Peak Performance | Training for Overnight Outings

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, personal trainer and Mountaineer Courtenay Schurman gives us expert tips on how to prepare for a multi-day trip in the backcountry.
Courtenay Schurman Courtenay Schurman
MS, CSCS, PN2 and 29-year member
July 24, 2021
Peak Performance | Training for Overnight Outings

You’re six weeks out from your big multi-day summer adventure. You want to be in peak condition before you go, and you have an opportunity to simulate your outing once or twice to check your preparedness and adjust your training program.

Through back-to-back training – heavy and longer pack carries on successive days – you can assess the physical demands you’ll encounter on your trip and determine whether you are physically ready. After you head into the mountains for your first of two simulated trips, you’ll transition your strength workouts away from building strength and toward increasing stamina. If you intend to travel to high-altitude areas, add one or two weekly pack-carrying intervals workouts on hills or stairs as well. The simulations will help you refresh yourself on gear management and pack loading, at which point you’ll want to slowly decrease the intensity of your training to allow your body to be as well-rested as possible. Follow these tips to get in shape and maximize your fun on your next big outdoor adventure.

Simulated trip

By far the most important element of any training program is making sure you’re prepared to carry weight on successive days. In doing so, your body will learn how to perform without your usual recovery time. Knowing that you can work through the discomfort will boost your confidence and help you feel more comfortable when you experience fatigue on a trip.

A back-to-back is exactly what it sounds like: carrying a pack on one day for a hike, then with no recovery, hiking again the next day. Don’t worry so much about replicating the exact elevation change and distance of your trip on both days of the back-to-back, and if you’re unable to do two back-to-backs before your adventure, then focus on getting in quality day hikes two days in a row. Train with slightly more weight than you think you will be carrying on the heaviest day of your trip, so that if you encounter unexpected obstacles (such as carrying extra group gear, navigating blow downs, or facing route-finding issues that add mileage or gain), you will have built extra reserves of strength, endurance, and stamina. Based on the itinerary of your overnight trip, you can create a simulated trip to mimic what you will experience on your adventure.

Many trips such as glacier climbs require a heavier approach pack and a lighter summit pack. If you are preparing for a three-day climb of Mt. Rainier, for example, on the first day of your simulated trip carry the heaviest pack weight (an overnight camping pack, anywhere between 35-50 pounds) for eight miles with at least 3,500 feet of elevation gain. The second day plan to carry half that weight for 8-12 miles to mimic the longest trip day.

Other trips might call for shorter days getting to base camp, from where you will explore the area carrying a daypack. Backpacking trips may have a short first day with the heaviest pack (think food!) and get progressively longer and lighter as you go. If you are planning on going on a week-long backpack, for example, your simulation may involve carrying the heaviest weight on day one (anywhere from 30-50 pounds, depending on duration) for the length and elevation gain of the hardest day (6-8 miles, 3,000’ gain). Then on day two, carry slightly less weight (25-45 pounds) but cover even more distance (8-10 miles). These are merely meant to be examples – infinite trip possibilities are available to you.


Schedule one or two rest days after any back-to-back. This might mean doing some stretching, light walking, yoga, Tai Chi, flat biking, or gentle laps in a pool. Soaking in a hot tub or contrast bathing (i.e. alternating hot/cold water in a shower) can also help speed recovery. After strenuous outings where your body has been taxed for multiple hours, under heavy weight, and without recovery, rest becomes crucial so that you can continue to progress with your program. For the rest of the week, ease back into your training with lighter workouts. In the second and third weeks following a back-to-back, you can ramp back up to your higher intensity training, targeting any areas in your program that still need development.

Increase stamina

Strength workouts during the last 2-6 weeks before your trip should focus on increasing overall stamina by involving exercises with higher repetitions and lighter weight. Circuit training is a good way to build stamina. Such training involves performing an exercise for 30-60 seconds, or for 15-25 repetitions, with 10-15 seconds of rest between sets. If you have been doing hour-long strength workouts by this point, try doing a circuit for 30-45 minutes consisting of eight to twelve exercises, once or twice a week.

Interval training

If you plan to travel at altitude, if you need additional metabolic conditioning for weight management, or if you need to develop speed, consider adding interval training once or twice per week. A mid-week stair-climbing or hill climbing workout with a pack, anywhere from 30-60 minutes, is a great way to increase your time with a pack while also building leg and core strength.

Troubleshooting your program

 By examining your performance on your first back-to-back, you can figure out where you may need to modify your program. If you struggle with heavier pack weight, be sure you’re hiking with a loaded pack twice per week. If you can’t hike that often outside, carry your pack on local walks, hills, or stairs, or indoors on a stair machine, incline treadmill, or elliptical trainer.

If you experience sore knees or hips, make sure you have not added too much weight too quickly. The body can adapt to loads s <10% gain per week; more than that and it’s likely you’ll get sore. Stretching may also help. If you get sore on one side of the body, try redistributing the weight in your pack so that both sides of your spine and both hips carry even weight.

If you find yourself fumbling with your equipment, or if something you took on your first simulated trip doesn’t work right, you have time to adjust your gear so that it performs the way you want. If you feel great after your first back-to-back, then keep doing what you’re doing!


I suggest five days of tapering before a two-day trip, or ten days before longer overnight trips. Properly executed, tapers allow your muscles, tendons, and ligaments to recover from all of your training so that your body becomes supercharged - almost antsy in its readiness to perform. Training hard right up to the day before your trip may result in sub-par performance or muscle strain on your trip. Rest is equally important as work at this stage, so allow yourself several days of relaxation before you hit the trail. With proper training and tapering, you have given yourself every opportunity to succeed on your trip. Hopefully the weather will cooperate, and your trip partners will be as well-prepared as you are. I’d love to hear how Peak Performance tips have helped you, so if you care to share your success story, or if you have questions about your training program, please send an email to


Try out this ten day taper before your long backcountry trip. Only going for a weekend? Start off at day 5 and work your way to 0.

  • Day 10: Last hard-effort interval workout
  • Day 9: Last endurance workout
  • Day 8: Last hard-effort strength workout
  • Day 7: Last hike, carrying half of your anticipated max trip weight
  • Day 6: Off
  • Day 5: Last interval workout, with half the pack weight of your hardest interval workout
  • Day 4: Last strength workout at half effort, 1-2 sets for each exercise
  • Day 3: Off
  • Day 2: Light, short aerobic training at a conversational pace
  • Day 1: Off Day 0: Start your trip!

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2021 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our  magazine archive.

Lead image of a backpacker by Ingalls Lake. Photo by Mike Warren.

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