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Winter Conditioning for Hiking and Snowshoeing

Winter Hiking is Fun
Winter Hiking is Fun

Winter day hiking and snowshoeing require a higher degree of physical fitness than hiking during the rest of the year because you need to carry more clothes, gear, emergency supplies, food and all of the water you need in sub-freezing weather. How much more depends on the type of terrain, weather, and distance you plan to cover, but you should probably prepare for a 100 – 200% increase over your 3 season pack weight. That can be quite a shock if you’re used to carrying under 20 pounds for 3 season hiking.

Besides carrying a heavier pack, you will also be wearing much heavier footwear, gaiters, and traction. That’s the real killer for me. I’m not used to wearing heavy boots and traction and it’s hard to train for it when there’s so little snow near my house.

For example:

  • Snowshoes weigh between 4 pounds per pair
  • Crampons weigh between 1 to 3 pounds per pair
  • Microspikes weigh 12 ounces
  • Technical, knee-high gaiters weigh about 10 ounces
  • Sorel pack boots weigh 3 – 4 pounds a pair
  • Mountaineering boots weight 3 – 5 pounds per pair

One rule of thumb is that one pound on your feet feels like the 5 more pounds in your pack, so wearing 8 pounds of footware (boots + snowshoes, for example), is the equivalent of carrying an additional 40 pounds of gear in your pack. Add in a couple thousand feet of elevation change, and it’s no wonder that winter hiking is a lot more strenuous.

Getting in Shape Outdoors

The best way to get into shape for winter hiking and snowshoeing is to do it. Start slow if you’re not used to carrying the extra weight in your pack or on your feet and build up your endurance over time. For me the end-goal is to be able to hike 8 hours days with about 3,000 feet of elevation gain, but your mileage may vary if you’re not a winter peakbagger.

It can be challenging to get in shape however if there isn’t sufficient snow, elevation change, daylight, or you don’t have enough free time to get out and hike in full winter gear several days per week. I think that describe most of us, unfortunately!

Instead, I make a point to get out at least once a week for a major day hike, which in my case is usually an all-day peakbagging trip with about 8 miles of hiking and 2,000 feet of elevation change.  I start with smaller mountains and shorter hikes earlier in the season and try to peak (a pun) by early to mid February so that I’m in shape to go after more strenuous peaks with 3,000 – 4,000 feet of elevation gain or multi-day backpacking trips.

If we get snow in Boston, which is two hours south of the mountains, I make a point to go snowshoeing or hiking two additional days per week with a full pack in the woods near my house. I can do a 7 mile loop hike there with about 1,000 feet of elevation gain in a few hours, but I am lucky to have a schedule that permits me to take afternoons off.

Getting in Shape in the Gym

If you can’t work weekday training hikes and snowshoes into your schedule, gym workouts can be just as effective as long as you are consistent with them and ratchet up their intensity. I try to do over 60 minutes of fairly strenuous cardio a few days a week and switch off between a number of different machines including a stationary bike, rowing machine, and an elliptical within the same workout. I used to do a lot more weight training than I do today, but these exercises, particularly the rowing machine, provide me with plenty of resistance to add leg strength and endurance at the same time. In addition, I swim laps a few days a week to work out my upper body.

I also do functional exercises that work my core muscles because they help me stabilize a heavier winter pack. I do a lot of planks and plank variants with a bosu ball, knee raises, weighted russian twists on an incline board, hyper-extensions to work my hamstrings and lower back, and some kettle bell work to develop explosive power in my hips.This combination works pretty well for me, but I am constantly changing it up to prevent my body from getting used to one workout.

How do you get in shape for winter hiking and snowshoeing?

10 comments

  1. I've been 1/2 marathon training and after hiking last weekend was very happy to see that pure cardio work translates well.

    For indoor training (as shameful as it is to admit), Jillian Michaels DVDs are epic/intensive workouts. Her strength/cardio/abs integration is perfect for building leg muscle, wind & core strength. Seriously, check them out.

  2. Good question, now that I'm in Florida for a while. The one thing I've done most of my life to keep in shape is running/jogging. I'm new to winter hiking and will be doing some in February and March in my AMC (southeastern Mass) chapter group. Considering what you have mentioned above, I need to add gym work. And, I'll add deep knee bends and pushups to my jogging routine. Good post.

  3. My knees can't take the running, but I should probably do more squats. Good reminder. Thx!

  4. There is nothing like hiking to train for hiking. But I have found a great deal of benefit from DVDs like the previous post. I haven't tried Jillian Michael's yet (I find her TV persona a turn off). P90X was the gateway drug that got me out of the house and into backpacking. Later I did the INSANITY workouts and now I'm testing P90X2 which is a core-extravaganza. Legs, core and shoulders are critical to me. I don't like the gym, so DVDs help me stay in shape for the trail. Starting snowshoeing last year, I could hear the trainers from the DVDs encouraging me to press on when I realized the weight situation you talk about. I've even used these sort of programs as a baseline to talk new hikers out on serious hikes.

  5. Any "sample" gym based summaries? Like specific exercises for lower/ upper body? Reps, sets? I am really interested in specifics.

  6. Here's a post with some more specifics – http://sectionhiker.com/unstable-and-imbalanced-a

    I've had multiple routines over the years that isolated specific muscles, mainly to overcome muscular imbalances in physical therapy (shoulders, knees) and for sports-specific trailing, mainly hips/core for whitewater kayaking. About, 5 years ago I moved completely away from isolation exercises to more functional and complex/compound ones that enlist multiple muscle groups synergistically. It' much more efficient time-wise and mimics real life activity.

    Like you, I'm guessing, I got into this as a result of physical therapy, (I trust physical therapists), after the doctors wanted to put me in body casts or cut open my knees, etc. Luckily I ignored them.

    Check out that web site that I mention in the above link. They have a lot of functional exercise movies on it and I still refer to them often when I want to plan something new.

  7. Leading up to any “big” hike..I max out an elliptical machine both on elevation and tension..load my day pack with 50 lbs and kick it for 60 min

  8. Hike and climb in the Spring – Fall, backcountry ski in the winter. Work outs in the gym during the week if I can’t sneak out after work. Stay active and the rest will follow. The key is to find something you enjoy and DO IT. :)
    ps. What’s are these snowshoes you speak of? ;-)

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