Hiking and backpacking are just walking, so there’s no need to train… right?
Well, that’s where some people may be surprised. Both hiking and backpacking can be physically (and mentally) challenging, so it’s important to think about how you’ll train before tackling your next epic trail.
Whether you have a dream backpacking trip in mind, or you simply want to improve your hiking fitness overall, you’ve come to the right place.
In this post, I’ll walk you through the fundamentals of how to train for hiking (or backpacking training, depending on your goals). We’ll touch on things like strength training, cardio (and how to not hate it) and flexibility.
We’ll also go over tips to avoid injury, get used to wearing a backpack and finally some best practices for training for hiking.
Jump to the section you’re interested in:
- Summary of My Backpacking Fitness Framework
- Specific Training for Backpacking
- Backpacking Workout Best Practices
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My Experience Backpacking – I’ve been backcountry camping for over 10 years, but it was only in the last 4 years that I started backpacking. I usually did paddling trips – canoeing and hiking – and dreaded having to hike long distances with a heavy pack. But now I absolutely love backpacking and find it an excellent way to get outside, exercise, recharge and relax. I hope this guide will help you the way it did for me!
Backpacking Fitness: A Summary
I believe there are four components to good backpacking fitness:
- Muscle Memory (HIKING!)
The first three items on that list are pretty self-explanatory. So what do I mean by muscle memory? Basically, it just means getting your body used to the specific nuances of hiking or backpacking. For example, carrying a heavy backpack, walking on uneven terrain and ascending or descending on steep sections.
From my experience, this is the most important element to building up your backpacking fitness. The more you hike / backpack, the better you’ll get.
Further down this guide, I’ll go over pacing (and increasing your hiking speed), getting better at elevation and carrying a backpack.
I still recommend supplementing your backpacking with regular cardio and strength training, plus some stretching. This is especially important if you don’t hike or backpack year-round. Having a regular routine will keep you fit throughout the winter months, and you’ll be able to hit the trails comfortably when the summer hiking season returns!
Something I want to emphasize right away: You do not have to look a certain way to have good hiking fitness! This post is all about helping you build strength and endurance to tackle the trails – it is not about changing your body to match the physique of other hikers. Hikers come in all shapes and sizes!
Training Schedule for Backpacking
I’m pretty reluctant to put a specific backpacking training schedule here because I know it won’t be applicable to a lot of people. How much time you have to dedicate to backpacking fitness will depend on your current exercise habits, your other commitments (i.e., work and family) and a whole host of other factors.
But to help visualize a typical training schedule, here is what I do.
My Backpacking Training Schedule
Monday – Thursday
Each day I aim to do the following:
- 20 minutes of yoga in the morning (I do this when I first wake up)
- 45 minute workout (usually a mix of cardio and light strength training)
- Friday is usually my rest day, so I may do a little yoga but that’s about it
Saturday – Sunday
- Once per month: Overnight backpacking trip! This is a recent development now that I live in California. I aim to cover 25 miles on my 1-2 night backpacking trips.
- Three times per month: 5-15 mile day hike. This reason for the large variation is that I do a mix of ‘speed hiking’ and ‘endurance hiking’. More on that below!
My backpacking training schedule is impacted most by my work schedule – I usually work 50-60 hours per week and travel for work at least twice per month. I flex the schedule up and down as needed. Some weeks I’m really busy and only go to the gym once or twice; other weeks I have extra free time and I try to get in a few long hikes or an extra backpacking trip.
A Beginner’s Backpacking Training Schedule
Monday / Wednesday / Friday
- 30 minutes cardio + 15 minutes strength training
Tuesday / Thursday
- 30 minutes of yoga
Saturday – Sunday
- Once per week: Walk or hike a total of 5 miles
- Once per week: Rest day!
I feel like three 45 minutes workouts per week is a reasonable backpacking training schedule for most people, but of course, flex it up or down as needed. On alternating days, I think yoga is great. And I don’t mean an in-person yoga class; 30 minutes of stretching to a Youtube video before bed is perfect.
If you can get out for one hike each weekend, you’ll notice dramatic improvements quickly! This can be a short hike close to home or a longer hike further away. Whatever works for you!
In the next section, I’ll go into detail about each component I’ve just mentioned and include example exercises.
An Intermediate Hiker’s Backpacking Training Schedule
If you’ve been hiking for a while and you’re specifically interested in 1) increasing your pace, 2) increasing the amount of elevation you can handle, or 3) increasing the distance you can hike, consider a training schedule like this:
Monday / Wednesday
- 30-45 minute cardio sessions (specifically, stairs, step-ups or walking on an inclined treadmill)
Tuesday / Thursday
- Strength training or yoga
- Short, fast hike: After work, you can hit up a nearby trail for a short hike (what is considered ‘short’ will depend on you, but I consider short to be ~5 miles). Choose a pace you’ll strive for during the hike and try to stick with it. You can even bring a backpack with gear loaded to practice.
Saturday / Sunday
- Long, endurance hike: Whenever you can, try to get in one long hike each weekend. Again, the specific distance depends on you (I consider long to be 10-15 miles, typically). However, the distance will change if you’re incorporating elevation gains. For these hikes, focus on covering more distance and increasing the amount of elevation you can comfortably do. Track your pacing, but don’t prioritize it.
- The other day, you can do some yoga or light recovery cardio
Hiking Workouts – Strength Training
First on the docket is strength training for hiking. Unsurprisingly, hiking is mostly a lower body and core workout, so the exercises below focus on building muscles there. These muscles include:
- Glutes (butt)
- Quadricepts (top of your thighs)
- Hamstrings (back of your thighs)
That said, having some upper body strength with help you lift and carry your back, and contribute to your overall fitness. So let’s throw in a little of that too.
I recommend striving for two to three 30 minute strength sessions per week. I typically go to a gym, but you could do all of the exercises below at home.
Strength Training for Hiking – Exercises
Squats and Squat Jumps – Squats are one of the best exercises for building strength in your quads, glutes and hamstrings. I also like doing squat jumps because they get your heart rate up while building strength (two birds, one stone, ya know?).
Sorry, I look glitchy like a nineties video game character – but you get the idea!
Lunges – Lunging also works your quads, glutes and hamstrings. The difference is that lunging better targets muscles on a single leg. When you’re doing squats, it’s easier for your stronger leg to overcompensate for a weaker leg. But in hiking, you need both legs to be strong. That’s why lunges are so great.
Step-Ups – If I’m at a gym, I’ll grab a box and do step-ups. This makes me feel like I’m back on the trail, hiking a steep incline. I’ll usually carry some weight with me while I’m doing step-ups, to simulate being on a hike.
Front Plank – Honestly, I hate doing planks. But they are a good way to build core strength. I’ll try to do a few sets of 30 seconds.
Side Plank with Dip – Similar to planks but on your side! These ones are great for strengthening your oblique muscles (the ab muscles on the side of your tummy).
Sit-Ups / Bicycles / Russian Twists – For more ab exercises, incorporate good ol’ fashioned sit-ups, bicycles (see below) or Russian twists. These all target the front (and a little bit the sides) of your ab muscles.
Shoulder Press / Dumbbell Curls – These are the two generic shoulder/arm exercises I do. I like to think these help me lift my backpack onto my back (but I still have an incredibly weak upper body, so who knows!).
Strength Training for Hiking – Typical Workout
Here is how a typical strength workout will look for me:
Three sets of the following exercises with a one-minute break in between each superset.
- 10 squat jumps
- 10 side planks with dip on each side
- 10 lunges on each side
Then I’ll take a slightly longer break (three to five minutes) and then do the following exercises for three supersets with a one minute break in between:
- 40 step ups with weight (if I have a block to step onto)
- 20 glute bridges
- 20 mountain climbers
- 10 shoulder presses
Again, I’ll take a longer break and then go into my final superset of exercises:
- 20 Russian twists (with a medicine ball if available)
- 20 sit ups
- 20 bicycles
Hiking Workouts – Cardio
The first component of backpacking fitness is cardio. Most backpacking trips will require a least a few hours of walking on uneven (and potentially steep) terrain. I feel my cardio is pushed to its limit whenever I’m going up a steep section of the trail. Here are some ways you can improve your cardio to make these sections easier.
I recommend striving for three 30-minute cardio sessions each week. You can combine them with the strength sessions above, so you just do three one-hour workouts per week. But if that’s not feasible, just do as much as you can.
Walking on a Treadmill at an Incline
If you have access to a treadmill or a gym, spend some time walking on a treadmill at a steep incline. I like to progressively increase my incline while slightly decreasing my walking speed. Even though walking on a treadmill sounds easy, when the incline is maxed out, it gets really tiring. Put on a 30-minute podcast or Netflix show and the time will fly by.
I find walking on a treadmill at an incline is a great way to build cardio for going uphill, without having to also navigate uneven terrain. It’s also great for anyone with bad knees!
Stairs or the StairMaster
Another way to improve your cardio is to take the stairs or do stair workouts. Similar to the above, I’ll put on a podcast and climb stairs for half an hour or so. Occasionally I’ve worn a backpack with weights in it, but I usually end up feeling too silly to focus on the workout.
Tip: When you take each step, think about contracting the glute (butt) muscles as you extend your leg. This will engage more of your glute and hamstring and not be so tiring on your quads.
A lot of people who do backpacking also road run or trail run (I’ve been getting into this myself). One thing to be careful about: running can be really tough on your knees, especially running on cement. If you have bad knees, stick with one of the two activities above.
Other Cardio Activities
The activities above are most similar to that of backpacking. However, that doesn’t mean they are the only ways to improve your backpacking fitness. You can also incorporate activities like pick-up soccer, dance classes, bootcamp workouts, kickboxing or swimming. If your heart rate is increasing, you’re improving your cardio!
Hiking Workouts – Flexibility and Balance
This is such an underrated part of training for backpacking! Since I started incorporating yoga into my daily routine, I find I’m getting less sore on hikes and recovering much faster.
Another thing yoga is great for is balance. The standing poses progressively build balance in your lower body, which will help you when you’re navigating uneven terrain.
In addition to the above benefits, yoga also builds strength throughout the body!
I recommend ending each workout with 15 minutes of yoga / stretching, or dedicating two days per week to a quick 20-30 minute yoga session. Personally, I do a 20-minute yoga session every morning and love it. I subscribe to Yoga with Adrienne, and she puts out free yoga videos on Youtube.
Training for Backpacking – Head to the Trail!
As I said above, I think this is the most important element of backpacking fitness. I’ve encountered groups of football players who barely have the cardio needed to get up a hill and cross country stars who can’t carry a full backpack for more than an hour at a time. Fitness in other sports doesn’t directly translate to hiking and backpacking.
This is good news for anyone who was never great at sports – hiking is a totally different activity and may just be your thing!
So you need to build your backpacking fitness by… you guessed it… backpacking!
Get a Fitness Tracker
A fitness tracker will be immensely helpful in measuring your progress. Among other things, a fitness tracker will keep track of your heart rate and pacing throughout the hike. I won’t speak to specific fitness trackers here, as I’ve written a post about it!
Understand Your Pacing
Now that I’ve been hiking for a while, I strive for a pace of 2.7 miles per hour on level ground with my backpack on. That translates to 22.2 minutes per mile. In general, a 2-3 mile per hour pace is a good one to strive to.
When it comes to elevation, the general guideline is to add 30 minutes for every 1000 ft you’re climbing. So for me, if I have an 8 mile hike and 2400 ft of elevation gain, that translates to 8 miles x 22.2 minutes per mile, plus 30 min / 1000 ft x 2400 ft, which equals = 250 minutes, or 4.2 hours of hiking (without breaks).
With your fitness tracker (or you can use a stopwatch), start tracking your pace on each of your hikes. How long does it take you to hike one mile? How does that change with elevation gains?
Compare your pacing from hike to hike to see how you’re improving over time!
Do Some Fast Hikes for Speed…
To get that pace increasing, do some short hikes where you’re hyper-focused on pace. Set a goal for your pace that is slightly faster than your usual pace, and try to meet it every mile. Over time, your default hiking pace will get faster and faster.
…And Long Hikes for Endurance
In addition, also do some long hikes to build your endurance. By ‘long’, I’m not necessarily talking about distance. Think about it in terms of hours.
These are the hikes where it doesn’t matter how slow you go, so long as you finish. You’ll still need to be mindful of time (you don’t want to get stuck on a mountain!) but you can go slow and take lots of breaks, since the purpose is to get used to spending more of the day on the trail.
Incorporate Elevation Gain
Don’t be afraid to incorporate some elevation gain! Elevation gain can be really intimidating, but you can take these sections as slowly as you need to.
I incorporate elevation gain on my ‘long’ hikes and usually, I’ve typically gone in with the mentality “you can go as slowly as you need to, you can take breaks whenever you want, you just can’t quit”.
I no longer don’t mind elevation for the most part (though I am hoping to do some 14ers this season, so I’m a little nervous for those). But for the most part, I don’t mind elevation.
That comfort has come from repetition. The more times I hike up a steep section, the more confidence I have for the next steep section!
As anyone will quickly tell you, hiking with no weight is VERY different than hiking with a full backpack.
Your shoulders and hips have excess strain on them. Your center of gravity is higher and balance is tougher. So if you want to train for backpacking trips, you’ll need to practice with a backpack on.
Personally, my favorite way to train for backpacking is to… go on backpacking trips. With each trip, I hike a little further and a little faster, always under the weight of my pack. Sometimes I do short trips and try to go quickly (the Ohlone Wilderness Trail is a perfect example of this). Sometimes I go slower but do more days at a time. I like to mix it up!
But if you only have day hiking available to you before your next big trip, do some hiking with your backpacking backpack on.
Load it up with your gear to simulate a backpacking trip and hit the trail. Practicing with your backpack may feel silly (especially if you’re on a short trail – I’ve been there!) but it will help you develop the strength and comfort to carry your backpack.
Backpacking Fitness: Best Practices
Make Physical Activity Part of Your Lifestyle
The easiest way to train for a backpacking trip is to have a reasonably active lifestyle and supplement it with increasingly challenging hikes. Whatever fitness routine you choose to adopt, make it something you genuinely enjoy doing so you will continue with it after the backpacking trip too.
Have a Dream Trip To Work Towards
Developing – and sticking to – a fitness routine can be difficult. I find it a lot easier to stick with a routine when I have a specific goal I’m working towards.
If you don’t already have a dream trip, spend an hour or so researching backpacking trips in a national park you’ve always wanted to visit. Print some photos from the route and hang them over your desk or in your living room – somewhere you’ll be able to see them regularly. This will help remind you of what you’re working towards!
Ease Into A New Routine
I don’t know what your fitness level is currently. If you’re not used to being physically active for multiple hours a day, don’t sweat it just yet (pun intended). I used to have the mentality “mind over matter” and would push my body through whatever physical challenge in front of me. I powered through things my muscles weren’t physically strong enough for, so my joints compensated. Now I’m 26 with chronic back and knee issues.
Choose Cardio Programs that You Enjoy
A lot of people are intimidated by cardio. You may have flashbacks to the 5-mile run in high school or the infamous Beep Test (Did they have those in US schools? Or was this a strictly Canadian torture?).
But improving your cardio does not have to be hell. Choose activities you could genuinely enjoy. For example, I’m currently taking a dance fitness class. It’s an hour-long and during that time I sweat profusely, I huff and puff and ~sometimes~ feel like I might not make it through the next song. But then Beyonce comes on the speakers and BAM I can tap into energy stores I never knew existed.
Another example would be intramural / pickup sports. I’ve never been coordinated enough to be good at team sports, but in university, I got really into intramural frisbee. We played on a football field and there was so much running back and forth, and back and forth. It was exhausting, but so much fun because I liked the game and I really like my teammates.
Start Small and Work Your Way Up… Or Don’t!
In most cases, I tell people to start with small trails close to home. Load up your backpack with a few pounds of gear, and take it around the block. Wear the backpack when you walk your dog. Then take it on a long day hike. This is a great way to progressively improve how much weight you can comfortably carry and how much distance you can cover. For your first backpacking trip, choose a short one-night trip so you don’t need to carry much gear or food.
That said, some people like to have a big trip on the horizon because it gives them the motivation to train for it. And sometimes, people just need to accomplish something that they feel unprepared for in order to break through mental barriers.
This happened to me recently. I didn’t really run at all between 2013 and 2020, and I started regularly running again in July 2021. After three weeks of running 5 km, then the occasional 10 km or 14 km, I decided I would run a half marathon. I figured, “I can hike 21.1 km – worst-case scenario, I end up walking most of the half marathon”. And guess what – I made it! I did have to walk sections, but I got it done. What felt impossible a few months ago became a reality when I up my mind to it.
Okay, confession. I still struggle to carry a heavy backpack for long stretches on a hike. Plus it’s hard on my old temperamental knees. This is what inspired me to get into lightweight backpacking. I used to backpack with a 40 lbs backpack and now I backpack with less than 20 lbs backpack and it is SO MUCH EASIER.
Final Thoughts on Backpacking Training and Hiking Fitness
As with everything, the trick to designing your backpacking training plan is to take it at your own pace. The best results come from consistency.
If you only have one day to dedicate, the best activity you can do is… hike! Get out there and start hiking. While the other exercises will get you to your hiking fitness goals faster, you have to hike to get better at hiking!
Other Hiking / Backpacking Resources:
- 40 Must-Know Tips for Women Backpackers
- 12 Hiking Outfits for Women for Any Weather & Condition
- A 10 kg Backpack & My Introduction to Ultralight Backpacking