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Weight Training Workouts for Hiking and Backpacking

Get Strong to Carry That Pack

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Updated July 18, 2011

Hiking pack

Hiking pack

Photo © Flickr user Codogblog

Carrying a heavy pack on the back for many miles of hiking or backpack traveling is something we do for fun -- unless you're in the military of course. But even then the following tips will help you prepare for the rigors of military life.

Either way, you need to be conditioned to this load or it can be a very long and uncomfortable day -- and then you need to do it all again the next day. Even allowing for ill-fitting packs, a 30- to 40-pound pack with clothes, food, tents, sleeping bags, stoves and whatever else you consider necessary for such an adventure, is a lot to have pulling down on your shoulders and upper back.

I've hiked in many places, from the snows and ice of Everest base camp, to the jungles of Sumatra and the wilds of the crocodile infested coast of North Queensland. Here's what I recommend to people starting out with backpacking in order to get fit and have a nice experience rather than a regrettable one.

Weight training, cardio training, and practice with a pack on your back will get you in peak condition for a backpacking adventure.

Key Muscle Groups that Support a Pack

Overall, 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. Here's a summary.

If you've not done any weight training previously, a good, all-round beginner's workout program is the place to start.

  • You need strong trapezius muscles, the muscles radiating out from the base of the neck. This is where the shoulder harness sits. Robust "traps" helps prevent soreness. (Theoretically most of the weight should be taken on the hips, but it doesn't always work that way, depending on pack design and body shape.)
  • The abdominal muscles work hard trying to stabilize that pack when you twist and turn; you need to have good strong abs.
  • The muscles of the upper and mid back continually contract trying to stabilize the pack from slipping one way or another, especially with very heavy packs. Novice hikers and backpackers often get a dull pain right in the middle of the shoulder blades.
  • The lower back takes a hammering from lifting the load and the twisting of the posterior chain of muscles when loading the pack onto the back.
  • The shoulder of the arm that you use to load and unload the pack is most important indeed because it does a lot of work at unusual angles of load. The rotator cuff of the shoulder is particularly vulnerable to these angular loads.
  • And last but not least, you support all this weight on two legs and often you're required to squat and stand with that pack on your back. Strong legs, especially the thighs, make a difference to the efficiency and enjoyment of backpacking.

That's pretty much the muscle and strength analysis of carrying a heavy backpack. 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

Now that you've got the body to support that 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 really strong endurance over several hours that a good cardio aerobic program will provide. You need to get on the treadmill or bike or out on the road and get the heart rate up for up for 30 to 45 minutes several times each week.

Practice, Practice, Practice

If you intend to travel for an extended period with a pack, and you haven't used one previously, it's important to get used to the feel of it; and nothing will condition you for a heavy pack on the back better than actually experiencing it.

Start off with a light weight and short distances and gradually extend it to heavier weights and longer distances. Include a weights and cardio program and you'll soon be well prepared for any adventure coming up. Enjoy the ride.

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