Couch to Backpacker program?
April 21, 2016 11:37 AM   Subscribe

Is there a hiking equivalent of the Couch to 5K?

I have a backpacking trip planned this summer. I've been recovering from an injury all winter, and want to get in better shape before the trip. Gamification and smaller tasks both work well for me.

I'd like to be able to say "I want to be able to hike for 5 miles with a 1,700' gain, carrying a 30 lb backpack, in four months" and determine when I should be able to do what and how to get there.
posted by The corpse in the library to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
What a great question! Honestly, I would think that if you strength train and do some cardio (like C25K or something like that), just get yourself in shape generally, you'd be fine. Strength training is a big one - your legs and your back are doing a lot of work to keep up with the elevation change and the weight of the backpack.

Maybe reverse engineer this and poke around on Reddit, find a backpacker's forum, and see what kinds of exercise they do outside of hiking. Most backpackers I've known have been into a multitude of sports. That wouldn't help with your timeframe, but it may point you in the right direction.
posted by onecircleaday at 11:51 AM on April 21, 2016

As an avid backpacker, I've often felt the only real way to get in shape for backpacking is to backpack on a regular basis.

Most of those programs are just small, incremental steps toward the final goal. I would start just walking a mile (or however much you can handle) on a road, then do it with a bit of weight in your pack, then walk (without a pack) uphill on a road, then do it with a pack, then walk on a trail, then on a trail with a pack, then uphill on a trail with a pack.

Mix these up a bit and add a bit more distance, more hills, more weight, and rougher terrain each time. Don't increase two things on the same day, especially not at first. Towards the end you should be doing long, uphill walks on the road with a pack in addition to shorter trail walks with a pack.

This is actually a good idea and if it doesn't exist you should totally create it and put it out there for others to use.
posted by bondcliff at 11:59 AM on April 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

This sounds like a great goal. If I were preparing for this, in addition to hiking local trails, I'd probably do stair climbing (no load initially, working up to your 30 lbs) and walking lunges on a treadmill, increasing load and incline (for the treadmill). (Or increase resistance and (backpack) load on a step mill if you have access to one.) Maybe you could estimate elevation and/or incline targets and work backwards from your goal. This sounds really fun :)
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:04 PM on April 21, 2016

Backcountry's Backpacking Guide infographic has lots of helpful 101-level info, but at the bottom they do recommend a few specific exercises, as well as this advice:
Aim to start a basic exercise routine at least six weeks before your trip. Your cardiovascular fitness and leg strength will be of the utmost importance, so running, long day hikes, and walking uphill with a weighted pack are all great ways to prepare. Budget at least 2 to 3 workouts a week.
posted by mykescipark at 12:18 PM on April 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 1) REI has a backpacking training plan with suggested resistance exercises. Backpacker also has a lot of fitness articles geared around various fitness and training techniques, including some plans. I find step-ups, outlined in the REI article, very helpful.

Although none of those are exactly the build-up exercise plans you are looking for, you could take a Couch to 5K plan and adapt them with their recommendations.

2) Not for the first time, I'm currently on a training plan for serious hiking/backpacking following a leg and knee injury. This is a plan I've cobbled together from several plans from different sources and physical therapists'/trainers' recommendations over the years; it includes yoga; strength/resistance training heavy on the core, legs, and glutes; and cardio. It's my plan, so it's not. . . trainer/doctor approved or anything, just to be clear, but if you're interested in it I would be happy to share it with you.

3) Just a small tip: When I do my training hikes, I put a lot of emphasis on practicing good form, particularly on uphills and downhills. Good form - which I think I learned from Backpacker, now that I think about it - would be when I go uphill to use my glues to push myself up, not my calves, straightening my leg (that's where those steps-ups come in) and not lean forward too much. Downhill I'm really prone to landing on the balls of my feet, taking long strides, and walking like a duck, so I practice not doing those things. I do a little warm-up and then a little stretching before my hike, and do some stretching afterward.
posted by barchan at 12:32 PM on April 21, 2016 [10 favorites]

Sorry I don't have an exact schedule, but the best way to prepare for hiking is.... surprise... more hiking!

So, if you haven't been walking for a while, I'd start slow... just walking will be a good enough practice.... lots of small dayhikes on weekends, or even an hr of walking daily will help. Once you feel strong enough, I'd aim for first being able to walk the daily distance without a loaded backpack on flat land, and then increasing weight until you hit your pack-weight.

At the very least, about 2 weeks in advance of the "big" hike, make sure you walk the equivalent "day hike" distance (on flat land if you need too, a day-hike if you can swing it) in your boots and your backpack loaded up with gear and water. It will show you where the blisters/ any gear failures will be, and help you set expectations for the trip. even doing it on flat land will help a ton; you'll get a sense of how fast you walk/when things start hurting/if anything is chafing, and have enough time to 1. let your blisters heal, and 2. tune in your gear if any of it is obviously terrible.

If you want to gamify things, I'd recommend playing balancing games. (standing on one foot while brushing teeth, around the clock toe taps etc.)
posted by larthegreat at 12:57 PM on April 21, 2016

I want to be able to hike for 5 miles with a 1,700' gain, carrying a 30 lb backpack

One of my favorite hikes is almost these exact parameters. The first time I did it, I was slim but not in shape at all - I walked a lot in my daily life but hadn't "worked out" in years. It was HARD; I got through it, but there were a few points where I wasn't sure I would. My brother (who is out of shape and rarely walks in his daily life) recently did the hike as well and needed lots of breaks and water, but got through it without injury and had a good time. So, don't worry about needing to be in awesome shape, being in middling shape will be just fine. I will say, though, that since I started doing deadlifts and squats (a modified version of the starting strength program), it has become significantly easier for me to do uphill hikes - my hip flexors no longer feel like they're going to die. Adding a bit of cardio (even a 1mi run/week) would probably make it even easier, since I do still get a little winded on the steepest parts.

Bring plenty of water and snacks and plan to take a lot of breaks. If you have to descend 1700' too, make sure you trim your toenails really short.
posted by melissasaurus at 3:03 PM on April 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Can you do all your grocery shopping with a backpack? Including canned goods and wine and detergent powder?,
posted by clew at 3:08 PM on April 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

As mentioned already, the only way to really get in shape for hiking is... hiking. Core exercises are a very good thing, but getting on your feet and walking is the best training. If you don't feel up to much, do a mile around the neighborhood. As you go along, mix in some hills. (I have a hill here in town that I walk a few times a week; it's 1.5 miles each way with 730 feet elevation gain. When I first got started it was a bear but it helped me get into shape.) You should be able to work up to your desired goal fairly quickly, definitely within four months.

The good news is that this is actually doable. Especially if it's a backpack; on a backpacking trip you've got all day to get where you're going so you can walk at whatever pace you want and take however many breaks as you want. But four months should get you into the shape you seek as long as you stay on it.

Side note: Someone who went with me on a Grand Canyon trip didn't training hike much despite my pestering. They thought if they did the treadmill and stairclimber on their lunch break then that should get them ready. I don't think they'll be going back to the canyon after barely making it through each day... The most important way to train for a hike is to hike!!!
posted by azpenguin at 3:21 PM on April 21, 2016

This is a bit non responsive to your question, but definitely be sure to read Wild and A Walk in the Woods to get you in the mood.

Both answer the "What would happen if I did zero prep for this trip" scenario.

Wild, both book and movie versions have some very sad parts. Bryson's book is consistently uplifting but haven't seen the movie.
posted by soylent00FF00 at 5:11 PM on April 21, 2016

If you like gamification, you might enjoy Fitocracy, which is a free site that lets you track your hiking by time, distance, terrain, and weight of your pack. You'll get points (which are almost but not entirely made up) for doing more of those things. You can also follow people who doing hiking, or encourage your friends to join and give each other "props" for workouts. No, I'm not making that up, it's pretty bro-centric but you don't have to use the social aspects if you don't want to.
posted by wnissen at 5:19 PM on April 21, 2016

Depending on the terrain of your hike it might be a good idea to practice walking on uneven ground. There are a lot of small foot/ankle/leg muscles that will benefit from that.

Good luck on your hike I'm so (jealous of) happy for you!
posted by rip at 9:03 PM on April 21, 2016

We prepared for our last backpacking trip by doing our normal workouts and hiking on weekends with packs and finding the most vertical hikes we could locally. It wasn't enough - nothing is that vertical here and the trip was to the Grand Canyon. But hiking with weight in the pack you plan to backpack with will help. Dayhike with 10 pounds and up it a few pounds every week. Lots of core and leg work.

I started working with a trainer about 5 years ago to get in shape for a different backpacking trip after years of being reasonably fit but not that level of fit. It's been helpful - I still work with him. Mix of strength training, cardio and flexibility will all stand you in good stead.
posted by leslies at 5:26 AM on April 22, 2016

I used GORUCK's six-week training plan to get in shape for hiking, with decent results. Hiking and rucking are not all that different.
posted by culfinglin at 10:03 PM on April 25, 2016

Or get Six to Start's The Walk
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:47 AM on May 9, 2016

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