What Backpackers Need To Know

by | Apr 21, 2023 | Physical Health

Prepping Your Body For Backpacking: What Backpackers Need

If you are an outdoor enthusiast, you know the feeling of wanting to escape into the wilderness and disconnect from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. And what better way to do that than backpacking? There’s something exhilarating about packing everything you need into a backpack and setting out into the unknown, with nothing but the beauty of nature and your own two feet to carry you.

However, backpacking can be physically demanding, especially if you have experienced injuries in the past. Whether it’s a weak knee, a bad back, or a previous ankle sprain, these issues can make it challenging to prepare for a backpacking trip. That’s where mastering certain movements can make a world of difference.

The first step in preparing for a backpacking trip is to assess your fitness level and identify any areas that may need improvement. Once you have done that, you can begin working on movements that will help you build strength, endurance, and flexibility in the areas that are most critical for backpacking.

Here is an extensive review of everything you need to prepare for your upcoming hiking season. 

To get yourself in tip-top shape for the trails, master these movements.

1. Balance: On rocky and uneven terrain, you want to be sure your ankles are prepared to keep you upright, especially when you have a pack strapped to your back. To perform: Practice balancing on one leg eyes open and eyes closed while on an unstable surface (foam, grass, a pillow). Hold 30 seconds.

2. Lower Extremity Strength: Two basic movements should be mastered to be sure you can handle the ups and downs of the trail: Lunging and Step Downs.

a. Lunge to Stand: A lunge is a combination movement consisting of hip flexion, knee flexion, ankle dorsiflexion and a reversal of those motions while propelling yourself forward. What does this mean? It means you end up using all the muscles in your lower body to perform it. It is also a fundamental action you take while climbing up a steep hill or scrambling up a boulder. To perform: Take a large step forward, keeping the knee from wobbling side to side, pelvis neutral, and the weight in your heel. Shift your weight to the front leg, digging deeper with the heel and use the front leg to stand up, keeping your balance. Repeat on the opposite side.

 b. Step Downs: Soreness typically comes from an eccentric activity, where a muscle is contracting while it is lengthening. This is the definition of hiking downhill specifically for the quads and calves. To perform: Stand on an elevated surface (stair step or couch, if safe) on one leg. Reach your other leg out in front of you. Stick your bottom out, bend your knee. Lower your body until your foot is an inch above the ground, keeping the knee from wobbling side to side. Return to a standing position. Repeat with the leg reaching forward and to the side of the step (Anterior and Lateral Step Downs).

3. Flexibility:
The two most important areas that need flexibility are your ankles and your hips. Ankle mobility is needed to handle the uneven terrain and the climbing up/down steep hills. If you don’t have enough range of motion, you may put yourself at risk for tendonitis. Your hips need to be mobile to handle the changing terrain as well – think about the boulders you may have to hoist yourself over, you’re going to want some good hip mobility for that.

 a. Calf stretch: Start in a lunge stance and hold onto a wall, front knee bent, back leg straight. Lean into the wall, feeling a stretch in the back of the calf and move back and forth. You can also stretch the calf in multiple directions, pointing your toe in, and toe out while still moving back and forth. Do this with the back leg straight and bent (it will end up stretching 2 different muscles).

 b. Glute stretch: Sitting in a chair, cross your leg in a figure 4 position. Then, pull the knee towards the opposite side of your chest, feeling a stretch deep in the hip. Hold this position for 30 seconds, then repeat.

 c. Quad stretch: Balancing on one leg, reach down to grab your other leg so your knee is bent. Hold onto something, or steady yourself against a wall with your opposite hand. Tuck your tailbone underneath you, keep your knees together, and squeeze your glute. This should focus the stretch along the front of the thigh.

With a solid fitness foundation and mastery of these essential movements, you’ll be ready to hit the trails with confidence, knowing that your body is up to the challenge. So, if you’re ready to embark on a backpacking adventure, start working on these movements today and get ready to enjoy the beauty of nature in all its glory. Now, next is about packing for your hike! 

 Packing List For Backpackers

There are a few things to consider before strapping on a pack and hiking for miles on end, notably – What do you bring?

1. Pack Weight: First and foremost, pack as light as you can. The lighter your pack, the less weight on your joints and feet. Do you really need 3 pairs of shirts and 2 long sleeves? A good rule of thumb is about 20% of your bodyweight.

2. Wilderness preparedness: The Ten Essentials should have you prepared for any emergency you come across. If you don’t know what the Ten Essentials are, click here to read more. I make sure to have a blister remedy on hand just in case.

3. Camp shoes/sandals and camp socks: In the world of backpacking, there is endless advice on what you should bring. From personal experience, it feels luxurious to slip on some cozy clean socks and camp sandals at the end of a long day of hiking. It also gives your feet a much-deserved break from heavy hiking boots.

4. Hiking poles: I am a recent convert myself. As the years have progressed, I noticed I was picking up sturdy branches to serve as a trekking pole while on a hike. I upgraded to real hiking poles and the only downside so far is how to manage snacking with the poles. Otherwise, they have made me more confident on creek crossings, steep descents, and snowy terrain.

Fitting your Pack Properly

A well fitted backpack can take you far and let you traverse rugged terrain without causing too many aches and pains, especially in the shoulders and back. Fitting a pack has several components consisting of the hip belt, shoulder straps, sternum straps, and load lifters.

1. Hip belt: The position of the hip belt should be just at the top of the hips (iliac crest). If you place your hands on your hips, this should be the natural resting position of the hip belt. Because the pelvis is such a sturdy structure, it holds the bulk of the pack.

2. Shoulder Straps: The anchor points of the shoulder straps should rest about 1-2 inches below the top of the shoulder, around the spine of the shoulder blade. If it is too high or too low, adjust the torso length or hip belt positioning.

3. Sternum Straps: Slide the strap up or down until it reaches a comfortable position across your chest, a bit below the collarbone. Then buckle and tighten. Be careful not to overtighten this strap as it may restrict arm motion or restrict your breathing.

4. Load Lifters: These are located at the top of the shoulder straps and angled to the top of the pack. An ideal angle for these is about 45 degrees from your body to the pack.

5. Continue to adjust! Experienced backpackers know that a good fit is an ever-changing thing. Sometimes it feels good to tighten the chest strap, sometimes it feels better to loosen the shoulder straps. Just keep adjusting on the trail to find your best fit.

If you’ve tweaked all of these components and the weight still remains on your shoulders, check your pack to see if it has an adjustable torso length. If it does, great! Adjust the length up or down, then go through the steps above again.

What Backpackers Need During the Trek

1. Stretching: Stretch all major muscle groups (glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves) or string them all together into one fluid motion called a dynamic stretch. Don’t forget about the upper body too – do some head tilts to stretch the upper traps and open up the chest by placing your hands on your head and reaching the elbows up to stretch the pec muscles.

2. Self-Massage: Using a blunt stick, smooth rock, a hard-sided canteen or just your hands, work into the sore muscles, spending a few minutes on particularly tender spots. I like to work on the arches of my feet or calves as they take quite a beating on the trail.

3. Ice: With your feet a bit swollen, aching, and maybe bruised, consider dipping them into a creek or lake for 10 min. Think of it as the ultimate ice bath. Go up as high as you are comfortable. Those first 90 seconds are pretty killer but once you get through it – your feet will thank you! (check your feet for leeches before putting your camp shoes back on).

Backpackers With Dizziness

Hiking in the great outdoors is something anyone can do. If you are dizzy or have been dizzy in the past, it can be a scary thing. There is uneven terrain, slippery surfaces, and hills. I’ve worked with dizzy patients who are recovering but itching to get out on the trails again. When they are safe to do so, I have the following recommendations:

1. Take a Smooth Ride: Research a hike where the road conditions are good and passable for a passenger vehicle. Depending on where you are, you can research trip reports for information on road conditions, potholes, and distance from a major highway. Odds are, the further away from civilization, the less maintained the road. The higher up the hike starts in elevation, the more likely that your drive to the trailhead will be on a windy mountain road.

2. Depth Perception & Hiking Poles: If you get dizziness that is visually induced, don’t be afraid to use a hiking pole to test the depth of a step. If you don’t have hiking poles, then a stick will do, or even just tapping the step with your foot before placing all of your weight down. This may slow you down in the long run but choosing safety first and avoiding a fall is the smart choice.

3. Focus on the Trail: Sometimes having something to focus on, rather than switching your gaze from the ground to up ahead of you and back down again can be less dizzy-inducing. This does not mean you have to forget about the views. Just make sure you have stopped moving before looking up and admiring the scenery.

4. Ask for Help/Hike with a Friend: Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Ask someone to steady you while you are hiking, or while crawling over or under downed trees. Another good safety tip is to always travel with a buddy. Being in the back-country can be dangerous. Being in the back-country when you become symptomatic? Not so great. Having a friend along can be helpful if you need help with any of the tips above.

5. Attitude: Increased stress and anxiety can worsen your symptoms so if things don’t go according to plan, take a deep breath in and out. Plans are meant to be changed. Keeping your cool on the trail and a positive (but realistic) attitude can help reduce your symptoms. Sometimes that can be as easy as sitting down, taking off your pack, and taking a moment to calm down and let your symptoms settle.

*Safety FIRST* Do NOT attempt hiking if you have not been cleared by a doctor or physical therapist. Do not drive yourself if you are not safe to do so based on your dizziness symptoms.

In conclusion, backpacking is an incredible way to experience the beauty of the outdoors and escape from the stresses of daily life. However, it is essential to prepare your body for the physical demands of backpacking, especially if you have experienced injuries in the past. By mastering these essential movements and incorporating them into your fitness routine, you can build the strength, endurance, and flexibility you need to embark on an unforgettable backpacking adventure.

Remember, preparing for a backpacking trip takes time and dedication. Don’t wait until the last minute to start training. Start slowly, listen to your body, and gradually increase the intensity of your workouts. With patience and persistence, you can achieve your fitness goals and make your backpacking trip a success.

So, what are you waiting for? Lace up your hiking boots, pack your backpack, and hit the trails with confidence. The great outdoors is waiting for you!


Vida Integrated Health in Seattle, WA 


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