The Hiking-Free Hiking Workout
April 30, 2007 12:48 PM   Subscribe

How can I get in shape for backpacking when I don't have time to backpack?

I'm in my first year of grad school, studying madly for a huge exam in June. I want to celebrate finishing my huge exam by backpacking for a week or so. But for the next few months I will be chained to my desk except for about 30-45 minutes per day. What kind of non-hiking exercise can I do to prepare for backpacking?

Background: I'm a pretty experienced backpacker, but I've never really trained - I just have gone and expected the first few days to hurt. I have access to a gym, but much prefer to be outside. I hate running with the fiery passion of a thousand suns, but like walking, swimming, biking, etc.
posted by ilyanassa to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
do you live in an apartment building? or multi-story building? then load up your textbooks into your backpacking backpack, add a few bottles of water (tightly sealed) and get climbing those stairs. go up 10 stories, go up 20, then 30, then 40. Then walk back to your dorm room / apartment and rehydrate.

Repeat 5 days a week. as your endurance increases, increase the number of books, water bottles and stairs.

Morning - go for a long walk. Evening - another long walk.

Backpacking will not be as much of a strain if you train for it beforehand - the hardest two factors are distance, and elevation gain. "time on feet" will be dealt with via your morning and evening walks, and elevation gain / loss will be trained for using the backpack-in-the-stairwell method.

An anecdote: a local friend was training for Everest in the local Vancouver mountains. He loaded up his backpack with 6 gallons of water, then climbed up Mt Seymour three times during each training day using full gear and mountaineering boots, not snowshoes. This means a lot of post-holing into fresh (or melting) snow. A tough day outside, he trained both his physical and mental endurance this way.
posted by seawallrunner at 1:06 PM on April 30, 2007

I concur with seawallrunner, get thee to some flights of stairs. Walk up, walk down, walk up again taking them two at a time. Repeat for as long as you have time.
posted by OmieWise at 1:25 PM on April 30, 2007

Stairs are excellent.

Also, can you walk to school, stores, any other place you might drive? With a full backpack.
posted by MtDewd at 1:46 PM on April 30, 2007

It is a very rare grad student who sustains the sort of schedule you are proposing (study for what, 12 hours a day, plus 8 for sleeping, plus a few hours for bathing, eating, etc). In reality, one reads a bit, procrastinates a bit, reads some more, meets friends for coffee, and so on -- there are just limits on most people's ability to concentrate for long periods of time, day after day. So my guess is that if you made "get in shape" a serious goal, there is plenty of time in your day to make it happen, without seriously impacting your study schedule. I'd even go so far as to propose that adding the structure of a serious fitness routine would lead to greater efficiency in preparing for your exam (but ymmv, and if it isn't working you had better figure that out before you get past the point of no return...).
posted by Forktine at 2:39 PM on April 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine who planned to hike Kilimanjaro prepared by walking to work, 3 (hilly) miles each way, every day, regardless of the weather, thus combining his commute with his workout. Might that work for you?
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:39 PM on April 30, 2007

Where are you going? How long will you be wearing your pack every day? I've done the backpacking thing a bit, and my longest trip was about a month. The best advice I can give you isn't about exercise, but about the contents of the pack: pack light! Backpacks have a way of getting (subjectively) heavier as the day goes on. Take the absolute bare minimum. Before the trip when at home, you've finished packing, you put it on to test out the weight, do this: imagine it ten pounds or so heavier. That's what it'll feel like after a full day of wearing, taking it off, putting it on, you're hot, you're hungry, you're tired. Even the bare minimum for a week can be a lot, so plan carefully.

As for afterwards, a good massage will rock your world. I was in Thailand, which is famed for its massages, and they know how to work out the kinks in crazy Westerners' muscles after extensive backpacking.
posted by zardoz at 7:02 PM on April 30, 2007

I can agree that you need to pack light. But more importantly, invest in a good backpack and learn how to pack it properly. This can ease you shoulders and back along the way. Which increases your endurance. Also, as much as it is important for you to understand lightness, look up some of the many old Mefi answers about what to pack. Even as an experienced backpacker, you can always learn more. As you should know, you will get tired if you do not eat right, making your journey very difficult. As for the training part, 20 minutes of running each morning is not that bad. For you I recommend biking for a medium to hard 20, since you hate running so much. Strengthening your core with sit ups never hurts since they can make up for other muscles. Do it in the morning and you will have even more energy. You will be up and down with the sun when you are backpacking anyway.
posted by thetenthstory at 8:56 PM on April 30, 2007

Well, if it hurts the first few days maybe your mileage plan is too aggressive or your pack doesn't fit right. Swallow your pride, lower your mileage plan for the first couple days, lighten your load and get thee to a proper outfitter beforehand.

Or not, if you're a lunkhead like me. Whatever. Either way you should be climbing stairs.

Climb stairs. That's not just Mr. Naturally-Unathletic here saying it. That's the thru-hiking triathletes, runners and bikers I met on the AT. They all trained before their trip. All had like zero to minus-five percent body fat. And they all said the same thing: "I wasted my time running/biking/swimming; I should have been climbing stairs instead."

Don't kill yourself for the first week or two; focus on doing it every day but if you're hurting after a rough day after take the next day off (one only!) and slow things down the day after. Work your way up to it but by the end of training week two your pack should be fully loaded at projected set-out weight.

An overnight shakedown or long, fully-packed day hike won't hurt if you have the time for it. Climb some stairs on the way out. And after you come back. Yeah, I guess you could swim or bike. But if you only have 1/2 hour/day to train, spend that climbing stairs. Forget about the swimming and biking. Climb stairs. Wear your pack, the boots you'll be using and your sock configuration of choice, so you can get used to swinging those clodhoppers and sort out fit issues before the big week. Climb more stairs.

Walk instead of drive whenever you get the chance; that'll be good too. And then climb some more stairs. If you go to the mall, park on the roof and skip the elevator (mechanics getting down and back up are left as an exercise for the reader.)

Really, more than anything else, you want to be climbing stairs. If you use trekking poles, bring them along on your training and work on your downhill speed, balance and smoothness. It would be best if you kept the poles in the attic so you could climb some more stairs when you have to get them.

I guess my opinion's pretty clear. Yeah, you'll look like a dork training but you will seriously, totally thank me when it's all done.
posted by Opposite George at 10:51 PM on April 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, and pacing is more important than perceived effort here. You want to adopt a pace maybe just a hair over what you think you could maintain for at least an hour without stopping. It might take a couple weeks to get good at judging what that pace is, and it will increase over the course of your training. If you're consistently totally exhausted after 30 minutes, you're pushing too hard.
posted by Opposite George at 10:59 PM on April 30, 2007

Thank you all for your advice. Stairs and situps it is. Sadly, walking to work is not an option, since it's 12 freeway miles.
posted by ilyanassa at 10:22 AM on May 1, 2007

Well, I'm no fitness expert, but do you really need to train much? I'm in ok shape, not great (26 yrs old), and go on backpacking trips every once in a while. Last summer I did a 14 day trip without doing any training, and the first day or two were tough but it got better. Pacing is important, take breaks, drink a lot of water, eat lots of calories, and have a blast!
posted by ORthey at 11:20 AM on May 1, 2007


You raise a good point but I think stair training might be a good thing for ilyanassa. (IAmABackpackerButNotAPhysicalTherapistSoWeightThisAdviceAccordingly.)

Maybe for a mellow hike you don't need to train but I suspect when she does things she does them big (sorry to talk about you in the third person, ilyanassa!) There are hints to this in the OP but mostly it's because she complains of pain on the first several days of each outing. That sucks, and if you only have a week that blows like half the trip. There are several reasons this might be happening but the most common ones are inadequate conditioning, improperly-fitting gear and exhaustion due to overaggressive mileage expectations.

She likes to bike and swim but even if her cardio conditioning is already pretty good backpacking uses all sorts of muscles in ways no other activity does. Stair training while geared up for the hike will get her back, abs and legs used to the load (even if her ultimate trip is mostly flat) alert her to gear issues before go day, and if she's analytical about it should give her a decent idea of what kind of vertical speed she can expect on a decent trail.

As for the mileage thing; the stair climbing builds a foundation that'll make it easier to enjoy the trip without feeling rushed, and this takes a few weeks. She'll get to know her body better and be better able to meet her distance expectations when she hits the trail. This all buys trip flexibility and decreases the likelihood she'll get stuck night hiking or bad weather hiking in an attempt to stick to her itinerary. Hiking is very safe, as long as you don't force yourself to do it when you're tired or stressed. And getting used to going downhill with a pack is tough. Better to take one's lumps in civilization than out on the trail.
posted by Opposite George at 3:21 PM on May 1, 2007

I know I'm checking in really late, but let me recommend the crossfit program. It's an all around fitness program, and of everything I've tried, it's far and away the best at creating a well rounded fitness base. You will get stronger, increase your cardio capacity, and increase your muscular endurance. It also has the distinct advantage, for you, of short, intense workouts. You get in the gym, suffer, and are gone in under an hour, always. The workout itself is often in the 20 minute neighborhood. If I were you, I'd maybe do 3 days a week of stairs, and 3 days a week of crossfit.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 10:54 AM on May 2, 2007

Heh, Opposite George, you have me pegged. My usual soreness is indeed a combination of all three, caused by a deadly combo of laziness, cheapness, and pride. I used to have to climb mountains every day for work (really! best job ever!) and still like to pretend I'm in that kind of shape when I'm really, really not.

ORthey, if I had more time to be out on the trail, I probably wouldn't train. But I want to maximize fun for all seven days and not waste time gasping or being too slow.

HighTechUnderpants, thanks for the recommendation. I much prefer my suffering in small intense packages.
posted by ilyanassa at 4:33 PM on May 2, 2007

I used to have to climb mountains every day for work (really! best job ever!)

Do tell, what was that job and how can I get it?

And yeah, the falling-into-the-glory-days-trap thing is too, too there for me as well. I'm somewhere between 60 - 75% of where I was when I was in real hiking shape, and it's hard to admit that when you've got miles and vert on your mind.

Have a blast with this thing!
posted by Opposite George at 7:05 PM on May 2, 2007

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