Fitness for Hunters
- 29 Apr, 2021
Being in top shape is by no means a requirement for being a great hunter. I would argue, however, that having a solid fitness base can help make hunting more enjoyable no matter your style of hunting. Even if you’re not planning a multi-day backcountry hunt in mountainous terrain, having good cardiovascular health and strength will help you both in the woods and in other aspects of life.
Getting in shape for hunting is different from what most people might think of as “getting in shape.” Chest Day and rep after rep of barbell curls might make you look good, but when training specifically to meet hunting goals, a more functional fitness approach can be helpful. When getting ready for a western hunt last October, I started to incorporate running and stair climbing into my regular gym lifting routine. It paid off when the most productive piece of state land I located in my unit was only accessible by a two mile uphill hike up a rocky, snowy ridge. The cardio I usually neglected in favor of lat pulldowns and overhead press paid off and allowed me to access a great spot with no other hunters day after day.
The point of getting in shape for a hunt is to reduce physical limitations on your hunt and goals as much as possible. You want to be able to accomplish tasks without worrying about how difficult it will be physically. Staying active year-round is the best way to do this. But when training specifically for hunts that will involve lots of walking or carrying heavy weight like animals and packs, there are lots of things you can do to build a solid fitness base.
- Pack training. When I bought a new hunting pack this summer, I filled it with a few 20-lb dumbbells and clothes to help pad them and took it to the network of hilly horse trails near my house. I would put in a podcast and hike whatever distance I had time for that weekend, varying between 5 and 12 miles. It was a hot and sweaty endeavor but it allowed me to learn how to properly load weight in my pack and to make the adjustments on fit and pack straps to avoid getting sore spots and hot spots. Time and miles under a heavy load is one of the best ways to build endurance, bonus points if hills are incorporated.
- Backpacking! Not everyone has time for it, but even more fun than hiking with a loaded pack is hiking with a pack loaded with gear for a real trip! If you are prepared for a backpacking trip with the necessary gear, this can be an awesome way to get in shape for hunting. Anything from a one-nighter on a weekend to a multi-day trip in a beautiful place is great preparation.
- Running. Weighted pack hiking is arguably the best prep for hiking long distances in the field, but it’s probably not feasible for day-in-day-out training. This is where more classic cardio comes in. Sprint intervals help with speed and the ability to perform with an elevated heart rate. Try running 200’s, 400’s and 800’s for sprint workouts with short but sufficient rest in between. There are programs online that can provide a more rigid outline for these workouts, but choose or design one that challenges you.
- Stairs and step-ups. Besides challenging your cardiovascular system, hiking uphill requires strength in the leg muscles needed for uphill climbs. Hike or run stairs or bleachers with weight. This can mean wearing a pack, weight vest or holding dumbbells. In addition to or in lieu of stair climbing, do weighted step ups on a bench, chair or plyo box. Hold dumbbells and alternate legs while stepping up. You can set a goal number of reps (aim for >500), time (aim for >20 minutes to start) or do it by timed intervals. Strong quads and glutes will be developed from loaded time doing step ups.
- Don’t neglect the downhill. One of the benefits to running stairs or bleachers is that you spend half of your time coming down. Hiking downhill can put stress on joints and it is important to develop supporting muscles that are used when downhill hiking with weight.
- Gym stuff. If you’re already spending time at the gym or want to accessorize the base of hiking, running and step ups, your time will be wisely spent focusing on legs and core when training for long hunts. A strong core helps maintain balance when hiking with a loaded pack. Doing heavy compound lifts like deadlifts and squats while bracing the core are great gym exercises. More dynamic movements like sled drags, various forms of carries like farmer’s carry or suitcase carry, and work with dead weight like tires are also good options.
- Don’t forget the boots. During at least some of your pack hikes, try to wear the boots you’ll be wearing in the field. I cannot overstate the importance of having well-fitting, broken in boots that don’t give you blisters. You don’t want to find out that your boots are ill-fitting when you’re already a few miles into a multi-day trip.
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