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It’s not easy to lug your life on your back over endless miles. Every endurance injury known to man will accost you or those you encounter along the way. Blisters, bruises, pulled muscles, shin splints, sprains, stress fractures, knee failure, even amputations, if it can be wounded – the trail will find a way.
Once I started to adjust to being a civilian hiker, I was amazed at the injuries I witnessed in the people I shared trails with. Sprained ankles are endemic to through hikers, though I seldom saw the injury while in the military; which has a great many more “hikers” and a great many more miles “hiked”. This is due to the nature of training. Like running, martial arts or any other sport, training is required to improve performance but it is also instrumental in order to avoid what are commonly called “sport injuries”.
A member of the active duty military exercises at least five days a week. Pushups, sit ups and flutter kicks accumulate with mind numbing repetition while 12 mile road marches wear down boots and build calluses. Even those who struggle with the routine are healthier, stronger and less prone to injury than their civilian counterparts.
Most non-professional hikers are frequent walkers who rely on the trail for conditioning, starting with 8 mile days and working up to 15 mile days as their journey progresses. Few that I have encountered follow any real off-trail exercise regimen. Not viewing hiking as the sport that it is, many fail to stretch or warm up before setting out on the trail, opting instead to move directly to a dead lift of their 40-60lb sack which they lurch onto their shoulders dropping it onto their backs. Later that day, they blame hills and potholes for sore backs and cramping calves.
I personally do not follow a military exercise cycle anymore, although I still recognize its benefits. Every morning, I stretch lightly and do a few dozen pushups and sit ups. In town this is a great way to feel like you deserve that shower and in the woods it can be a literal warm up, calming chilly fingers as you try to light your stove to make oatmeal or coffee. Throughout the morning, I do a lot of stretching while tearing down camp. Butterfly stretches while rolling my sleeping pad and packing my bag, stretching my back and legs while pulling stakes. The contortions lend a sense of ritual and focus to the mundane and common tasks of tearing down and I’m convinced it’s why I don’t loose tarp pegs. Prior to picking up the pack I do a quick round of leg, back and shoulder stretches just to avoid possible pulled muscles or simply sore ones later.
When I’ve got the calories to burn (i.e., extra food in my pack) I will often run the flatter and broader sections of a trail. I jog at a relaxed pace, letting the inertia of the pack propel me forward. After a while of this, you learn a half squatted stance that removes almost all shock from your knees and ankles allowing you to glide steadily along at a calm double time for surprising distances, I’ve heard it compared to a South American gait. I merely jog like this until winded then return to my normal pace until I feel rested. If I’m inclined and the trail is good, I’ll do this off and on all day. The added blood flow helps relive aches that have settled in underneath my shoulder and kidney pads and pumped muscles make the pack seem lighter afterwards.
Do not run down hill. The only way to do what I’m talking about does not allow for you to slow yourself and any downhill running with a pack requires you to break with each step, putting incredible amounts of direct stress on leg joints and bones. Uphill is fine if you feel up to it however and I find it makes arduous climbs at least shorter in time if not in distance and inclination. And yes, the argument can even be made that you should own nothing that you can’t carry on your back for two miles at a dead run. . . but if you do it downhill, you’re going to get shin splints.
Upper body strength is not overly important to a hiker, although it may prove to be of great use to a guerrilla. If you do not currently lead an active lifestyle, I urge you to begin at least moderate physical training. There are a great many of exercises that can be done using only your body for resistance, or community centers often have gymnasium equipment for free use. If however you are spending a lot of time on the trail, it is a simple matter to work all portions of your body.
Many hikers use trek poles to provide extra leverage as well as an upper body work out while hiking and I have been curious about trying some for myself. With some ingenuity, they are easy to make for yourself out of the proper branches. Using two, and supporting part of your pack weight on your arms, your ease stress on the legs, and add stress to the arms, providing the “legs with a pack” look so fashionable with distance hikers.
Barring that approach, you do have a nylon free weight strapped to your back eight or nine hours a day out there. You can improvise. Trees make great pull up bars and if you can resist swinging from the arms of a giant oak, you should probably go get an office job at Halliburton. I don’t bother doing curls with my pack however, feeling that pushups, sit ups and tree climbing do me just fine.
When off trail for any period of time, I resolve to walk everywhere, usually putting in four or five miles a day and often more if I am camping on the outskirts of a town. I increase the amount of morning exercise I do, working instead to build a sweat rather than simply warm up. It makes me feel cleaner after my morning wash, it wakes me up as much as coffee used to and does do without the noon-time crash. If I am unable to at least go out on an over night hike at least once a week, I will often take a bit of time to explore town with a fully loaded pack on, covering 12-15 miles each week as a general goal. It’s also a great way to carry your groceries and scores big points with checkers at co-ops. The trick is to acclimate yourself to the realities of maintaining a nomadic existence, even if you stage them from a hostel you’ve been at for three months.
The exercises described above are not a training regimen as much as they are a conditioning routine. If you wish to bulk up or build strength many of the same routines will work. For a simple and effective work out program, find a copy of the U.S. Army Physical Fitness Training Manual, you can get it from their recruiting website, but I wouldn’t give them my address. Even if I had one.