fitness. Walking and jogging are the best workouts for hikers, but mixing in other activities helps prevent burnout and reduces the risk of overuse injuries. Start a basic training plan with at least twice-weekly cardio workouts, and work up to a more structured plan that incorporates strength- and cross-training within two weeks (see below). If time is an issue, fit shorter efforts into your day: Speedwalk 10 minutes at a time before, during, and after work.

Build endurance.

Complete at least one long, low-intensity workout a week; aim for four to eight miles, or about four hours. “A longer hike encourages your body to begin using fat as an energy source, which is what we require for the slow burn of backpacking,” says John Colver, author of Fit By Nature.

Adopt a Training Plan

The key to fitness: a regular routine. Use this schedule and adjust heart rate (HR) targets as you build endurance.

  • Monday: Cardio endurance: 30 mins of fast walking or running (at 50% of max HR)
  • Tuesday: Body-weight strength training: 30 mins (see chart, next page); light yoga
  • Wednesday: Cross-train: 30 mins of cardio (at 65% of max HR); stretch for 10 mins
  • Thursday: Rest day: Stay active (go on a leisurely walk), but don’t stress joints/muscles.
  • Friday: Cardio endurance: 30 mins of fast walking or running (at 50% of max HR)
  • Sat/Sun: Overall endurance: One day, do a long hike; rest on the other day.

+ Intermediate Increase cardio workouts (M, F) by 15 minutes and up your tempo to 60-65 percent of max HR; add 30 minutes of strengthening (Th); increase endurance time or distance by 10 percent/week.
+ Advanced Increase cardio workouts (M, F) to 60 minutes and up your tempo to 70-75 percent of max HR; integrate two-minute (or longer) intervals into cross-training (W); replace a strength day (T/Th) with circuit intervals (page 32), and add 20 minutes of cardio intervals to the other; the long hike should exceed four hours.

Rest Up

Recovery days and sufficient sleep are both essential for muscle repair and reducing your risk of repetitive-motion injuries. Alternate cardio workouts with strengthening, and schedule one rest- and one light-effort- day per week. Get eight hours of shuteye per night.


Mix up a running-dominated cardio routine (which can burn more than 600 calories per hour) with one of these alternative calorie-burners: stair-climbing (650 cal/hour), rowing (435 cal/hour), swimming (425 cal/hour), or cycling (300 cal/hour).

Integrate Heart-Rate Training

Make cardio workouts more effective.
» Identify your target zones. Find your max heart rate (using equations below). Calculate beats per minute (bpm) thresholds for each of the four training zones (see chart below). Target workouts to achieve specific goals: lose weight, boost endurance, or build power.
» Know your effort level. Wear a heart-rate monitor (we like Highgear’s Axio HR; $190;, or check your pulse every five minutes during workouts.
» Start slow. Begin training at 50 percent of your max HR until you can maintain that pace easily. After that, raise intensity over eight to 12 weeks, targeting sustained cardio workouts at 75 percent of your max HR and interval bursts that hit 85 percent.

Build Strength Without Weights

These hiker-specific calisthenics target trail-critical muscles and moves.


Create a Strong Foundation Use bicycling kicks to enhance balance for rocky terrain: Lie on your back, place your arms across your chest, and slightly raise your head and neck. Alternate bringing each knee back and forth to your chest. Do three sets of 30 reps (on each leg).
Boost Explosive Energy To stop yourself in a slide or fall, you’ll need core and arm strength. Hold a side plank position for 30 seconds, at least three times on each side.


Create a Strong Foundation For river-crossing stability, do lunges: From a standing position with your hands on your hips, step forward and kneel until the extended knee makes a right-angle, then return to standing position. Do three sets of five reps (on each leg).
Boost Explosive Energy Sumo squats help scrambling: Place feet hip-width apart (point toes out), squat until thighs are parallel to ground, then push up. Do three sets of 10 reps.


Create a Strong Foundation Reduce fatigue on long ascents by boosting your quads with three-quarter squats: Stand with legs shoulder-width apart and bend your knees as if sitting on a chair, hold for three seconds, and return to standing position. Do three sets of 10 reps.
Boost Explosive Energy You need explosive leg strength to jump a gap. Do 10 walking lunges: Keep steps short (without your knee extending over your toes) to fortify quads for jumping.


Create a Strong Foundation Do donkey kicks to boost hamstrings for stability on downhills: Get onto your hands and knees. Lift one knee and tuck it into your torso/ chest. Then, fully extend the same leg behind you. Do three sets of 10 reps on each leg.
Boost Explosive Energy Do power jumps so you’ll make better progress on scree: Pick a spot 50 feet ahead, and do double-leg jumps (as far as possible) to reach it. Land mid-foot, and with bent knees.


Create a Strong Foundation Manage long distances on soft surfaces by strengthening your lower legs with calf raises: Stand with one foot’s ball on a step or curb and the other foot lifted off the ground. Balance and lower/ raise your heel 10 times. Do three sets on each leg.
Boost Explosive Energy Absorb impact better: Jump forward, backward, and diagonally (keep feet together) across a stick on the ground. Repeat. Rest for 20 seconds between five one-minute sets.

Hydrated? Sweating out two percent of your body’s water (three pounds for a 150-pound athlete) is enough to degrade performance measurably. Take a sip every 15 minutes during a workout.

Increase Intensity

Push your fitness to new heights.

» Build mileage. Even if you’re doing other cardio, you should be spending 75 percent of your training time on your feet—hiking or running. Start adding on-foot mileage to your fitness regime eight to 12 weeks before a trip so you can build up to weekly mileage that’s 80 percent of your trip’s weekly total (keep gains below 10 percent within each seven-day period).
» Integrate intervals. Brief bursts of anaerobic exercise help kick-start calorie and fat burn, and allow you to improve performance without risking overuse injuries like stress fractures and tendinitis. Incorporate intervals into any cardio workout by picking a time frame between 30 seconds and 10 minutes (depending on your fitness level), and upping your pace for that time frame mid-workout; between intervals, recover at a slower pace. Repeat run/recover sets throughout your session. Or, do a training circuit: Do three minutes each of dynamic stretches, jumping jacks, three-quarter squats, reach-jumps, push-ups, and lunges; rest three minutes; repeat. Target 70 to 85 percent of your max HR during circuits.
» Add resistance. Weight-bearing exercise strengthens bones, ups workout intensity, and enhances stability. Instead of using machines or free weights, wear your loaded pack. For strengthening exercises, add pounds slowly until you have trouble completing all recommended reps while maintaining good form. During cardio workouts, build from toting 50 to 100 percent of your pack weight over a six- to eight-week period.

Maximize Recovery

Avoid injury and fatigue.

» In training Cool down by decreasing workout intensity during the last 10 minutes, and finish with five 30-second static stretches like the standing quad and hurdler’s stretch (above). Eat within 30 minutes of finishing your workout; aim for a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein. Within two hours of a hard session, repair muscles with a five- to 10-minute ice bath and/or massage treatment.
» On the trail Have a recovery snack when you hit camp. Follow it up with a larger-than-normal meal to replenish glycogen stores. Don’t sit still: Take an easy, unloaded stroll. Maintaining circulation reduces next-day soreness.

Loosen Up Stretch pre- and post-workout. When done correctly, stretching increases range of motion, lowers the risk of musculoskeletal injuries, flushes lactic acid, and reduces stiffness. Warm up with five minutes of dynamic stretches that mimic your workout’s movements. Before hiking, try lunges, leg swings, or jumping jacks. Save static stretches, where you hold a muscle under tension (see above) for cool downs. See demo stretches at

Set Big Goals Commit to an event like the self-supported Grand to Grand Ultra, which will push you to train hard. For a list of worthy events, visit

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