Hunter Performance Part 1 – Training the Backcountry Athlete!

Hunters are the original athletes. Hunting the backcountry is my favorite thing. It is a natural, evolutionarily-appropriate sport in many ways. But in reality, backcountry hunting is much more than an athletic endeavor. It’s a way of life and an amazing source of connection, enrichment, and renewal.

This is the first time in many, many years that I’m not heading out into the mountains with my bow or rifle in pursuit of game. My recent shoulder reconstruction is keeping me out of the field this season. I’ll be living vicariously through my friends and clients (YOU…so thanks). Since one of the major populations that I serve with my coaching is backcountry athletes, and specifically hunters, I thought I’d offer up some tips and suggestions for those heading afield this fall. Much of the information that follows is part of my Fit for the Field program which forms the basis for training serious backcountry hunters. I’ll highlight a few key areas in the following discussion.

General Physical Preparation (GPP): This is simply getting in, and staying in, relatively good overall shape. First off, it’s far easier to just stay in shape than to frequently allow yourself to decondition and rebuild. Put simply, the best way to stay in shape is to never get out of shape! That stated, a reasonable, year-round maintenance program should generally be in place for most backcountry hunters. This isn’t overly complex or time-consuming, and it can and should have some natural seasonal fluctuation, but you gotta keep yourself tuned…especially as you get older. In fact, I use a philosophy with all my athletes, not just backcountry hunters, that states this: “No Days Off!” You might think this is a total hardass philosophy but it really just means the human body has been biologically engineered to move every day. The only reason for a day off is if you make a mistake — such as compromised sleep, exhaustion due to overtraining, injury, or illness from a weakened immune system. Except on rare occasions, these digressions can be prevented. GPP implies that you are in decent shape and you have a baseline state of readiness from which you can train or compete more intensely.

All Day Durability: This is probably the single most important characteristic and goal of the backcountry hunter. You need to have the stamina and endurance to exist in the mountains, cover ground, and stay in the hunt. All day long. Day after day. The durable athlete can focus on the task(s) at hand, such as hiking and stalking, concentrating when glassing, camp chores, and all the other things the rugged life requires. If you are not durable, you poop out, quit early, and are generally not achieving your potential nor are you worth much to anyone else. The durable athlete can see what’s over the next ridge, stay motivated, and is actually a much safer and more effective hunter.

Multi-positional Mastery: There are no flat sidewalks, concrete shooting benches, or tables and chairs in the backcountry. You need to be an agile beast who can easily get into and out of any position, just like the noble quarry you pursue. On a scientific level, this takes us to the developmental sequence. You need to practice and be comfortable with lying supine, side lying and prone. Rolling, crawling, kneeling, and crouching abilities should be trained and polished. Is your body supple enough to curl up in your sleeping bag and not feel contorted? Can you squat around a cook stove or campfire without discomfort? Is it easy for you to smoothly get into and out of shooting positions?

Movement Competency: Just like positions, movement demands are infinite and challenging in the backcountry. In training, we utilize the squatting, hinging, lunging, rotating, pushing, pulling, and locomoting patterns around which solid exercise programs are built. Can you walk up and down rough terrain, negotiate sidehills, and climb through deadfall? Everything in the backcountry takes energy and skill. Are you proficient in cutting and hauling firewood, setting up tents, and crossing streams? These challenges will test you and you need to be a verified movementsmith.

Load Carrying Capacity: This one is right up there with durability. You almost always have a load, and sometimes it’s heavy. Hiking off-trail with a pack and weapon is not for the weak. And when you harvest a moose, elk, sheep, goat, bear, deer, or antelope (to name a few), you gain a new appreciation for the term dead weight (which has no handles). You might be lucky enough to have horses, mules, llamas, or mountain bikes, but most of the time that meat has to go on your back, along with your base gear in many cases. This will usually mandate multiple trips, particularly if you are hunting solo. Fortunately, this trait can be trained and any good hunter conditioning program will heavily emphasize (pun intended) carrying capacity).

Grip Strength: If you’ve ever needed to lift and hang an elk quarter, or cinch ropes on a pack saddle, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Or maybe you noticed your pincer grip gets a workout when skinning game. Grip strength correlates highly with overall conditioning level, and it even associates positively with longevity. In the backcountry, you need a lot of it. And we are not just talking about crushing strength, we’re emphasizing fatigue resistance where you can handle and manipulate objects for relatively long periods of time, without cramping up and shutting down.

Recovery Ability: The more in shape you are, the easier you bounce back from every effort. If you are only good for one push or day, and then you are wasted, that ain’t gonna cut it. When you are fit and healthy, you catch your wind quickly, and you don’t get very sore. Sleep, hydration, and nutrition are big factors here, but conditioning is king. As a backcountry hunter, you want to be a Lifetime Athlete who is Hard to Kill. Like a terminator…you keep recovering and you keep coming back — quickly and easily. 

Nutritional Considerations: Eat Shit and Die Motherfucker! While that used to be a popular item of restroom graffiti, it really holds true for any nutrition plan. Garbage in, garbage out. A poor diet will never support your peak performance. Eat a Planet-Based Diet (as in Earth not Jupiter), meaning mostly real food with minimal packaging and ingredients. Avoid excessive amounts of junk and processed foods which are often pro-inflammatory, overly calorically dense, and nutritionally devoid. There are a lot of theories and arguments out there about what the ideal diet should look like, but most of us have a pretty good idea of what constitutes healthy nutrition. It’s rooted in common sense. When I’m coaching an athlete, we custom-design the dietary system that meets their energy requirements, genetics, and preferences.

Event Fueling: Here’s where things can be different. Because weight is an issue in the backcountry, especially if you are carrying it on your back, you may want to make some compromises when you are out on your hunting trip. You can modify your usual diet and use some powdered, freeze-dried, and dehydrated foods. The myriad sports and energy products have a place here as well. The goal is to have plenty of fuel available for all the demands of your hunt so that you don’t either lose too much weight or bonk/crash. This can involve the strategic use of food, particularly carbohydrates, even if a person normally uses a low-carb diet. Performance nutrition is an art form, and it needs to be customized for every athlete.

In-Season Maintenance: Do the bulk of your preparatory training several months in advance of your primary season or expedition. Once you get into a peak season (just like any athletic program), you mainly do the thing (your objective such as compete, hunt, etc.) as opposed to training for the thing. However, if you are like most backcountry athletes, you generally have several seasons of focus per year. It’s within these seasons that you perform simple maintenance conditioning between trips. For example, let’s say you do a week-long backpack hunt, and then you have two weeks off before you do a series of 3-day outings. Once you are recovered from the big trip, you do parts and pieces of your go-to training in the interim before heading out again. The general consensus in sports science is to maintain most of your intensity but to decrease overall volume by 20-50%. This practice can actually help you hold peak fitness for several months before there is any dropoff. 

Complete Athleticism: At The Lifetime Athlete, I use a system that recognizes, develops, and maintains the 5 major components of athleticism (strength, speed, power, agility, and endurance) in every client. Each functional human requires all 5 elements to be a complete athlete, but every sport has a different demand or bias in those elements…and every athlete’s genetic uniqueness requires a subtle adjustment of the recipe. This concept is blended into Fit for the Field and it’s how I design and implement programming for all my athletes and groups. Depending on where and how you hunt, your mixology of strength, speed, power, agility, and endurance should be customized. Hope is not a plan. Preparation creates readiness. You make your results.

To Run or Not to Run: You can get in great shape for hunting the backcountry without ever running a step. On most hunts, I rarely do any running. But you often find yourself needing to move quickly, such as when hustling to a different geographic location to intercept moving game (such as elk moving from feeding to bedding, etc.). In light of this situation, if you do a little regular running, you can use this mode of exercise as part of your training. Short hill sprints may be the most effective way to employ running in your backcountry conditioning program as opposed to long-distance jogging. For anyone who is orthopedically sound enough to do a little high speed locomotion, and if they are willing to do so, I program in a few strides, hill sprints, and change of direction drills.

Ok…the preceding information touched on some of the considerations the backcountry hunter should factor into conditioning. You might be in the midst of your season right now, and if so I of course wish you all the luck and success! Hopefully, this short piece got you thinking about how you can be even better prepared for your adventures in the future. In summary, think of yourself as an athlete, get durable, agile, and strong — and have fun with your training knowing it makes you a better and more well-prepared athlete.

I’ll be following up with 2 more Parts in this Series. In Part 2 I’ll discuss gear that is most useful for the backcountry hunter. And in Part 3 I’ll share some tips for in-field performance. Each brief article will be supported by in-depth discussions on the podcast which will include numerous stories and examples. Send me your comments, questions, tips and photos!

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