Survival Of The Fittest

Wish you could leap tall mountains in a single bound? Here's an exercise program designed for backpackers.

By Therese Iknoian, April 2001
Photo by Brad Wrobleski

Winter's last few flakes are melting, flower buds are bursting, and thoughts drift to summer backpacking adventures. Imagine hopping gracefully over boulders, scrambling up rough trails with ease, stopping to enjoy the view without wheezing or panting. Picture yourself springing out of the tent each morning, muscles rejuvenated and ready for action. The question is: After a winter of sloth, how do you make the transformation to surefooted, iron-lunged mountain goat? By beginning a year-round program that builds strong muscles and aerobic endurance.

"Getting in shape is important so you can better enjoy your trip, go farther, and not feel as if you're working so hard," says David Musnick, M.D., a sports medicine specialist in Boulder, Colorado, and coauthor of Conditioning for Outdoor Fitness (The Mountaineers, 800-553-4453;; $21.95). "Plus, you'll probably have fewer injuries."

Now, that doesn't mean you have to shell out big bucks for a fancy gym membership. To stay in tip-top shape, you need only invest half an hour a day and employ a few household items. What follows is a get-fit regimen created specifically for backpackers by exercise experts who know what it takes to haul a pack. Our program is designed for weekend adventurers and long-trail crusaders alike. If you've been sick or injured and haven't exercised recently, get your doctor's approval before starting this routine. We also include modifications to the base program for those who are either less fit (be honest now!) or more advanced.

Aerobic Conditioning

Backpacking is all about breathing deeply and moving those legs. So make similar aerobic activities, such as walking, running, step aerobics, swimming, or cycling, the foundation of your training program. Keep your workouts to a low to moderate intensity, since hiking is about maintaining a steady pace, not sprinting. That means training at 60 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate (see last page for "In A Heartbeat"). Start and end each workout with a 5-minute warm-up and cooldown.

This basic aerobic conditioning regimen focuses on walking, since that's what you'll be doing on the trail, and includes:

* a 40-minute brisk walk twice a week
* a 30-minute brisk walk twice a week

Six weeks before your first trip, add one long, low-intensity hike on walking trails or in hilly areas (to reach 50 to 60 percent of your maximum heart rate). Walk no more than half the distance and gain no more than half the elevation that you expect to hike on each day of your trip. For instance, if you plan to hike 10 miles a day on steep terrain, your walk should be no longer than 5 miles on moderate hills. This conservative approach builds strength with little risk of injury.

Rest on 3 nonconsecutive days each week until you add the long hike. Then rest on 2.

For the Less Fit
Begin walking for 15 or 20 minutes three times a week, adding a minute to each walk or cross-training activity until you reach 30 minutes. Give yourself 4 to 6 weeks to reach 30 minutes, then use the basic program.

For the Superfit
Up the 40-minute walk or other activity to 50 minutes. You can also add interval training once or twice a week. For instance, during your walk, insert four to six 30-second bursts of speedier walking or running. Slow down until your heart rate drops and your breathing slows to near normal. Repeat. You might also add an easy cross-training activity on a rest day.

For an added challenge, use one of your rest days for an additional 30-minute fast walk. Add more aggressive intervals of five to seven speedy bursts of 60 to 90 seconds each. Also, make your long hike longer each week and incorporate up to 75 percent of the elevation gain you'll face on any given day of your trip. Carry trekking poles and a light pack to build endurance and upper-body strength.


In your backyard or local park, use household weights (see page 119) and a curb to strengthen your hill-climbing, pack-carrying muscles. Which muscles are those? "The butt, the butt, and the butt," says Mark Pierce, Dr. Musnick's coauthor and a certified athletic trainer in Bellevue, Washington. Actually, he's referring to all the buttocks-supporting muscles, including those in the hips, thighs, and calves, plus your hamstrings and abdominal muscles. You'll also need to work your shoulder and chest muscles.

These basic exercises will get those muscles in high gear, so add them to your regimen three times a week, beginning 6 to 8 weeks before your trip. Do two or three sets, performing the most repetitions and using the heaviest weights in the first set, then decreasing reps and weight for each following set.

Lunges with biceps curls
A: Stand with your feet apart and in line with your hips while holding a weight in each hand with your arms hanging at your sides. B: Step forward with one foot, letting your knee bend when the foot lands. Make sure that when you land, your bent knee remains over your foot, not in front of it. At the same time, flex the opposite arm so that your palm lifts toward your shoulder. Push back to a standing position by straightening your knee and stepping back as you lower your hand. Repeat on the opposite side.

No Weights? No Problem
For strength and balance exercises requiring weights, try the homemade variety: Tools, such as wrenches or hammers, cans of food, or plastic bottles filled with water or sand (water sloshing in a half-filled bottle will challenge your balance).

Stand with your feet apart and in line with your hips. Bend your knees and lower your buttocks, as if you are going to sit on a chair. Keep your back straight, your abs tight, and your knees behind your toes. Squat as low as you can while keeping your torso upright and your heels on the floor. Return to a standing position. Holding a ball behind your head with both hands will help you maintain a straight posture, or push it above your head, toward the ceiling, when you squat.

Assisted dips
A: Stand between two chairs with their backs toward you. Put your hands on the backs of the chairs and, moving your feet behind you and bending your knees, balance on your toes. B: Then lower your weight between the chairs by using your chest and arm muscles. If your arms feel stressed, put more weight on your toes. Keep your back upright. Push up with your chest and arms to return to a standing position.

Stand facing a curb or low platform. Step up onto it with your right foot, lifting your left foot off the ground as you straighten your right knee. Place your left foot on the step to finish. Return to the starting position by placing your left foot on the ground, then bringing the right foot down. You can complete the set's repetitions with the right foot and then switch to the left, or you can alternate sides.

For the Less Fit
Start with two strength-training sessions a week, and use lighter weights or eliminate them. Add a few more repetitions to compensate for less weight. For safety, do squats with a bench or chair in front of you, or use ski or trekking poles to support yourself. For step-ups, choose a very low curb. For assisted dips, let more of your body weight rest on your toes.

For the SuperFit
Lift more weight or add challenges such as stepping onto a curb with your front foot for lunges or speeding up the reps. Wear a weighted pack. Try unassisted dips by taking your feet off the ground as you lower yourself.


Imagine gliding along a narrow, ridgeline trail with 60-foot drop-offs, or springing from rock to rock in a river crossing, wearing a heavy pack all the while. Now imagine tumbling down the mountainside or splashing through the river. That's why you need to work on balance. Here's the secret: Keep your abdominal muscles tight. Complete a selection of these exercises two or three times a week in as little as 5 minutes total.

Multidirectional lunges
Do lunges as described for muscle strengthening (see page 58), but without the handheld weights; keep your hands on your hips instead. This time, you'll step not only forward to lunge, but also to each side (pointing your toes in the direction of the lunge) and backward (lowering your buttocks as if to squat). Try this on a soft surface like a mat, sand, or thick grass; the unstable footing will make your abs work harder.

Clock leg reach
Pretend there's a clock face drawn on the ground and stand at the center of it. Lift one foot off the ground and, without changing the direction you're facing, point with your toes to all of the hours on the clock. Alternate directions as you get better, pointing first, for example, at the 10, then the 5, then the 2, and finally the 12. Having a partner call numbers randomly to catch you off-guard will increase the difficulty.

Single-leg stance with chop
A: Stand on your left leg with your knee slightly bent. Clasp your hands and hold them above your right shoulder. B: Move your clasped hands quickly from right shoulder to left hip. Then change sides, standing on your right leg and moving your clasped hands from your left shoulder to your right hip. You can rotate your torso to the right and left as your balance improves.

Ball toss
Stand on one foot with your knee slightly bent and face a partner who also is standing on one foot. Toss a ball back and forth, catching it in both hands.

For Balance Novices
Skip the ball toss and don't add spinal rotation to the single-leg stance with chop. Keep both feet flat on the floor for the clock leg reach and single-leg stance with chop. Stop if you start to feel uncomfortable.

For Balance PROs
Try lifting yourself onto your toes during the leg reach, single-leg stance, and ball toss exercises. Stand on a less firm surface, like foam or sand. Hold a child's ball, medicine ball, or hand weights. Or, if you aren't holding anything, flap your arms to try to unbalance yourself.

Flexibility Training
Whether they're used to hoist your bear bag or pull you over a boulder, flexible muscles will do the job, without pulling or straining. All hikers, no matter what their level of experience, should stretch at least three times a week at home and daily on the trail. Save your flexibility training for the end of a workout, when your muscles are warm. Hold each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds and repeat two to five times.

Achilles tendons/calves
A: Stand facing a wall, and press your hands against the wall so that your arms are straight and at shoulder height. Extend one foot behind you, with your heel on the ground and your toes facing forward.
B: Bend your front leg while keeping your back leg straight. Hold. Then, with your front leg still bent, bend your back leg, keeping your heel on the ground (Tip: Move your back foot a little forward). Hold. Relax and repeat on the other side.

Get down on all fours with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Inhale slowly, then tuck in your chin, arch your back, and tuck your hips under slightly. Hold. If you're stretching correctly, your back will be in an asymmetrical arch, like a Halloween cat. Then exhale and relax your back without relaxing your abs; at the same time, lift your chin to look ahead of you (not up) and lift your buttocks slightly. Repeat, moving slowly and carefully.

Stand in front of a knee-high, sturdy object. Place the heel of one foot on the object, standing tall and keeping both knees straight. If you feel any discomfort, look for a lower object. Lean your torso forward (not down!) and hold. Switch legs and repeat.

Stand a foot or two away from and with your back to a chair back or desk. Using your right leg, bend your knee and lift your leg behind you so that you can place the top of your foot on the chair back or desk. Tighten your buttocks and extend your pelvis slightly forward. Hold, then do the same with your left leg.


Modifications for the middle-aged

If you're a man over 40 or a woman over 50, modify the program outlined here, suggests Jim Sloan, author of Staying Fit Over Fifty (The Mountaineers, 800-553-4453;; $19.95).

* Progress slowly and pay attention to your body.
* Take 2 or 3 days off-or go very easy-after a hard workout, instead of taking 1 or 2 days off. That means fewer hard workouts.
* If a long, hilly hike tires your leg muscles, don't jump right into a muscle-strengthening leg workout the next day. Give your muscles extra recovery time.
* Don't skip strength training. You lose muscle and bone density as you age, but strength training helps maintain them.
* Don't neglect flexibility exercises, because tissues tend to dry and stiffen with age.


Move slowly until you know the limits of your comfortable and pain-free range of motion. If something hurts, don't do it, or modify the routine. Dr. Musnick also advises:

If you have knee problems: Stick to flat surfaces and avoid stepping downhill when doing lunges or other stepping exercises. Don't run downhill or descend stairs as a part of a workout. Lunges and squats, as described on page 58, will strengthen the fronts of your thighs and your buttocks, which can help take pressure off your knees.

If you have back problems: Avoid rotational movements unless your doctor has approved them. Take extra care not to twist your back if you use a cross-country ski machine. Lift your backpack safely by lowering yourself to one knee to swing the pack onto your back; better yet, have a hiking partner hoist the pack onto your back. Always keep your abdominal muscles tightened for support. Do plenty of balance training to develop strong abs, since they support your back muscles.

If you have ankle problems: Strengthen them with one-leg balances, gradually moving to softer surfaces to add to the challenge.

If you have shoulder problems: Add strengtheners such as assisted dips, assisted pull-ups (standing on a chair or having a friend support your lower body), and modified push-ups on your knees (supporting your weight on your hands and knees instead of on your hands and toes).

In A Heartbeat

How to calculate your target heart rate:
Since backpacking isn't a high-speed sport, you don't need to train at high speed. Exercising at 60 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate is adequate. To determine your target heart rate, use the formula below, and then check your pulse while you're exercising. Adjust the workout's intensity to reach your target. If you're allergic to math, use the Heart Rate Calculator at

Subtract your age from 220 (226 if you're a woman) to find your theoretical maximum heart rate.
Multiply the result by the percentage of your maximum heart rate at which you want to exercise to find your target heart rate.
For example, if you are a 35-year-old man, your maximum heart rate is 185 (220 35 = 185). If you want to work out at 60 to 70 percent of that, multiply 185 by .60 (which equals 111) and .70 (which equals 130). For hiking workouts, then, your heart rate during training should be 111 to 130 beats per minute.

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