Off Season Cross-Training for Hiking and Backpacking

Winter is fast approaching, weather windows for hiking and backpacking are rapidly diminishing (if not completely vanishing), and it is time to think about cross training for next hiking season. I’m sure some of you will be layering on long underwear, fleeces, and waterproof jacket and venturing out into the west coast rain. Others are trading in your hiking boots for snowshoes and skies Others still are heading south for sunnier, drier conditions. And some of you may be thinking ‘well, I guess those trails can wait until next year…’

Well, this post is for those of you who are hibernating and waiting for fair weather and sunny skies. Although I love hiking and camping in the winter (I’m a bit masochistic, what can I say?), winter is a particularly great time to strengthen my body for all the beautiful hikes that I have my eye on for next year.

Stamina & Cardio for Hiking

Building a strong cardio and strength foundation provides a great launching pad for jumping into your fair-er weather activities. If your goals focus on hiking farther and faster, leg strength and cardio stamina are obviously paramount. The first thing that will pop into your head is ‘oh, running’, and I’m here to tell you: fuck that noise. I don’t actually have anything against running, more so I just generally resent that it is the ubiquitous ‘get in shape’ option and yet doesn’t work for so many people! I believe that the best exercise is the one that you will *actually* do (weekly Zumba that you look forward to is infinitely better than a monthly run you really hate). Find the exercise that you love doing and works for your body.

Post workout endorphin high! When I’m struggling to get to the gym, I focus on the immediate pay-off of feeling proud and energized from the workout!

Spin Class

I admit that I’m a pretty dedicated spin class attendee. I absolutely love it because I can get a really good all-around cardio session and leg workout in before work or at lunch time. Spin also works really well for my body because it’s low impact (I am missing most of the cartilage in a knee) and hits my hamstrings (a notorious weak spot for me).

Spin can get a bad rap for being clique-y and ‘basic’; however, I’ve found that such an atmosphere is very studio-specific. Taking the time to try a few places and find a welcoming, inclusive environment that champions performance and personal improvement rather than punishment for eating that cookie can make all the difference between looking forward to class and avoiding class studiously.

Stair Master

If you need to strengthen hiking hills (without being able to conveniently climb some hills), your best bet is probably walking up stairs. A lot. Although not the sexiest or most exciting exercise, I swear there is nothing comparable for conditioning your legs and core. A few sessions a week of 20 minutes can make a tremendous difference when you go to climb your first mountain of the summer. I generally use pre-set circuits on the stair master, throw on a podcast, and peacefully grind it out.

A word of caution: When using a stair master with independent peddles it’s possible to chronically take larger steps with one leg than the other and create a leg- and back-imbalance, so if you have the option, the ‘rolling staircase’ is always a better choice.

Cross Training for Fun and Injury Prevention

Tackling new trails, sports, or challenges is infinitely easier with an all-around healthy body, so winter is a great opportunity to target everything that was neglected while the weather was pristine and the mountains called. There is more to a healthy body than hammering out cardio and calling it a day. Taking the time to target your mobility, flexibility, and complimentary muscle groups will pay out in spades when you next hit the trail. A little research will go a long way, and here are some starting points as you ponder your winter training regime!

Target your weaknesses

Many injuries arise from a weakness in your body or muscle imbalance, so using the winter to target your weaknesses will make you less susceptible to injuries. If you don’t know where to target your attention, a consultation and evaluation with a personal trainer can be immensely valuable. The trainer will direct you towards the exercises and activities that complement your existing strengths. If a consultation is out of the question, think back to what exercises you really dislike and try to avoid – often you subconsciencly (or even consciencly) avoid the exercises where you are weakest! Personally, I avoided any kind of crunches, or plank like the plague…until I injured my lower back as a result of a weak core. Now I’m working very hard at slowly and carefully at building up my core strength

Try a new sport

The best exercise is the one you enjoy and are excited to participate in, so why not try a new sport? Depending on where you live, you may face different weather and environmental barriers; however, I’m confident you can find a fun way to keep active!

A beautiful winter hike following a rare snowfall.

If you want to stay outside, try snowshoeing! Not as expensive as skiing or snowboarding, snowshoeing is a fun, accessible winter sport. Lots of ski hills will have well-marked snowshoe tracks to explore. Keep in mind that when slogging along a snowy trail on snowshoes, the terrain may appear unfamiliar and your pace will dramatically decrease from hiking, so plan your day accordingly.

If snow is out of the question, trying indoor rock climbing is a great option! Not only can you suss out whether you may one day be keen on mountaineering and outdoor climbing, it’s a great full body workout that will hit all kinds of muscles that hiking usually neglects. Climbing bonus: after taking up climbing, I became far more sure-footed when hiking on slippery roots, rocks, and scrambling!


People. Yoga is amazing. Honestly, I’m a huge advocate of 20 – 30 minutes of yoga every day (although I don’t always follow my own advice) because it’s a powerhouse combination of stability, flexibility, mobility, and meditation all wrapped into one glorious, efficient activity. Yoga styles are incredibly varied and you can tailor your practice to suit your needs, be they spiritual or secular, intense or mild. If you’ve never done yoga before, a beginner’s class is a great place to start and learn the basic techniques. Once you understand the practice, I love to use online videos to guide and deepen my practice. There are tons of great websites like Do Yoga With Me that provide free videos to try and explore!

There are lots of fun and different types of cross training available to you during the winter that might feel like a chore during the summer (who wants to be inside on a beautiful sunny day after work?), so enjoy taking advantage of the darkness and the cold. A fun, active winter will set you up for a spectacular hiking or backpacking season come spring!

How are you going to spend your winter?

The dream: heading off on a new hike one beautiful, summery day. Winter training will help my summer adventures be safer and farther!

I am not a health and fitness professional or expert. All information provided above is based on personal, empirical evidence and through conversations with professionals. Use at your own discretion.

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