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Ask Me: How Should I Train to Get in Shape For Backpacking?

Ask Me: How Should I Train to Get in Shape For Backpacking?

Hi Mike,

I came across your blog while I was researching information for a trip I’m planning for this summer, backpacking in Grand Teton National Park from Granite Canyon to Paintbrush Canyon: 53 miles over five days. Have you done this hike? I was looking for some advice on preparatory training and wondered if you had any thoughts. I walk every day and plan to do Old Rag and other hikes in the Shenandoah Mountains carrying some weight in my pack. Do you think this is enough?

I have hiked a great deal in my life, mostly in the White Mountains in N.H., and a good portion of the Appalachian Trail in MA, but it has been many years now. I’m 45, in relatively good shape, but am really looking to train and condition for the trip in late June/early July. I walk a lot, but am certain that I need to do a lot more in order to be ready for this hike.

Any advice or thoughts are welcome! I think I am starting to worry that it will be too much.

Thank you,
Julie
Washington, D.C.

Hi Julie,

North Fork of Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.

North Fork of Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.

You’re planning a great hike. I have hiked, backpacked, and climbed all over the Tetons; you can see a menu of my many stories and photos about Grand Teton National Park, including my stories about backpacking the Teton Crest Trail (lead photo, above) and backpacking from Death Canyon to Paintbrush Canyon with my family, and an Ask Me post offering advice on backpacking the Teton Crest Trail (you’ll walk part of it on your trip). I’ve backpacked and skied the Granite Canyon area and all the way south to Teton Pass, too.

You’ll find some useful training tips in my story offering advice on how to hike longer days. You could follow a more moderate program than what I prescribe in that story and still be in shape for a backpacking trip of 10-mile days in the Tetons, or in most national parks, where trails are often well-constructed and built at a grade amenable to horses and pack animals, which means not too steep. I’ve hiked extensively in the White Mountains and across Massachusetts (I’m from Mass. and I authored a hiking guidebook to New England for about 10 years.) You’ll find that trails in the Tetons are not as steep or nearly as rocky as in the Whites. But, of course, the higher elevations and hotter alpine sun will affect you, and to what degree they will is hard to anticipate.

If you walk every day, you probably have a good base of fitness. Basically, if you exercise at least three or four days a week moderately hard, and try to get in at least a few longer dayhikes or walks around town with some weight on your back in the two to three months prior to your trip, you’ll be fine.

 

Backpacking the southern Olympic coast, Olympic National Park.

Backpacking the southern Olympic coast, Olympic National Park.

Here’s what I’d specifically suggest:
1.    Wear a daypack on your daily walks. Even putting six to 12 pounds on your back will help train your body for carrying a heavier backpack. As you can appreciate (and I can, too), past age 40, we’re a little more susceptible to overuse injuries, and carrying a backpack is hard on the body.
2.    When you can’t get outside for a training walk, hit a stair machine in the gym or walk flights of stairs.
3.    Hike mountain trails wearing a pack as many days as you can in advance of your trip, especially in the four to six weeks prior to it.
4.    Work some core exercises and strength/resistance training into your weekly routine; even just twice a week will help strengthen your core (abs and back) and large muscles like quads; those muscle groups do much of the work when you’re carrying a backpack. See what I do for core and strength/resistance exercises in this story (same as the story linked above).
5.    If possible, take a weekend/overnight backpacking trip during the month prior to your big trip, which will help train your body and provide a useful shakedown of what you will and won’t need on the longer backpacking trip.

Whenever people ask me “how good of shape should I be in to go backpacking?” my answer is: “It depends on how much you want to enjoy it.” I don’t mean that to intimidate or dissuade people, though. Based on your regular walking routine, you’ll probably do fine; I don’t think you have any obvious reason to not take your trip. If you can work in some of my suggestions above, you may feel stronger and better on your trip, and simply less whipped at the end of each day.

Lastly, make sure you have gear that fits you, especially a backpack and the right boots. Poorly fitting boots, especially, can really ruin a trip. See my “Pro Tips For Buying the Right Boots” and “7 Tips For Avoiding Blisters,” plus all of my reviews of backpacking boots and hiking shoes.

I hope that answers your questions. Let me know if I can answer any more.

Best,
Michael

Hello Michael,

I want to let you know that we completed our trip through the Tetons last Saturday. We were gone 6 days, 5 nights, and covered about 50 miles. We did end up making some changes to our route due to weather issues, but it was amazing nonetheless. I was happy with all of my gear, much of which I got from tips on your blog. My boots were especially impressive: women’s Asolo Tacoma Gv. They were great. I was also happy with my pack, the Osprey Ariel 65. So accessible and light.

At any rate, I just wanted to let you know that we did the hike and that it was well worthwhile. I appreciated your tips on gear and preparations prior to our departure. Already planning on the next adventure, possibly the Grand Canyon.

Julie

Hi Julie,

I’m delighted to hear it went so well. Congrats on knocking off one of the great backpacking trips in America. Let me know if I can answer any questions about the Grand Canyon; you can start by checking out the many posts I have about it at The Big Outside. I was there in May backpacking the Royal Arch Loop, which I’ll write about later.

Michael

In Ask Me, I share and respond to a reader question. Got a question about hiking, backpacking, gear, or any topic or trip I write about at The Big Outside? Send it to me at mlanza@thebigoutside.com, message me at facebook.com/TheBigOutside, or tweet it to @MichaelALanza. I will answer the ones I can in a post, using only your first name and city, with your permission. I receive a high volume of questions, so I cannot always respond quickly.

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About The Author

Michael Lanza

A former field editor and primary gear reviewer for Backpacker Magazine, Michael Lanza created The Big Outside to share stories and images from his many backpacking, hiking, and other outdoor adventures, as well as expert tips and gear reviews to help readers plan and pull off their own great adventures.

4 Comments

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  1. Avatar

    Hi – I had to laugh…I just finished telling my husband that I really wanted to ramp up my fitness program before we head to Glacier Peak Wilderness, because I wanted to enjoy it. And then I read this:
    “how good of shape should I be in to go backpacking?” my answer is: “It depends on how much you want to enjoy it.”
    Great blog. We are finding it very useful and inspiring as we plan our first BIG trip in a few years.

    Reply
  2. Avatar

    Hey, Mike –

    Great blog. I’ve recently discovered it, and I’ve enjoyed perusing through your content.

    I’m planning a similar trip for the 2nd week of July except we’ll be starting at Death Canyon instead of Granite Canyon. We’ll be crossing Mt. Meek Pass, Hurricane Pass and Paintbrush Divide. GTNP says that travel through these areas anytime before August “may require an ice axe and knowledge of its use”. My experience is limited to backpacking and trekking. Does one need mountaineering experience/training to hike the Teton Crest Trail during July? Obviously we can’t predict mountain weather, but I’m just curious about your experience in the Tetons during this time of year.

    Thanks,
    Kyle

    Reply
    • michaellanza

      Hi Kyle, I’ve done your exact route and variations on it many times, it’s spectacular. The park’s advice about snow travel is conservative and assumes a preceding winter and spring of fairly heavy snowfall. I think in a normal summer you’d find the highest passes safe without an ice axe by the second or third week of July. This year, though, snowfall was very low throughout the West, so I think you’ll be fine by July, though you should call the park backcountry desk a few days before your trip and check (because you could change your itinerary when you arrive, if needed).

      There are numerous helpful reader comments and my responses to them in this story about the Teton Crest Trail: https://thebigoutside.com/american-classic-the-teton-crest-trail/. Scroll down and you’ll see my responses to a reader’s question about snow in early summer. You’ll also find much other useful info about backpacking in the Tetons at https://thebigoutside.com/tag/teton-crest-trail/.

      Have fun and be safe.

      Reply

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