Whether they’re taking in the fresh air, bird-watching, or escaping the city for a family getaway, more people than ever are venturing beyond their own backyards to explore the beauty of the great outdoors. In the past year, health concerns led to a surge in desire for safe, open-air activities, and more flexible work environments created new freedom for outdoor pursuits, including hiking, camping, and traversing national parks.
According to the NPD Group, a market research company, sales are up for guidebooks to parks, campgrounds, and family travel. Retail tracking data on outdoor categories showed a 31 percent rise in camping equipment purchases from 2019 to 2020 while the paddle sports category, which had previously faced declines, rebounded at a 56 percent increase. Tracking usage participation rates for canoes and kayaks, the Outdoor Industry Association noted a 30 percent increase in use — with two-thirds of participants identifying as first-time paddlers.
Beyond the expected rewards of dipping into cool lakes, admiring the soaring vistas, and observing wildlife, many are also realizing the relationship benefits of having outdoor adventures with friends and family. These explorations provide time to be active together, rebuild bonds, and create family traditions that extend to future generations. Kids who spend time in nature grow up wanting to re-create those memories with their own children, leading to a sustained multigenerational commitment to the outdoors.
But before you can accept these natural gifts, it’s important to prepare yourself physically for the active side of outdoor pursuits, such as training your legs before hiking on steep and uneven ground, strengthening your shoulders to carry a heavy backpack, or building your back muscles to paddle and portage a canoe.
“When you’re on an outdoor vacation, you want to be able to enjoy it. You don’t want to run into any kind of injuries, fatigue, or other potential problems,” says Jerome Tjosvold, personal trainer at Life Time in St. Louis Park, Minn.
Tjosvold often instructs his training clients on preparing for outdoor activities and makes several trips himself each year — many as solo expeditions — to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a remote wilderness destination in northern Minnesota.
“If you do something that you’re unprepared for, then it could negatively affect you the next day — or the rest of your trip,” he cautions. “Having good physical preparedness before you go is only going to enhance your experience and make it that much more enjoyable.”
Also an avid outdoorsman and hiker, Trapper Steinle is a personal training manager, regional casting manager, and endurance coach at Life Time in Denver, Colo. Steinle grew up in the mountains with parents he describes as “adventurers who lived for the next experience in nature.” Steinle advises and trains clients who are looking for outdoor preparation at every adventure level — from members taking their first long hike to experienced endurance athletes attempting big-mountain ascents.
“A heavy focus on cardiorespiratory fitness is important when heading into the outdoors,” says Steinle. “It’s easy to feel great for the first leg of a trip, only to then suffer on the way back, and being stuck in nature isn’t much fun. If we want the trip to be cemented in positive memory, we have to put in the training time to avoid injury and improve stamina — both of which will make the trip more magical.”
To help you prepare for your own outdoor pursuits, Tjosvold and Steinle suggest the following cardio, core, and strength-training exercises, according to the activity of your choice.
“When you’re planning a hike, you want to prepare your body for forward movement with the occasional sideways stumble,” says Steinle. “You should practice moving with the natural contours of the earth: up, down, around, and sideways.”
To train, Steinle recommends focusing on improving strength through your lumbo-pelvic-hip complex. Strengthening this area increases your stability, helps reduce the chance for injury, and maximizes performance. It also aids your enjoyment while you’re ascending and descending — and occasionally scrambling — on steeper terrain as you adapt to wilderness challenges.
“Unilateral exercises also will help improve mobility and stability in the ankles, knees, hips, and back, reducing your risk of injury specifically in the ankles and knees,” Steinle says.
Cardio: Spend one to three hours per week on the stepmill machine focused on intervals and alternating your intensity between levels four to eight on an exertion scale of one to 10.
Strength: Steinle recommends weighted deadlifts and squats. Perform eight to 12 reps at a weight that progressively ends in muscle failure while retaining movement proficiency. Complete three or four sets two or three times per week.
Core: Perform side plank holds for between 45 and 90 seconds once on each side for maximum benefit two or three times per week.
“Core strength is incredibly important to train for lumbar support and to protect the back — whether you’re hiking unencumbered or with a heavy frame pack,” says Steinle. “Isometric exercises like planks are critical for strengthening your core, such as the abdominal muscles and pelvic floor.”
Many backpacking trips include intense hiking, so if you’re planning to hike into your site or camp along a trail, Steinle recommends following the hiking preparation recommendations above along with these additional exercises.
“We place a higher priority on upper body and core strength for backpacking trips so that we can handle the added load that is placed on our spine and joints,” he says. “Keep in mind, your pack weight should not be more than 20 percent of your body weight.”
Cardio: Increase your time on the stepmill machine to between three and five hours per week at a rate of exertion that feels around a five or six on a scale of one to 10. This rating means you’re beginning to sweat and breathe heavier, and you may begin struggling to maintain a conversation without pausing to catch your breath. After your first couple of training weeks, you may want to consider adding a weighted vest to replicate the strain of a loaded backpack or frame pack and prepare you to handle that load.
Perform 12 to 18 reps of either step-ups or lunges while holding dumbbells or wearing a weighted vest that’s between 30 and 50 pounds (keeping in mind that it should only equal a portion of your estimated pack weight). Choose a weight that fatigues you progressively to the point of muscle failure while still allowing you to retain movement proficiency. Complete four or five sets in total two to three times per week.
Core: With the addition of pack weight, Steinle says core strength remains incredibly important with added emphasis on the abdominals, pelvic floor, and internal oblique muscles. Try a Pilates class once per week (or try this version at home) or add a core workout into your training program twice per week.
“Paddling a canoe can be challenging, especially if it’s a windy day and you have a lot of water to cover,” says Tjosvold. “It’s important to train your core and back for this exertion. Spending time on the rowing machine will help you build endurance in your back and legs for all the paddling you will be doing.”
Cardio: Row for 20 to 30 minutes in heart-rate training zone two to help you build endurance. If you don’t have a heart-rate monitor, your rate of exertion should be between a four and six. Repeat this rowing exercise two to three times per week.
Strength and Core: Tjosvold recommends completing three sets twice per week of the following workout to help build strength in arms, core, and back muscles.
- 8 to 15 reps of pull-ups, either assisted on the machine or closed-grip pull-downs.
- 8 to 15 reps of dumbbell rows to improve back strength.
- 60-second Copenhagen side plank holds on each side to stabilize your core while rowing.
- 15 to 20 reps of renegade rows to increase arm and core strength.
- 10 to 15 reps of hammer curl to boost arm strength for rowing.
“When it comes to portaging, you’re going to be carrying a heavy load on your back and the canoe on your shoulders — all while walking up and down hills and stepping over and onto things,” cautions Tjosvold. “It’s important to prepare your body for not only that weight load but also the uncertain terrain.”
Cardio: Tjosvold recommends wearing your actual pack or a comparably weighted vest and setting a treadmill to an incline that keeps your heart rate in zone two for 30 to 45 minutes. Perform the exercise at least two or three times per week to build your cardiovascular endurance.
Strength: “Heavy carries will help strengthen your legs, upper back, core, and grip,” Tjosvold says. Choose a kettlebell or dumbbell weight that feels heavy and carry one in each hand for 30 to 100 yards at a brisk pace, then hinge at the hips to set them down again. Rest for 15 to 30 seconds, then repeat. Perform three to four sets.
To prepare your legs for traveling across uneven terrain, Tjosvold also recommends single-leg Romanian deadlifts. Perform 10 to 15 reps for three sets twice per week. “Choose a weight where you can control the descent with good form, and take about five seconds to lower before standing upright again,” he advises.
Core: Add these top five core exercises into your training two to three times per week to help stabilize the spine under the load of both your pack and canoe.
Having basic survival knowledge can be helpful in the remote wilderness, along a hiking trail, or out on the water. Steinle recommends taking an introductory survival class or first-aid course to help you in the unfortunate event of an accident or injury. “Whether you’re dealing with a small abrasion, a fracture, or something more serious, you want to know how to respond in these instances.”
Based on the level of challenge, terrain, weather conditions, and the length of time you plan to spend outdoors, you may consider enrolling in a survival skills course. These immersive, educational experiences can help you learn basic outdoor skills like how to build a campfire, construct a shelter, prepare for wildlife interactions, or even primitive methods of hunting and surviving in the wild.