Tech Tip – Training for Alaska Backpacking and Mountaineering

Two mountaineers approach a snowy slope


Backpacking and mountaineering in Alaska have at least one similarity – you’re going to be schlepping gear. That means a heavy load on your back, or maybe split between your back and a sled if you’re climbing one of AK’s bigger peaks. Most commonly, you’ll also be moving on a slope, whether up or down or traversing across a steep incline. These trips are some of the hardest (and most epic) in their categories, so being physically prepared will make a big difference in your experience and the overall success of the trip.

So how do you train for a challenge like this? There are many schools of thought, books, and programs on this subject and it can be difficult to figure out what’s going to work best for you. Over the last +40 years of guiding backpacking and mountaineering trips in Alaska’s greatest wilderness, Wrangell – St. Elias National Park, we’ve seen a lot of climbers, skiers, and backpackers and want to share what we’ve found to work best.


Three photos of Alaska backpacking and mountaineering

What’s most important?


Core and Leg Strength

Every day of your trip you’ll be carrying a heavy backpack (40-60lbs depending on the trip) and maybe even pulling a sled full of gear, too. You’ll see a benefit from almost any strength training, but we recommend to focus your training on your lower body and your core so you can move through uneven terrain, uphill, and downhill with a very heavy pack on.


Often overlooked, balance training can greatly improve your performance in the backcountry where there isn’t a flat spot to be found. Out there you will constantly be using very specific balancing muscles to micro-adjust as you step over logs and branches, push through thick brush, crawl over boulders, or swim through thigh-deep snow – all with a heavy pack on! These muscles don’t get used much when you spend most of your days in buildings or on sidewalks, so focused training can really help you make a smooth transition from front-country to backcountry.


On these trips, you’ll often find yourself performing motions that you don’t often do in your everyday life – big or wide steps, squatting, crawling, reaching and pulling, etc. You’ll also be putting your body through other stressors like sleeping on a thin sleeping pad, which causes the body to tighten up. Make sure that your body is flexible and prepared for these movements and stresses with focused mobility training. Starting this part of your training early will help you prevent training injuries.


Usually, the most obvious component of physical preparation is endurance-focused training. Consider what types of exercises will simulate your upcoming trip the best and work with those. Remember, that often the terrain prevents us from moving very quickly, so get your body ready to move slowly or at a comfortable pace but for extended periods of time.


What activities are best?


Hiking, Trail Running, Backpacking

There is no better substitute for training for an activity than by doing that activity itself – practice how you play! The more experience you have in the mountains, the better your body will deal with small and likely discomforts. Anywhere you can walk for extended periods of time, especially that are rugged and have changes in elevation – go there! If you don’t have access to backcountry-like terrain, hit the stairs or the treadmill with a backpack on!

Yoga, Pilates

Yoga and similar activities like pilates are a great way to prepare the body for an upcoming trip. We recommend some type of stretching routine to help with mobility and yoga specifically also works a lot with balance. Yoga can help build and maintain a basic amount of strength and certain practices can have a stronger focus on strength building. Yoga also teaches breathing techniques and its meditative qualities are great for preparing the mind for your big adventure.

Are there any activities to avoid?

Activities where you aren’t bearing your full body weight like swimming or biking won’t be quite as helpful as “full-gravity” activities like hiking or running. Swimming and biking both have a ton of other benefits however and if they are what motivates you, keep them in your routine, just balance them out with more strength-building.

Be careful and don’t go too hard! Injuries caused by training are the #1 reason for our clients to cancel their trips and the irony is just devastating! Don’t let it happen to you! Start early and aim for a slow progression with lots of rest and recovery built into your program.


Three photos of physical training activities

Commercial Training Programs


There are a million different training programs out there and you can likely find success with many of them. Here we have a few recommendations that we have personal experience with and recommend first-hand:

Uphill Athlete – Founded by one of the greatest alpinists of our time and an olympic coach, Uphill Athlete is the best training program in the industry that focuses specifically on mountain pursuits.

GMB Fitness – Somewhere between yoga and martial arts, this unique practice combines balance, mobility and strength training.

Yoga Body – This program combines science and traditional yoga for a powerful stretching and breathing routine for increased flexibility, mobility, and mindfulness.

MadFit – Free 5-45min fast-paced workout videos you can do anywhere, often with no equipment required. Great for travel or folks with limited space and time.

Yoga with Adriene – A YouTube staple, Adriene has a free yoga practice for every level, every occasion, every focus, and every time frame. This is a great place to start if you are new to yoga.


Remember that a fully prepared mountain athlete trains both body and mind. Check out our advice on mental prep for a big trip in the Wrangells!

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