The Case for Backpacking – An Excellent Lifelong Exercise

You may have the impression that backpacking is an activity for only the young, fit, adventurous and with a distaste for basic hygiene.  However, backpacking is one of the best lifelong exercises that has the highest impact on your health with the lowest impact on your joints, and your wallet.

Is a room with this view a dream or nightmare for you?

In 1997, my little sister gave me an annual membership to the Sierra Club for my birthday.  I *thought* I was in good shape until I started doing weekend hikes led by a woman who was approaching 80.  I could not keep up with her to save my life.  I was so impressed that I decided “I want to be like that woman some day!” and thus began my foray into hiking and backpacking, first with the Sierra Club and later on my own.

Backpacking is great exercise.  It burns anywhere from 400-800 calories per hour depending on your exertion rate, size, and how much weight you are carrying.  A typical day can range from 3 to 12 miles, and the calories I have expended (measured using a heart rate monitor) typically ranges from 2,000-4,000.  Can you imagine trying to hit that burn in a gym?

In addition to the mega calorie burn, one of the reasons that backpacking is considered such a good “lifelong” exercise is the effect on your joints.  There is much less impact from walking on dirt trails than walking or running on pavement.  Using trekking poles lessens that impact even more.

Carrying packs up the trail to Mt Morgan

Additionally, carrying weight on your pack strengthens all of your muscles, including those of your posterior chain which is essential for good posture and mitigating back injuries from lifting. Further, weight bearing exercises are critical to maintain bone density, and having strong muscles around your joints protects them from injury as well.  The improved balance from walking on uneven surfaces lessens the likelihood of injuries caused by falls down the line.

Backpacking is also VERY inexpensive compared to many other active pursuits.  Sure you need an initial investment in a good backpack, boots, poles, tent, sleeping bag, and stove, but truth be told, most of these items can be acquired used, borrowed, or purchased at a discount (think REI monthly used gear sale!).  It costs just as much in the way of gas to arrive at a destination whether you are staying in a hotel or camping, but the per night permit fees range from free to $15-20.  I would venture a guess that the average meal at a restaurant while on vacation can easily top $50, but with backpacking you prepare all your own meals.  Even if you opt for the freeze-dried boil in a bag route, your meal cost would usually be less than $10.

Wilderness First Aid skills may come in handy!

Backpacking is also a great opportunity to keep your skills fresh.  Unlike slaving away under fluorescent lights of a gym, backpacking gets you outdoors and tends to ignite curiosity in our natural world.  People often become more interested in learning about the flora, fauna, and geology of different regions.  They become more curious about weather patterns and how they are formed (as you get to experience the pleasant or unpleasant aspects of being surprised by weather!).  There are opportunities to build map reading and navigation skills or learn survival skills if you get more ambitious.

Spectacular Cottonwood Lakes

Finally, if you are not yet convinced, the beautiful scenery, in my humble opinion, is reason enough.  There is something incredibly peaceful and stress relieving about connecting with nature and disconnecting from our daily lives and over-reliance on technology.  Additionally, the time you spend with people out on the trail is truly quality time when there are no distractions and you can really get to know each other.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, but I’m not fit enough.  You can start off easy by not carrying much weight, picking easier flatter trails, and not going in very far.  Age is no excuse either.  Remember the 80 year old woman who showed me who was boss when I was in my twenties?  And many of the people out on the trails are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.  Gender is no excuse either as many women hit the trails each year, even solo.  You would need to learn how to put up a tent or work a camping stove, but given all you have likely navigated many personal and professional challenges up to now, I’m confident you can master these tasks.

Girl power in the back country

How to would someone with no backpacking experience get started?  I am very lucky to live in the Bay Area, a hub of outdoor activity.  It just so happens the SF Bay Sierra Club chapter holds an annual beginner backpacking training that starts people with a  basic hiking level of fitness of and teaches them all the basics about gear, map reading, cooking, etc.

Learning map reading and navigation is an important skill!

Once you have the basics of backpacking down, you have many options.  You can go on shorter more local trips to build your confidence.  You can do the Sierra Club snowcamping training and take those skills to the winter environment.  You can also join guided backpacking excursions such as trips run by the Outdoor Adventure Club or Call of the Wild, a women’s only travel outfitter.

So, no excuses!  Hit the trails and let me know how it goes!

Sunset and moonrise on the way to Mt Langley