As a hunter preparing to pursue Elk and other game in the mountains, there are multiple factors to be considered in your training regime.
Strength is what is going to get you there and is likely one of the more overlooked aspects of preparing to hunt in the mountains. I’m not talking about conventional bodybuilding where you are pumping iron in the 8-15 rep range to build muscle mass. Excessive muscle mass is not what you want for mountain hunting. You need lean, functional strength that will balance you out as an athlete, keep your body moving under the weight of a pack and help you avoid overexertion and injury under that same weight.
Your strength training should, for the most part, consist of heavy lifting, ideally in a percentage based program, generally of reps in the 1-5 range. While legs and core are the most critical for backpack hunting, you should incorporate full body strength program in order to be well rounded and to avoid injury.
Specific to backpack hunting, back squats, front squats, deadlifts and cleans are all critical and functional. That being said, backpacking generally relies upon the independent function of each leg and therefore, lunges, one legged squats, barbell box step-ups should be used as well. Overhead squats and overhead lunges can certainly have an application as can snatches and other olympic lifts if you have the proper coaching to learn the technique.
Muscular Endurance is the ability to perform a task over and over again. Long, sustained climbs up the sides of mountains will tap your muscular endurance. You require the ability to go all day up steep terrain with weight on your back. Training for muscular endurance will generally have you training in the 15-50 repetition range. For this, body weight and weighted lunges are excellent. Jumping squats, air squats, Kettlebell swings, power cleans and even deadlifts fit the bill. Note the weight differences between the lifts that show up on strength as well as muscular endurance activities. Also note that strength will contribute to your muscular endurance.
There are two popular methods to addressing Cardio Endurance. There is the Long Slow Distance (LSD) method which entails many hours of moderate, but sustained training similar to what you will actually be doing. There is also a newer school of thought called High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) that reports to achieve the same ends as LSD through less actual time but at much higher focused intensity.
Benefits of LSD training: Can more accurately simulate what you are training for. Have a better measuring stick of your conditioning.
Negative aspects of LSD: Injury prone. Loss of muscle. Requires massive amount of training hours.
Benefits of HIIT: Increases the amount of time you can function at or near your V02 max. No loss of muscle mass. Less prone to injury. Fits better with in real world training schedules.
Negative aspects of HIIT: Not as much direct frame of reference for your conditioning relative to what you are training for. May not leave you mentally prepared for the long hours of the tasks you will be actually performing.
This argument (HIIT vs. LSD) can lead to passionate debate from both camps. I do not think that HIIT programs should necessarily be relied upon exclusively unless you have “been there before” and have a conceptualization of what it is exactly that you are training for. If you do have a concept, I believe that a HIIT program can be highly productive. In fact, for the most part, I have chosen to go this route with my training and seldom do individual sessions longer than 60-90 minutes. I’m not implying that this is the best or only route to go, only that it is “one way” to go that happens to be very effective.
Examples of Cardio Endurance activities: Running, walking, hiking, rucking, swimming, biking, stairwelling, jumping rope. You could also incorporate calisthenics into this category using pushups, pull ups, situps, burpees etc as well so long as you maintain an aerobic (not anaerobic) heart rate. Doing a 13 mile hike at a normal backpacking pace would be an example of LSD training. Doing laps on a steep hill as fast as possible, possibly broken up with another task task such as burpees, for 35 minutes would be an example of HIIT training.
So, what do you need to do to prepare for hunting in the mountains?
Depending on your present level of fitness and your perspective on such matters, there is either no easy answer or the answer is remarkably simple. (That’s real helpful, right?)
I am going to go ahead and say that one of the most important aspects to your training is choosing an actual program to some extent or another. Among hunters, the actual program itself is often another hot topic for debate, so let’s hold off on that for a moment and discuss programming versus freelancing. A program, to whatever extent, is going to have you doing specific tasks for specific purposes in order to accomplish specific results. For example, the programming for a football lineman might be different than the programming for long jumper or even a football running back, for that matter. Each athlete is expected to perform different tasks and their individual programming will likely reflect those tasks.
So, for the hunter, what do we need to be able to do? Go all day (usually very, very, very long days), uphill and downhill, hauling a pack, over potentially semi technical terrain for many consecutive days. We also need to be able to haul potentially heavy loads, even “extreme” loads, for long distances, over semi technical terrain and for consecutive days on end. Considering the rather specific and relatively straight forward physical demands of hunting, the conditioning programming would seem rather straight forward and, it certainly can be, if you prefer. Or, you can take a more complex approach. Successful hunters have taken both routes and make cases for both the simple and the complex programs.
Personally, I am going to defer to a slightly more complex approach over a plane of time as opposed to the most obvious approach, which would be hauling a heavy pack up a hill on a regular basis. The reason I encourage more variation in your training is because performing this relatively simple task over and over again makes it easy for you to reach a plateau in your training, may make a case for injury and overtraining, and even a loss of critical muscle. For example, performing the Sisyphian task of weighted uphill conditioning ignores the aspect of balancing your posterior chain with training that may prevent injury while navigating technical terrain that requires additional mobility, not to mention the Herculean task of shouldering a pack heavy with game meat. Such specific strength and mobility will likely achieve the best result in the controlled, laboratory setting of the gym. So sure, if you spend 200 days a year in the mountains performing such tasks, you probably have no reason to read this to begin with. For the rest of us, the gym is our laboratory for mountain conditioning.
Programming: You can create your own, you can find or borrow someone else’s, you can buy a program, you can hire a trainer, buy into a program etc. There are many options here, but know that you will likely achieve the best results following a program of some type rather than freelancing on a day to day or even week to week basis.
A few recommended programming options:
Train to Hunt, as you gathered from the name, is just that: A training program specifically catered to hunters. You pay for a subscription, take conditioning assessment and are assigned a program with regular online interaction with your coach. You’ll spend a fair amount of time training with a pack, will need some equipment. Presumably, a gym membership of some sort will help, but is not necessary.
Pros: For Hunters, by hunters. Sport specific. Interactive coaching by guys who have been there. Any level of fitness. Supports hunting and hunting culture.
Cons: Costs money, requires equipment, no “hands on” coaching.
Mountain Athlete, as, once again, the name implies, is just that: Programming geared towards mountain athletes: Skiers, climbers, runners, hunters, firefighters, military, first responders, backpackers etc. Mountain Athlete has an assortment of customized programs available for purchase including a 6 week, big game hunting program. The programming does require gym access. The FAQs and Q&As on this site are excellent resources unto tehmselves. If you are off the couch, you may need to buy a intro/basline fitness program before starting the hunting specific.
Pros: Sport specific, appears to be well organized and objective based with a focus on strength. The coaches are interactive and knowledgable.
Cons: Costs money. requires a gym membership. assumes a baseline of fitness. no “hands on” coaching. No built in training partners.
Crossfit is a popular and sometimes controversial method that many hunters and other athletes use. The good news is that Crossfit boxes are virtually everywhere these days, making them and the onsite coaching accessible. Crossfit is a very general programing approach and, while your hunting can certainly benefit from the training, it is therefore more of a longterm commitment to getting into hunting shape rather than a sport specific, “6 week” program. In other words, 10 months of Crossfit can arguably prepare you for the mountains, but it may not the best approach if you are 6 weeks out from your trip and in need of mountain conditioning.
Pros: On site, “hands on” coaching, equipment is provided, physical locations, training partners, popular among hunters (one of my local boxes has 5 members who hunt).
Cons: Costs money, expensive, not hunting specific, may require some supplemental training for hunting.
Gym Jones Of the options listed, I know the least about this actual program simply because there is not a ton of info provided online. I am, however, quite familiar with the founder, Mark Twight, his accomplishments and writings. Based on that, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend his programming. Though they do not offer a hunting specific program, I’m sure the staff would be able to recommend one of their existing programs or even merge several program into one adapted for hunting. Gym Jones is a super high level, exclusive operation geared towards professional athletes. Based on that, I would assume a certain level of competency be in place before signing up.
Pros: Knowledgeable staff, ultra harcore experience for interested parties
Cons: Costs money, not hunting specific, requires gym access, unknown variables such as coaching access etc.
Fundamental Training Movements for Hunting:
Lunges (in all variations)
Deadlifts (in all variations)
Various Kettlebell Movements
Anyway you approach training to hunt in the mountains, you will benefit the most by adopting training as a continuous part of your lifestyle rather than preparation that gets squeezed into a short period of time. In the book Unbreakable Runner, Crossfit Endurance founder Brian McKenzie discusses the concept of “Endurance with Teeth”, which is essentially the concept of staying in constant competitive condition without the real need for “peaking” at certain times of the year. With an overall lifestyle change, one can be ready to chase Elk around the mountains with very little specific conditioning outside of their day to day training. No matter the type programming you chose, make sure that you remember that recovery is greater than 50% of your progress and mobility work is every bit as important as strength and conditioning. Nutrition will make or break you. If you are not healthy, you cannot make progress. Get after it!