Eric Lubell | 06.28.2017

People who think about going backpacking for the first time commonly look for the most convenient training opportunity, which is very often a set of stairs. Be it in their house, their business, or a local park, stairs can be found everywhere. With stairs, the most we typically carry up them is our body weight. Immediately loading a backpack with 25 to 50 pounds is a strain on the shoulders, back, hips, knees, ankles, and even the feet. There are a lot of things you can do to help ease the transition and get prepared to make your first backpacking excursion a success.

Successfully implementing a training program on stairs is multi-faceted, and the following items and tips should be remembered throughout your training:

  1. Start small and increase the weight incrementally, no more than seven to 10 pounds per week as long as you are getting two to three sessions in per week. It doesn’t matter if you are interested in taking up hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, trail running, or any other type of physical exercise; with any new exercise routine, you should work into it incrementally to help avoid the potential for injury.
  2. Get a pack with a hip belt similar to something you would wear mountaineering or backpacking, and make sure it fits you correctly. There are sizes, and just like with shoes, a poor fit can cause problems. A pack can help distribute the weight and load it onto the body efficiently.
  3. Make sure to try and distribute the actual weight in the pack. One 50-pound weight at the bottom of the pack is not nearly as good as actually loading the pack with gear to be as representative of the actual load for your trip as possible. So, use your tent and your stove and all that other gear, supplementing as necessary (gallons of water and bags of rice work really well) to get up to the desired weight. With the total weight, definitely aim to practice with a heavier weight than the goal weight for the trip. Practicing with more will help the load feel lighter when it matters most.
  4. Try to supplement stair workouts with similar training on local trails at least once per week if at all possible. Remember that while stairs provide a convenient workout, they are only a rough approximation of walking up the side of a mountain. There are few variations in the terrain, and the steps are generally identical in height and width, two things that are very uncommon in the natural world. As an added bonus, your local hikes are probably a lot more scenic than the local stairwell!
  5. Scour Outdoor Project and reach out to your friends or local outdoor groups about where you can get some good practice. You don’t need a giant mountain to train on; any path of a quarter mile or so with a slope of 10% to 25% should suffice. You may have to do several trips up and down, but just getting out on the trails - no matter how short - will help keep your training on point.
  6. Remember that training for the downhills is just as important! Gaining strength and stability for downhill portions is critical for completing long trips without burning out your quads or stressing the knee joints too much, which can result in discomfort.
  7. Finally, it’s important not to be in pain. Being sore is okay, but being in pain is not. Don’t be afraid to ask for help; a session or two with a qualified professional (personal trainer, physical therapist, sports chiropractor) may be all you need to learn some appropriate exercises that can help alleviate the consequences of typical lifestyle - which includes sitting at a desk all day and not getting up and using your body enough.
  8. Need some ideas? If you are anywhere near the Columbia River Gorge in the Pacific Northwest, head out to Dog Mountain. With three different routes to the summit, Dog Mountain offers an excellent training opportunity. Closer to the Rockies? No problem, head for the quaint town of Manitou Springs Colorado and seek out the old cog railway route. The Manitou Incline is a strenuous stair workout with a bailout point at the half way mark and the ability to take a trail down from halfway or the top. If you live in a predominantly flat area, look for highway overpasses or sports stadiums; they may be your only option for some vertical gain. Finally, keep the end goal in mind.  Maybe you want to take a crack at circumnavigating Mount St. Helens via the 30-ish mile Loowit Trail. The views will take your breath away, but the hills shouldn't!


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