Did you see that? Those greenish fur-like structures appearing where dirty snow should be? This can mean only one thing — hiking season has crept up and caught us on the couch with a bag of crisps. Isn’t that the way?
Not to worry. Whether you’re a gym dandy, a hike-your-way-into-shaper, or a perma-fit action figure who merely swaps out skis for trail shoes, trail readiness is just steps away. We talked to three trail veterans who took different paths to arrive at the same trailhead, fit and frisky.
Adan Torres works at Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis and has done quite a bit of hiking and backpacking throughout the country. Semantics first: Hiking means a day trip carrying a light pack; backpacking refers to a multiday excursion with a necessarily heavier pack. Preparation is for both a matter of degree. You’ll need to amp up strength, endurance, and trail knowledge for a backpacking trip.
Torres said it’s important to build endurance, which can be done by running or walking outdoors at least twice a week. But with spring’s unreliable weather, some people find it easier to get in shape indoors.
“Yoga classes really help with flexibility, core strength, and balance,” he said, also recommending weight training for upper body and leg strength and swimming or treadmill for overall conditioning and aerobic fitness. Wearing a 10-pound pack, Torres does a workout of a 45 minutes to an hour on the stair stepper, or the treadmill set at a 6 percent incline.
Getting out on a local trail in preparation for a longer hike will not only build your confidence with rocks, roots, and uneven ground, but you’ll form an accurate idea of your pace.
Part of preparation, Torres said, is knowing what you’re getting into. Is there drinkable water? Are there river crossings? Are there sections above 10,000 feet? Factors like those will affect your pace, fatigue level and pack weight. And to that last point, while you need to be prepared, most people bring too much. Midwest Mountaineering offers a pack shakedown — they’ll look through your pack and point out redundancies. They can recommend things that do double duty — trekking poles that double as tent poles, for example. The result, Torres said, is usually a lighter, more efficient pack.
For those who can’t stand the thought of a gym, meet Jo Swanson. The development director for the Superior Hiking Trail Association and a Two Harbors resident, Swanson described herself this way: “One thing I love about backpacking and hiking is that it’s super accessible to those of us who aren’t in the world’s best shape. I was the kid who was always picked last for sports teams, and even today strangers wouldn’t guess that I’m ridiculously active.”
Swanson copped to making nearly every rookie mistake possible, and yet has hiked the Appalachian Trail in two 1000-plus-mile segments, the Tahoe Rim Trail, and other multiweek challenges, and of course, every inch of the Superior. “Start incrementally,” she said. “Don’t assume you’ll be the badass you were last fall right off. It would be a bummer to be sidelined because you overdid it early on.”
Gradually increasing distance not only builds physical strength. With each day on the trail, you gain experience as a hiker. “Back in 2000, I decided to thru-hike the Superior Hiking Trail,” Swanson recalled. “I’d never done an overnight trip before. I had a 55-pound pack — I had to drag it over to a downed tree to get it on my back, and then I could barely stand up. I made it two nights before bailing. It was the longest two days of my life but I loved it. ... You learn things about yourself you can’t learn until you’re out in the woods.”
Swanson’s learn-by-doing approach is especially helpful for mental preparation. “People have this idea that backpacking trips are all Instagram-able sunshine and storybook vistas, but sometimes it’s mud and rocks and fogged-in overlooks and wet feet for miles. Preparing for a big hike, you might want to go out for a walk when the weather is not lovely. It’s also a good chance to test out your gear.”
Preparing in Minnesota for a mountain hike has limitations, Swanson admitted, but pointed to the Superior trail and Afton State Park for local trails with lots of elevation gain and loss. She tries to give herself at least 24 hours at elevation before starting a mountain hike, and always does a two- or three-day trial run with a loaded pack before a trip.
Nick Graham, a parts distributor at Quality Bike Products, is one of those people who actually does squats and planks. A runner who also bikes, skis and has serious cred as a hiker and backpacker, Graham admitted he’s rarely out of shape, but if it’s any consolation, it’s because perma-fitness is easier.
“I started running when I was 14 years old; I’m 46 now,” Graham said. “My advice is don’t ever get out of shape because it’s so darn hard to come back.”
Graham runs 30 to 40 miles per week for general fitness over the winter but adds some backpack-specific exercises come spring. He runs the ski hill at Hyland Hills in Bloomington or at Afton to simulate the climbing and descent on most long-distance trails.
Like Torres and Swanson, Graham used spring training not only to build endurance, but to test gear, and most importantly, to learn how his body reacts when moving through the outdoors. “For example, I know I can hike 5 miles on a liter of water when it’s 65 degrees. Part of preparing for hiking is understanding your own body.”
Sarah Barker is a freelance writer from St. Paul.