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Backpacking Fitness

The Everyman's Taper

Both elite athletes and weekend hikers benefit from a taper

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Today I wrapped up the most intense five days of training I’ve had all summer in preparation for my Big Goal next weekend (a 425-mile, five-day bike ride over 8 Rocky Mountain passes). My legs feel dead, I have no trouble sleeping 8 hours a night, and no matter how much I eat, my metabolism rips through any food and leaves me hungry two hours later. In other words, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. Now all I need to do is rest and recover and let my body grow stronger from this past week.

We’ll see if that happens.

A more likely scenario is that I’ll struggle to get everything done before I take off for five days. I’ll put in late hours with work. I’ll take on the lion’s share of childcare so that my wife can enjoy a little peace before she has to take care of the kids by herself. Blah, blah, blah…I’m sure you know the drill. Usually, this frenetic pace leads up to a vacation or, at the very least, a day spent on an airplane or in airports where I can doze off and catch up on my rest. This time however, I have to rest up or else I risk sabotaging my trip.

I know many of you face the same logistical insanity when you head out on a trek. You’re up until 2 in the morning packing the night before you head out. And before then, you put in a 70-hour week at the office to finish a project before you disappeared out of Blackberry range for a week. By the time you reach the trailhead, all you really want to do is find the nearest meadow and lie down for a 4-hour nap instead of hoofing it 15-miles into the wilderness and your first night’s camp.

This is why elite athletes often arrive 3-5 days before a big event. That way they can escape their hectic lives and chill out. When they start to feel antsy and restless, that’s a good sign. It means they’re rested up and ready to put out the best they’ve got.

Kicking off your backcountry vacation like this isn’t realistic, but it’s a good idea to keep in the back of your head. You need to rest and fuel-up with good foods throughout the week leading up to your trip. Get as much sleep as you can, shooting for 8 hours a night—and remember, a mid-afternoon disco nap counts toward that total. Eat high-quality carbohydrates and proteins such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, beans, and lean meats to ensure all your body’s energy and immune system needs are topped off and ready for next week’s adventure where your food options are going to be limited. And stay active. Ideally, you’d do a couple of light 30- to 40-minute cardio workouts this week to keep your heart and muscle systems optimized, but a brisk walk at lunch or yard work will help keep your muscles fresh. Pack two days before you leave, not the night before departure. This way you guarantee yourself a good night’s sleep right before setting out.

Personally, I know I can do the food bit, and I feel pretty good about locking in close to 8 hours of sleep per night this week. As for the workouts, we’ll see. I might have to make do with my 4-mile bike commute to the office. If I do it right, I should be chomping at the bit to take off come Friday.

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