This post is all about hiking STRONG, so that you can hike LONG.  We’ll go over a few tips on what you can do to get ready for the upcoming hiking and backpacking season.

The BEST thing about these tips, they all can be done at your home, with equipment you likely already have!!  The key piece of equipment we use is a backpack (and if you don’t have a fancy pack, a bag with shoulder straps will do).  The pack is used as a way to put 'load' or 'resistance' onto your muscles to build them up.

For the weight you really don’t need anything too fancy; dumbells, kettlebells, old stuff sacks filled with sand or gravel work well.  My favorite thing to use is either old 2 liter bottles or gallon milk jugs filled with water.

As for an easy conversion:

  • 2 Liter bottle of water weighs about 4.5 lbs
  • 1 Gallon of water weighs about 9 lbs

Or you can just use your usual kit of equipment (this is just a little bit harder to adjust weight).  A BONUS benefit, you get plenty of practice packing and adjusting weight.

TIP: if you are new to packing you want to keep the majority of the weight close to your center of mass (close to where your rib cage ends and low back begins).  Make sure cinch all your straps up and keep everything TIGHT and CLOSE.

NEXT we will go over 7 great exercises that you can do at home to improve your hiking strength and conditioning (which translates into you being able to hike longer, further, and perhaps ENJOY it more).

SQUATS:  When squats are performed correctly they are a great exercise for working your posterior chain especially glutes…and these posterior chain muscles are the POWER muscles of hiking.

Technique is crucial when doing squats.  Most folks I watch squat use poor technique with a “quad dominant” motion.  The key is getting your butt back and keeping your knees behind your toes.  For further instruction watch “Squatting Technique.” 

LUNGES:  Lunges are a good exercise for working on strong dynamic movement, working through a large range of motion.  They are also great for balance and coordination, especially when you put on a pack.  They help to develop more of your explosive power for hiking.

Similar to squats, technique for lunges should focus on working your glutes and hamstrings.  Try and keep your knees behind your toes at all times.  You can add variation form the traditional forward lunge, to side lunges.  These are particularly helpful in hiking due to ever changing nature of your walking and need to occasionally side step obstacles on the trail.  “Lunge Technique.”

CALF RAISE:  As the name implies this is obviously good for building your calves.  Your calves are an important muscle for propulsion, especially going uphill when you're hiking.  As well as dampening the forces and loads that are placed through your joints.  For those long excursions, it’s going to really help offload the stress from your joints.

Variation can be added to this exercise.  A good place to start is with both feet, then as you get better conditioning doing single leg raises.  You can also challenge yourself a little further, by going onto a step, and doing a “Negative Calf Raise,” where you actually drop below parallel.  With these Your pack is really going to want to pull you backward, so this also helps work on your upright technique.

STEP UP WITH A HIGH KNEE:  This is a really good exercise to work on single leg strength, power, and balance, as well as getting range of motion in your hips.  This is great for training for those big step ups that inevitably come during a hike.

This is performed by stepping one leg up, and drive the opposite knee up into the air, then stepping back down.  You can vary the height of your steps to challenge yourself further.

SINGLE LEG STEP DOWN:  Whereas the step up is about power and explosiveness, this exercise is all about CONTROL.  If you're like me, I can hike uphill all day long, but once I start the descent my knees and hips start getting sore and achy.  This is a great exercise to really work on slowing things down and controlling your movement.

Standing on a step, do a single leg step down...one thing you really want to watch with your knee, making sure that it is not caving in, or bowing out, or doing a lot of wobbling.  You really want to work on some good control with that knee.  Don't be afraid to take your time and go really slow and controlled with this motion.  This is a great exercise to get you prepared for the downhill portion of your hikes.“Single Leg Squat.”

SINGLE LEG BALANCE:  Now we are through with the strengthening aspects for our legs we are going to work on some balance exercises.

You can keep this really simple, or make it really complex, but we'll start with the most simple thing...with your pack on just start balancing on one leg.  From there I like to add a little bit of external movements...so start moving your leg out to the side, crossing in front...all the while you are balancing on your opposite leg.  Then leg back behind and up into the runner man.

To progress you can stand on a softer more compliant surface, such as a folded up towel, pillows, couch cushions, etc.

When starting out if you are really challenged with your balance then use a trekking pole in one hand to steady yourself, as your balance improves put less weight on the trekking pole until you can stand without it.

STANDING ROWS:  An important (and forgotten) area that adds to the endurance in hiking, and especially with backpacking is good upper body strength and conditioning…and perhaps even more importantly is upper body posture.

Probably the best exercise for this is a standing row; especially if you have a resistance band.  You can do this with or without the pack on...I like to do them with the pack on, it helps get me used to having the feel and weight of the pack.

So grabbing your resistance band, in good upright position, head up, chest out.  Start by pinching your shoulder blades together and then slowly bring your arms back.  The key to this is the pinch of the shoulder blades...I get a lot of people that they just start firing away with their arms and never really working their shoulders.

All of these principles are discussed and demonstrated in the accompanying video so make sure to check it out.

So that concludes our preparation for the upcoming hiking season.  If you have any other questions with technique, or concerns...feel free to holler at me.  Please post your favorite exercises in the comments section here or in the Facebook group.

THANK YOU and I look forward to seeing you on the trail.


Specialist Physical Therapy Clinic serving Logan and the Cache Valley Area