Talk to enough guides and outfitters and you’ll find their number one complaint is dealing with doughy, out-of-shape clients in the mountains. Money might be able to buy you a ticket to hunting adventure anywhere in the world. But getting close to game in rugged, backcountry terrain almost always means hiking many miles, day after day, under the burden of a heavy pack.
This requires a special kind of fitness you’re not going to find in a gym or in the organic food section of your local grocery store. It requires the kind of stamina you can’t build lifting weights alone or racking up the miles on a weekly running schedule. To be in the best mental and physical shape for backpacking, you really have to strap on pack (preferably the one you’re going to be hunting with) get outside and do some hiking.
A 16-Week Plan
When it comes to the smartest and safest method of training average people to cover long distances carrying everything they need on their back, no one has looked at the problem more closely than the U.S. military.
Air Force PJ (pararescue jumper) and military fitness expert, Nate Morrison, introduced what is now one of the most successful conditioning programs of its kind in 2007 for the Army Times.
In soldier-speak, “ruck marching” is hiking (or marching) with a weighted pack for long distances over varied terrain. Morrison’s program was designed for both raw recruits and experienced soldiers looking to get back on track after a long layoff from rucking. A systematic, 16-week progression, Morrison’s program is simple, well organized and—for anyone planning a backcountry bowhunt this coming year—a perfect fit for the four-month window now remaining before western hunting seasons kick off in the U.S. in September.
The guidelines are simple:
During the course of routine, you “ruck march” twice per week. This should give your nervous system, bones, tendons and ligaments adequate time to recover if you rest at least two days between sessions and possibly even a third or fourth day if you’re doing any additional running or resistance training.
In the original program, Morrison recommends hiking at specific tempos (e.g. fast/slow, slow/fast), depending on the week. Generally speaking, a good tempo is one where you can still comfortably maintain a conversation; for most people, that will work out to around a 15- to 20-minute-per-mile pace.
It should go without saying, but since there are no sidewalks or paved roads in the backcountry you should hike on uneven, hilly terrain whenever possible. Use the same boot/sock combination and the same pack that you plan to use on your hunt. Likewise, you shouldn’t even attempt this program if you can’t already walk five miles, unloaded without doubling over with leg and lower-back pain.
The first week of the program starts with a five-mile hike with 20-percent of your body weight loaded in your pack. If you don’t know how to figure out the percent of a number, that’s what Google is for. The 16-week progression looks like this:
WEEK PERCENT OF BODY WEIGHT/LOAD MILEAGE
1 20% 5 miles
2 20% 5 miles
3 25% 5 miles
4 25% 5 miles
5 30% 5 miles
6 30% 5 miles
7 35% 5 miles
8 35% 5 miles
9 40% 5 miles
10 40% 5 miles
11 40% 6 miles
12 40% 8 miles
13 40% 10 miles
14 40% 12 miles
15 40% 14 miles
16 40% 16 miles