I never considered myself the type of person who goes to the gym to do exercises. Actually, I used to look down spitefully on those people who woke up at 6am to run on the treadmill before heading into work. In retrospect, I realize that my spite was mostly envy. The other part of the spite was denial, because I knew that I needed to get a lot more active. My semi-frequent backpacking adventures aren’t enough to keep me in shape!
Joining a gym turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done.
- I cured my insomnia
- I learned that I have mild scoliosis (thanks to a trainer who noticed)
- I have tons more energy, despite using lots of energy
- I get a lot less moody.
Another thing that going to the gym has given me is peace of mind. As someone who goes wild camping and backpacking with my preschool-aged daughter, I need to be able to carry her to safety if something should happen. Going to the gym has given me enough muscular strength that I’m confident I could carry her for at least a few kilometers.
What Exercises Do Backpackers Need?
I’m not going to try to round up every single exercise for backpackers. There is too much variance in backpacking style and individual problems. However, we can make some general statements about which muscles backpackers, common backpacking injuries/pain, and how to fix these.
Posture Exercises for Backpackers
Issue 1: Upper Cross Syndrome
When you are carrying 30+ pounds on your back for long distances, your back muscles get tired quickly. As a result, a lot of backpackers have a tendency to lean forward and develop Upper Cross Syndrome (UCS).
Leaning forward transfers the load from the muscles onto the spine. In the short run, it is easier to carry a heavy load this way. In the long run, you risk damaging your spine!
- Upper back pain
- Shoulder pain
- Slipped discs!
With UCS, the muscles around the shoulder blades are weak. The muscles around the neck are overused. To fix UCS, you need to strengthen the weak muscles and stretch out the neck and chest muscles. Exercises include:
- Face pull exercises
- Seated row exercises
- Isometric front-neck exercises
- Back fly with band
- Shoulder external rotation
- Real-delt row
- Neck and chest stretches
Here is a good video with exercises for Upper Cross Syndrome.
Issue 2: Sway Back
Alternatively, some backpackers let the pack weight pull their back backwards and their hips forward, causing sway back. As a result, the leg and glute muscles end up doing a lot more of the work. The hip and core muscles get weak.
- Lower back pain
- Stiff back
- Tight hamstrings
- Slipped discs
With sway back, you need to strengthen the core and release the hip flexors. Exercises for this include:
- Coccoon exercise
- Exercise ball pull-in
- Hanging leg raise
- Scissor kick
The video below shows some good exercises for fixing sway back.
Functional Exercises for Backpackers
Backpackers especially need types of exercises known as functional exercises. These exercises are designed to mimic the body’s natural movements and get all muscles working together in sync.
The benefit of doing functional exercises for backpackers is that they help you develop better stability. Better stability means fewer sprains and injuries from falls. These exercises will help you master uneven terrain!
Examples of functional exercises for the core include:
Functional exercises for the legs and feet include:
Hip Flexor Exercises for Backpackers
A lot of people don’t even know what their hip flexors are, nevertheless that they need to exercise them.
The hip flexors are muscles located deep within the front of the hips. They connect the legs, pelvis, and abdomen. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to climb or go up stairs. Because many of us spend so much time sitting, the hip flexors tend to shorten.
Tight hip flexors causes a muscular imbalance which results in lower back pain.
If the hip flexors get weak (as they often do), then you can have problems like poor stability which results in injury.
Because of their location, it can be a bit tricky to stretch or exercise the hip flexors. However, here are some options:
Leg Exercises for Backpackers
Not surprisingly, backpackers need strong leg muscles in order to cover all of that uneven terrain. It isn’t just all the walking that makes leg exercises important for backpackers though. The heavy pack load can cause our feet to dig into the ground differently, or small muscles to work harder to maintain stability.
It is the downhill stretches that really take a toll on your quads. You can try exercises like downhill lunges for strengthening quads.
Hamstring Exercises: When hiking on soft ground while carrying a heavy pack, your heels will sink further down and cause strain on your hamstrings. The tension in your hamstrings pulls on your lower back, resulting in pain. To get stronger hamstrings, try rolling chair walks, clean deadlifts, or lying leg curls.
Abductor and Adductor Exercises: Even though most of the movements we make while backpacking are frontwards, there are still a lot of tiny side-to-side movements which occur. For these movements, we need to use our abductor and adductor muscles. Exercises for them include: Pilates leg circles (for strengthening abductors) and Ballet plie exercises (for strengthening adductors).
Gluteal Muscle Exercises: Your butt muscles are what put power into your stride. A lot of the exercises for your gluteal muscles will also exercise other muscles, so it is win-win. Try: hip thrusts and glute bridges, barbell squats, goblet squats, and back extensions on a roman chair.
Don’t Forget to Stretch!
If you are feeling a lot of back or leg pain after backpacking, it might not be an issue of strength. A lot of times, it is just that you failed to adequately stretch.
Without proper flexibility before you start backpacking, your joints and muscles will be stiff. You won’t get the full range of motion and can experience pain or injury.
Also don’t forget to stretch after you finish your trek. Why? Because stretching allows you to elongate your muscles to reestablish their proper resting position.
It is All About Balanced Training!
Another issue that causes pain while backpacking is uneven strength training. It won’t do you any good to have super strong pectorals if your back muscles are weak (or any other combination of strong/weak muscles).
You might not want to pay for a personal trainer for the rest of your life. But I would recommend paying for a few sessions with a personal trainer in a gym so you can get insight to whether your training regimen is balanced.
Resources for this article:
“Upper crossed syndrome of the shoulder a” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by sportEX journals
Anterior hip flexor muscles, by Beth ohara (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Beth_ohara&action=edit&redlink=1), CC BY-SA 3.0
“Backpackers” (CC BY 2.0) by DenaliNPS