Tips for Backpacking Training

One of my friends, Nick, did a remarkable overseas backpacking trip. He was one of the only Americans to actually solo hike the Friendship Highway between Lhasa and Katmandu, a distance of nearly 585 miles.  His journey led to him walking for 6 straight weeks, for approximately 15-20 miles per day, with a loaded backpack.  It was his second attempt at accomplishing the feat of hiking such a great distance. Humbly, his first attempt one year previously had failed because of mistakes in his training regimen. During his first shot at walking the Friendship Highway, he trained by running up bleachers, working up to 260 flights of stairs with a 20 pound pack.  Much of his training was focused on carrying his pack up and down stairs and hills to get his muscles in good shape.  Months later when he finally set his feet on the Friendship Highway, it became clear to him that he should have been training by doing the exact activity he was going to be doing for the next 6 weeks; walking with his pack for great distances on fairly level terrain.  As he put it, it was a little like training for a marathon by doing power-lifting. The second time around, he walked each and every day for 10-15 miles with his 20 pound pack.  When he corrected his training mistakes a year later, he went back and accomplished his goal.

The moral of the story is, train by doing the same activity you’ll be doing on your journey.  In this case, grab a pack and hit the trails.  Train by hiking up and down hills using your trail-weigh backpack.  Do it day after day to replicate multiple trail days , eating snacks similar to those you plan to eat on the trail.  Doing these things will get your body conditioned and familiar with what you’ll experience on your journey.

Getting started

If you aren’t in great shape, you might want to pick up a book on training and fitness to help you through getting started.  I recommend Fit by Nature by John Colver, which walks you through a well-explained 12 week fitness program using nature as your gym.  The book also explores stretching, nutrition and injury prevention in great detail, which will help as you dust off the hamstrings and find your heart rate again.

If you are in decent shape, but need to get the ‘hiking muscles’ ready to rock and roll, a series of hiking work-outs can get the leg muscles talking.  When training, start off slowly and work up to shape.  Never expect to be ready to roll ‘off the couch’. On your first day of training, take on a short day hike with only lightweight essential supplies in the backpack.  Be sure to stretch out and don’t overdo!  Listen closely to your body, especially early on, to avoid injury.  Stop immediately if something hurts or doesn’t feel right and take a rest. Use your exact boots or trail shoes and see how you do.  If you plan to get new boots or shoes, buy them during your training phase to properly break them in.  Get used to making adjustments on your backpack, such as snugging the hip belt and using the shoulder strap and load lifter straps in conjunction with one another.  On the next trip, add another 5-10 pounds to your pack weight and increase your distance and elevation gain.  Continue to do this over several months until you’ve reached your ultimate trail pack weight, elevation gain and loss and distance of a mock trail day.  When you can do at least 2 back-to-back ‘mock’ trail days with little aches and pains, you’ll likely be ready to tackle the Wonderland.

Keep in mind that your body is not going to like you adding weight.  Minor bruising is not uncommon if you haven’t worn a pack much and doesn’t necessarily mean the pack is not fitting correctly.  Your body knows it’s not possible to gain 10-30 pounds overnight (unless you’ve recently been to a Superbowl party or all-you-can-eat spaghetti feed), so it may complain a little.  To be sure your pack is fitting correctly, I highly recommend bringing your fully loaded backpack down to a credible outdoor retailer to ensure you have it adjusted properly for your torso length and waist size.

If you live in flat country and aren’t able to train on hills, get yourself to a gym with a good treadmill and workout on a high incline.  Bring your pack and your boots and use both when training.  If you think you have more coordination than an elephant on ice skates, you could try training for the downhills on the treadmill too.  Keep the incline on high and slow down the speed.  Turn around backward and simulate walking downhill.  Walking up and down stadium steps is another way to simulate elevation gain and loss.

When on the trails, try breaking down each portion into manageable sections.  Set a goal for yourself when you climb.  For example, try 2-3 minutes of uninterrupted uphill pushes proceeded by 30 seconds of rest.  Or fix your eyes on a big rock, tree or trail marker and make it your goal to get to it without stopping.  When you arrive at your goal, catch your breath before repeating the activity. Find a bridge or creek to call the halfway point and take a nice long, pack-off break.  Taking more breaks allows you to go further with less fatigue and less injury potential.  A fitness guru once told me that the ultimate goal on short hikes is to get to the top as quickly as possible for cardio health and come down as slowly as possible for quad strength.  It works pretty well, although you have to use caution to not overexert on the uphills and you look a little feeble restraining yourself on the downhills.  If nothing else, it’s fun to laugh at your rickety descent waddle.

Don’t forget to nibble and drink constantly even though you may not feel you need it.  You need twice the calorie intake when hiking than you do at home.  Go for something with a good balance of protein and complex carbs, such as performance food bars and don’t underestimate the importance of calories.  Eat a substantial snack at least once an hour during your work-outs.  Treat yourself!

–Written by Tami Asars