Couch to Trail: A Beginner's Guide to Backpacking Fitness

Couch to Trail: A Beginner's Guide to Backpacking Fitness

As the heat of summer engulfs Hong Kong, I've resumed my weekly backpacking escapades, venturing into the great outdoors just like old times.

My nephew, fresh out of university and on the hunt for a job, has taken notice of my adventures. He is curious about outdoor life and eager to join me.

However, his university days were mainly spent indoors, glued to video games or binge-watching movies in his dorm room. My rugged treks aren't exactly beginner-friendly.

So, I've crafted a detailed plan to help him transition from couch potato to trail enthusiast, one step at a time.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, dive in and gather some valuable insights.

This guide is here to help you make the leap from sofa to summit with confidence.

Set Realistic Training Goals

However, before you start pumping iron or lifting weights at home, it's essential to pause and clarify your goals first.

This step is often overlooked but is super important for a smooth and steady training journey ahead.

If your goal is just to "get in shape," chances are that you will most likely give up before you see any real changes or hit the trails without being fully prepared.

What we're saying is, that you need to be specific about your goals based on your upcoming backpacking trip. Every trip is different, with varying distances and challenges.

So, think about it: How many days are you out there? How far are you trekking each day? What's the total climb? How heavy's your pack gonna be?

Oh, and don't forget the weather forecast. Extreme temperatures can tire you out quicker than you can munch on trail mix.

For beginners, it's best to avoid backpacking in extreme weather until you gain more experience.

Once you've got those answers, you can craft a training plan that fits you like a glove and matches the adventure ahead.

For example, if you're tackling 24 miles (38.6 km) over three days (that's 8 miles or 12.9 km daily) with a total climb of 5,500 feet (1,676.4m) while carrying a 26-pound pack (11.8 kg), you need to get ready for that exact scenario.

Instead of just telling yourself to "exercise more," you should focus on moves that prepare you for the demands of backpacking in three phases.

In the first phase, the goal is to build basic fitness and prep your body.

After that, ramp it up in the second phase by adding weight to your exercises.

Begin with a pack weighing 13 pounds (5.9 kg, 50% of your pack weight) and gradually increase it to 20 pounds (9 kg, 80% of your pack weight).

This will help you develop the strength and balance you need for your upcoming trip.

Then, During your trail-ready training, begin with day hikes covering 4 miles (6.5 km) while carrying a 20-pound pack (9 kg).

Gradually increase the distance and weight until you can comfortably carry your entire pack weight for the daily trek length while meeting the target elevation gain.

Simply put, your training should line up with the weight, distance, and elevation of your trip.

But here's the thing: we're all unique. We start from different fitness levels, have varying amounts of time, and deal with our own health stuff.

That's why a one-size-fits-all plan won't do. Our advice? Start with our plan, then adjust it to suit you perfectly.

Set Realistic Training Goals - SilverAnt Outdoors

Your Backpacking Training Plan

Now that you've got your goals set, it's time to sketch out your training program.

Remember those three phases we talked about earlier? Well, our program is built around them.

First up, let's talk about how long each phase should last—that's a question my nephew had too.

The Duration of Your Training

Based on our experience, aiming for about one month per phase, totaling three months, is ideal.

That gives you 12 weeks to shape up, push yourself, and make steady progress.

Six months is too drawn out, and you might slack off. One month isn't enough, and you risk overdoing it and getting hurt.

With a three-month plan, you've got some wiggle room. If life gets in the way or you're feeling under the weather, you can adjust without derailing your progress.

Now, let's dive into how to structure your training.

Below, you'll find a guide to tackle each month, gradually ramping up the intensity.

The key is to start easy and build up, allowing your body to adapt and grow stronger.

Each month serves one purpose: to prep you for what's next and, ultimately, for your adventure.

So, don't worry if it feels like you're not doing much at first. It's all about setting a solid foundation for success.

Month 1: Get Fit

If you're not a regular gym-goer, chances are you're not in tip-top shape all the time.

During the first month of your training plan, the focus is on building basic fitness and getting your body ready by strengthening your arms, legs, and core.

This month is about shaking off the rust in your muscles and joints and getting ready to improve.

If you've been stuck indoors for the past few months, or even a few years like my nephew, simple exercises like push-ups and squats will feel tougher than you remember.

You'll start by building strength, which will help you improve your endurance later in the program.

So, for now, swap out two days of strength training and three days of cardio each week for two cardio days and three strength training days.

If you're new to these workouts, take a look at our blog post "Training and Conditioning for Successful Backpacking" for a good starting point.

It covers everything you need to know about the physical demands of backpacking, from cardiovascular endurance and muscular strength to balance and stability.

But if you're already strong, don't spend extra time on what you're already good at.

Keep in mind, that this is the month when you feel the most soreness, tiredness, and temptation to give up.

That's why it's crucial not to push yourself too hard right away—you'll end up quitting before you even start to see real results.

Month 2: Step It Up

Now that you've laid the groundwork in the first month, it's time to kick things up a notch in the second month by adding weight to your exercises.

Increase the intensity of your workouts: lift heavier weights, cover longer distances, and focus on deeper stretches and balancing exercises.

By the end of this month, you should start to see some changes in the mirror and feel stronger each week.

While you will experience some soreness after tough workouts, don’t worry—with the solid foundation from the first month, it should fade pretty quickly.

Moreover, during this month, try to incorporate trail running and short hikes while carrying some of your pack weight.

As mentioned earlier, start by carrying 50% of your pack weight, and gradually increase to 80% by the end of the month.

The more your workouts resemble being out on the trail, the better.

If you start to feel like you're pushing too hard, dial it back a bit. It's better to build endurance gradually than to overdo it and end up needing a few days off to recover.

Remember, backpacking isn't about sprinting or even jogging—it's about establishing a regular exercise routine, rather than pushing yourself to the limit and then resting.

Month 3: Trail-Ready

Now it's time to really step up your game.

Each workout should feel pretty intense—without going overboard—and leave you feeling ready to conquer just about anything, even climbing a mountain.

This month is all about preparing you for high elevation gain, long distances, and hiking at high altitudes.

During this phase, focus less on weightlifting and more on activities that get your heart pumping.

Cardio and training hikes should be your main focus, complemented by stretching and yoga to keep your body flexible.

For more tips on cardio training, check out our blog post: "8 Techniques for Backpackers' Cardio Endurance."

Adding weight while jogging or walking is key—you should feel comfortable carrying at least 80 percent of your pack weight for several miles.

By now, you should be pretty familiar with your pack.

When it comes to distance, ideally, aim to cover roughly the same distance each week as you would for two days of your trip.

For example, if you're planning a 24-mile (38.6 km), 3-day trip as we discussed earlier, aim to cover at least 16 miles (25.8 km) per week, if not more.

As you progress, gradually work up to carrying 100 percent of your pack weight and hiking 8 miles (12.9 km) a day by the end. This will truly put your readiness to the test.

One Week Before: Relax and Recharge

But, even when you've completed the three phases, it's not time to jump straight into your backpacking journey.

You still need a week to relax and recharge before hitting the trail. It's time to ease off a bit.

But don't completely stop working out; just dial down the intensity by about 25 percent.

This way, your body stays in good shape while conserving energy for the hike.

And two or three days before your departure, stop working out altogether, except for a light walk and some stretching.

It might sound obvious, but it's easy to lose sight of your goals after a long training plan.

Now that your entire training program is complete, you're all set to embark on your planned trip with your body fully prepared.

Once you're out there, you'll find that leaving footprints in the outdoors is much more enjoyable than leaving a buttprint on the couch.

Oh, remember, staying hydrated during your training is just as important as eating balanced meals, whether you're working out at the gym, at home, or in the park.

A lightweight and durable water bottle is essential to help you stay hydrated and perform at your best.

Your Backpacking Training Plan

A Weekly Look at Your Training

Now that we've covered the entire training program, let's take a closer look at our weekly training plan.

To start with, think of it as three, two, two. That means:

Three days of strength training with bodyweight exercises like push-ups, squats, and lunges.

Two days dedicated to cardio or endurance activities such as walking, hiking, running, or swimming.

And two rest days each week. Try to space them out for better muscle recovery and energy restoration.

You can also incorporate some stretching or light yoga for 10-15 minutes daily to help with recovery on your rest days.

Oh, and don't forget to do warm-ups and stretching before and after your training to prevent injuries.

This is the basic weekly training schedule for Month 1.

Moving on to Month 2, each week consists of three days of cardio activities, two days of strength training, and two rest days.

But make sure to incorporate some of your pack weight into your exercises, starting with about 50 percent of your pack weight.

In Month 3, as it's your trail-ready month, every week should include four days of cardio activities, including two days of real hikes carrying 80 percent of your pack weight, one day of strength training with weights, and still two rest days.

And remember, as mentioned earlier, feel free to adjust the plan to suit your needs if it's too easy or too challenging for you.

A Weekly Look at Your Training


Backpacking requires dedication and focus, especially if you're not used to being active.

But with a well-planned training program, you'll be well-prepared.

In Month 1, focus on getting rid of muscle and joint stiffness, building basic fitness, and emphasizing strength training to get ready for improvement.

In Month 2, ramp up the intensity of your workouts to get stronger, and focus more on building your cardio endurance.

In Month 3, it's all about practicing hiking on the trails you plan to tackle.

And don't forget to take an extra week to relax and recharge before your trip.

Considering the whole training time isn't short, it's a good idea to have a partner with you, especially someone experienced.

When selecting gear like cookware and cutlery, as with choosing bottles earlier, prioritize durability first, then aim for lighter options.

For new backpackers, every ounce counts for a more enjoyable and safe first trip.

How far away is your first backpacking adventure? Are you feeling prepared, or are you still in training mode?

We'd love to hear your thoughts and questions in the comments below!

To your next adventure


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