Winter. Or as most avid backpackers call it, the off-season. It’s that time of the year when you bring all your gear inside, give it a wash, and if you’re anything like us, sit down to plan your next trip! It may be a few months off, but if you’re already planning for it, you should be training for it too. This is especially true for any of you backpackers out there gunning for a big Grand Canyon or Sierra trip. The harder the trip, the more time you’ll want to give yourself to plan for it. And even if you just want to keep yourself in shape for some small hikes at the start of the next season, we’ve got the perfect exercises for backpackers.
The old school of thought used to be: train legs, train legs, train legs. And while you certainly do use your legs on the trail, recent studies have shown that those exercises we do all the time to train legs, like squats, lunges, and deadlifts, aren’t effective on their own, at least for backpackers. Backpackers actually rely very heavily on eccentric leg strength, which those most popular exercises don’t always target. But first, what exactly is eccentric leg strength?
Have you ever spent a long day on a downhill hike, only to find that your legs are more sore than they were after a steady uphill climb? Well, that soreness comes from the eccentric parts of your muscles, which you don’t use unless you’re going downhill. What happens is that when you’re hiking downhill, you actually expend three times as much energy, and your quads actually lengthen as they simultaneously contract. That’s what causes that second-day soreness and makes downhill hikes hurt a bit more than your uphill hikes. Luckily, that’s something you can fix, and in plenty of time for the next hiking season!
No matter what you’re doing during your off season training program, it’s important to incorporate downhill exercises. Whether you walk the treadmill on a decline once a week, or you bang out an intense backward stair stepper routine, the more you work that eccentric leg strength, the better off you’ll be. The hiking descents are proven to put the most stress on backpackers, so if you’re prepared for those, you’ll be set for the season.
Though all of those cardio exercises are great for your eccentric leg strength, you’ll also have to incorporate some actual strengthening exercises to ensure you’re building muscle where you need it. Here’s a few exercises to help target the major muscle groups, and both eccentric and concentric motion:
Your quads are one of the most used muscles on the trail, and if you want to stay in shape for the season, you’ll need to make sure you’re working them regularly. Best exercises to work your quads are:
It’s good to incorporate a wide variety of squats into your off-season routine. Make sure to constantly change up your program to ensure that you’re keeping your muscles guessing by changing your squat stance and adding weights. Jump squats are a good way to incorporate that eccentric leg strength into this routine.
Perhaps one of the best quad exercises for backpackers, downhill lunges increase overall strength, but really focus on that eccentric motion as well. If you can workout outside in the winter, load your pack down with about 30 pounds, and lunge downhill for 50 yards. Repeat three times, and complete at least three times a week. If you live somewhere too snowy for outdoor exercise in the winter, then find a treadmill that functions on a decline, or do your lunges down some stairs. This will increase the intensity, so make sure to adjust the weight accordingly.
If you’ve ever noticed your lower back hurting after a long day on the trail, it’s probably a sign of underdeveloped hamstrings. What happens is that on soft ground with a heavy pack, your heels tend to sink in. This pulls on your hamstrings, which in turn creates tension on your lower back. To ease that pain in the upcoming season, focus on your hamstrings now:
The ultimate hammie workout, you can’t beat weighted deadlifts for building up your hamstrings, as well as a lot of other muscles in the body. It’s important to observe good form, so make sure to check out a couple of videos, and start with a light weight until you get the motion down. Always keep your back flat, and if you start to feel pain in your back, drop down to a lower weight.
Another great exercise for the hammies is the chair walk. It’s perfect for isolating just the hamstrings, and it’s a safer alternative for those with lower back problems. Simply sit at the very edge of a rolling office chair, place your hands on your head, and sit up as straight as possible. Then, putting most of the weight on your heels, scoot your chair across the room focusing on using your hamstrings. When you reach the wall, turn around and walk back. Do this three times, and complete the exercise three times a week. When this gets easier, make sure to up either a number of times you complete the exercise or the length that you “walk.” If you’re having trouble visualizing this exercise, check out this informational video!
The human body functions on multiple planes of motion, which means that even when you’re walking forward, or up a hill, you’re also moving laterally and diagonally, especially while on the trail. You almost never move just straight forward, or straight backward, so it’s important to have those other lateral muscles, strengthened as well. Known as the adductors and abductors, your inner and outer thighs play a big role in every backpacking trip you’ve ever been on. Here’s how to target them in your off-season routine:
A great way to get in cardio and target those lateral motion muscles at the same time, side skips are the perfect adductor/abductor exercise. Essentially, you skip sideways, instead of forward. This one’s a little hard to explain, so check out this video from the pros at Crossfit for a full explanation. Basically, the movement works your stabilizing muscles and gets your body moving on the lateral plane, strengthening for when you head back out on the trail.
While the side skips get you moving, the side lunge helps you strengthen and build the muscles on that lateral plane. Start with your feet at a hips width apart. Shift your weight to the left foot, and lift your right foot up. Step your right foot two to three feet to the right, and bend your right knee as you lunge to the right. Your butt should come back as if sitting in a chair, and your chest should stay up. Your weight should be on the heel of your right foot. Then, lift the right foot up, and step your feet back together. That’s one rep. Do 12 reps, and then switch to the other side to complete a set. Make sure to do at least 3 sets. Once this gets easy, increase reps or add a barbell across your shoulders to increase weight.
For Extra Credit
If you really want to ensure your entire body is ready for the next season, you’d do well to practice some yoga. Often overlooked, yoga does more than just stretch your body out. It also helps to strengthen those muscles you forget about in regular training, and it targets very minor areas of your core to ensure your entire body is working together when it comes time for your next big trip.
Vinyasa and Hatha yoga are likely to focus more on strengthening, but restorative yoga practices are also really important when you’re following a rigorous training schedule. Especially for backpackers, the IT band and hip flexors tend to get very tense and tight. Yoga helps to lengthen and stretch these muscles so that you can continue to make gains throughout the off season, and experience pain-free hiking once you get back on the trail.
If you’re looking for a laid-out, easy to follow training program made specifically for backpackers, check out this sweet guide from Backpacker.com. Their “Train Smart” plan gives you week-by-week program suggestions to ensure you’re ready for whatever trip you’re planning in the early season.
For more winter exercises to keep you fit for spring, make sure to take a look at the Earth’s Edge Winter Sports Training guide too. In it, you’ll find a number of other useful exercises you can complete at home or in a gym, that help build eccentric leg strength in your winter off season.
And if you’re looking for sweet deals on backpacking gear, check out the Earth’s Edge website. We’ve got all your favorite brands and your favorite products at competitive prices. Whether you need a new daypack or a new tent, we can help you find the perfect fit!