Body Of A Backpacker
It's lean, it's mean, and it can last forever.
Backpackers get no respect as athletes.
Photo by Time Defrisco
Brian eyeballs a heavier load than he often carries.
Truth be told, the term
athlete is rarely applied to us, and we're seldom mentioned in the same
breath as the ultrafit devotees of cycling, distance running, or
adventure racing. Perhaps it's our own fault--no one lists exercise as
the reason to hit the trail, we don't shave our legs and wear Lycra,
and we're way too busy fraternizing with Mother Nature to parade our
tanned hard bodies around the local gym.
But that doesn't change the
facts: Backpacking is great exercise. No other sport combines endurance
training, weight-bearing workouts, and a low injury rate in such an
enticing package. When properly trained, a hiker's body is just as
honed and fit as those of other athletes. The problem is, our sport
never gets compared to these pursuits.
Until now. We decided it was
time to put our money where are mouths are, and fund an ambitious
physiological study of the backpacking body. To that end, we rounded up
eight hardcore hikers and sent them to the Human Performance Lab at the
Boulder Center for Sports Medicine (BCSM) in Colorado. Not
surprisingly, our trail rats aced the tests--but even we were shocked
at just how superfit they are. In fact, the results offer compelling
evidence that backpacking might be the very best thing you can do for
your long-term health.
So here's a well-deserved (and well-substantiated) dose of fitness hype that offers an exercise in inspiration.
The Guinea Pigs
We began by recruiting a
captain for our all-star team: 41-year-old Triple Crown King Brian
Robinson. "Flyin' Brian" is the only guy we know who has lived on the
trail 24/7 for nearly a year. Next, we selected two long-haul
specialists: two-time Appalachian Trail thru-hiker Terry Norton, 39,
and world-famous mountaineer "Big Wall Pete" Takeda, 38, who does more
backpacking just approaching his climbs than most people do in a
lifetime. We also signed up two ultralighters whose exploits toe the
line between hiking and trail running: 51-year-old Colorado Trail speed
record holder Buzz Burrell and Hong Kong Trailwalker winner Stephanie
Ehret, 40. For a little family drama, we added Buzz's 23-year-old son,
Galen Burrell, who recently returned from a multicontinent backpacking
trek. We rounded out the group with 38-year-old Cathy Chittum, an avid
dayhiker, backpacker, and cross-country skier, and self-
proclaimed "mellow" backpacker Eileen Lambert, 29.
We sent our group to BCSM
for a serious, scientific gut check. The lab, packed with
state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment, offers physiologic, biomechanic,
and nutrition consultations to recreational athletes and Olympians
alike. There, Neal Henderson, the center's coordinator of sport
science, joined fellow exercise physiologist Paul Kammermeier and
certified athletic trainer Denise Knutson in subjecting our volunteers
to a seven-test protocol designed to measure aerobic capacity,
cardiovascular health, body composition, and flexibility.
Hiking is stressful--in a
good way. "Backpacking provides the body with a stress, and it adapts,"
says Paige Holm, a sports physiologist at the U.S. Olympic Training
Center in Colorado Springs. For instance, to cope with increased energy
needs, muscle cells produce and expand existing mitochondria, an
organelle that powers the cell. "You also get an increase in oxidative
enzymes that help your cells use oxygen, and a protein called myoglobin
that helps with oxygen metabolism," says Holm. Backpacking demands
extra work of your muscles, so they grow more capillaries. It may sound
complex, but the bottom line is simply empowering: The more you
backpack, the more your body can produce energy.
Hiking also helps your
heart. When you're humping over steep trails, your muscle cells hunger
for more oxygen, which prompts your heart to beat faster. Over time,
that extra work enables that organ to pump more blood with each stroke.
Other benefits are more
obvious. Long, low-intensity workouts-like an 8-mile day with a
40-pound pack--build endurance and lean muscle mass. Moderate to high
intensity workouts-that same 8-mile day with 5,000 feet of elevation
gain and loss thrown in--give you a fifth gear. And all those hours of
full-body exertion burn fat faster than Jenny Craig. But only
scientific testing will reveal the scope of these benefits.
Backpackers have serious heart
Galen Burrell marches to a
different beat than most folks--a much slower beat. Burrell, who calls
himself "naturally relaxed," had an astoundingly low resting heart rate
(RHR) of 42 beats per minute (bpm). While the other participants
weren't quite so slow thumping, the group's average RHR was just 59
bpm, far better than the 72 bpm average of the general population.
Experts like Henderson and
Holm say those slower heartbeats speak volumes. That's because RHR is
typically lower in athletes and is a good measure of fitness. "A low
resting heart rate indicates that your heart is very efficient--it's
pumping more blood per beat," says Holm.
Interestingly, the RHR test
highlighted one factor that can mess with your ticker: altitude. A day
after arriving in Boulder, Robinson's pulse measured about 15 beats per
minute higher in the lab than in his sea-level home in Mountain View,
CA. Henderson was hardly surprised. "Your resting heart rate,
especially initially, will be higher at altitude," he says. That's
because at altitude, the oxygen-carrying capacity of your blood drops
(see "Why Do We Bonk At 14,000 Feet?" on page 59).
Exercise is also known to
lower blood pressure, and our backpackers scored well here, too. A
reading of 120 over 80 or lower is considered optimal; our group
averaged 119 over 76. "Overall, we found good numbers," says Henderson.
"Everyone's values were in the healthy range."
A bunch of hard workers
To hell with aging
gracefully. By manhandling the big, bad VO2 max test, Buzz Burrell
shows you can still be kicking ass when your coworkers are considering
retirement. The 51-year-old put up numbers that amazed the BCSM crew.
The VO2 max test is many
things. For one, it can be the longest 10 to 30 minutes of your life.
Test subjects, outfitted with a nose plug and a mouthpiece, hit the
treadmill. The pace and grade are slowly jacked up until the tester
can't continue. From a scientific point of view, all that suffering
reveals exactly how much oxygen your body uses in a minute given your
body weight. Put simply, it's the gold standard of exercise tests
because it measures your aerobic capacity for work-in other words, the
size of your engine. About 80 percent of your VO2 max is written in
your genes, says Henderson; the rest comes from training.
As a group, our backpackers
produced excellent VO2 max values, with the men averaging 61 and the
women 46-scores similar to what Henderson finds in other serious
endurance athletes. (By comparison, a typical man in his 20s or 30s
scores around 40, while the average woman performs in the low 30s.)
Buzz was the team's VO2 superstar, scoring a 64-an astonishing 200
percent of the results predicted by his age and weight. What makes the
elder Burrell's mark even more phenomenal, says Henderson, is that it
is nearly identical to his son Galen's VO2 max of 64.7, despite a
28-year age difference. VO2 max is known to fall with age, but Buzz's
result is proof that training can slow this decrease.
The group's numbers also
show that backpacking can increase your aerobic capacity without the
need for lung-busting sprints, says Henderson. "These people aren't
doing lots of interval training, yet their VO2 max values are all
exceptional-probably because they do a lot of high-volume training at a
Lean, mean, and hungry
No doubt about it, long days
on the trail burn some serious calories, so it's no surpise our testers
are low-fat specimens. "It doesn't sound like much, but if you need
3,000 calories per day just to maintain your weight, you'll need 21,000
calories for a week," says Henderson. "And that's a lot of energy
To get the skinny on just
how lean our athletes are, Henderson and Knutson measured both body
mass index (BMI), which analyzes the ratio between your height and
weight, and body fat percentage, using a skin fold caliper test that
measures the thickness of the subcutaneous fat layer at seven places on
the body. "For the latter test, 10 to 12 percent body fat is an ideal
level for guys," says Henderson. "For women, closer to 18 percent is
best for sustained endurance." The men in the group averaged 9.8
percent body fat, the women 17.3 percent.
consider weight loss spurred by backpacking a bonus, but Henderson
warns that lower fat levels than our athletes carry could spell
trouble. "There are no health benefits from extremely low body fat," he
says, "and there may be detrimental effects." For women, 10 to 12
percent is the lower end of the essential body fat; for men, it's 3 to
Henderson also advises
people embarking on thru-hikes or expedition-length travel to aim for
the higher end of the fat spectrum so they have fuel in reserve. "Terry
is extremely lean--5.6 percent body fat," notes Henderson. "I told him
I wouldn't plan on doing any really long trips right now, because he
doesn't have much stored energy."
Pete Takeda already follows
this advice. The climber was plumper than normal when he hit the lab,
as he was preparing for a mountaineering trip to Canada. "I go in fat,
and plan on losing it," says Takeda. "In cold conditions, you're not
eating as well as you should. I've come back from Himalayan trips 25
pounds lighter than I went in."
Not at the top of their lungs
three tests of lung function, and as a group, our backpackers'
pulmonary scores were unremarkable. That's not surprising to the
experts: Contrary to popular notion, says Holm, what determines lung
capacity is mostly how big you are. "Underwater sports like swimming or
deep diving, where you're breathing against resistance, can increase
lung capacity," says Henderson, "but general aerobic training does
But that's no reason to fret. "Lung volume is not a big predictor of performance or fitness," says Henderson.
Still, the maximum volume
ventilation (MVV) test, which measures the ability to get air in and
out of the lungs, can help predict performance at high altitude where
the air pressure is lower. "The better you can get air in and out, the
better you'll adapt," says Henderson. Here, Buzz, Pete, and Cathy
scored above-average values.
It's no accident that
backpacking is rarely compared to yoga. When it came to their lower
calves and ankles, our testers resembled robots more than yogis.
Knutson assessed our backpackers' flexibility by testing their
performance with back, hamstring, quad, hip, chest, shoulder, calf,
ankle, and shin stretches. "Overall, hip, low back, and hamstring
flexibility was good, but several people admitted that at the end of a
long hike, the tests would likely have shown less flexibility in these
areas," says Henderson.
Of course, it's not easy to
avoid this stiffness. "The lower leg muscles provide stabilization
during hiking on rugged terrain," says Henderson. And while backpacking
strengthens these muscles, it can also tighten them. To counteract this
effect, Holm suggests adding a few stretches to your routine.
The Bottom Line
Backpackers are very fit
athletes--every bit as fit as marathoners or cyclists. "These folks are
not like run of the mill joggers," says Henderson. "They are serious
The backpacker bodies we
tested were lean and strong with powerful, healthy hearts and
high-endurance capacities. "Their fitness level makes them very similar
in nature to distance runners," says Holm. For his part, Henderson
admitted he would be hard-pressed to distinguish their results from
those of serious cross-country skiers, cyclists, or runners.
And the icing on the cake:
Despite backpacking's noncompetitive nature, its fitness benefits rival
those of more intense, high-impact activities. "For the recreational
athlete, the results confirm that hard is not always better," says
Henderson. "Long, steady aerobic workouts like backpacking will also
significantly improve fitness without a high chance of getting ill,
injured, or burned out."