Let’s cut right to the chase. Backpacking (wilderness trekking) requires a certain level of physical fitness, yet it is a very basic, natural activity. After all, we upright two-legged Hominids evolved in the wilderness, and our ancestors spent many millennia walking through almost every kind of wilderness imaginable. It has been noted that we humans are “born to run”, but we are also, without doubt, born to walk.
Yet modern society has yanked the wild rug from under us, and nowadays — at least in most industrial countries — most people walk very little. Look around. Our society has become soft, an automated button-pushing wheeled and winged vestige of its animal past. Without debating the pros and cons of modern technology, let’s just say that arguably, the most obvious cost is our collective loss of physical fitness.
So wilderness trekking is basic to our nature, and truthfully, it’s usually not too tough for most folks, even beginners, if we begin with two assumptions. The first is that you’re not terribly overweight. The second assumption is that you are not a cigarette addict. If you are, please quit smoking immediately or consider an alternative vacation to backpacking. Go where paramedics can quickly respond to your upcoming myocardial infarction. In other words, please have your cigarette-induced heart attack on someone else’s watch!
OK, you’re a reasonably lean non-smoker. And you’re fairly active. You actually walk places on a regular basis. You’ll likely do just fine on a relatively easy or moderate backpack trip with no additional work,
But if you’re contemplating a more rigorous trek, for example one rated “Fairly Strenuous” or “Strenuous” by Big Wild Adventures, a regular conditioning program becomes important. For that matter, we also strongly recommend a conditioning program even for easier treks, since increased fitness increases both your safety and pleasure on the trail.
Cardiovascular conditioning that utilizes the legs is most important. Running and power walking are best. However, running isn’t for everyone, especially if there are knee, back or ankle problems. So a good power walk will also do the job. Power walks are best over hills, and even better with a weighted pack. Alternating runs with power walks is good, because cross-training minimizes wear and tear from repetitive motion and works a wide variety of muscles. Bicycling is also good cardio exercise, but only if you work hard by riding uphill for sustained periods or take reasonably rigorous prolonged rides.
Other good ways to maintain fitness include yoga, aerobic classes, tennis, basketball and related cardiovascular activities. Whatever you do, make sure that it’s fun!
For cardiovascular benefit, exercise a minimum of a half hour, 3 times per week, though longer more frequent workouts are recommended for our more strenuous treks. For the tougher trips, I suggest 4-5 times per week. That half-hour (minimum), by the way, is at a sustained high cardiovascular output. Even for the tougher treks, however, don’t feel like you have to train for the New York Marathon. Regular moderate exercise is generally best for most people. We all reach a point at which more is not better. And over-training risks a variety of muscle and joint injuries.
When I was 30, I could guide a backpack trek roughly every other week for almost half the year with very little intervening exercise. No more. These days, I workout in between trips and I now add a moderate level of regular weight training to my cardio program. For most folks, though, weight training is not essential for backpacking. Yet some weight training is a great compliment to cardio-vascular exercise, especially as you age. That’s because it strengthens both muscles and joints and it keeps your aging bones strong.
Again, though, I’d like to emphasize that most healthy, active and relatively lean non-smokers are likely already fit for a moderate backpack adventure. Just taking plenty of regular walks is a great way to prepare for many wilderness treks!
Of course, we strongly recommend that before you begin any training program, you visit your physician so that she/he can give you the green light for rigorous exercise.
But remember, backpacking through the wilderness isn’t exotic, it’s the most natural thing in the world. We are designed for it. Moreover, once folks begin a fitness program, they find that exercise isn’t just healthy, it’s addictive and it’s fun! It makes us feel good. It improves our mental acuity. And backpacking itself is one of the greatest all-around exercises known! As Terry and Renny Russell long ago wrote in On The Loose, “At least if a species has lost its animal strength, its individual members can have the fun of gaining it back again”,