Getting fit for backpacking

Prepare to hike.  Hike!

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could get fit for walking just by walking.  Ray Jardine has an excellent chapter on physical conditioning in Beyond Backpacking, now updated as Trail Life, which bases training largely on hiking.  I like the way he talks of building up slowly and regularly until he is comfortable carrying 35 pounds for 12 miles.  Given some of his accomplishments, this might seem modest, but his target is in the context of logging 500 miles over the 5 months before turning up at the start of a 2000 mile journey.

He also writes of the importance of training on uneven ground and suggests a little gym work for those who have no hills to train on near their homes.  Ascending while carrying a backpack is one of my few strengths.  I’m slow on the flat, concerned on scrambley bits and uncertain when descending*.  All of these attributes I owe to the miles spent cycle touring.  Cycling strengthens the thighs and helps make light work of walking up hills so there is no need to go to the gym for barbell squats on a sunny day.  Just ride a bike.

Too much of a good thing

Unfortunately, for those of a certain age, and particularly for those who have walked over all of the Munros, spent eleven months tramping in New Zealand and enjoyed several trips to the Pyrenees, overuse injuries mean that reliance on preparation solely by walking can be problematic.  Will the plantar fasciitis flare up again?  Is the scar tissue in my calf muscles going to stop me?  Will the damage to stretch receptors in my ankle ligaments caused by previous sprains contribute to another serious sprain?  In other words, will walking stop me from walking?

A lot of anything will eventually harm anyone who lacks a perfectly symmetrical body and whose performance is other than perfectly stylish, which is why getting fit to walk just by walking isn’t a great solution.  Sadly, symmetry and style are two qualities I cannot lay claim to.

Why bother?

In the Autumn I put on a few pounds while visiting friends and my BMI hit 24.9.  Another stimulus for getting some proper training done came from memories of the difficulties I had experienced starting my Kintyre to Cape Wrath hike.  I had prepared by catching shingles, moving house and failing to break in my footwear.  This meant not having a clue how far I could walk each day and so being unable to plan effectively.  Finally, when I met other walkers who had trained before starting, they made coping with the demands of the Cape Wrath Trail look far easier than I was finding it.

In a previous post, I mentioned the initial benefits of doing a few minutes of physical jerks before breakfast.  For once, I have persisted.  Improvements continue.  I used to walk like a cyclist, with a fairly rigid torso.  I feel far more fluent now even though the exercises I have been doing have little to do with walking on the face of it.  I don’t know yet whether I’ll be backpacking more effectively in the summer but I’m a minute per mile faster while running than I was in the Autumn, my BMI is down to 23.9 without dieting** and I’m in a great mood.  Even if the exercises turn out to have no value for backpacking, which is unlikely, they have already proved worthwhile.


Apps I have found valuable for workout guidance, advice on style and timers include

  • Mark Lauren Bodyweight Training
  • Adrian James Boot Camp
  • Adrian James High Intensity Interval Training
  • Johnson and Johnson Official 7 Minute Workout

Warning!  Only the last is free.  I paid for the others.  One type of app has not helped at all – yoga apps.  Their fondness for the downward dog is completely at odds with the muscle damage in the top of my calves so I’ve given up on yoga.

I don’t just do exercises!  Of course I include walking in my preparations for backpacking, although I will not reach the 500 miles recommended by Ray Jardine at my current rate of progress.  Measuring routes on maps and counting contour lines have, as the Americans say, become very old so I use apps to record walks, runs and rides.  Logging in before an app will work or having to turn off social media is unacceptable to me so I avoid MapMyAnything, Nike+, Strava and Runtastic.  Yes, I’m a curmudgeon.  The apps I enjoy using despite having handed over money are

  • iStepsPro
  • iSmoothRun
  • Cyclemeter

Crossed fingers

Note the word enjoy.  I enjoy all of this stuff.  That’s why I do it.  I’m hoping that once the walking starts, I’ll see a greater ability to cope with carrying a backpack over the hills and that I’ll suffer fewer injuries but benefits are already clear.  Most aspects of life are a little bit easier and people are accusing me of looking younger so the time and money seem well spent.  I acknowledge your right to disagree.


*Ray Jardine includes  a paragraph in Beyond Backpacking on improving balance.

**Despite their doctorates, the experts who claim exercise cannot help with weight loss are wrong.  Quantity matters and backpacking is ideal.  After all, we are the ape species which evolved to walk around carrying stuff.





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