Weight Training Workouts for Hiking and Backpacking

Hiker walking along coastal path

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Carrying a heavy pack on the back for many miles of hiking or backpack traveling is something many people do for fun—unless they are in the military. Either way, you need to be conditioned to this load or it can be a very long and uncomfortable day.

A 30- to 40-pound pack is a lot to have pulling down on your shoulders and upper back. Weight training, cardio training, and practice will get you in peak condition for a backpacking adventure.

Strength Training for Backpacking

Carrying a heavy pack on the back brings many muscles into play, including those of the arm and shoulder that you use to sling the pack onto the back.

  • Shoulder/neck: The trapezius muscles radiate out from the base of the neck. This is where the shoulder harness of the pack sits. Robust traps helps prevent soreness. (Theoretically, most of the pack's weight should be on the hips, but it doesn't always work that way, depending on pack design and ​​body shape.)
  • Shoulder/arm: The shoulder of the arm that you use to put on and take off the pack does a lot of work at unusual angles. The rotator cuff of the shoulder is particularly vulnerable to these angular loads, so strengthening the muscles in this area is important.
  • Upper back: The muscles of the upper and mid back contract to stabilize the pack, especially with very heavy packs. Novice hikers and backpackers often get a dull pain right in the middle of the shoulder blades.
  • Lower back: The lower back takes a hammering from lifting the load and also from twisting the posterior chain of muscles when loading the pack onto the back.
  • Abs: The abdominal muscles work to stabilize the pack when you twist and turn; you need to have strong abs for backpacking.
  • Legs: You support all this weight on two legs and often you need to squat and stand with the pack on your back. Strong legs, especially thighs, make a difference in the efficiency and enjoyment of backpacking.

If you have not done any weight training previously, a good, all-around beginner's workout program is the place to start. Follow up the beginner's program with a more advanced strength workout program if you really want to get strong for hiking and backpacking.

Aerobic Fitness

Along with the muscle strength to support the pack, you need the fitness to be able to haul it long distances. Weight training will give you some of that, but it won't provide the endurance that a good cardio aerobic program will provide. Whether you walk, run, or bicycle, you need to get your heart rate up for 30 to 45 minutes several times each week.

Practicing With the Pack

If you intend to travel for an extended period with a pack, it's important to get used to the feel of it. Nothing will condition you for a heavy pack better than actually experiencing it. Start off with a light weight and short distances and gradually extend to heavier weights and longer distances.

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