How To Train For Backpacking
No matter your experience level, you have what it takes to train for a backpacking trip that will inspire for a lifetime. In this guide we’ll break down how to train for backpacking in five important steps. We firmly believe you can accomplish anything you put your mind to, once you commit to succeed. So let’s break out the calendar and begin!
1. Set Training Goals
If you are going to dedicate the time to train for a major backpacking trip, it is essential to train smart. That means understanding what you can expect to face on the trail and developing concrete goals and a plan. Below is a list of what a typical “workload” may look like during a day on the trail:
- Hiking for 5 to 9 hours (not including breaks)
- Uneven and varied terrain
- Hiking uphill and downhill
- Up to 4,000′ of elevation gain, or loss, in a day
- Stream crossings
- Hiking sandy terrain, or snowfields
- Talus, scree and boulders
- Marshy sections of trail
- Hiking at high altitude
- Hiking in extreme temperatures
- Early morning starts
- Hiking with a heavy pack
It is going to be extremely fun and rewarding at the end of every day!
Now training for all these challenges can seem daunting, especially when you try to fit it into your busy daily routine. But we know you already have some strengths – maybe you’re an active hiker, or an early riser, or live at high elevation. Maybe you have great core strength but need to bump up your cardio and endurance. Maybe you are a rock star athlete, but unsure about your gear. To help you narrow in on what is most important for your training, we will break down backpacking training into three buckets: Physical Conditioning, Mental Preparation and Dialing in Your Gear.
2. Get Serious About Physical Conditioning
After each TSX backpacking challenge we survey participants, and ask “What advice or recommendation would you share with future participants?” Here is the number one recommendation:
“Get serious about training. The trails are more difficult than you would expect!”
TSX Challenges experiences are backpacking treks which means you’ll be hiking long distances with your food, shelter and clothing strapped to your back over uneven terrain. To prepare your body for backpacking you need to focus on cardio, core strength and balance. If you’re an active individual who runs, plays sports, hikes, exercises regularly, or is physically active at work, you’re on your way to success! For others, it takes time and planning to develop strength and endurance. We recommend you start training at least two to four months out from your departure date. Break out your calendar, set some goals and start planning.
Train for backpacking by making cardio workouts a priority. In a perfect world you would be doing real training hikes with a weighted backpack several times a week. We realize this isn’t practical for most of us who have jobs, families and other social commitments. As a substitute we suggest you pencil in two to four cardio sessions of your preference (run, walk, bike, swim, youtube cardio etc.) each week and then try to work in a longer training hike on the weekends or your time off. If you can add some elevation to your cardio workouts, all the better! This could be hiking hills in your area or stairs in your office building or apartment complex. You can even walk up and down the stands at the nearest high school football stadium. Backpacking experiences involve sections of steep climbing and descent so train your legs to go up and down. Another best practice is to wear a backpack with weight in it during your training hikes, or even if you are going out to walk the dog in the morning. Multi-task and maximize your use of time!
The next element of your physical training should be around legs and core strength. Try to mix in a few sets of body weight squats, lunges or planks each week. Yoga is a great activity to mix into your workout routine for core strength as well. You want to focus on full body, compound motions that will help you build strength, flexibility and work all those stabilizer muscles many of us forget we have.
Those stabilizers are going to be key for balance and that is the third pillar of your physical training foundation. The best training here is hiking and walking on uneven terrain. If you’re a city dweller and this isn’t really an option, try standing on one foot for 30 seconds each day. Or practice balancing on a Bosu Ball or walking a straight line on a curb. It may seem silly, but if you know balance is your weakness this could help prevent injury.
Finally, remember to set goals for each activity you plan out! And when it’s goal time, get serious! Whether you are measuring time, distance, frequency, heart rate, elevation etc. set a goal before you start and evaluate your outcome after each activity! Determine what worked, and what didn’t, and then set yourself up for success by making adjustments for your next attempt. Develop a plan each week to improve and get stronger.
3. Incorporate Mental Preparation
The second bucket to consider when you train for backpacking is mental preparation. This involves preparing your body for the soft challenges associated with life on the trail.
First, you should be prepared to backpack through a wide range of temperatures. While we plan out our trips to take advantage of the best temperatures possible, the reality is that weather in the Grand Canyon and Sierra can be volatile with potential for extreme heat or cold for any given week. Scheduling training hikes in the heat, or in the brisk morning hours can help prepare you for the challenges you may encounter. Hot weather hiking requires consistent drinking and the regular consumption of salty snacks to keep your body in balance. Cold weather hiking requires mental fortitude, regular snacks, and often involves finding a pace to manage sweat under layers of warmth.
Second, prepare yourself to backpack through wet weather conditions. We’ve experienced August snows in the high Sierra, May blizzard conditions in the Grand Canyon, and wind, rain and hail during each month on the trail. Hiking in cold wet conditions can present a serious mental challenge. If the opportunity presents itself, take a walk, hike or run in the rain to get yourself mentally prepared for the challenge that may be ahead and test out your rain gear.
Third, prepare yourself for early morning starts. Beginning our day early in the morning is a common tool we use to manage expected heat or a forecasted afternoon thunderstorms. By early, we mean waking up before 5:00AM to begin hiking before sun-up. If you are not an early riser, this might be an element you can train for. Set the alarm clock and pepper in a few early morning walks or hikes so you can prepare for the mental challenge of quick morning starts on the trail. Note, even with early morning starts, we will have coffee available for those who need it!
Time Away From Loved Ones
Finally, and this is often overlooked, be prepared for the emotional moments that come with backpacking through difficult conditions while being away from friends and loved ones for an extended period. A great backpacking route has zero cell reception for 99% of your time on the trail (and we only do great backpacking routes!). This is a welcome part of the experience for most! But consider the fact that you will be out of contact with friends and family for multiple nights on the trail – no email, no internet or social media, nada. Remember to have those family photos pre-loaded on your phone or bring a special token with you to keep those happy thoughts close by when you need to dig deep!
4. Train for Backpacking By Dialing in your Gear
The last aspect of your training should be dialing in your backpacking gear. We make it as easy as possible for people with limited or no backpacking experience to join our treks. We provide all major gear for those who need it, and if you follow our gear checklist and backpacking checklist video, you’ll be well prepared with a light-weight pack. However, incorporating your gear at home into your training process will go a long ways to improving your backpacking experience. Here are three ways to you can train for backpacking with the gear you have at home.
Train in the footwear you plan on using on the trail. That means using the same shoes and the same socks. Purchase footwear in advance and be sure to break your shoes in. Check out our footwear blog post for more tips so that you don’t get the blues hiking in wet or small shoes!
Train and be prepared to hike in pants and long-sleeve shirts. In the Grand Canyon, pants and long sleeves will protect you from thorny trail and extreme sun exposure. In the Sierra, pants and long sleeves will provided extra protection against mosquitoes, especially during the months of June and July.
Practice a New Routine
Life on the trail is different than life at home. The most common routines can take time to adjust to as we move from camp to camp each night. Making your bed, packing your bag, brushing your teeth and eating breakfast can suddenly become organizational challenges. Think about organizing and simplifying your items on our gear checklist, then practice preparing yourself and packing a bag before a workout at home!
5. Measure Your Goals
To tie these three elements of training together we recommend you set a goal and plan for each item that you view as a major challenge.
For example, a goal might be “I want to break down my tent/sleep system, eat breakfast and load my pack all within 30 minutes before I hit the trail.” So now we have our goal! The next step is to set yourself up for success. For this example, that means developing a system in which you pack your bag, break down your sleep system and even prepare and eat breakfast. In this step you might even practice. After that you are ready to attempt the achievement of your goal.
Here is something critical, be sure to take this to heart with every goal you attempt to achieve. When it is goal time, get serious! For this example, that means opening up your stop watch app, timing yourself from start to finish and immediately evaluating what worked and what didn’t. If you achieved your goal, great! That is a battle won! If you didn’t make your goal, that’s okay too, but don’t let it go by the wayside! Throw it back on the schedule at least seven days later and use those seven days to set yourself up for success! In both scenarios (even when your goal is met) it is important to evaluate the outcome and your performance. Use that information to refine your approach and become stronger.
Schedule out each week for at least 2 months leading up to your trip. Schedule your cardio and strength training days and set goals that will help you increase your abilities in that time. If you need additional help or support, join one of our online backpacking classes or reach out. We’re here to help!
Download our TSX Challenge Sample Training Calendar for quick tips and ideas on how to start planning!
Preparation Will Pay Dividends
We pride ourselves on helping people of all shapes, sizes and ages access remote parts of the Sierra and Grand Canyon. The common elements of success includes a lot of heart, physical grit, and mental determination. We are here to support your backpacking training goals every step of the way. Everyone will have their challenging moment on the trail, however, the physical conditioning and preparation you put in before your trek will go a long way to ensuring you have the best possible experience.
With TSX you will experience some of the most remote, least traveled regions of our nation’s back country, and hopefully walk away with renewed conviction that you can do anything you put your mind to. We are excited to share that experience with you!