Featured photo: Escalante wilderness at sunset.
The names on the map tell stories: Scorpion Gulch, Deadman Ridge, Carcass Canyon, Fifty Mile Cliffs, Rattlesnake Bench and Little Death Hollow. This is the Escalante, three million acres of National Monument and National Recreation Area in Southern Utah. One of the most remote wilderness areas in the country, it was the last area to be mapped in the contiguous United States.
Over the course of eight days in 2019, Paul Gardner and I hiked, climbed and forded over 65 miles of trailess and trackless high desert canyon country: beautiful— but unforgiving. Under a brilliant desert sun, we hiked in the steps of the Anasazi Native Americans. Alone in the wilderness, we found only the occasional foot print in the sand or solitary cairn marking the route through a cliff band.
Depending on your physical condition and mental attitude, a trip like this can be enjoyable, miserable or downright dangerous. Over the last fifteen years, I have helped clients train and prepare for week-long inn to inn hikes in Vermont, 80 mile off-trail hikes in Wyoming, and the 3,028 mile Continental Divide Trail. Every trip is unique, subject to different physical, psychological, and environmental demands; yet the goals are similar: enjoy the journey and come home safe. In this edition of What I Learned, I write about training for hiking and backpacking.
Planning Your Training
For hiking and backpacking trips, you are training your body to handle hours of walking and/or carrying a load. The more rugged the terrain and longer the trip, the more time and training is required. My training programs are based on four principles: individualizing a training plan, progressing that plan over time, adapting physically and mentally to increased workloads, and utilizing training that is specific to the goal or sport.
Our Escalante hike was 85 miles… all off-trail. We encountered technical climbing, sand dunes, slick rock and swollen streams and rivers. The weather varied from 85 degrees, sunny and windless; to 35 degrees, steady rain and high winds. Navigating and finding water was challenging. Even with ultralight gear, our packs started out weighing over 30 pounds. We expected hardship. Our training program was time intensive and rigorous.
Building a Base
The first phase of a training program is base building. In this phase, strength training adapts muscles, tendons, and your skeleton for the rigors of hiking and to handle heavy loads. Mobility training improves balance and range of motion. You work on building muscle endurance, correct muscle imbalances, and address old injuries. Your workouts should be progressive.
Aerobic endurance training focuses on improving the body’s ability to burn fat for fuel. See my article Fat for Fuel on how this works. You have to be able to burn fat for fuel. You don’t want to carry the extra weight of food to burn 3000 to 4000 calories per day. Your workouts should be progressive. The Base Building phase lasts two week to three weeks.
The first three days hiking in the Escalante were tough. Fording a stream, I stepped in a pothole and sunk up to my neck. Crossing the sand dunes, my stiff hiking shoes, great on trails, blistered my feet. Initially, our navigation was weak: forcing us at times to backtrack. Perseverance.
Dialing it Back with Active Recovery
Achieving athletic goals requires a capacity and affinity for hard work. As workload or age increases, the need for rest and recovery accumulates. See my article Recovery: The 50+ Athletes Secret Weapon Continuously hard workouts reach a point of diminishing returns.
During recovery, the body realizes changes in form. These changes include improved fat burning and decreases in body fat; stronger and more resilient muscles and tendons; greater heart stroke volume; increased lung capacity; increase in muscular capillary density; and enhanced glycogen storage. Allowing this adaptation sets the stage for an increase in workload in the next training stage.
I have known hikers whose trips were over even before they started because they trained too hard.
Building Strength and Aerobic Capacity
The loss of fitness with aging relates directly to muscle strength; true for your heart, sport specifics muscles, and overall strength. We lose bone mass and density as we age. Especially for men after age fifty and women after menopause. Strength training does not mean developing big, bulging muscles. What you need are strong, aerobically active muscles. In this phase of training we work on building strong, aerobically active muscles through heavier weight, faster tempo, and less recovery time between sets.
You improve your aerobic capacity by interval training. See my What I Learned Interval Training: Live Longer, Live Healthier I start with low to moderate intensity aerobic threshold intervals to improve my fat burn. Next I work on high intensity lactate threshold intervals to adapt my body to the stress of maintaining a longer duration intensity. Finally, I work on maximum aerobic capacity intervals to improve my VO2 Max.
The purpose of increasing intensity training is to prepare you for your adventure by improving your mental and physical ability to handle stress. Not only can you do more and recover faster, but you make better decisions when you are mentally confident and physically fit. There is no such thing as certainty in the wilderness.
Finding your way in and out of canyons in the Escalante was stressful. We searched for Moki steps: small indentations carved out of the rock hundreds of years ago by Native Americans. The fall potential was 30 to 60 feet. We used rock shoes to climb; our rope to belay each other and to lower and raise our packs. In high consequence terrain, good decision making is critical.
Active Recovery Part 2
After five weeks of training, it’s time again for active recovery. Fitness programming works. Create a plan to achieve your goals and measure your progress. Practice good work habits. Don’t worry about your goal, focus on the process of achieving your goal.
Building Power and Sport Specific Training
As we age, we lose a disproportionate amount of Type II muscle—our fast-twitch muscle used for power. To improve power and work fast-twitch muscles, I incorporate power or plyometric sets: box jumps, med ball slams, battle ropes. These exercises are designed to push you to develop your fast twitch muscles. Power is important in endurance sports. It gives you a reserve to call upon in times of stress.
Nothing prepares you for hiking and backpacking like hiking up and down hills with a weighted pack. In my experience, I have found my feet are the weak link in longer duration trips. You have to get the miles in out on the trail or walking path. A treadmill is better than nothing. As soon as the snow melts in Minnesota, we are out hiking. After a week we add weight— beginning with a ten to fifteen pound load. A typical workout would start with for three miles and five hundred vertical feet at the local ski area. See my article Gary’s Big Day: Training for Adventure .
For week or longer backpacking or alpine climbing trips, I recommend working up to carrying thirty plus pounds, hiking six miles and fifteen hundred vertical feet two to three times per week. For hiking only, I advise twenty miles per week. My goal for my clients is to have at least 80 backpacking miles or 100 walking miles before tackling their adventures.
The storm hit mid-morning— rain, thunder, lightning and wind. It lasted, off and on for two days. After a miserable night, we descended a slot through the rim rock to the Escalante River. The river, swollen by the rain was an angry brown. I was first to cross. Facing up stream, I moved laterally— careful to find solid footing in the shifting bottom sand with each step. The water rose to my waist tugging, grabbing. Adrenalin surged. Losing my footing with a pack and being swept downstream was not an option. Managing to stay upright, I breathed a sigh of relief upon reaching the other side; only to hold my breath as I watched Paul cross. We dried out, packed up and ascended exposed Moki steps up the rim rock on the other side.
The Escalante is a magical wilderness. Until the final quarter mile, we encountered only one group of people on a day hike from a side canyon. At the end of each long day, we camped in solitude under Cottonwood trees in canyon bottoms or high above the canyons on slick-rock benches. From dawn to dusk we watched the land and sky change colors.
On our last night we both fought powerful winds to keep our tents from blowing away. Once the wind died the rain started. The next morning we packed a wet camp and navigated a forced march of 12 miles over complicated trackless terrain arriving at our car where the shuttle service dropped us off eight days prior.
At age 64, I could not have done this trip without a training program. Although brutal at times, each day we marveled at the wilderness scenery and managed to laugh at our follies. All this made for a memorable trip. I can’t wait to return.
Thank you for the opportunity to share What I learned. If you have any questions of I can help prepare for your adventure, please contact me at 612-322-4734 or firstname.lastname@example.org