Exercises for Hikers – Find Out How to Get In Shape for Hiking

If you love outdoor adventures, hiking is definitely on your list. For a beginning hiker, surely the idea of following a trail up a mountain is thrilling especially if you play up your imagination a bit and think you are an Indian tracker! If you are a seasoned hiker, for sure you are looking for a more challenging trail or climb.

But before you put on your gear and set out on foot for a day in a nearby trail or several weeks in some remote country or months-long hike in one of the world’s great trails like the Appalachian Trail, you better shape up first. Pre-hike exercises are not only for novice hikers but for regular hikers as well. But of course, if you are new to hiking and you are out to conquer your first mountain, the more you need to do specific exercises to prepare yourself for the hike.

This is a long article offering a thorough discussion about exercises for hikers, including beginning hikers. The following is an index to this article for your convenience.

  • Why pre-hike exercises are a must!
  • Exercises to build Aerobic Endurance for Hikers
  • Exercises to build Anaerobic Endurance for Hikers
  • Exercises to Strengthen the Upper Body
  • Exercises to Strengthen the Lower Body
  • Bilateral Lower Body & Core Exercises for Hikers
  • Exercises to Develop Flexibility for Hikers
  • Exercises for Beginning Hikers
  • World’s Classic Hiking Trails

Why pre-hike exercises are a must!

Never dismiss the importance of pre-hike exercises. Embarking on a long hike without any pre-hike training will surely result to post-hike muscle pain and soreness. But be thankful if you only get these temporary discomforts. Worse things could happen during a hike like injuries, accidents or even – death. I’m not trying to scare you off but a research revealed that mountain hiking is associated with a death rate of about 4 deaths per 100,000 hikers annually and 50% of fatalities resulted from Sudden Cardiac Deaths or SCD.1

Also, a research by Martin Burtscher of Austria revealed that Sudden Cardiac Death (SCD) is the major cause of death during mountain hiking and skiing among males over 34 years of age. Among other health related factors, it was found out that hikers and skiers who died suddenly during mountain hiking and skiing were less engaged in regular mountaineering activities and regular strenuous exercises. The research recommended preventive measures such as adaptations to specific mountain activities. Also, another research disclosed that low fitness, increasing altitude and intensity enhance the probability of cardiovascular events among hikers and skiers. The study, likewise, recommended high degree of fitness based on regular trainings for hikers and skiers.

Now that you are aware of the danger of hiking without proper and prior physical preparations, you must be asking what then are the best exercises for hikers? Based on the recommendations of the researches mentioned above, pre-hike exercises and trainings must be geared towards preparing the body to adapt to long walks on different terrains that may involve ascent and descent and some other conditions like climate and thinning air. Hiking doesn’t only involve leg muscles but all the muscle groups. Equally important is a strong cardiovascular and lung capacity to sustain the muscular stamina.

Generally, pre-hike exercises and trainings should be geared to develop the following five core fitness (source: Body Results).2

  • Aerobic Endurance
  • Anaerobic Endurance
  • Upper Body Strength
  • Lower Body Strength
  • Flexibility

Exercises to build Aerobic Endurance for Hikers

Aerobic endurance or relatively termed as cardio-respiratory endurance is the capacity to continue prolonged physical activity without getting tired too easily. This capacity largely depends on the ability of the lungs and heart to take in, and distribute enough oxygen to the working muscle groups and on the efficiency of the muscle in using the supplied oxygen. The level of endurance is determined by the length of time in doing the physical activity while withstanding fatigue.

American Heart Association recommends the following exercises to build aerobic endurance 3:

1. brisk walking

2. stair-climbing

3. aerobic exercises

4. sports activities that include continuous running such as soccer and basketball

In addition, you may include bicycling, skating and of course, running. Intensity of the work-out must range from moderate to vigorous, performed for at least 30 minutes regularly on most days of the week. The 30 minutes need not be continuous, it can be accumulated. The exercises may be done 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the afternoon, or in 3 sessions of 10 minutes each. Be sure to work your heart at 50-80 percent of its maximum rate.

If you wish to check on your aerobic endurance, you may subject yourself for Maximal Oxygen Uptake, a laboratory test that gives an objective indicator of your aerobic endurance level. Other tests that measure cardiovascular endurance are: 12 Minute Run Test, Bruce Treadmill Test Protocol, Rockport Fitness Walking Test Calculator, and Exercise Stress Testing.

Exercises to build Anaerobic Endurance for Hikers

Anaerobic Endurance is a short term endurance capacity to sustain an activity in the absence of oxygen. Anaerobic means “without oxygen”. When the body is at work, especially if the body is working very hard reaching its maximum activity level, the body’s demand for oxygen is more than the supply. During this period, the muscles take energy from the reserved body fuels to the point of exhaustion. This point is called anaerobic threshold. How well you withstand this period measures your anaerobic endurance.

A good way to develop anaerobic endurance is doing a repetitive high intensity exercise with limited recovery. Anaerobic exercise builds muscle mass and enhances power to deliver a high intensity performance for a short period of time usually 1-3 minutes.

Most common forms of anaerobic exercises are strength exercises, weight and resistance exercises using weight stacks, plates and dumbbells.

Exercises to Strengthen the Upper Body

Triceps Dip for arms and shoulders. You my use a step, a bench or if you are out in the woods, you may use a log. Begin this exercise by sitting on the step, bench or log. Place your hands by your side, with your palms facing down touch the step, bench or log. Pushing with your hands, inch your hips off the step, bench or log. As much as possible, keep your rear close to the step, bench or log. Slightly bend your legs. Lower yourself. Don’t go beyond 90 degrees at the elbow. Push back to start.

Push ups for the chest, arms, shoulders and abs. You may perform this exercise on a flat ground, a boulder or a log. Lie chest down. Place your palms flat on the floor, your hands at shoulder level and more than shoulder-width apart. Keep your feet straight and parallel to each other. Look forward not down at the floor. Push your body up the floor. Don’t arch your back. Exhale as you straighten your arms. Hold for a moment. Gradually lower your body down until your chest touches the floor. Push back up again.

Pull ups for Upper back, shoulders and arms. You may perform pull ups using a bar or if you’re out in the woods you may use a tree limb. Stand under a bar or a tree limb. Adjust the height of the bar to your desired level (or choose a tree limb just above your height). Grip the bar or tree limb. Pull yourself off the floor. Pull up until your chin reaches over the bar or limb. Inhale as you slowly lower your body to starting position. Repeat as many as you can. For starters, 15 is a good reps to start with.

Exercises to Strengthen the Lower Body

Try these Unilateral Lower Body Exercises recommended by bodyresults.com4:

1. Hip Hikes. For this exercise you need a step, a box, or bench at least 4” high. It is also ideal to face a mirror so you can see your waist line. Now here’s what you should do: On your right leg, stand sideways on a step, box or bench. Keep your left foot free of the bench. Keep your right leg straight. Without bending your right knee, raise your left hip directly upward then drop your left leg down. Repeat the action. Make sure that your beltline alternately tilts up and down. Repeat on the other side. You may add ankle weights or hold dumbbells to add to the intensity of this exercise.

2. 1-Leg Deadlifts. You need a dumbbell for this exercise. Stand on one foot while holding a dumbbell in each hand. Keep your balance. Bend over to touch the floor. Exhale as you lift back up to stand. Repeat on the other side.

3. 1-leg Hover Step Ups. You need a step or box 6-10 inches high. On one foot, stand sideways on the box. Let your other foot dangle in the air. Bend your knee and lower your body until your free foot is just above the floor. Pause for a second. Press back to a standing position. Repeat on the other side.

To add intensity to this exercise, try these variations:

  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand
  • Hold a dumbbell in one hand and interchange halfway through
  • Hover over the floor for 8-10 seconds
  • Use higher step or box
  • Carry a backpack

4. Reverse Step-Up. You need a box, step or bench about 6-10 inches high and a full-length mirror. Here’s what you need to do: Position the box, bench or step in front of a mirror. Stand behind the bench, box or step facing the mirror. Place your weaker foot or non-dominant leg on the bench. Turn your toes out about 10 degrees. Place your arms on your hips keeping your shoulders square. With your raised leg, lift yourself up without pushing off the floor. Watch your knee on the mirror as you slowly lower back down to the floor. Your knee shouldn’t wobble, buckle or pitch on one side. If it does, lower the box, step or bench and try again.

5. 1-leg Calf Raise. You need a 2×4 board for this exercise. Place the board on the floor. To keep the board in place, put a heavy weight plate or dumbbell on the other end. Position one foot on the other end. Make sure the ball of your foot is on the edge of the board. Drop your heel until it touches the floor. Exhale and stand on your toes as high as possible, then inhale as you lower down. Repeat 6-8 times for 1-2 sets, then progress to 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps. For added challenge, hold a dumbbell in each hand or a loaded backpack.

6. Forward Straight Leg Raise. Lie on the floor on one side. Bend your bottom leg, the one on the floor. Extend your top leg in front of your body at a right angle to the torso. Slightly bend your top knee with hips stacked. Lift your leg up without shifting your body backward. Keep the heel higher than the toe. For variation and greater challenge, put ankle weights or use ski boots while performing this exercise. Do the same sets and reps on the other leg. You may extend your arm on the floor and rest your head on it for support and comfort.

7. 1-Leg Squat for Balance. You need a box or a bench and dumbbells. This exercise may be done on a porch, curb or boulder. Instead of dumbbells, you may use a backpack. Now here’s what you have to do: Hold dumbbells in each hand. Place one foot on a box, bench or stair. Lower your torso making sure your knees are approximately in right angles. Gradually lower you back knee down toward the floor. Exhale as you press back up. Do 2-3 sets.

8. Lunge Variations. For variety and added challenge to the classic lunge exercises, try these three variations: lunge step ups, overhead dumbbell lunges and tiptoe walking lunges. You need a 6-18” high step and dumbbells for these variations.
Lunge step ups. Hold the dumbbells on your hands (if you don’t have dumbbells, place your hands on your hips). Stand a stride away from the high step. Slowly step one leg forward until your entire foot lands on top of the step. Lift your body onto the step keeping the other leg hanging while your torso is vertical and is not touching the trailing leg. Maintain your balance. Reverse the movement. Return to the low lunge position. Push back into the starting position with both feet planted on the floor. You may wear a backpack for this exercise.

Overhead dumbbell lunges. Hold a light dumbbell in each hand. Stand with both feet parallel and shoulder-width apart. Extend your arms overhead. Step forward with one foot. Lower your body keeping the torso vertical and your shoulders directly align with your hips. Keep on lowering until your knee is an inch high from the floor. Exhale and press up using your heels. Return to standing position.

Walking lunge. Follow the same starting position with the overhead dumbbell lunges but keep your hands at your side. Step forward lowering your body until your rear knee nearly touches the floor. Repeat until 6-12 strides on a straight line. You may do this on tiptoes for increased intensity or you may do this going uphill.

Bilateral Lower Body & Core Exercises for Hikers

Stiff-leg Deadlifts. You need a barbell for this exercise. Choose a light weight barbell for a start. In doing the lift, keep your back flat, bend your knees about 15-20 degrees, press your chest forward, keep head and neck neutral, and exhale on the way up. You may do 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps.

  1. Snow Shoveler. You need a dumbbell, a backpack, a weight vest, a suitcase or other object with comparable weight. Instructions: Stand with feet slightly more than a shoulder-width apart, knees aligned with your toes. With both hands, hold a dumbbell. Squat down to the ground keeping your back straight. Position dumbbell below your chin as you lift back up to stand. While keeping your feet squarely planted on the ground, rotate to one side moving like you were to throw the snow behind you. Repeat on the other side. Do this alternately until you finish your desired reps.
    It is recommended that you do this exercise before performing any machine work out or training. For increased intensity, add resistance by using a heavier dumbbell, or by performing it on one leg at a time using the other hand (not on the standing leg) to hold the dumbbell, or by standing in front of a cable weight stack with a rope attachment.
  2. Plank Variations. The basics of plank exercise: Lie flat on the mat. Position your forearms on the mat with your shoulders and elbows aligned. Clasp your hand in front of you. Straighten your legs behind you. Rest on your toes. Tighten your abdominal muscle. Hold as long as you can. Release and repeat. For plank variations see the 10 plank variations by bodyresults.com5 : 1) elbow/knee planks 2) elbow/toe planks 3) hand/knee planks 4) hand/toe planks 5) hand/shin on ball planks 6) elbow circles on ball/toe planks 7) walking planks 8) side planks 9) around the world planks 10) reverse planks.
  3. Oblique Twists. You may perform this exercise solo or with a partner. You need a ball. Hold onto the ball. Sit on the floor facing your partner. Lean back a little. You may bend your knees but keep your feet flat on the floor. Turning 180 degrees, throw the ball to your partner, aiming for a spot just above the thigh. Tighten your abdominal muscle and exhale as you toss the ball to your partner. If you will do this alone, extend the ball above you creating a rainbow arc while leaning back as far as you can keeping your feet planted on the floor.
  4. Reverse Corner Pushouts. You don’t need any gym equipment for this exercise. All you need is a corner of a room. Fit yourself in the corner of a wall. Straighten your body, position your feet from 6-24” forward. Keep arms parallel to the floor and shoulders relaxed and down. Press elbows into the wall while moving your body forward. Hold for a full count or two. Gradually, lower your body back into the corner.
  5. Back Extensions. Lie flat face down. Keep your legs and arms by your side. Lift up your upper body while your lower body is on the floor. Contract your abdominal muscles for 5-60 second or for as long as you can. Release and slowly lower your body. For added intensity, add a dumbbell or weight plate across your chest.
  6. Backwards Walking. Find a flat area in the park or along the road clear of traffic. Simply walk backward for 20-30 yards. For a start do this 5-6 times. After which you may try a slightly elevated surface, then progress to do this up the hill. You may do this on a flat treadmill and gradually increase the intensity by adjusting the treadmill elevation. You may also jog backward.

Exercises to Develop Flexibility for Hikers

Stretching exercises develop flexibility or range of motion. The importance of flexibility for hikers and sports enthusiasts was underscored by Dr. Frank C. McCue III, internationally recognized orthopedic surgeon and sports-medicine pioneer and the director of the Sports Medicine Division, University of Virginia Health Sciences Center. He was quoted saying that “Muscles or joints that lack adequate flexibility are more susceptible to injury. Good flexibility can prevent injury and enhance performance.”

Below is a list of recommended warm-up and cool down stretching exercises to increase flexibility from the book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Camping and Hiking.

  • Neck Stretch
  • Side Stretch
  • Tricep Stretch
  • Shoulder Stretch
  • Calf Stretch
  • Chest Stretch
  • Bent-Over Shoulder Stretch
  • Side Groin Stretch
  • Back Stretch
  • Seated Hamstring Stretch
  • Groin Stretch
  • Pelvic Tilt

Exercises for Beginning Hikers

Obviously, less experienced hikers and especially beginning hikers need specific trainings and exercises. Compared to seasoned hikers, novice hikers have to consider some precautions. A foremost tip for beginning hikers is to cover distances gradually. Don’t embark on a mile-hike on your first venture. Build the distance you cover. Start with a short walk, adding considerable distance the next, making your hike longer and longer. Same with pre-hike exercises, beginning hikers should start out with moderate exercises, increasing the intensity with each session.

Here are some simple types of exercises for beginning hikers as recommended by hikers.com6:

  • Warm up exercises
  • Gentle stretching
  • Jog in place
  • Torso stretch
  • Hamstring and calves pull
  • Simple squats
  • Sit ups
  • Lunges/‘lat’ exercises
  • Moderate weight lifting
  • Rowing machine exercise

Aside from exercises to build the five core fitness that includes aerobic endurance, anaerobic endurance, upper body strength, lower body strength, and flexibility, beginning hikers have to undergo training to adapt to the rigors of hiking like carrying a heavy pack, climbing a steep mountain side, crossing a stream among others. Here are some recommended trainings and exercises:

  • walking on varied terrains while carrying a pack
  • climbing stairs, stadium steps, parking ramps while carrying a pack
  • exercises on inclined treadmills
  • exercises on elliptical cross trainers
  • hip exercises for supporting pack weight
  • exercises for quadriceps for descents
  • exercises for the shoulders/upper back for carrying packs and gear hoisting
  • using trekking poles
  • exercises for the lower back, obliques and abdominals for transferring power from the legs into forward propulsion
  • exercises to develop footing and balance

As a baseline advice for hikers, novice or experienced, design your own fitness program based on these three things: age, physical condition, and flexibility. You may want to consult a personal fitness coach or your physician for appropriateness of some exercises mentioned above for your conditions.

World’s Classic Hiking Trails

If you are done with your pre-hike exercises and trainings, consider these top 11 trails which made the cut to the world’s classic hike featured by the National Geographic in May 2005 issue. Pack your bags, keep fit and get ready for the great adventure ahead!

  • The Colorado Trail
  • Buckskin Gulch,Utah
  • John Muir Trail, California
  • Kalalau Trail, Kaua’I, Hawai’i
  • McGonagall Pass, Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska
  • Fits Roy Grand Tour, Patagonia, Argentina
  • Kungsleden, Sweden
  • Mount Everest Base Camp Trek, Nepal
  • Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
  • Routeburn Track, New Zealand
  • Shackelton Crossing, South Georgia Island

Footnotes / Sources

  1. Burtscher M, Pachinger O, Schock MF, Ulmer H. Risk factor profile for sudden cardiac death during mountain hiking. PubMed.gov. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17357969
  2. BodyResults.com. Hiking, Trekking and Backpacking Training and Conditioning. http://www.bodyresults.com/hiking-training.asp
  3. American Heart Association. Physical Activity. http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4563
  4. BodyResults.com. Hiking, Trekking & Backpacking Strength Training. http://www.bodyresults.com/s2hiking-strength.asp
  5. Schurman C.W. Plank Variations. http://www.bodyresults.com/e2planks.asp
  6. Hiker.com. Exercises For Beginning Hikers. http://hiker.com/exercises-for-beginning-hikers/

Disclaimer: This article on exercise for hikers if information only and is not meant to be construed as medical advice or any kind of advice. Consult a healthcare professional before starting any kind of exercise, nutrition, conditioning program, or hike.


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