When it comes t enjoying yourself in the outdoors, especially in the remote wilderness of Wrangell St. Elias National Park, good physical conditioning is one of the cornerstones. There is no worse feeling than being on the trip of a lifetime and not being able to fully enjoy it because you’re out of shape. How much physical conditioning you do depends on your current level of fitness and the trip you’re signed up for. Unfortunately, most of us are so busy that we put off our workouts until it’s too late and we arrive in Alaska wishing we’d gotten started earlier. We don’t want this to happen so here are some hints for getting into shape before your trip!
Create a plan – sit down and map out a plan for how you will reach your fitness goal before your trip. Keep your plan realistic to avoid frustration. Write down intermediate milestones on your calendar so you can enjoy little successes along the way.
Start early – Giving yourself plenty of time allows you to slowly work up to your goal. This will decrease your risk of an injury and build a solid fitness base. For many people starting training a month or more in advance is a good rule of thumb.
Find a partner – Working out alone can be tough. Most people find that training with a partner can help make workouts fun and can help keep you on track even when the motivation to work out is low.
Do trip specific exercises – There is no better substitute for training for an activity than by doing that ery activity. The more experience you have in the mountains, the better your body will deal with small and likely discomforts. If you can’t do the activity itself, try to mimic it the best you can. Bring a weighted backpack to the gym to simulate your upcoming trip.
Have training on your mind – Focusing on a goal will definitely help you get there. You’ll start to notice all the time you are just standing – brushing your teeth, waiting for an Uber – could you be stretching? Maybe bust out a few squats? Sprinkling in micro-workouts into your day will help you stay feeling athletic and motivated.
Train in the gear you’ll use on the trip – Wear the hiking boots, rain gear, base layers, sunglasses, hats, etc that you’ll wear on your trip. Not only will you get used to how it works but you’ll get to test it out and make sure you like it.
Get plenty of rest – Rest days are crucial for the body to recover and build strength. Going hard every day of the week with no time for rest is a recipe for injury and injury from training is the top reason for cancelling a trip like this. Build in rest days to get the most out of your training regiment.
For backpacking and mountaineering trips we highly recommend a strict training regiment, starting anywhere from 2-6 months prior to your trip. The aspects of physical fitness you want to focus on are core and leg strength, balance, mobility and endurance.
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.
Balance – 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.
Mobility – 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 cause 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.
Endurance – Usually the most obvious component of physical preperation 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. 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 tread mill with a backpack on!
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.
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.
Preparing yourself mentally, especially if this type of trip will be new to you, can be as important if not more important than physical fitness. A good positive attitude can make all the difference on a wilderness trip!
Inform yourself – If this type of trip is new to you gather all the information you can so you know what to expect. This website is a great starting point but our office staff is also more than happy to answer questions and give advice. Books and articles are also great sources of information as long as they’re from reputable sources.
Practice makes perfect – Practice activities that you’ll be doing on your trip until you’re proficient in doing them. Experimenting with packing your backpack, taking care of your contact lenses in the tent, or tying your shoes with gloves on at home will give you one less thing to worry about when you’re on your trip.
Mountaineers, practice your transitions – getting ready to head out, skiers switching from uphill to downhill mode.
Go outside in all types of weather – Let’s face it, the weather in Alaska changes frequently and can cover the span of several seasons in a single day! Practice being outside in all types of weather. If you’ve never hiked in the rain, try it out. Not only will you get used to it and maybe even find it enjoyable, but it will give you a chance to work out the kinks in your gear.
Embrace the unknown – Part of coming to Alaska is the wonder and excitement that comes with exploring a new place. Practice letting yourself explore and experience life with child-like curiosity and remember to stay flexible, expecting the unexpected. On a true adventure something will go awry and most often, how you deal with it becomes the most memorable part of the trip!
Having your gear dialed in and knowing how to use it is a great way to get excited about your trip and spend less time figuring it out while you’re on vacation. Experiment with clothing, backpacks, footwear, etc at home until you find what works for you. Our gear lists tell you what you need to bring and our office staff is happy to answer questions.
Break in your boots – new boots and Alaska’s rough terrain don’t mix. Break in your boots at least a month prior to your trip. Wear them to work or around the house. Wearing mountaineering boots in the office can be a great conversation starter.
Pack your backpack – Fully pack your backpack and wear it before coming to Alaska. Experiment with ways to cut down the weight of the pack and organize things so they’re easy to find when you need them. Have the staff at your local gear shop make sure your pack fits properly.
Experiment with clothing combinations – layered clothing works great in Alaska’s unpredictable weather. Experiment with clothing combinations that allow you to be comfortable in a wide range of weather. Practice putting the clothing on so you can see how it works together. Go out and do trip-specific activities in the clothes you’ll be wearing so you can work out the kinks.
Sow and patch – Look over all your fabric items and take care of any holes, tears and hanging string or poking feathers at home. Little micro-tears can end up eating away your entire jacket if you accidently snag the wrong branch in the backcountry. Practice gear repair at home so you can also easily manage smaller fixes in the field.
Rewaterproof older gear – New and quality waterproof gear usually works great (make sure it is “waterproof” and not just “water-resistant’), but after you’ve used it for a while, the waterproof coating tends to wear off. The item usually still has a lot of life left in it and can benefit for a little TLC. Depending on the materials the item is made out of, there is likely some type of wax, spray or wash that will get it back to fully hydrophobic. Check with the manufacturer to make sure you’re using the recommended products.
Use the new gear at least once – By the time your trip rolls around, make sure you’ve taken out the shiny new item out of the box, read the instructions, tried it on or tested it out at least once and are at least 80% confident in understanding how it works. Using the item on the trip will get you the rest of the way there, but make sure you have some familiarity to build upon.
Look at your gear critically – In most cases, “less is more” in the outdoors. Too much gear can be confusing and cumbersome and who wants to be confused and encumbered on their vacation! Think hard about how and when you will use a piece of gear and make sure it’s worth bringing. Oftentimes “just in case” items can be unnecessary and take up a lot of space.