Getting In Shape

A collection of rambling thoughts on training for backpacking

By Andy Johnson, 1999

Before anything else
The most important part of getting in shape for a backpack trip is by far the easiest. Just exercise. Your body will adapt best to the strain of wearing a pack and hiking in boots when it gets regular aerobic exercise. Running, jogging, hiking, walking, bicycling, walking up hills, swimming, even aerobics classes (ugh!). Many of these activities have their own counterparts in indoor gyms, such as treadmills and stair climbers, but since the focus of your life, or at least your vacation, is on the outdoors, why not train there as well?

Once our bodies are in tune from regular exercise, we also need to train specifically for backpacking. This usually means loading our packs, putting on the boots, and walking up and down the hills for at least an hour a day, several days a week, for a month or more before the trip. If you have new boots, this is the time to break them in. If your pack is new, or borrowed, this is the time to learn how to adjust it to fit correctly. The goal is to arrive at the end of the road already in shape and without concern over your equipment.

No one is immune
For many years I showed up at the roadhead without any pre-trip conditioning at all, using the same gear I had put away the year before. My youthful body and exuberance carried me through any situation I encountered. I was usually the trip leader and possessed a great deal of adrenaline, which also enabled me to stave off feelings of pain and discomfort. It was a familiar routine, and I felt right at home in it.

But as I get older, now well past thirty and approaching forty, I feel my body beginning to slow down. I am more sedentary at home, and get out to the woods less often. The past few years I've come to the roadhead with the same conditioning as always, which is to say almost none at all. However, now I am slowed by the pain, and curse myself for not taking more time to prepare. The adrenaline is still there, and gets me into camp as quick as ever, but my system is slower to respond, and the strain takes a greater toll. Also, my equipment has somehow become old and ratty. Last summer my boots fell apart. My pack straps are worn through at the hips and shoulders, and there are more rips and tears in everything. I've put this off for too long.

Basic inspection
Just like our bodies, our backpacking gear needs regular maintenance and improvement. The best time to inspect gear is before you need to use it, and your pre-trip practice hiking will alert you to any problems, especially since you probably haven't used the gear for over half a year and are now seeing it afresh. Lay everything out on the floor, with plenty of light all around. Look first at your pack. Inspect the rivets or studs that hold the cloth sack to the frame if it has one. Are any too loose, or missing altogether? Look at the place where the waistbelt attaches to the pack. Is it held on securely? Really pull and tug on it, make sure it isn't going anywhere.

Always inspect your boots before a long trip. You might find the last trip took a greater toll on them than you thought. Too often we come off a trip and are only too quick to throw our boots in the car. Always examine your boots after hiking. Look especially at the front of the boot where the sole is attached to the upper. Make sure that the sole is not loose, and is not in danger of catching on something as you walk. Trace the entire edge of the sole around the boot, looking for places where it way have come loose from the upper. If you see this, take the boot to a cobbler who can use the right cement or stitching to fix it. If the boot has leather seams along the sides or at the back, be sure that these are firmly bound by the stitching. A common problem is for sharp rocks to abrade the stitching and leave the seams flapping in the wind.

Check for leaks
Something really fun is to test the tent for leaks. Hot cinders from a campfire can melt a hole in your tent, and sharp sticks and shrubs can poke small holes, even through ripstop nylon. Set it up in a yard or on some grass, with the rain fly attached. Get inside and have someone mist it with water from a garden hose. Have your friend keep the mist heavy and steady, so as to simulate a strong downpour. Look all around for leaks on the sides or puddles coming up from below. You'll be happy you checked before the big storm on the third night out! You can buy sticky ripstop nylon tape that is just about perfect for these kinds or repairs.

Arranging the pack
Before you set out for practice hikes, pay special attention to how you weigh down the pack. I used to throw lead weights in the bottom, but the pack then became very sensitive to shifting movements, and it never felt right. I've learned it's much better to load it with items similar to what I would take on the trip. Lots of clothes, some water, you can throw in some books, like that. Bags of rice are excellent. The idea is to have your pack completely filled, to approximate as closely as possible the placement of weight you are likely to have on the trip.

Once you're ready to set out the door, weigh the loaded pack. Start light, around 25 pounds, and work up to 35 pounds. There is little point in carrying more, you'll only wear yourself out. If you can carry 35 pounds with ease, no complaints even on long hills or stairways, adding five more at the roadhead will not tax you very much.

It's all uphill from here...
As you walk out the door, head for the hills, wherever they are. If you live in Florida, this will mean walking to the nearest three story building and walking up and down the stairs. If the stairs are on the outside of the building, enjoy the view. If you live in San Francisco, simply walk up the street and turn uphill at each intersection. Have lunch at the top, and find your way back down. Are there sand dunes nearby? Try walking up the dunes and you'll soon build tenacious leg muscles. Any kind of loose terrain will help you prepare for cross-country hiking, where your next step may be less secure than the one you're leaving.

As you walk, pay no attention to people staring at you. Pay attention to your feet, they'll be telling you how the load feels. Same with your back and hips. If something hurts, stop and readjust the load, check the pack straps, and tighten the boots. Make sure that the load in the pack has not shifted to the left side. Or the right side. The main thing here is to do all this walking with the pack on. Half the battle is learning to feel comfortable with all that weight on your back, constantly trying to pull you over backwards.

The Reward
The culmination and reward of your training will be the first day on the trail. You'll take your share of the commissary, heft your forty pound pack on your sturdy back, and find yourself at the front of the pack, enjoying the view. In addition, you'll actually have some energy left when you get into camp. Once you drop your pack, you'll be jumping at the chance to do some exploring on the side, while others are rubbing their aching calves.