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  • Writer's pictureCoach Guyer

Training for Backcountry Hunting with Limited Time & Gear

With the western hunting seasons just over 2 months away, hunters across the map are planning trips, purchasing tags, sending deposits to hunting guides to lock in their spot, purchasing new gear, spending hours upon hours staring at Google Earth and OnX maps, shooting their weapon of choice, buying plane tickets, and making arrangements for all the missed time from work and family as they lay out the ultimate plan for finding success this season.  I know because I’m one of them!

I’m also a full time trainer/strength and conditioning coach with close to 2 decades of in the trenches experience training backcountry athletes and learning from all of the research and development that goes into designing and implementing effective and sustainable training programs.  In fact, my very first client hired me while I was still working on my undergrad in Exercise Science back in the early 2000s to help him prepare for an elk hunt in the mountains of MT.  Over the years I’ve helped many hunters prepare for the specific demands of pursuing wild game in some very physically demanding terrain as they embark on adventures lasting a week to 10 days, several weeks, a month, or for some, such as guides or big woods hunters in the northeast, several months at a time. 

But sadly, it is without fail that at the end of every season I will be in a conversation with someone who simply didn’t get his or her priorities straight and “screwed the pooch” as we like to call it, when it came to their physical preparation.  So many hunters forget that the most important piece of hunting equipment, the one thing that makes all of these adventures we go on possible, the thing that gets us in and out safely and effectively and provides us the opportunity to do it day after day, week after week, month after month…Your mind and your body.  Both of which can be trained to help you be a more effective predator in the woods and most importantly a more effective human being in the sport of life.

So, with the seasons quickly approaching and some of you a bit behind the ball with your physical prep and now realizing how important it is, you’re likely asking yourself what you can start doing now to help you prepare for the season ahead?  And is it even worth it?  You’re damn right it’s worth it!  You can make some really awesome adaptations over the course of 6-8 weeks.  The adaptations, or changes your body can make with an evidence based approach to your training are actually quite profound when implemented effectively and consistently over that period of time.  It won’t be as good as a 32 week approach like many of our dedicated backcountry athletes commit to each year, but let’s not dwell on what we can’t change here, you’ve got 6-8 weeks and you’re going to make it great where you are right now and with the time you’ve got to do it! 

(Shameless plug incoming) Lucky for you we’ve got a really kick a$$ program we call “Packin’ Heavy” that helps the backcountry athlete prepare for the seasons ahead with just their pack, some sandbags (that we show you how to make) and a sturdy box or cooler to step up on.  It’s a ruck based program that includes videos and coaching tutorials for every piece of the training, and it has proven year after year to help athletes prepare for the seasons ahead when time is of the essence. Learn more about Packin’ Heavy on the Ridgeline Athlete website.

Sales pitch completed let’s learn a bit more about the physiological adaptations that will need to take place for you to be stronger longer in the woods this season.



It’s vital that you develop a more robust aerobic foundation or an aerobic base, aka your “cardio”.  Aerobic training ‘with oxygen’ is typically low to moderate in intensity, where there is enough oxygen rich blood being supplied to the muscles to satisfy the demand for it.  Thus, you are able to sustain the activity over long periods of time with a pace that is maybe slightly strained.  I tell athletes that you should be able to link 2 sentences together without a big breath between, but likely not more than that.  Your aerobic foundation is what allows all other metabolic processes to take place, and when it’s compromised or weak, any physical activity you engage in will be compromised as well.  Essentially, having a more robust aerobic system will help you stave off the increase of lactate accumulation in the blood when the intensity of the activity gets tougher such as when you find yourself engaged in steeper ascents or descents or an increase in speed.  The accumulation of lactate is what causes muscular fatigue and contributes to that burn you feel in the muscles when you start pushing a little harder.  Building a stronger aerobic base or foundation will help you increase your aerobic threshold which means you will be able to sustain higher intensities of work for longer periods of time.


Layman’s terms; it’s hard to do much of anything if you can’t breathe.  On top of that your cognitive performance and decision-making will be negatively impacted by this fatigue, as well as your recovery, your sleep, your strength and power, mood, etc.  Not to mention your all-cause mortality risk is higher than those folks with a stronger cardiovascular system so you are likely going to die sooner too.   Your hunting comrades or your guide would much rather help you haul a dead animal out of the woods than your dead body.  I think you probably get the point.




For the backcountry athlete, aerobic training can be accomplished very effectively with a pack on your back, also called “rucking”, utilizing loads that get progressively heavier each week(s).  We refer to this as “progressive overload.”  In our pack training programs we utilize a percentage of your BW, or a percentage of your max potential pack out weight should you be successful in harvesting an animal that you will then need to cut up and pack out of the woods.  So, for the solo elk hunters out there that might mean hauling a pack with 100# or more when packing out your harvest.  I had this great fortune last season on a solo elk hunt, and I was quite thankful for my training and preparation throughout the offseason as I hauled elk meat up and out of that canyon.   

Where do you start?


For the novice you should start light, 10-15% of BW is plenty, and work on increasing your total mileage and time “under the straps” with that load for a few weeks before adding another 5-10%.  If you’re starting this whole training thing a bit late and have just a few months left before your hunt, I would strongly advise against just diving in all guns a blazing and trying to increase the load in your pack too quickly.  Sudden increases in volume, intensity and type of activity are the best ways to sustain a non-contact soft tissue injury.  In other words, too much too quick, and too much volume of a new stress are a recipe for injury.  There’s a break in period that you have to honor, otherwise you’re apt to pay for it later. 


I liken it to purchasing a new pair of premium hunting boots.  You wouldn’t buy those boots the week before the hunt and expect things to go well now would you?  You’d likely be in a world of hurt, with blisters, hot spots, sore Achilles and calves, etc.  We all know you need to break them in over the course of months before you take off on a week-long hunt.  Your body is no different, you must go through a ramp up period by way of Frequency, Intensity, Type and Time (FITT), an acronym us exercise science geeks refer to often.


With all the time, energy and resources that you’ve put into this hunt, regardless of duration, you want to go on that hunt healthy, so be responsible over the next 6-8 weeks so you can get there in one piece.  And next year smarten the fack up and get started on this training thing a bit sooner so that you can get closer to your athletic potential and be an aerobic beast in the mountains. 


Building your aerobic foundation isn’t all that complex, nor should it be, but it will require some consistent training time each week.  Here’s my coaching recommendation for the guy or gal who’s a bit late to the party, realizes they screwed up and wants to do everything possible over the next 6-8 weeks to prepare.

Shameless plug number 2: You can spend $99 to purchase a comprehensive training resource that has all of this laid out for you on top of other health and wellness training resources included in the program. Even better you can join a team of like minded backcountry athletes and train online, anytime & anywhere, interact with your coach & other athletes, ask questions about training, hunting tactics and gear, get exclusive discounts and monitor/measure/track your progress & performance through the Ridgeline Athlete online training platform.

Day 1: Interval Training Ruck

10-15 sets in moderate to steep terrain or 12-15% incline on a treadmill if no access to hills. Load your pack with 10-20% of BW for the novice and 20-30% for more experienced hunters.  Hike as fast as you can without running for :45 to 1:00 then active recovery for a similar time.  The active recovery can be walking back down the hill or a light walk on flat ground if using a treadmill. 


Day 2: Endurance Ruck

This is a longer training day that typically works well on the weekends for those with busy schedules during the week.  Load your pack with 10-20% of BW for novice and 20-30% for more experienced hunters and head out for a steady state, zone 2 ruck.  Remember zone 2 is sustainable at a strained conversational pace.  Ideally this session will be 1.5 – 2hrs long or longer. 


Day 3: Heavy Ruck

The heavy ruck day is where you begin adapting to heavier and heavier loads in your pack.  These rucks will be a slow grind, more of a test of your mind and body’s durability than fitness.  It won’t be comfortable.  Start with 30-40 minutes and build up by 10 minutes each week without taking the pack off. 


Novice athletes will start with 20-30% of BW, or you can use a percentage of your maximum potential pack out load.  On that solo elk hunt I mentioned earlier I brought out one load that was appx 110#, and of course it was in a hell hole with a ton of dead fall.  If using % of packout weight for a big game animal, I would recommend starting at 30-40% and increasing by 5-10% each week over the course of 6-8 weeks.  You won’t reach the full packout load and that’s alright.  I would advise you at least load up the pack and walk around the yard at that weight, while also practicing “getting it up” and on your shoulders, sometimes without a rock or a log to set it on.  I do advise looking for this type of assistance though, as many of the injuries I’ve seen or rehabbed folks from with packing out animals happen when trying to get the pack on their back or a stumble and fall with it on rather than just the grind of a heavy pack out. 


So, there you have it, coaching tips from a real coach who has been around the block a time or two with hunting big game and training backcountry hunters.  I won’t chirp you any longer for not starting sooner, you get the point, and my hope is that you understand you can still make some big gainz in your strength and endurance if you start tomorrow. Stronger Longer baby!

Successful elk hunt
Elk hunting

There are plenty of very successful hunters out there who don’t train at all, I see it all the time. They just go out there each season and start hunting, with no real time dedicated to their physical preparation. The devil is typically in the details and many times these guys or gals have a job that has them on their feet every day, (carpenters, loggers, landscapers, foresters, masons, farmers, auto techs, etc.) and they forget that this is actually training them to be more prepared for the demands of backcountry hunting simply by being on their feet every day.  Sweat every day is some great advice to live by. And watch your step count. If you're getting 15-20,000 steps each day you're going to be far more "prepared" than those who get just 5-10,000/day. That's a difference of appx. 300,000 steps a month. Your body was designed to move, and movement is medicine.  Those who move every day are proven to live longer, happier, more physically capable lives, excelling in the woods and most importantly in the sport of life.  Good luck to all of you this season, and most importantly – keep charging!

Coach Adrian Guyer CSCS, RSCC, NSCA-CPT, USAW 2, CSAC is the owner and founder of Ridgeline Athlete and XIP Training Systems, LLC. As a career strength and conditioning coach he has worked in person with several thousand athletes while serving as a performance coach in the college, high school & private sectors, speaking and consulting. He and the staff at XIP Training & Ridgeline Athlete are sought after for their expertise in athletic development and injury reconditioning for athletes at every level. Outside of training he is an avid outdoorsman pursuing both small and big game in northern New England and elk and mule deer out west.

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