training for backpacking

Get in Shape for Backpacking!

You’ve selected the when, where and length of your first trip. Now the REAL fun starts! While there’s lots to do before you set out, your immediate step is to start training now.

The good news is that you are about to embark on an activity pretty much anyone can do, regardless of age or experience. The bad news is that carrying a pack that weighs over 30 lbs. is tough on your body, and you need to train.

The pleasure you experience on your backpacking trip is directly related to what kind of shape you are in. In other words, the better physically prepared you are, the more comfortable your trip will be, which translates into more joy, happiness, elation, etc.

You don’t need to be an Adonis to enjoy your trip – I’m currently a little overweight and still backpacking like a champ – but like all other aspects of backpacking, you do need to be prepared. Specifically, your joints and muscles need to be capable of handling the physical demands of hiking multiple miles over multiple days, all with a heavy pack on your back.

There are countless articles, blog posts and websites dedicated to providing elaborate, detailed, intricate exercises to prep you for your trip. If you want to investigate them, by all means, knock yourself out! It certainly won’t hurt and can only help.  But many people simply don’t have the time to go all-out like that, and you don’t have to!

training for backpacking
Training hike with a half-full pack.

The simple fact is that you need to be able to walk long distances with a heavy pack on your back, so get out there and do as much hiking as you possibly can.

You should alternate between long, short, strenuous and easy hikes.  Change it up frequently.  If you like to jog, trail running is a great cross-training activity (it utilizes some different muscles and works the lungs harder).

Speaking of cross-training: cycling, stair climbing, elliptical training and rowing are also great supplemental exercises.  And if you can find the time, weight training is also super helpful and I highly recommend it.  But if all you can do is hike with weight on your back, that’s enough.

What if you live in a place without accessible hiking areas nearby?  Then walk! Walk your favorite neighborhoods, along city streets or through local parks. Find hills and walk those. Will people look at you funny if you are walking the streets of Chicago with a 35 lb. pack on?  Yes, but who cares? Most people will be curious about what you are doing and will provide you with tons of enthusiasm and support once they find out.

backpacking training city
Training hike in the city with a buddy includes the Golden Gate Bridge!

What if you live in a place that is too rainy/snowy/cold/hot/humid right now to train properly? Get a gym membership and spend time on the treadmill, stair climber and/or elliptical machine – and wear your pack at the gym! No excuses.

The bottom line is you can train anywhere in the world and it doesn’t matter if you don’t have access to big mountains.  The beauty of this hobby is that you can strap on a pack and go walking anywhere, which means training properly is always an option.

Here’s a general set of guidelines* for total newbies with little-to-no recent hiking experience and for those whom may not currently be in the best shape of their lives:

  • Start out hiking or walking just a couple of miles three times per week with little-to-no weight on your back (i.e., carrying a daypack with water and snacks is fine).
  • Every two weeks, up your mileage by one single mile.
  • When you can comfortably hike six miles at least once a week (with shorter hikes at least once a week as well), start adding weight.  Start with a 15 lb. day pack.
  • Up the amount of weight your carry by 5 lbs. every two weeks.
  • Get to the point where you can successfully carry 35 lbs. on a six mile hike at least once a week.
  • How many miles per day do you plan on hiking during your trip? Start building to where you can comfortably carry at least 35 lbs. for that many miles (i.e., if you plan on averaging ten miles per day on your trip, make sure you are semi-comfortable carrying 35+ lbs. for at least ten miles once a week or more).
  • In a perfect world, each week includes at least three hikes: one longer, but easy; one short, but strenuous; one long AND strenuous.  Be able to carry 35+ lbs. on each hike.
  • If you already know your pack is going to weigh more or less than 35 lbs., adjust your training plan accordingly.

You do not need to train every day. People sometimes think they must hike 10 miles every day, with a pack on, in order to be prepared and that’s simply not true. I don’t know anyone who has a lifestyle conducive to hiking 10 miles every day! The truth is that your body will have to do some of the adapting and strengthening out on the trail during your trip. If you can fit three days of training in per week, that’s pretty awesome!

Lastly, consider some of the helpful smartphone apps out there to help you track your progress.  Pay attention to your distance for each hike, how long it takes you to do certain distances over time (e.g., are you getting faster at that nasty, mountainous 4-miler?), and also keep track of elevation gain/loss (make sure you are doing lots of ups and downs as Mother Nature is rarely flat).

I prefer Runkeeper because it specifically includes hiking as an activity and is simple to use with tons of features (and free for the basic version, which is all you really need).

training backpacking
Resting during a HOT training hike!

When I trained for the 220-mile John Muir Trail, I started training the second week of January for an August start date.  By the time May rolled around, I was hiking anywhere from 2-5 days a week.  I carried my pack filled with all my gear (35+ lbs.) on most hikes.  One hike each week was 10 miles long or longer, and about once a week I would give my body a break and hike without the pack.

training for a backpacking trip
Feeling good on the JMT thanks to proper training.

By the time August rolled around, I was more than physically prepared for my trip! My body handled the demands of that strenuous trail much better than most people I met, regardless of the fact that I was still a little overweight.  My muscles and joints could handle it and my body and mind were used to it. Success!

Training in your running shoes is fine to start, but soon you are going to need some real hiking shoes or boots. Next up: my personal shoe shopping horror story!

*I am not a doctor nor a personal trainer! You should consult with your physician before starting any exercise program. Everybody is different and you should tailor your training program to fit your specific capabilities and needs.

backpacking planning big sur

Planning that First Trip: Next Steps

If you are just starting to plan your first backpacking trip and have been following my blog, you’ve chosen the length of your first foray and now you’re wondering what to do next.  After you decide how LONG your first trip will be, the next step is to pick WHERE it will be and also WHEN.

Where and when you hike is important for obvious and not-so-obvious reasons.  The most obvious consideration is the weather.  If you live in a cold environment, backpacking in early spring will be very cold and potentially snowy. Probably not your cup of tea (just yet)!

Another consideration is your current physical fitness level.  If you aren’t exactly in the best shape of your life and you don’t have much time to train, hiking in the Colorado Rockies, for example, might be a tad much.

backpacking planning
Planning out a recent trip.

Your first trip needs to be planned for an environment that will be comfortable for you. I live in Northern California and just completed my first trip of 2016 in March.  I don’t do snow. I knew the Sierra Nevadas and their foothills would be too cold and snowy, so I headed out to the coast of Big Sur.  The weather was quite comfortable for me there.  I also hadn’t been hiking much at that time, so I picked a trail that wasn’t too strenuous or hilly.

Backpacking beginner Ventana Wilderness
My dog carries his own pack!

I’m starting to think about my second backpacking trip of the year for in May. That one will also NOT be in the Sierras as it can (and does) snow up there through May.  I will likely pick a place more inland or perhaps further south. I can probably get away with the Sierra foothills, but I’ll need to check historical data for overnight lows to be sure my gear (and my skin!) can handle the temperatures.  And since I’ve been training a lot the past few months, I know I can handle more hills, so that will factor into my decision, too.

When it comes to backpacking locations, there are many types to choose from, from national parks and national forests to state parks and county parks as well.  There are also Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas, federal and state wilderness areas, recreation areas, etc.

For many first timers, a national park is ideal because of the awesome facilities and consistent maintenance. National parks tend to have well-maintained, well-marked trails and lots of information available online and by calling.  Alternatively, BLM areas are often more remote with less information available online and trail systems that may or may not have been maintained any time in the last 100 years.

If you are a dog owner and want to bring Fido, national parks tend to be your enemy as they are decidedly not dog-friendly and most don’t allow dogs on any trails, period.

National forests, on the other hand, are usually incredibly dog-friendly and even allow for off-leash backpacking! Always check the rules while planning your trip – don’t find out the hard way that your trip with your dog has basically been ruined.

Also, don’t hesitate to call your prospective park and talk to a ranger or other representative. I have gotten wonderful advice by calling national parks and forests for information. The people who answer the calls tend to be very friendly and have a desire to help you out. It’s not like calling the DMV!

Last year I was planning a trip for my sister and myself for May. We originally wanted to backpack out to some popular hot springs in the Los Padres National Forest, but by calling and talking to a ranger in advance, I found out it would be way too crowded and unenjoyable for us; solitude was our big priority. Without talking to that ranger, we probably would have just gone to the springs and been let down.

Backpacking Henry Coe
Solitude at Henry Coe State Park! Just what we wanted.

In addition to park websites, searching for online trip reports is a great way to find information about trails in your area.  People write trip reports after a specific trip to help inform and educate others about that trail at the exact time they hiked it.  In addition to describing the trip, they also include things like the trail conditions, water supply, hazards, difficulty, etc. To find them, simply search online for ‘trip reports backpacking [your state]’. If you already know you want to hike in a certain park, you can do the search that way – ‘trip reports backpacking [name of park]’.

Another great resource is YouTube.  There you can see videos of the places you are considering. As an example, try searching ‘Evolution Valley‘ (part of the famous John Muir Trail) on YouTube – you’ll see a ton of videos. I also like using Google Images to search for photos of places in which I’m interested. One word of advice – don’t overdo it with the videos and photos; you want some of where you are going to be a surprise!

You can also seek out local backpacking clubs and organizations in your area and consult with them. For example, the Albuquerque, NM, chapter of the Sierra Club offers weekly hikes with an experienced leader. If you live in that area, those people would probably be good to know!

Next up: Finding Fellow Backpackers!

All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware. Martin Buber


Plan Your First Trip: Find Your ‘Wa’

Time to start planning your first trip! But there’s so much to think about, where do you start?  For newbies, I suggest you start with the (seemingly) simple process of choosing how many days you will backpack as it is an important decision worthy of much consideration.

Many experienced backpackers will suggest that your first trip should be quite short, maybe one or two nights, max. I believe it’s a very personal decision and there are pros and cons to longer vs. shorter trips. It all depends on you.

Backpacking Henry Coe State Park
‘Wa’ and backpacking in Northern CA

Shorter trips give you an opportunity to get your feet wet (perhaps literally!). You aren’t committing to anything too lengthy or strenuous. After all, you don’t even know if you’ll like backpacking yet! Short trips are the way to go for many reasons and there is nothing wrong with planning a two-night trip. Plus, let’s face it – with our busy lives, that might be your only option. And finding friends to backpack with is sometimes challenging (more on that in a future post). Many people backpack alone, which has its own set of perks, so don’t count that option out for yourself!

BUT – Short trips don’t give you much time to adjust to the life of backpacking to see how you really feel about it. Just as you are starting to get used to that sleeping pad, you are back in your own bed. Just as you begin to feel you’ve mastered packing and unpacking your pack every day, you’re unpacking it at home and putting it all away.

Have you ever gone on a big vacation and noticed that it takes almost three days to really settle into it? That first day, you are usually overly excited and also tired from traveling. The second day you feel gung-ho and attempt to plan out or think through every single waking moment ahead. What beach are we going to today (you ask as soon as your eyes open)? What about tomorrow (you ask over breakfast)? Where will we eat dinner (you ask while eating lunch)? You can’t wait for tomorrow and that is detrimental to ‘living in the moment’. But right around Day 3, something called “wa” sets in.

Sunsets can induce 'wa'
Sunsets can induce ‘wa’

Wa is a Japanese cultural concept that generally means harmony. My parents taught this concept to us kids growing up when we took family vacations and my own family utilizes the concept now. Wa is what you should strive for on any vacation and Day 3 is notoriously when it seems to sink in. You know you’ve hit a state of wa when you feel settled into the day-to-day of your new (if temporary) life. You stop wondering what’s around every next corner and cease to act like a five-year-old kid in a candy store. I describe it as “sinking in”. Wa is the best part about any vacation. And wa is where you want to be when you backpack.

My dog and I find ‘wa’ by a river after a day of backpacking.

Heather and Josh Legler of the awesome podcast “The First 40 Miles” named their podcast after their shared belief that it’s not until you hit 40 miles for the first time (in one trip) that backpacking begins to feel transcendental instead of feeling like a somewhat uncomfortable chore. I agree.

After a certain point, whether it be Day 3 or 40 miles in, backpacking is revealed for what it truly is: simplicity, beauty, rejuvenation, adventure. The only way to fall in love with backpacking is to hit that point, and for most newbies it take some time to get there. Once you become an “expert”, you will fall wa faster; it won’t take three or four days anymore. Many experienced backpackers hit wa when their feet first hit the trail!

If you can swing it, I suggest a trip of more than three days. Like I wrote up top, though, it’s very much a personal choice that likely depends on a lot of factors. There’s certainly nothing wrong with choosing to do a weekend trip so you can get those feet wet. HYOH!

Next up: The WHEN and WHERE of your first trip.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. – Mark Twain

Master This Philosophy Now: HYOH!

Hike Your Own Hike (HYOH) is an overall strategy or philosophy for trail success and happiness. It’s imperative you master the concept early and remind yourself of it often.

If you go too fast on your uphills, you’ll end up like this!

Everyone hikes for slightly different reasons and everyone hikes in slightly different ways. For example, I am a stronger overall hiker than my husband, but MAN can he crank it going uphill! I realized long ago that I can’t keep up, but who cares?  Although backpacking can very much be a social activity, when it comes down to it – it’s just you and the trail. No one talks on a steep uphill grade anyway – you’re all too busy huffing and puffing!

When I try to force my husband to hike with me, I end up feeling guilty and try to hike too fast, and he ends up hiking so slowly (from his point of view, of course) that it actually makes the hill MORE difficult for him.  No one is happy (except the dog, who prefers we stick together)!

If you are backpacking with more than just yourself over the course of more than one day, there is no way you will stay exactly together the entire time. And you know what? You won’t want to. HYOH! You’ll run out of things to talk about anyhow and it will frustrate you (or even sabotage your trip) if you try to always hike the same way and pace as everyone else in your group.

If you are separated at times, each of you will experience something different along the trail, and then you can spend time telling each other your experiences at the end of the day around a campfire. Someone saw a beautiful bald eagle.  Another person tells a story about mistaking a tree stump for a bear and having a mini “freak out”. It’s fun to have slightly different experiences on the same trail! I once rolled my ankle and fell when my two hiking partners were well behind me.  Thanks to my hiking poles, I caught myself and didn’t get injured, but down I went anyhow. The 40lb pack and gravity worked against me and I landed half on my back.  If you are envisioning a turtle, you are correct! I was momentarily stuck, half on my back, rolling from side to side in an effort to create enough momentum to spring back to my feet.  No one saw it, thankfully, but it made for a great story and spirited reenactment over lunch!

If you’re slower on the downhill sections, don’t fret! If you try to go too fast, you’ll likely strain a muscle or start feeling the dreaded knee pain.  Better to go at your own pace and enjoy yourself. Nothing kills backpacking quicker than an overuse injury! I once had to sell my hiking poles to a fellow backpacker with ongoing knee pain far from civilization – he had been going too fast on the steep, long downhill sections in an attempt to keep up with his friend (and he probably hadn’t trained enough, either).

If you are on a lengthy backpacking trip, it’s OK to hike on your own for longer periods of time, perhaps even a few miles or more than an hour.  But make sure your entire group knows and agrees on the “rules” up front.  Consider things like:

  • When should the lead hiker in your group start looking for a spot for lunch?
  • On a lengthy up or down section, will the lead person stop at the very top or bottom, or somewhere in the middle?
  • Where is the pre-planned place to make camp for the night and how many miles is it from where you started?
  • How will you handle trail junctions safely to make sure no one makes a wrong turn? One way is to have the entire group meet at every trail junction and no one moves on until everyone is accounted for.  Or you can “leapfrog” it: the lead person waits for the second person at a trail junction.  Once the second person gets there, the lead person can continue on and now it’s the second person’s job to wait for the third person.  Once the third person arrives, the second person can leave, and so on.
  • What’s the plan if someone does get separated and makes a wrong turn? Always best to avoid that in the first place, but you do need an agreed-upon plan. Make sure everyone has their own map and knows the route.

If you need to snack frequently, don’t wait for the others in your group to stop for lunch.  Snack when you need to.  If you happen to be hiking alongside someone, don’t hesitate to ask them to stop with you – it’s a long day with nothing else to do but hike, they won’t mind stopping for a bit.

One last tip – don’t typecast yourself. Just because you are in the lead one day does not mean you will be in the lead the next day.  And just because you were the “slow poke” before lunch doesn’t mean the same will be true after a hearty meal (and perhaps a Snickers bar).

HYOH is a mantra to live by every day while backpacking. You will thank yourself and it will provide for a much more enjoyable experience for you and those around you.

Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.Edward Abbey

You’re Among Friends!

John Muir once said (a long time ago):

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.

What he said back then is more appropriate now than ever! People are flocking to backpacking like never before. And if you ask me, that’s a good thing. We have tough lives filled with work, family, friends, Facebook, more work, cities, bustle, crime, politics, more work and an endless bombardment of technology and advertising. Many of us are over-weight and over-worked. Some of us are overly fit but spend every possible moment in a gym, or a yoga studio, or a spin class, or in front of a workout video at home. We NEED the wilderness, just as much as the wilderness needs us!

Thankfully, our country is full of it. Whether you live in Maine or Arizona, there is wilderness somewhere near you! I’m sure if you’re reading this blog, you’ve already seen or read Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild”. Or you’ve seen Bill Bryson’s recent movie “A Walk in the Woods”. Those books and movies have made backpacking mainstream.  Why?  Because backpacking can be enjoyed by anyone. You could be nine or 90 and enjoy backpacking. And somewhere in us all resides an animalistic desire to get into the wilderness and just…be. It has a power unlike most other endeavors. It cures what ails you, both physically and mentally. It’s incredibly healthy. It fosters a sense of community. So welcome to this wonderful world you are about to enter! You will never regret it.

The Only Blog You’ll Ever Need

Welcome to The Beginning Backpacker! Like you, I was recently turned on to the hobby of backpacking and needed to research how to get started.  I found tons of blogs, but none were really what I was looking for.  I found blogs for “serious” backpackers.  I found blogs for thru-hikers of long-distance trails like the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail.  I found a lot of sites and blogs geared only towards females.  And of course there were a million sites about which gear to buy, what boots to wear and how to lighten my load. But most of these sites simply confused me more or led me in the wrong direction (repeatedly).  After months and months of researching, aggregating information and buying/returning shoes and other pieces of equipment (nine pairs of footwear in total!), I finally made it out on the trail.  Whew!

Fast forward to today and although I am by no means a professional backpacker, I have logged hundreds of miles backpacking and so many miles hiking that I can’t even keep track!  Of course there will be a learning curve for you, as is the case with any new endeavor.  But with this blog I will whittle down all of the information you really need into an easy to digest, one-stop-shop so you can get on your way to your first (and perhaps most memorable) backpacking trip! So follow along, share this post with others and get ready to embark on a journey that will lead you to a world of beauty, self-discovery, health and well-being.  Lastly, don’t hesitate to comment about what you like and don’t like about this blog.  Want something covered that hasn’t been covered yet?  Ask away!  I’ll improve the blog based on your needs and wants. Happy trails!


“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” – John Muir