My first-ever backpacking trip was kind of a shit show. I carried all my supplies in a broken, black backpack that had been left behind by two Swedish Air BnB’ers I hosted, I smashed my body into a one-person tent alongside my boyfriend at night, and I had no idea what altitude was or how its effects can wreak havoc on the body. As I made my way up the well-worn trail that traverses the summit of Alta Peak in the middle of Sequoia National Park, I found myself gasping for air and stopping every five minutes to sit down or lean my unsteady body against a tree to rest. I fell in love with my first wilderness sunrise, creeping its miraculous pink fingers across the Great Western Divide, but, by the end of the weekend, I vowed to never let my body feel that terrible in the outdoors again. It was time to train.
This is the part of the Brazen Backpacker origin story where I got serious about hiking. The part where I began to trek alone when I didn’t have partners. The part where I became voracious for alpine fitness manuals and advice.
After that first trip to Sequoia, I was hooked. I knew I wanted to make backpacking and getting into the wild a major part of my life, but I was armed with very little knowledge for how to do it. I knew I could, at the very least, practice walking uphill for extended periods of time. So, I took to the internet and began researching the best hiking trails around Los Angeles.
When you’re first starting out as a mountaineer or backpacker, it’s crucial to log hundreds of hours of simple walking or hiking. This is the foundation for nearly all of your Zone 1 training (more on that later). I made a commitment to myself when I was a neophyte to hike at least 10 miles every weekend, though I quickly began setting loftier goals and tackling 15 mile peaks in a single day. Pick goals that excite you and take advantage of the wild spaces that are close to your home city.
If you happen to live somewhere that’s entirely flat, don’t fear! You can still implement this kind of basic training by supplementing 10-mile walks with 60 minute sessions on the Stairmaster and 30 minute runs 1-2 times per week.
Important tip: You’ll want to begin conditioning your body for multiple hours of hiking with an extra 30 lbs. on, so it’s crucial to wear a weighted pack on your training hikes! Drop two one-gallon water containers into your daypack before leaving the house. That way, you can dump out the weight at the top of the hill or if your knees begin to ache.
While you’re conducting these initial workouts, you should start paying close attention to your pacing. Note the time when you set out on the trail and the time you reach the summit. Then, note how long it takes you to do the same distance, but downhill. How many vertical feet did you ascend? How much time did you stop to rest or eat snacks?
It may sounds like a total snooze-fest, but these are the building blocks for your trip-planning and future safety. A strong hiker can push a steady 3 mph pace for hours on end, with minimal breaks for food. Going uphill or getting into a high-elevation environment, that might plummet to 2 mph. If you know what you’re capable of at an altitude of 7,000 feet with a 25 lb. pack on, planning a quick weekend trip up to a sweet alpine lake that’s 12 miles each way could either seem enticing or like a complete death march. When you establish a numerical foundation for your ability, it’s much easier to map out realistic goals.
As you begin to get more confident in your workouts and want to push towards bigger objectives, learning about exercise science and having a proper training manual will play a vital role. I fell in love with Steve House and Scott Johnston’s Training for the New Alpinism and let the book take over my life for the better part of 2017.
Training for the New Alpinism is a pretty hardcore guide for everyone from college athletes to weekend peak baggers to people looking to push towards a professional level when it comes to mountain climbing. While I am nowhere near the latter category, I took on one of the more mid-level workout routines for 7 months, which had me clocking in around 20 hours of different exercises every week.
A typical week for me in 2017 might have looked like this:
Tuesday: Climbing and weight training
Thursday: Trail running
Saturday: Hike in, set up base camp
Sunday: Summit mountain and hike out
It was inspiring and affirming and shattering all at once. I perfected the subtle art of bonking, and food became a utilitarian concept, because I could never get enough calories. I honed my systems while climbing and camping, and I gained intimate knowledge of some of California’s most breathtaking National Parks. It was an all-consuming year of training, and I would highly recommend it if you’re looking to take your climbing to the next level.
Even if you’re planning on staying a casual weekend warrior like most of us, books like Training for the New Alpinism are fantastic fountains of knowledge when it comes to body science, nutrition, cardio training, acclimatization to altitude, and honing your head game.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from that book is the usage of different heart rate zones when it comes to planning and implementing your training. As a lifelong dancer, this was a concept I had never come across before, though many sports use it religiously. The main rule is this: do most of your training in Zone 1 (70-80% of total exercise time). Zone 1 is a conversational pace (50-60% of your max heart rate), meaning that you could talk to a friend while hiking uphill or breathe deeply and only through your nose while exerting. The more you train in this zone, the bigger your aerobic base will eventually become.
Zone 2 is when you are working at 60-70% of your maximum heart rate. If you tried to talk to a friend, you could get out a few sentences, but you would be breathing laboriously. The book mentions that this intensity level isn’t low enough to sustain all-day or high enough to receive extra benefits, so it’s best not to aim for this heart rate during a mountain workout.
Zone 3 is a heart rate of 70-80% of your maximum. It’s generally sustainable for around 1 hour, and you know you’re in this zone when you’re exerting hard and can only utter quick, one or two word remarks. This is likely the cardio zone you would be in while running for 30-60 minutes every week. If you want to get faster in the mountains and better at altitude, you’ll want to incorporate 1-2 hours of Zone 3 training per week.
Zones 4 and 5 are not super necessary for alpine training, unless you want to throw weights or intervals into the mix. Zone 4 is at 80-90% of your maximum heart rate and occurs in activities like HIIT (High Impact Interval Training) and hill sprints. Zone 5 is a maximum effort, generally sustainable for less than 5 minutes.
The cardio zone training system is the one thing I still think about constantly from that book. I preach it to my friends on long backpacking trips and use it on a weekly basis to keep my pacing in check so that I can enjoy the mountains, rather than merely slog through them.
I don’t want to bore you any more by getting into the weeds about exercise science, so I’m going to close out this chapter by talking about something everyone loves – snacks!
The more you train by actually going outside for long stretches, the more of an idea you’ll get for the kinds of foods you like to eat when you’re exerting in the mountains. Surprisingly, even the most zen eater in the city might have issues while exerting or at altitude, so don’t be afraid to try out new, calorie-dense ideas on the trail! In my “default world” life, I love trying new foods and eating at diverse restaurants, but in the mountains, especially above 10,000 feet, I keep it really simple.
I’m a huge fan of predictable hiking foods like rice and beans, string cheese, energy gels, roasted almonds, dried apricots, and Clif Bars. I’ve also recently become obsessed with The Complete Cookie. These are my tried and true staples that I know I’m not going to yack back up when I’m scrambling up the side of a 14er.
I am, by no means, a nutrition expert, but I do want to share with you the top three things I’ve learned by trial and error that I wish someone would have just told me when I first started.
1. Eat at least 100 calories every hour. For me, this has proven to be the secret to not bonking. When you’re hiking in the wilderness for long stretches, you might get an adrenaline rush and not feel very hungry, or you might be going downhill for 2.5 hours and not feel like you’re exerting very hard. You still need to suck those life-giving calories into your face hole. If you don’t, there will come a time when you get dizzy and start to slur your words or stumble, and then you’ll have to pause for a big 20-30 minute break to get back up to speed. “Sometimes eating’s not about liking.” – Jayson Sime
2. Salt is more important than you think. Earlier this year, I went on a 17-hour hike that traversed two peaks and over 10,000 vertical feet of elevation gain. At times, I could feel the rough bristle of salt crystals against my cheeks from the sweat. My partners in crime on that epic journey introduced me to these amazing little electrolyte pills called Salt Stick that can be used to reduce muscle fatigue, cramping, and the dreaded bonk! The pills are full of sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D, making sure your body has a good foundation to work hard.
3. Don’t forget the fat! It’s way too easy to load up on carbs while camping, chowing down on crackers, Clif Bars, cookies, and dehydrated pasta. However, when you’re putting your body through the wringer by carrying a large pack uphill for miles on end, it’s important to balance the nutritional content of your calorie intake. Fat helps keep you full for longer stretches of time, plus it’s the lightest way to carry big amounts of calories into the backcountry. One of my favorite tricks is carrying tiny packets of coconut oil and olive oil along with my meals so that I can add them for fuel and flavor once I set up camp. The olive is for dinner, and the coconut is for oatmeal in the morning!
Listen, I know that at first glance, this might feel like turning a fun hobby into a can of worms once you start dissecting things like calorie intake and the exact miles per hour speed of your hiking ability, but have faith! The more you do it, the more these little experiments will seem like fun challenges or ways to improve your ability and ultimately make your time spent outdoors more enjoyable.
When you have a solid fitness margin, not only can you reach for the moon and start to plan bigger and better trips, but you are also providing yourself with a window of safety, in case something goes wrong and you have to hike a buddy out.
Two years after my first, fateful backpacking trip, I went back to solo the same peak on a snowy June day, using crampons to complete the final 500 feet of ascent. It felt like a pretty casual and fun day in the mountains, and I made it up, down, and an extra mile further to my campsite by 3pm, leaving plenty of time to read, cook, and watch the sunset. I love the freedom that my training has given me. I feel like I could conquer a 25-mile traverse with a pack on or hang back and relax on a 6-mile day down to a hot spring. The outdoors are mine for the taking!
Improving your wilderness skills so that you can enjoy your outdoor experience to the fullest can be a long and varied process, so be sure to do your research and check out my other Basics of Backpacking posts in this series. In case you missed them, Part 1 and Part 2 of my Basics of Backpacking manual can be found here!