We were only a mile into our first day of backpacking and huffing and puffing our way up the trail. To be fair, we had gone a mile but had also gained over 1,000 feet of elevation at the same time. Anyone would be huffing and puffing, especially carrying a 40-pound pack. But naturally, in between gulping down oxygen, our conversation steered towards fitness training and preparation for backpacking.

I asked one girl how she got ready for this trip. “Pretty much I did a ton of squats, with a lot of weight.” Other women nodded their agreement. “How about you, Alyssa.” “Well,” I said, “I took an entirely different approach, I pushed cardio pretty hard and did hardly any strength building, except our usual routine of rock climbing.” Once again I was reminded, there is no wrong way to get in shape, except maybe doing nothing at all.

Assessing your weaknesses

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Whenever looking forward to a fitness goal, you have to take in the whole picture. Football players aren’t just strong, they also have to run fast. Same with backpacking and summiting mountains. You need not only strength to carry heavy packs but endurance to walk long miles. The first thing you should do is assess your weaknesses and target them.

When it comes to body type and build, my mother and I are polar opposites, so I will use us for reference. My mom is slender and small framed. I, not so much. My mom’s main form of exercise is walking. Walking fast and walking long. In fact, I have to jog just to keep up with her long, quick strides. Me? I put on muscle fast. My main exercise, previous to this trip, was rock climbing and yoga. My mom is not used to having much more than 10 lbs on her back. I hike nearly every weekend with either a 28 lb toddler on my back, or a 25 lb bag of climbing gear. Naturally our fitness needs are different.

So while my mom started weight training. I hit the cardio classes.

Below are many of the training techniques I have used to prepare for a backpacking trip and climbing fourteeners. I am not an expert. Every body is different and each person should consult a doctor before starting a new training plan if they have concerns.

Cardio Training for Backpacking

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Many things come to mind when I think of summitting a fourteener but one of the first is this: sucking air. The air is thinner, meaning there is less oxygen at higher altitudes. While the best way to become a better hiker at high altitudes is to hike more at high altitude, many of us cannot easily fit that into our daily lives. But there are various cardio options that can be done outdoors or at the gym to prepare.

When looking to hike at high elevations, it is important to improve your body’s VO2 max. A person’s VO2 max measures the maximum capacity of an individual’s body to transport and use oxygen during exercise and is a factor in measuring overall physical fitness. In easy terms, the higher your VO2 max, the more oxygen is getting to your muscles, which means you can hike longer and faster. You can have this measured at many local fitness centers, and that is actually what I did. I have no clue what mine was one year ago, but I remember the trainer saying this, “It would be great to work on this number. And the only way you can improve your VO2 max is to push yourself. Really push yourself.” And seeing as I am not all that good at pushing myself, I added a regiment of cardio classes that did the pushing for me. Here is a list of cardio options that benefited me:

  1. Endurance and sprint interval training. Interval training is a method where you elevate your heart rate significantly and then allow it to recover for a period of time, before repeating. This can be done running, on a bike, walking, swimming, etc. On a scale of 1 – 10 (1 being resting, 10 being maximum exertion) you should reach 8-9 during the elevated intervals and recover around 5-6. Spinning/cycling classes are great for this.
  2. Circuits that combined resistance training and cardio. This can be another form of interval training. What I like is that it both strengthens and gets your heart rate up. A dynamic play between the two worlds of endurance and power, of which summitting mountains is very similar.
  3. Running. You don’t have to run fast, but I would suggest a slow building of mileage. Other than the conditioning benefits, I believe running has helped me learn to breath deeply and rhythmically, and to become more aware of my body, joints, and muscles – listening to when I need to rest and when I should “push on.” In addition, I’ve had to experiment with fueling on longer runs, figuring out what foods work best with my body, how much I should be drinking, and how often I should be consuming calories to keep me going for the long haul. All these things are highly beneficial in summitting fourteeners, something I have neglected to pay any attention to until this year.
  4. Snowshoeing! For many of us, it is winter and our trails are under a couple feet of snow. Snowshoeing has all the same benefits of hiking (though I consider it harder). You get the physical benefit of using your hiking muscles, but can also benefit from the exposure to higher elevations. Plus it is inspiring being on the trail again!

Strength Training for Backpacking

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No one will deny the importance of strength training in summitting mountains. Weighted squats, lunges, and high stepping are great to build your legs. But what I want to focus on are the big benefits drawn from strengthening our little-known muscles.

There are two body parts mentioned frequently when backpacking, okay maybe three. Your back, knees, and ankles. Everyone is afraid of hurting them but no one is really talking about how to prevent injury through strengthening. People strap on back braces and high hiking boots, all to add support to those weaker areas, but I’ve noticed a huge benefit from a surprising source: yoga.

All my life I have been plagued with weak ankles and wrists. After my last pregnancy I started doing yoga once or twice a week. There was nothing purposeful about it. I was a hurried and stressed mom and I needed a peaceful outlet. So yoga became my one or two hours of quiet a week. After six months, I noticed a significant increase in shoulder, wrist, core and foot strength. In our weekly climbing sessions, I found I was more balanced, composed and graceful on the rock. Slowly over time I forgot about my ankles or my wrists. I kept doing yoga and last summer after four days of backpacking with low-rise hiking shoes and a 40 lb pack, I found my ankles were strong. I never twisted one once. Something I attribute largely to yoga.

When should I start training?

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You can never start too soon. You can start too late. I would suggest starting training for a moderate backpacking/fourteener event no less than two months before the trip. Obviously, this will vary greatly depending on the length and difficulty of the trip, and your overall fitness.

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