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Guide to Building Core & Leg Strength

Imagine walking 30 miles over a few days. No big deal, right? Now imagine walking 30 miles over a few days, with 30 pounds on your back. That’s backpacking.

There is nothing more peaceful than carrying everything you need on your back and just heading out to where other people just don’t go. The natural world. The quiet. The stars at night. The right backpacking trip is emotionally and spiritually rejuvenating. But it can also be a leg and back killer if you’re not prepared.

When you’re spending days lugging your pack up and down hills and over uneven terrain, leg and core strength are as critical as cardiovascular health. Spending the time getting your body ready, as much as buying the right pack, boots, and clothing, can make your journey out into the wilderness more enjoyable.

To get you ready, here are some simple tips to build your leg and core strength to keep you strong and injury free on your backpacking trip.

Set a Schedule

Being in “backpacking shape” is different than your everyday fitness, and it takes time to achieve it. If you want to go on a 5 day backpacking trip, give yourself 8-12 weeks to work up to the fitness level you need. Dedicate time to it. Schedule your workouts and prioritize so you don’t miss them. Three to five days of mixed interval cardio per week, combined with two or three days of appropriate resistance training for your legs and core, training hikes, some yoga and an occasional rest day will get you there.


We’ve talked cardiovascular training before (link to cardio article). The secret to cardio training is mixed intensity workouts, combining long and slow walks, moderate steady runs, sprints, and hills. You need between 30 and 60 minutes a day, at least, and don’t be afraid to add some biking and swimming for some change of pace. The idea is to think backpacking. Go hard for 90 seconds – as if you were cruising up a steep bank – then bring it down to normal for a few minutes. Repeat. And definitely add some weight to your workouts to increase our leg strength. You’re going to be carrying a pack out there, so get ready for it.

Resistance Training

Cardio training builds endurance. Resistance builds strength. And you’re going to need strength. Think about it. You’ll be carrying between 30-40 pounds of gear, lifting it up and down, hiking up hills, and bending and picking heavy things up off the ground. Add a couple days of resistance training to your slower cardio days to make sure you build the necessary core and leg strength. Some of the key exercises for your legs are walking lunges, step-ups, side lunges, calf-raises, and bear-hug squats (squats while hugging your pack or holding a weight). Combine those into three sets of 10 to 20 each to blast the quads, hammer those glutes, and more of those ubiquitous gym-rat terms.

Then we hit the core. Yes, your core is just as important to give you improved balance and stability while carrying a pack. Simple push ups (some with your pack on for a rude awakening) as well as various plank poses are awesome, including elbow to tow and walking planks. Side forearm planks – on your forearms and elbows – with hip raises are some of the best for total core training. Hold your plank poses for at least 30 seconds and build your sets with 10-20 reps to get proper work. The more you work your core, the stronger backpacker you will be.
Adding weight is critical to leg and core resistance training, but don’t overdo it. Remember, your body weight counts, as does your pack. If you want real-outdoor training, stuff your gear and use your pack for all the weight lifting. It will work and you will get experience negotiating the bulk and awkwardness of the pack.

Training Hikes

Work your cardio and resistance training, but nothing trains those legs like good old fashioned training hikes. Put your pack on and go out for day hikes every other week or so. Increase the weight in the pack, the distance, and the elevation each time you go out to build intensity and real-world experience. Add these to your plan, and use your gear as weights while you work out, and you’ll be in the best backpacking shape of your outdoor life.

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