Training for backpacking and mountaineering has several components – cardiovascular (both endurance and interval to raise anaerobic threshold), strength training, and “sport specific.”
Sport specific refers trying to mimic the activity as best possible. For example, in mountaineering, we typically carry heavy packs up and down steep slopes over several days for anywhere from 4 to 10 hours on average. It’s tough to mimic those conditions in the gym, but we can do so out on the trails.
I would recommend hiking with the pack you will actually carry in the mountains. This achieves several objectives – gets you more familiar with your gear, gives you a chance to see if there are any issues with the fit (i.e., waist belt digs into your hips), and best simulates the actual conditions of your climb.
Water is the best way to weight your pack. It’s easy to calculate (1 gallon is 8.8# and 1 liter is 2.2#), it’s plentiful and can be convenient on really hot days, and you can pour it out if you need to move faster or your knees are bothering you on the downhill.
A girlfriend of mine once brought 10# boxes of trash compactor bags in her pack, but when we started to run out of daylight and needed to move faster, she couldn’t do anything with those boxes. If she had water, she could have poured it out to lighten her load.
One disadvantage of using water is that it is more dense than the actual gear with which you will fill your pack. This makes the center of gravity feel much lower than it will be on the actual climb.
One standard training principle is to carry the water up to the top of your hike, pour it out, and then descend with a lighter pack to save your knees and legs. I never did this because I find the downhill to be quite challenging. Its also the most dangerous part of most climbs – you have gravity pulling you downward, a false step is more likely to result in a fall, and you are the most tired when descending. I always found it really valuable to train for the descent as well as the ascent.
When I first started climbing, I took the time to research all the major steep day hikes in the Bay Area. I calculated the feet gain per mile to figure out which hikes would give me the best bang for my buck. Mt Diablo tops them all for being a butt kicker that really simulates the strain you’ll experience on a mountain. Mission Peak as also great for its relentless slope and was a great hike to do when I was more pressed for time. Others are good for variety, but I didn’t feel were as beneficial as a staple.
|Mission Peak – Main Trail||6.0||2100||350||Can be very hot in summer, but bring layers and liner gloves as temp can really drop once you gain the ridge near top|
|Mt Diablo North Peak Loop fm Regency Gate||9.9||3100||313||Real butt kicker – when I’m really serious, I would do this one EVERY weekend. Bring a map and lots of water, can be VERY hot in summer.|
|Mt Diablo – 4 peaks of Diablo||16||4700||293||Start in Mitchell Canyon and summit Eagle Peak, main summit, North Peak, and Olympia Peak. Takes ~7.5 hrs.|
|Del Valle to Sunol||19.5||5600||287||Long long hike that requires a car shuttle. I’ve done this twice in about 8.5 hrs|
|Mt Tam – Mtn Home Inn TH||6.5||1500||250||Beautiful hike. Good for variety, but not nearly as hard as top two.|
|Montara Mountain||8||1800||225||Start in Mitchell Canyon and summit Eagle Peak, main summit, North Peak, and Olympia Peak. Takes ~7.5 hrs.|
|Windy Hill – Portola Valley Loop||7.2||1400||195||This has a long flat start and the grade is not consistent, but this is a good alternative for variety.|
|Wunderlich Skyline Loop||10.0||1800||180||Wooded and cooler in summer. Well-marked trails. Gentle grade but continuous slope. Good for endurance but not very grueling.|
All distances and altitude gains are based on publicly available info, my own recollection and use of an altitude watch, or maps. If you redo any of these maps with your own GPS, feel free to send me your stats so I can improve the accuracy of this chart.
Please feel free to shoot me any questions or share any other local hike gems you may have. Finally, I’ll put in a plug for my friends at BodyResults. Most of what I’ve learned, I’ve learned from Courtney Schurman who has been writing my training programs for the last decade for big objectives. Call of the Wild clients get special discounts at www.bodyresults.com/wild.
Hope this helps your progress toward your backpacking and climbing dreams!