Trail Friends – Strength Training for Hiking and Backpacking with Kelly Bailey of Kelly Bailey Wellness

March 31, 2019

When I first got started with CampRents, I sought out people like Kelly – established businesswomen whose jobs grew naturally out of their personalities and strengths. (And people who would let me visit their chickens.) Kelly is a certified personal trainer and certified holistic nutrition coach, and she owns and operates Kelly Bailey Wellness. Her passion is helping women find true happiness with their bodies and in their lives through a multi-faceted approach that integrates intuitive eating principles, nutritious foods, movement, sleep, and smart supplementation.

Outside of her work, Kelly is wife to husband, Mark, mom to an audacious and strong-willed 8 year old girl, and feather/fur-mom to 15 chickens, three cats, two ponies, two dogs, and one duck. She enjoys outdoor pursuits including hiking, camping, kayaking, and fishing. You can read her blog and reach out to her at kellybailey.fit.

I’m so grateful to Kelly for putting together this fantastic resource on strength training for hiking and backpacking. A 30 pound pack on your back will make you aware of your weaknesses right quick! I’ll let Kelly take it from here, and model as well:

Five Essential Strength Training Moves For Hikers

I can remember my first backpacking trip. I was excited, scared, and exhilarated…and nowhere near physically ready. I completed the 3-day hike, but I was out of breath the entire time and insanely sore. Lugging a 35-pound pack up and down hills is HARD! I enjoyed my first foray into backpacking, but I think it would have been much more enjoyable if I’d taken a little extra time to prepare physically.

Hiking and backpacking require a significant amount of both strength and cardiovascular fitness. It’s definitely important to train by actually going out and walking, preferably with some weight on your back. This will help to build your cardiovascular fitness. But walking by itself won’t help you reach peak fitness for hiking and backpacking.

A simple strength training routine will improve your balance, stabilize your joints, and prevent injury on the trail. You’ll feel stronger climbing those hills and will be less prone to common hiking injuries. Additionally, you’ll feel more energized and less sore after a long day on the trail.

If you live in Ohio, it’s still basically winter (even though it’s almost April). [ed. note: and there are currently three inches of snow outside…] So now is the perfect time to get started on a strength training program to be ready for those late spring and early summer hikes and backpacking trips!

Strength Training For Hikers: The Basic Moves

Strength training can be enormously beneficial for hikers, but I understand that spending time in the gym can be a drag. For this reason, I don’t want you to waste time doing silly exercises (like 3,000 bicep curls) that don’t give you much benefit for the time spent in the gym. The following multi-joint exercises are simple, time-efficient, and will work your entire body.

The Squat. The squat is arguably the best lower body strength exercise known to man. Squats obviously target the large muscles in your lower body. But squats are doubly beneficial because they also have an anabolic effect on the entire body. That means the hormonal response elicited by squatting can help you build lower and upper body strength!

How to: stand with feel shoulder-width apart or slightly wider and toes pointed slightly out. Pretend you are about to sit on a low bench that’s right behind you. As you squat down push your hips back and keep your weight toward the middle/back of your feet (i.e. don’t come onto your toes). Don’t let your knees come in – keep them in line with your toes. Descend as low as you can comfortably and then come back up. That’s one rep.

Start with just your body weight and perform 10 perfect reps every other day. Once you are confident that your form is correct and you can easily perform 10 squats, you can add weight to the movement by holding dumbbells or any weighted object (logs, gallons of water, and children count as weighted objects).

The Step Up. Hiking up hills or climbing over rocks requires a lot of quadriceps strength (the quadriceps are the big muscles that make up the front of your thigh), so it’s probably pretty obvious to see how a step-up can improve your abilities.

How to: start with just your body weight and a step that’s set at an “easy” height. For most novice exercisers in semi-decent health, I can start them on a step that comes to mid-shin or slightly taller. More advanced athletes can use a taller step. Place your entire foot on the step. Step up until your knee is fully extended, tapping your other foot on top of the step. Step all the way back down. You can either step back up with the same leg to complete all the repetitions on one side, or, if you are more advanced and comfortable with the exercise, you can alternate your feet to improve coordination and balance.

Perform 8 to 10 reps on each leg every other day (preferably on the same days you do squats). Once you can easily complete 10 bodyweight step ups per leg, you can either add weight by holding dumbbells, or you can increase the height of the step.

The Glute Bridge. Some of my clients feel weird doing these…like it brings them back to the Jane Fonda days of working out. But don’t skip this exercise because it works two of the largest muscle groups in the body – and the two that are often lagging in strength: the hamstrings and glutes.

How to: If you are a total beginner at strength training, begin on the floor. Lay on your back with knees bent and feet flat. Push your hips up toward the ceiling. As you push your hips up, keep your weight in the heels of your feet (i.e. don’t come onto your toes). Squeeze your butt muscles hard! Drop your hips back to the floor. That’s one rep.

Perform 12 reps every other day (preferably on the same days you do squats and step ups).

More challenging: Get into the same position on the floor as the glute bridge above, but this time lift one foot off the floor and just hover it while you use the other foot to push your hips up to the ceiling.

More challenging: Start on your back and place both feet on top of a stability ball or Bosu. Your knees should be bent at roughly a 90-degree angle. From this position, push your hips up. You can also do this single-legged once two legs becomes easy.

Strength Training For Hikers: Don’t Ignore Your Upper Body!

Despite the fact that hiking and backpacking are lower-body focused activities, I think it’s ill-advised to neglect upper body strength. After all, swinging a 40-pound pack onto your back or climbing a tree to escape a wild dog requires some upper body muscle too!

The Pushup. Pushups are arguably one of the best upper body strength exercises and are easily modified to suit any fitness level. This exercise works the largest muscles in the front of the body, including the pectoralis (chest) muscles and is excellent for core strength (it’s essentially a moving plank).

How to. Depending on your fitness level, there are three basic variations of the pushup. The following descriptions will take you from easiest to most difficult.

Wall pushups. Start facing a wall with your feet 3 to 4 feet away from the wall. Place both hands on the wall at about shoulder height and shoulder-width apart. Bring your forehead to the wall and then push back off until your arms are fully extended. That’s one rep.

Bench pushup – at the top
Bench pushup – lowered

Bench or table pushups. Using a bench or low table (like a sturdy coffee table), place both hands on the table, feet out behind you (like you’re doing a plank with your hands on the edge of the table). Lower your chest to the table edge then push back off until your arms are fully extended. That’s one rep.

Floor pushups. Start face down on the floor, heels stacked over toes, hands on the floor about shoulder-width apart, and arms fully extended. Lower your nose to the floor, keeping your body straight like a board (no saggy hips!). Push back off the floor until your arms are fully extended. That’s one rep.

Perform 10 reps every other day. You can do these on the same day you do the lower body exercises or you can do them on alternate days. Start with the easiest version (wall pushups) and work up to being able to do 10 reps of the most difficult version (floor pushups).

The Row. The row is extremely important for strengthening the back muscles, but is also the toughest exercise to perform without equipment. If you don’t go to a gym, you will need to find a weighted object or invest in a suspension trainer.

How to: There are two variations of the row that I’m going to cover here. The first utilizes a weighted object such as a gallon of water. The second utilizes a suspension trainer.

Weighted object row. Grip a weighted object or dumbbell with one hand and place your other hand on a table or bench. Keeping your back straight and body steady, start with arm extended and the weight down toward the ground. Now pull the weight back up toward your abdomen. Drop the weight back toward the ground. That’s one rep. Complete 10 to 12 reps per side, every other day (preferably on the same day you do pushups).

Suspension trainer row. Make sure the suspension trainer is attached to a secure door frame or stud. Grip the handles with both hands. Your feet will need to be forward of your body so that you can “lay back” on the handles. Start with your arms extended all the way. Now pull yourself up toward where the suspension unit attaches to the wall or door frame. Your elbows should stay in and close to your body as you complete the concentric phase of the row. Now release yourself in a controlled manner back to the start position. That’s one rep. Complete 10 to 12 reps, every other day (preferably on the same day you do pushups).

Strength Training for Hikers: Pro Tips

  • You should always check with your doctor before beginning a new exercise program!
  • Know the difference between muscular discomfort and pain. Muscular discomfort is normal and expected during exercise. Shooting pain, joint pain, popping noises, or snapping sensations are NOT. Listen to your intuition: if something doesn’t feel right, stop immediately. Get checked by a doctor before continuing.
  • If you have any kind of joint problems or other health issues that could be aggravated by exercise, seek the help of a qualified trainer (like Kelly) so that you don’t injure yourself!
  • Once certain that you are using correct form, you need to make sure you are challenging your body during each workout. Your body will stop improving if you don’t incrementally (and carefully) challenge yourself! You will know it’s time to increase the challenge when you get to the end of the rep range (i.e. you can do 10 perfect body weight squats) and it feels “easy”. At this point it’s time to add weight to the movement.
  • Commit and be consistent. Missing one workout won’t hurt your progress. But if you habitually skip workouts, you won’t see results!

I hope you enjoyed this post! Need more help boosting your fitness? You can find Kelly at www.kellybailey.fit! Thank you for reading!

Strength training infographic
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