Training for backpacking on mountainous terrain is not easy when you live in the Midwest. Flat lands, open prairies, and living near sea level make it hard to recreate hiking in the Sierras. Obviously it can be done; it’s just a little more challenging.
This summer, we are going on our first family backpacking trip. My husband and I have backpacked, but our kids were always too young to bring along. So, now with a 15 and 12 year old, we’re setting off for the Sierras in late July.
With all of the permits attained and plans made, now comes the part where our bodies must be prepared. We aren’t setting out to do anything strenuous for a first backcountry hike, but a 16 mile round trip hike with a heavy backpack, with over 4,500 feet in elevation gain is not a walk in the park – especially for the kids.
My husband and I workout regularly with both weights and cardio, so maintaining that level of fitness is important. I have terrible (overused) knees and my youngest daughter has Osgood-Schlatter’s (inflammation of the knee ligament due to a growth spurt) so we both must be cautious about overdoing leg and knee work.
We are lucky enough to have a somewhat “large” hill in our neighborhood that has a sidewalk on it. On weekends, we head out to that hill and walk up and down it multiple times to get our bodies used to the strain on our muscles and joints. Unfortunately, this hill is only 80-90 feet tall, but it’s the best we have in the area.
We wear our new socks, hiking boots, and will eventually start wearing our backpacks with weight in order to test out the gear, make sure everything fits and feels well, and to get used to carrying the extra pounds. Since my daughters are new to backpacking, we started about 8 weeks prior to our trip, giving them enough time to train. We will also incorporate quad and calf exercises along with balance work, to strengthen ligaments, tendons, and accessory muscles. The kids have to practice using their glutes when they walk uphill and to not put all the weight in their knees. When walking downhill, they practice not banging their knees, trying to absorb the downhill impact in their hips. The kids may not appreciate it now, but it’s something they’ll be grateful for knowing and having practiced it when they’re hiking far from home.
Backpacking and hiking in general is usually not a flat walk. You step on rocks, roots, and uneven terrain; your ankles can take a beating. All of this training is done to prevent delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). The last thing anyone needs is to have kids in the backcountry that are sore and achy, or unable to finish the hike.
Just like with any activity, athletic race, or hiking venture, training has to be done to maximize what you get out of the experience. If you’re poorly prepared or out of shape, not only will you not enjoy yourself, but you’ll likely be sore. Others hiking with you are less likely to have fun if you’re not feeling well and you’ll be less likely to partake in the activity again. So, even though my youngest complains about all the training, in the end, the training will be worth it for all of us.
Despite living in northeast Illinois, we’re making our best attempt to prepare our kids for a hike above 9,000 feet in elevation. Nothing but elevation can prepare us for the higher altitude, but we can prepare our bodies for the work. With the kids along, we will be cautious, take our time, and take breaks. Hopefully, we’ll not only bring home happy kids who had an amazing experience but also will create fun memories and future backpackers.