Building Backcountry Endurance Indoors

I didn’t fully embrace backpacking until I relocated out West. In fact, until I made the move to Washington, I largely considered myself a “city girl,” having worked stints in both Los Angeles and New York City. And while I still consider myself a city person (I live in downtown Portland), I now know that I need to be within driving distance of the mountains. There’s something about surviving with only the belongings on my back that just drives me wild. I can’t get enough of it, and I love living within easy access of an outdoor adventure.

That said, given my background, I wasn’t always in the best shape for the type of hiking, backpacking, climbing and mountain summiting that I like to do. My first backpacking trip — a four-night trek through the Olympic National Park — was absolutely grueling. My legs barely survived the miles and miles of switchbacks. The same was true of my first mountain climb. It took me nearly twice as long as it should have taken me to summit that mountain, and I could barely move my legs enough to drive home (they were quite literally too shaky to hit the brake). Luckily, around the same time I introduced myself to the backcountry, I also introduced myself to regular strength training. I knew I wanted to get in better shape regardless, but my newfound love of backpacking fueled my desire to make my body fit and functional.

While I’m in no way an expert on training, I have been lucky enough to hang around some pretty cool people who have taught me a thing or two about building strength and endurance. And after years of testing workouts, I’ve found what helps me build the right kind of strength for backcountry trekking.

So without further adieu, I give you a few of my favorite workouts to build strength and endurance where you need it. Have some other tips and ideas? I’d love to hear them in the comments!

Stair Sprints
These are the best and the worst. Stair sprints suck, but I’m always grateful for them once backpacking season begins. I thank myself for putting in the work when I’m climbing a hill or mountainside shouldering a heavy pack. These build the endurance and strength I need to help me power up nature’s inclines. And because I live in Portland, I have the option of doing my stair sprints up the side of a dormant volcano. Yes, we have a dormant volcano with stairs in the city of Portland. We like to keep our workouts weird.

Sled Pushes
Sled pushing builds strong quads, glutes and hamstrings while also improving aerobic conditioning. I consider these a great finisher for any workout.

I’m personally not a big fan of the treadmill, so my cardio of choice is rowing. Luckily, the fitness studio I belong to offers killer indoor rowing classes. These classes help me build the cardiovascular endurance I need outdoors. Plus, rowing engages not only your arms, but your legs and your core. Another great option? Jacob’s Ladder.

Step Ups
Weighted (or unweighted) step ups are one of my favorite glute exercises. I simply grab a pair of dumbbells and do single-leg step ups on a workout bench or stool. Working out at home? A chair will suffice.

Plank with Shoulder Taps
I have a few go-to core exercises, but this is one of my favorites. Hold a plank while tapping each shoulder with the opposite hand. Other favorite core exercises? TRX pikes, plank to bear and s-l-o-w in-and-outs.

Mountain Hikes
This should be a given, but my last tip for staying in shape for backpacking season is to hike. If you live in the Portland area, Mount Defiance is a great mountain to use for training. This nearly 12-mile climb (with 4,840 feet of elevation gain) is grueling, but it can easily be done in a day. Though you can definitely prep for the outdoors at a gym, hiking is forever one of my favorite ways to prepare for backpacking.