by Ruby Bayan
Backpacking is a physically demanding activity -- much of the success and fulfillment you get out of the adventure depends largely on how your body is prepared to meet the challenges of the outdoors. Sometimes you discover too late how physically ill-prepared you are; when you buckle under your pack’s weight after walking just a couple of meters; when you gasp for breath at the slightest incline; when you miss the marvelous sunrise because you can’t lift your aching body off the sleeping bag.
Picture yourself in a backpacking trip, amid the natural elements. You will be carrying a pack that contains all of your life essentials; you will be walking with that weight the whole time; you will have to pitch your tent, cook your food, and maybe even fetch water; you will be traversing dirt, mud, rocks, hills, and streams; you will be hot, cold, wet, hungry, thirsty, tired, and in pain. Is your body ready to deal with these extremes?
Physical preparedness for backpacking can be summed up in three words: strength, endurance, and skill. Inadequacy in any of these areas means only one thing: bad news.
Traversing jagged and unforgiving terrain is a given in backpacking, which makes the ability to carry one’s own weight (plus the burden of outfit and gear) up a vertical, a basic physical requirement. How can you tone your body to meet the demand? Strength exercises.
Months before you engage in a serious backpacking adventure, assess your strength -- honestly. Can you haul your body out of a hole if you fell in one? Can you lift an unconscious person? How many steps can you take before you both drop to the ground? If your answer is “I don’t know,” then it’s time to hit the gym.
Sign up for a strength-training program. Diligent workouts with free weights and machines can effectively boost your body’s overall strength. You may want to focus on the specific muscle groups that you will need for your backpacking activities -- your legs, back, shoulders, and arms. Seek the guidance of a professional trainor so that you don’t end up hurting yourself in your eagerness to strengthen your muscles and tendons.
Strength building doesn’t happen overnight; so the sooner you start a serious workout, the better.
When you embark on an outdoor adventure, you don’t lift your pack and just stand there – you have to lug the load with you for many hours over long distances. That is why aside from strength, endurance is an essential physical fitness requirement for backpacking.
Endurance is being able to perform a physical activity repeatedly for extended periods. Undeniably, backpacking is principally hiking – staying on your feet, under your pack’s weight, dodging harsh elements, for long hours. Therefore, the best exercise for trekking endurance is one that will require extended, persistent, and energetic leg action. Ballroom dancing comes to mind, but running is universally preferred.
Start with a running schedule that will require you to negotiate at least a couple of miles per session, every other day. Go slow at first – give your body time to adjust to the stress. When you notice yourself panting, in pain or losing coordination, grind down to a brisk walk, then slowly pick up the pace again. Gradually “improve” your routine by running faster or farther.
Another way to build endurance is to acclimate your body to the activity that will dominate your backpacking trips. For example, if you expect to be trekking up and down steep inclines, train your body to endure ascents and descents by including stair-climbing exercises (try wall-climbing, too) in your workout routine. You will know that your body is ready for a climb if you can run up and down a decent flight of stairs at least fifteen times without getting a heart attack.
The third physical fitness requirement for a successful backpacking adventure is skill. The ability to perform physically challenging activities specific to the backpacking sport is essential, not only to ensure optimum appreciation of the adventure, but also to prevent untoward accidents or mishaps that unskilled outdoor enthusiasts tend to suffer.
Hiking, trekking, and camping means imminent encounters with violent weather and brutal terrain. Aside from being physically strong and durable enough to carry yourself across these harsh conditions, you must also possess the skills that will ensure that you can come through unscathed and whistling a tune.
One of the skills you need to brush up on is how to maintain your balance under the weight of your pack as you walk up and down rough trails, jump across rocks, or tread on slippery surfaces. Another is how to lift yourself up, or slide yourself down, a rope. Scrambling on all fours should be second nature to you; so should swimming and tree-climbing.
After all, being one with nature means knowing how to act and adapt to the most unusual situations.
Summary of Fitness Routines
Here’s a quick summary of the fitness routines you must imbibe in order to be physically prepared for your backpacking trips:
Always remember: Outdoors, the physically fit have the best chance of coming out of a survival situation alive. They have more fun, too!
- Lift weights to boost your muscles’ capability to support your own plus your pack’s combined load. Remember that you may have to move a boulder to save your life.
- Run (or substitute with intensive aerobic exercises) to improve your heart rate and blood circulation, and to enhance your body’s capacity to endure vigorous activities without getting unduly exhausted.
- Stair-climb; swim; try martial arts, contact sports, and other physically demanding activities that will hone your outdoor skills. Consider digging trenches, chopping firewood, or harvesting coconuts.
- Stretch and flex before (warm up) and after (cool down) each workout so as not to cramp or injure your muscles.
- Eat a balanced diet for optimum health; fitness routines won’t do you any good if you don’t eat right. Eat your veggies.
- Rest; give your muscles at least 48 hours to recover from strenuous workouts; sleep up to eight hours a day for complete recovery and rejuvenation.
Hiker's Little Book of Wisdom, David Scott; Format: Paperback; ISBN: 1570340625; Publisher: Globe Pequot Press; Pub. Date: February 1997
Backpacking: Essential Skills to Advanced Techniques, Victoria Logue; Format: Paperback, 320pp.; ISBN: 0897323238; Publisher: Menasha Ridge Press, Incorporated; Pub. Date: June 2000
Hiking and Backpacking, Eric Seaborg Ellen Dudley; Format: Paperback, 1st ed., 152pp.; ISBN: 0873225066; Publisher: Human Kinetics; Publishers; Pub. Date: January 1994
Outdoor Survival Basics
How to Pack a Backpack