5 essential upper body exercises to help backpackers on the road

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Give your legs a break: Building your upper body is one of the most overlooked ways to improve your backpacking experience. Spending some training time on your arms and torso will provide serious benefits to your balance, strength and comfort in more demanding terrain. Perform these upper-body exercises twice a week for backpackers, along with a HIIT cardio move, such as burpees, to build strength without bulk.

Oblique crunches

Oblique crunches simulate the movement of fast balancing on moving rocks or logs. Hold a weight in one hand, your other hand on your hip, and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Lower the weight to your side and bend your abdomen. Reverse the movement at your lowest point, placing the weight right around your knee, making sure you’re only moving back and forth, not forward or backward. Do three sets of ten for each side with a weight heavy enough to do the required reps while controlling the movement.

best upper body exercises for backpackers - deadlift
DeadliftLance Goyke

Deadlifts

Deadlifts are a great compound move that will work every muscle on the back half of your body. Stronger back muscles means less strain on your back with heavier loads and longer days in the backcountry. Start with your legs shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent and back straight. Grab the weight and slowly lift it off the floor, straightening your knees and keeping your spine straight. Lift until you stand upright, pull your shoulder blades back slightly, then gently lower back to the floor. Start with three sets of ten, using a weight that pushes you to the brink of failure on the last rep.

wood chops

Wood chops are another great oblique exercise that also works your back and shoulders. Raise a single-handle cable machine to its highest position. Look 45 degrees away from the machine and grasp the handle with both hands. Pull down and rotate your core until the handle is at your waist on the opposite side of your body. Reverse the movement and do three sets of ten on each side. Not only will this help with your balance, but it also simulates putting on your pack, which can save your back the stress of repeatedly lifting your pack. If you don’t have a cable machine, the timepiece can also be done with free weights. Do three sets of ten reps with a weight you can control throughout the movement.

ab wheel rollout - upper body exercises for backpackers
Ab wheels are great for upper body strength. (Photo: Vladimir Sukhachev/iStock via Getty)

Ab Wheel Rollouts

Ab wheel rollouts are one of the best exercises for overall core strength. Start on your knees with your back bent and both hands on the handlebars. Slowly lower yourself, keeping your arms straight until you are an inch off the floor, or as far forward as your muscles allow. As you roll out, slowly extend your body from bent to completely straight. Reverse the movement at the bottom and flex your abs as you roll back to the starting position. If your back starts to hurt, stop the exercise and adjust your posture back to a neutral spine. Do three sets of ten, with minimal rest between sets. The advantage of statically working your abs – slowly and with purpose – is more control over your torso. This comes in handy on steep or rocky terrain, where being able to quickly adjust your center of gravity can save you from potentially dangerous situations.

dips
Improve your stability with this simple upper body exercise. (Photo: filadendron / E+ via Getty)

dips

Dips work your chest and triceps, and will help you feel more stable on your canes, relieve some strain on your legs, and help you on uneven terrain or steep slopes. Start on a dive machine or bars with both arms extended and at your sides, your legs hanging. Bend your arms until they are 90 degrees, lower your body and then straighten them, pushing your body back up. If no machine is available, use two benches, placing your legs on one and your hands on the other. Remove your legs from the bench to make the exercise easier. Perform three sets of ten.

More fitness tips for backpackers

The best way to build a fitness foundation for hiking: hiking. But if you spend time off-trail training, you’ll go faster, feel more comfortable, and get less injured in the backcountry.

Originally published in June 2018; last updated January 2022

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