hiking in the mountains
Photo by Matt Gross

Hiking Fitness: The Importance of Exercise, Nutrition and Hydration

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When it comes to physical fitness, one of the best things hikers and backpackers can do for themselves is be well-rounded, says physical therapist Taylor Rossi.

“Introduce your body to a variety of different physical activities, so don’t just be a runner, don’t just be a treadmill walker, don’t only work out your legs because that’s all you use when you hike,” she says. “Work your upper body out as well. Change it up. Get a routine where you stick to muscle groups, but change the exercises.”

Rossi earned a doctorate in physical therapy from Chapman University in Southern California and now lives and works near Atlanta, Ga., where she does a lot of hiking-oriented training and rehab. “There are a lot of tools that I can give people, a lot of knowledge,” she says, “and I feel like the more that I can empower people to be in charge of their own health the better.”

That knowledge includes specific muscle groups to work out and the best exercises for doing so.

Hikers and backpackers, Rossi says, need to regularly work on their glutes, calves, quads and hamstrings. To get started, she recommends doing mountain climbers, burpees or jumping jacks as a warm-up — something to help with cardiovascular endurance.

“I don’t really care if a backpacker is able to squat 200 pounds over his shoulders, but I do want to make sure he can do 75 squats before resting because that is more realistic of what he’s going to be doing.”

Cardio is particularly important for those about to embark on a backpacking trip, and Rossi recommends that these individuals add the elliptical, treadmill or bicycle to their normal workout routine.

To simulate going uphill, Rossi suggests simply going up stairs or doing single-leg squats over and over. “The way you’re going to train for that is by doing a high number of repetitions of lunges, single-leg squats or going up and down stairs, maybe with a little bit of weight,” she says, adding that walking lunges, weighted or not, also make for a great workout.

No matter what exercise you’re doing, repetition is key for building what Rossi calls “muscular endurance.” While weight lifting may be important for general physical fitness, she says it’s not central to what a backpacker will be doing on the trail.

“I don’t really care if a backpacker is able to squat 200 pounds over his shoulders, but I do want to make sure he can do 75 squats before resting because that is more realistic of what he’s going to be doing,” says Rossi.

In addition to working on uphill form and function, she recommends regularly doing heel raises — an exercise designed to strengthen the calves in which you rise up onto your toes — as well as deadlifts to strengthen the glutes. “Deadlifting is where you’re holding either a weighted bar or free weights in front of you,” Rossi says. “You kind of hinge forward at the hips to bend forward, running the weight along your shins, squeezing your glutes and then doing a pelvic thrust to stand back up straight.”

Stretching is also important — both before and after hikes as well as regularly for avid hikers and backpackers. The major muscle groups to focus on before hitting the trail include the quads, glutes and calves. To stretch the latter, Rossi recommends letting your heel fall off the edge of a stair, bending your foot forward so that it is at an angle with the stair. “Or you can get into a lunge position with both feet flat on the ground and lean forward toward that front leg,” she says.

man trail running in the mountains
Photo by Brian Erickson

For the glutes, try a figure-four stretch. “That one you can either do sitting in a chair where you cross your ankle over your knee and then lean forward, kind of pushing the knee down,” Rossi says, “or you can do it lying on your back.”

She advises doing those same stretches again following a hike, holding each one for a minute.

Another recovery mechanism she encourages people to engage in is foam rolling. A lightweight, cylindrical tube of compressed foam, a foam roller is used as a method of self-massage to relieve muscle knots and soreness. Rossi suggests foam rolling the calves, quads, hamstrings and glutes after a hike.

Hydration is also critical for recovering from any physical activity — as is nutrition. “Our muscles are 70 percent water, and you have to replenish them with what you just made them spend by going hiking,” says Rossi. “Not to mention that you’re sweating a lot of that water content out.”

While Rossi notes that she is not a nutritionist or dietitian, she does offer several recommendations — including what foods to consume and which ones to avoid — for ensuring proper nutrition for those who are active in the outdoors.

For preventing inflammation, she suggests staying away from foods high in sugar. “Sugar is such a huge systemic inflammatory component of a lot of American diets and can really aggravate [certain conditions], especially tendinitis-type issues — plantar fasciitis, patellar tendinitis, hamstring tendinitis, gluteal tendinitis,” Rossi says.

Gluten is another ingredient to consider avoiding as it can also cause inflammation. This can be difficult for hikers as bars (i.e., granola bars, etc.) are often high in both sugar and gluten.

“[Sleep] is when our body recovers. That’s when our brain recovers. … That’s when muscle repair happens.”

Rossi notes, however, that it is very important for hikers to replenish their sugar levels, but when doing so, she recommends sticking with natural sugars such as apples. When it comes to bars, she suggests RXBAR bars, which typically consist of only three ingredients: dates, egg whites and nuts.

“It’s very clean, and it’s [made with] all-natural ingredients — and very few ingredients, which I like,” she says.

Hikers and backpackers also need to be sure to get enough fat and protein in their diets in order to ensure long-lasting energy on the trail. For fat, Rossi takes nuts or some type of nut butter, and for protein, she prefers CHOMPS sticks, which she says are essentially sticks of beef jerky.

Rossi’s final piece of advice may be the most crucial: Get enough sleep — ideally, seven to eight hours a night, she says.  

“That is when our body recovers. That’s when our brain recovers. That’s when our cerebrospinal fluid gets recycled and renewed. That’s when muscle repair happens,” Rossi says. “So getting enough sleep is very important.”

Alexandra Vollman
Alexandra Vollman is an experienced writer and editor with a passion for the outdoors — especially hiking. As the co-founder and editor of Modern Conservationist, she oversees editorial management for the site. She has a bachelor’s degree in media communications and a master’s degree in writing and publishing. Alexandra enjoys using her knack for reporting and storytelling to instill in others a better understanding of and appreciation for nature.

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