If climbing a few flights of stairs winds you, image what hiking is going to do. See, just like any physical activity, hiking requires a certain level of muscular strength, endurance, and cardiovascular health. Pair that with hauling a 20 to 40 pound pack around all day, and you are in for a serious workout. Thus, physical preparation is just as essential to planning your trip as decent gear would be.

To put the need for physical fitness into perspective, ask yourself this: if the weather changes for the worse, can I get down that mountain quickly and safely?

Willpower is only going to get you halfway. A body honed for endurance and abuse is going to get you home. Muscular fatigue and a state of breathlessness will not.

Goal Setting

Based on your plans for hiking, your goal is going to be quite variable. Should you just be starting out, the ideal plan is to build yourself up until you can hike for longer periods of time and tackle more challenges. For those who have an extended backpacking trip with a duration of 3 to 5 days, your goal and training program is going to be much more demanding.

For example, if you have yet to begin intense hiking, your goal should be setting a foundation for yourself. That could be walking at a pace of 3.0 to 3.5 mph for 60 to 90 minutes at a local State Park 3 days a week without additional weight.

Those preparing themselves for a more challenging hike, your goal should be a blend of cardiovascular fitness, resistance training, balance and flexibility done at least 4 days a week.

That said, the preparation needed to cover thousands of steps over terrain you may not be used to varies. You age, health, and current level of fitness should factor into how hard you must work and for how long. Always consult your general physician before starting an exercise program.

Muscular Strength and Endurance

The best exercises are those that mimic the actions you will doing when hiking:

  • 1. Squats
  • 2. Lunges
  • 3. Step-ups
  • 4. Abdominal Exercises (not just crunches)
  • 5. Push-ups

There is more you could do, but with this 5 basic movements, you can tone the posterior chain (the main muscles of forward propulsion), quadriceps, hamstrings, upper body, and core. Here’s how:

1. Squats

squats for hiking

You can start with body weight or go for back squat with a barbell. Want to get really functional? Fill your hiking gear to near max capacity and strap it on.

When you execute the exercise, endeavor to accomplish as primitive of a squat as possible with good form.This means having the tailbone go slightly lower than the bent knees while keep the spine long. The feet are at least shoulder-width apart. Your weight should be less in the toes and more in the heels. Done correctly, your toes may even slightly lift from the ground in the down position. To reverse out of it, squeeze the glutes and push up, never compromising the length of the spine.

2. Lunges

Go bodyweight, hold weights in both hands or, again, do this with your full pack of gear. From standing position, step forward then lower the body so both legs are bent at 90 degrees. Make sure that the toes are pointed directly forward to keep the knee in line with the ankle. Push up then bring the rear foot forward. Repeat with the other leg. If you have a hard time with stepping forward into the lunge, you can also step back.

Do this for 3 sets, 12-15 repetitions on each leg.

lunges for hiking

3. Step-Ups

step ups

Wear a pack that is about 10-20 pounds for this. On a box crate, stable chair, or a park bench, step up then step down. To get the power to accomplish this, you need to press through the supporting leg as you drive through the knee of the lifted leg. Do this for at least 12-15 repetitions on each leg.

If you do not have the adequate set up, the other option is to climb up and down a staircase several times. As your quads, hamstrings, and calves get stronger, you can speed up the pace.

4. Abdominal Exercises

side plank for hiking

A strong core is what is going to keep you upright even when that hiking gear weighs as much as a small child. Do not think about the six-pack muscles. Rather, it is the deep muscles called the transverse abdominis and the erector spine group that help with posture. Do these:

  • Russian Twist -- Start seated. Raise your feet several inches off the ground and lean back slight. Twist from side-to-side, keeping the core tight and maintain the V-shape of spine and thighs. Try to tap your knuckles against the floor with each rotation. As you get stronger, hold a medicine ball or dumbbell. Do 15-20 repetitions.
  • Side Plank Raises -- Begin on your side and have your supporting elbow positioned under the shoulder. Your forearm is perpendicular to your body. Feet may be stacked unless you need to modify by dropping the inside knee down. Raise your hips into plank, creating a straight line from the crown of the head to the heels. Slowly lower the hips back down. Repeat the lift and lower several times, for as long as you can remain in control.
  • Bicycles -- Lying flat on your back, extend one leg out fully while the other is at a 45 degree angle. Place your hands behind your head. Twist so that the opposite elbow goes for the extended leg’s knee. As the legs switch, so do your elbows.

5. Push-ups

push ups

One of the best exercises for the body happen to be push-ups. There are a number of variations that target the back and triceps while also working on core stabilization. However you decide to do your push-ups--such as knees up or down, or with variations in hand placement--just make sure to do push-ups every single day.

If you cannot complete a standard push-up, there is no shame in doing wall push-ups. Focus on the quality of the movement, not the quantity.

Cardiovascular Fitness

Does increasing your cardiovascular fitness mean planting yourself on the treadmill at 0% incline and a set pace of 2 mph? No! Use the hiking program. If you cannot stand the treadmill, walking is over touted as one of the best workouts out there when done at a decent pace. As long as you are walking often, you are already at a level to tackle simpler hikes.

Furthermore, participating in group fitness classes that are aerobic focused, like kickboxing, dance, cycling, and others, help increase your cardiovascular endurance and VO2 max (the level at which your heart can effectively use oxygen).

To combat discomfort and fatigue on the hiking trail, preparation is necessary. Although the amount of training required greatly depends on the length of the trail and your experience level, strengthening the heart, posture muscles, and the legs can completely reshape your entire body to make it a mean, mountain-climbing machine. Even if you are just beginning, at least you will not pass out on the trail from exhaustion. Happy hiking!

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