Expert Advice

Training Tips For Your Backpacking Trip

Make sure you give yourself time to read this blog – it is long and requires active participation. Or, read if you are having trouble sleeping at night.


There is no doubt that backpacking is one of the more challenging outdoor activities one might choose to do. It is not just the walking that makes it so demanding, but the additional weight and potential balance issues that will add to the challenge.

Some areas of the body are not accustomed to the additional burden, and without proper training and preparation, the potential risk for injury increases. Besides, you wouldn’t run a marathon without training, would you?


A large part of the training for backpacking involves the Abdominals, Back, Chest, Hips and Legs; not to mention the amount of cardiovascular training.

Access to a gym or health and fitness center can help as they typically have plenty of space in which to perform the following exercises, as well as having equipment to add cardio / aerobics and weight training into the mix.

Before participating in any new fitness routine, it is always advised to consult your physician. Here are a few other things to consider:

  •   Wear comfortable shorts or sweat pants
  •   Wear comfortable footwear. Running shoes, cross-trainers, or lower cut trail shoes work very nicely.
  •   Have access to a source of water (you will quickly go through water during exercise.)
  •   Do not over-do it. If you are feeling run down, take a break, or proceed at a slow to moderate pace.
  •   If you begin feeling dizzy, STOP!

Heart Rate Calculations:

One of the most important things you need to do besides checking with your doctor is to determine what your maximum and resting heart rates are. This will help determine what your optimum heart rate training zones are.

The following is based on the Karvonen Formula. This requires that you do a little math and know how to determine your heart rate. Begin by taking your pulse for 10 or 15 seconds when you first wake up in the morning. This is your resting heart rate and it is most accurate in the am. The carotid (neck) or radial (wrist) pulses are the best places to take your pulse. Never use your thumb to take your pulse since your thumb has a pulse as well and will make the count inaccurate. Do not press down too hard while taking your pulse, as you will potentially slow or stop the blood flow to the area.  Count the number of beats for one minute for the most accurate measure.

First, determine what your maximum heart rate is:

220 – Age = Maximum Heart Rate (MHR)

Ex: MHR for a 40 year old

220 – 40 = 180 MHR

Next, determine your resting heart rate by take your pulse before getting out of bed 3 days in a row, and take the average of the 3 recordings:

Ex 40 Yr Old: (76 + 82 + 78) / 3 = 236 / 3 = 78.7 Resting Heart Rate (RHR)

Next, determine the intensity level of your exercise plan:

Beginner or low fitness level . . .50% – 60%

Average fitness level . . . . . . . . 60% – 70%

High fitness level . . . . . . . . . . . 75% – 85%

From these elements, you will be able to determine your optimum heart rate values for the high and low end of each training level. The Karvonen Formula uses the following format:

(Max Heart Rate – Resting Heart Rate) x Intensity + Resting Heart Rate = Training Heart Rate

Using our 40 year old in the example, you would determine the high and low heart rate for the average fitness level by the following formula:

((180 (MHR) – 79 (RHR)) x .60) + 79 (RHR) = 139.6 Training Heart Rate (Round to 140)

((180 (MRH) – 79 (RHR)) x .70) + 79 (RHR) = 149.7 Training Heart Rate (Round to 150)

Getting Started:

Make a plan of when and what sort of workout you are going to do, and try to stick to it. Make a record of your efforts so that you can notice trends in your exercise routine, and have a basis from which to expand or extend your workouts.

When you begin introducing the following exercises, you need to understand that your body will need time to recover from the effects of the training. You should give each muscle group you work 48 hours of rest before exercising them again. For example, if you do lunges on Tuesday, you will not want to do them again until Thursday at the earliest.

You can perform cardiovascular exercises most days of the week without causing problems. However, listen to your body; if you feel fatigue, sick, or aches and pains that do not recede after rest, you will want to take it easy and lessen the amount you are working out.


The best way to get ready for hiking is to hike. If you are new to hiking or any form of exercise, you will want to start by setting a baseline, hiking about 30-45 minutes. Add 10% to you mileage or time every week until you get to your ideal mileage (up to 10 miles at least once three weeks prior to your trip is ideal at least one time per week.

You will also want to add elevation and weight to your hikes. After three weeks of training, start adding elevation of about 500 feet per week. To get used to carrying weight, add about 10-15lbs of cat litter or rice to a day pack and have at it!

However, many people live in large cities or areas that there isn’t a mountain for hundreds of miles (i.e. Florida). If this is the case, just get out there and get used to being on your feet with weight on your back. Find some stairs you can climb, the more flights the better.

Hiking is not your only means to get ready for backpacking. Any cardiovascular exercise will do – jogging, swimming, cycling, aerobics classes, gym cardio equipment, intramural sports or whatever you have at your disposal. In fact, you will want to participate in any of these above methods to cross train while training for your hiking trip. Cross training is important and keeps you from over training the muscles you will be using for your ultimate goal.

Regardless of what form of cardio you use to train, try to work within the 50-85% Maximum Heart Rate (Training Rate) for the majority of your workout.

Strength Training:

When you perform these exercises, do them in sets of 12 – 15 repetitions (reps) to start, with a resting period of 45 – 60 seconds between sets. Start out with 2 or 3 sets, and build up from there as you feel able and adding weight where necessary. For visual demonstrations, search the hundreds of videos on YouTube. Just be aware of improper technique that is often used by most people taking workout selfies.

Squats – Feet shoulder with apart. Movement – Keeping the weight on the heels lower from the hips till the thighs are parallel to the ground. Core should be tight and the back should remain straight. Do not let the knees come forward of the toes. Repeat. Return to a standing position in as smooth a manner as possible. If you are concerned about losing your balance – as you squat, put your hands out in front of you to counteract the rearward motion. You can also perform this exercise over a chair until you find your balance improved (only takes a few days of doing these to get the balance required in most cases).

Push-ups – Face down, with hands flat on floor at side in line with chests, feet on toes, back and legs straight. Movement – Bending your elbows lower your chest to the floor keeping the body in a straight line and parallel to the floor but not touching. Abs and low back should remain tight. Return to start position and repeat for reps.

Lunges – Begin in a standing position feet shoulder with apart. Step one leg in front, keeping all the weight in your heel (you should be able to wiggle your toes). Raise your back heel so you are balancing on all five toes. Visual – a proper start position should have your legs wide as if standing on railroad tracks, instead of narrow like standing on a balance beam. Bending both knees, lower down until there is a 90 degree angle at both knees and your shin parallel to the floor. Keep your shoulders back and chest lifted.

Curtsy Lunge – Follow the same instructions for lunges except instead of standing feet hip distance or on railroad tracks, stand with your legs crossed, tight at the inner thighs so if you were to look in the mirror you can see both feet, but crossed.

Side and Front Leg Dips – Find a step, whether at a gym or a stair step. Balance on the left leg, with the right leg off the side of the step. Bend, or squat with, the left leg, reaching the right towards the ground. Before your right foot touches the ground, straighten your left leg back to start position. Repeat with the right leg and then perform the same exercise but facing forward so you are dipping your leg off the front of the step (simulating going down stairs).

Calf Raises – Using a chair for balance, place your hands on the chair and lift both heels off the ground, coming up on your toes.

Leg Curls with Exercise Ball – This is one of the best hamstring exercises if you have an exercise ball. These are the large rubber balls that inflate to 45-65cm. Lie on your back with the ball under your heels, legs extended and arms out to your sides for balance. Lift your butt and lower back off the floor, making a bridge. Keeping your feet on the ball and your body in the bridge position, pull your heels towards your butt, bending your knees, then extend your legs back to start position. Repeat.

Plank or Bridge – Lie face down with elbows at sides, forearms in-line with both, feet on toes. Lift your body up on forearms with legs, back and torso in-line without sagging or arching. Your head/neck should be in line with your spine and your gaze at the floor. Tighten glutes and abs while holding this position for 10 – 15 seconds to start, and increase duration gradually as you improve muscle strength to 30 – 45 seconds.

Pilates – Go to our blog – Pilates for Backpacking/ for great exercises for butt, hips legs and core (abs and back).

For other workout tips, go to Pre-Trip Information vol. 2/ There are various blogs with exercises for knees and core.


Whenever you exercise, it is just as important to cool down when you finish your exercise routine. Stretch your muscles carefully and gradually. Never bounce while stretching as you are more likely to injure yourself this way. Slowly and gradually take deep, cleansing breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. As your stretch, exhale and hold the stretch for 10 seconds before returning to a neutral, unloaded state.

Spending 5 – 10 minutes cooling down will help bring your heart rate back into a normal balance, and reduce the risk of dizziness or nausea that may sometimes occur with strenuous exercise. If you have a gym membership, take a Yoga class weekly or find a local yoga studio. If not available, Yoga instructional videos work well.

Remember – to be successful in fitness, you have to be committed and consistent.

*Please consult a physician before starting any exercise routine. This advice is generic and general and may not apply to all ages and levels of fitness. Exercise at your own risk.

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