Frequently Asked Question

Get in Shape--Stay in Shape

I recently heard someone referring to backpackers, in general, as having a T-REX SYNDROME. That is, obsession with exercising only the legs. In fact, it's important for hiking, and especially backpacking, that we have strong lower back, upper back, and abdominal muscles, in addition to strong legs. Find exercises that strengthen those muscles. For example, a rowing machine--as well as a machine like the Health Rider--will work the back, leg, and ab muscles. For those of us who get bored sitting on a machine, get a bicycle and rowboat. I have found, however, that lifting weights, machine workouts, jogging, etc., is appropriate and very helpful, but for some reason, the only activity that really keeps me in shape for alpine hiking, backpacking, and scrambling--which is what I do--is hiking. You can find my method of staying in shape for year-around backpacking, here:

Staying in Shape For Year-Round Backpacking

Here are some suggestions for getting in shape, staying in shape, and staying healthy:

Know your physical condition. Not just the "in shape" or "outta shape" question, but how's your heart--had a checkup lately ? Know as much as possible about your current condition before you even start an exercise program (if not already on one). That knowledge will also minimize potential problems in the backcountry. If you have a health condition, of any consequence, understand the implications and consequences of strenuous exercise and venturing into the backcountry, beforehand. If you haven't already, get the medical check-up, to find out--one way or the other--if you have anything to be concerned about. The backcountry is not the place for medical emergencies. There's no 911 out there !

Already in Shape ? If you exercise regularly, you may already be in good enough shape to tackle day hikes over easy to moderate terrain. However, walking (or jogging--not something I would do) on pavement is not the same as carrying a pack over a rough trail tread. My suggestion, is to first, at least, put on a pack loaded with 5 more pounds than you would be carrying on your hike, then truck around the neighborhood for a few miles to see how it feels. Next, plan a short hike to see how you fare on a trail with the pack on. Gradually, in addition to your regular exercise program, take more difficult hikes that keep challenging you as well as increasing your level of conditioning and endurance. This method is the least painful, if you will, because it leverages off of what you already have and gets you on the trail, immediately. What could be better, hiking yourself into hiking condition.

Not in Shape ? If you're not in good physical condition, you should take the time to set up a regular exercise program. It must be consistent and it must be a priority (or, guaranteed, you will not be consistent and you'll always be on the brink of getting in shape--but not quite). Hey, I bin there !

Just Start Somewhere. Swimming, Biking (human powered), Walking. It's good to have a variety of activities which exercise a variety of muscles. Machines are okay--Health Rider, Nordic Track, Stationary Bikes, Rowing Machines, Tread Mill--they all work okay, some better than others. I use a combination of Health Rider, free weights, and hiking to stay in shape. Somedays, I don't feel like sitting inside on a machine, so I just lift a few weights, then strap weights to my ankles and take a two mile walk. Point is, start a program you're comfortable with and stick to it on a consistent basis.

Anticipate Level of Difficulty, and Train Accordingly: You will put yourself and your fellow packers at risk, if you think you can wait til the trip and then get in shape on the trail. Two years ago, I went on a five-day trip with a group of Mountaineers. One of the people used to hike with his sons carrying 50 pounds of gear. He was fairly active, a skier and such, so thought he would be okay, based on past experiences. Thus, he went on the hike without training specifically for it. He lasted half a day. Couldn't go on--he was really hurtin. Had to go back to the trailhead and wait for us for four additional days (because he was one of the drivers). At least he didn't get hurt.

Moral: get in shape to carry your anticipated 40 pound load before the trip. Several weeks before a trip, I anticipate how much weight I will be carrying, then prepare a pack that weighs 10 pounds more than that. That, then, becomes my training pack for the next several weeks--about four or five nights a week--right up to two or three days before the trip. In addition, I continue with my normal exercising routine. That way, I'm confident I will be successful on the trail and that my fellow packers can count on me to be strong and healthy.

Stretching is important. Stretching muscles reduces muscle tension and allows better, more flexible movement. Prior to your daily workout, whether in the backcountry, or at home, take some time to stretch your lower back, legs, torso, neck, etc. If you're not sure how or what, do some research--there's plenty of material available on the subject. The point I want to make here is that stretching is necessary and will help prevent soreness and injury, both on and off the trail.


Prevent "Pack Lifting" Injury. Jerking a 35 pound (or more) pack off the ground and swinging it onto your back is a good way to injure your back. There's several popular, and safe, ways to do it. The one I use the most is to place my pack on the ground with shoulder harness facing me; next, I grab the shoulder straps--one in each hand--, and with straight to slightly bent back and slightly bent knees, I put my knee into the backpadding of the pack and pull the pack up my leg to the upper thigh. With my leg now under the pack for support, I slide my right arm thru the shoulder harness and then turn and do the same with my left arm. Next, I tighten the hip belt and proceed to secure pack as usual. This may have taken a lot of words to explain, but it's relatively fast and safe. Another method is to rest the pack on a tree stump or embankment and squat down to slip into the shoulder harness. Yet another method is to have someone hold the pack while you slip into the harness.