I made my first wilderness backpack hunt in 1968, at 16. It remains my favorite way to hunt big game. Since then, I’ve learned two things: The mountains don’t care that you’re getting older, and waiting until the week before opening day is too late to train your body for what lies ahead.
The most important thing in wilderness hunting is being fit enough to get the job done. That means improving your aerobic capacity. Aerobic literally means “with oxygen,” which is the fuel that drives our bodies. Simply put, the more oxygen your body can process in a given amount of time, the more work it is able to do. To be able to hunt longer and harder, you have to train your body for the challenge.
Here’s how to get there.
Five Steps to Success
1) Get a physical examination. If you haven’t been exercising regularly, visit your doctor for a complete checkup. This is especially important if you’re over 40. Once he or she gives the okay, you’re ready to start.
2) Determine your “Target Heart Rate” (THR). To gain the maximum benefits from an aerobic exercise program, you must maintain a sufficiently high heart rate during exercise. Your THR is the minimum rate at which your heart should beat during exercise. You determine your THR by first calculating your “Predicted Maximum Heart Rate” (PMHR). For a woman, subtract your age from 220. For a man, subtract half your age from 205. To calculate your THR, take 80 percent of your PMHR. (For a 47-year-old like me, my PMHR is 181.5 beats per minute, and my THR is 80 percent of that, or 145 beats per minute.) To achieve a training effect, you must exceed your THR through exercise for a minimum of 20 minutes four times a week.
It’s important to note that achieving the minimum training effect-20 minutes at or above your THR four times a week-is just that, the minimum. The longer and harder you train, within reason, the better shape you’ll be in. Just remember to start slowly and work your way up. In physical fitness, as in all good things in life, there are no shortcuts. Only a sustained effort over time will produce the results you seek.
3) Choose an aerobic exercise. A good aerobic exercise for you should get your heart pumping at your THR and also be an activity, or combination of activities, that interests you enough to make you stick with it over time. Jogging, swimming, bicycling, walking, jumping rope and roller blading are all good examples. The step aerobics classes which are so popular at local health clubs are an excellent way to both improve your overall aerobic capacity and tone up your muscles.
You can incorporate part of your training into your daily life, too. Instead of the elevator or escalator, take the stairs. When walking to and from the office, walk briskly. Don’t park as close to the store as possible; park in the back of the lot instead. Begin consciously thinking about ways to make your body work every day.
4) Add strength and flexibility training. Aerobic exercise isn’t enough. You need to train your muscles and increase flexibility as well. This means weight training or calisthenics, such as push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups. When using weights, concentrate on the main muscle groups-legs, back, shoulders, arms, chest and stomach. Don’t lose sight, however, of the fact that the most important muscle in your body is your heart. It is best strengthened through aerobic exercise. And don’t forget to stretch all the main muscle groups before and after exercising or weight training.
5) Start now! While it’s never too late to begin, each day you wait is one day closer to opening day. Starting a program three months prior to a wilderness hunt is enough time to measurably increase your ability to navigate the mountains. Six months is better.
** Specificity Training**
In the beginning, you’ll want to concentrrate on general fitness. However, as hunting season draws near, it’s time to add to your program what exercise physiologists call “specificity training”-exercises designed to improve the performance of a specific task. For example, because wilderness hunters spend lots of time hiking and climbing with a loaded pack, they should include exercises that simulate these activities to their basic fitness program.
In early summer I go for long walks, starting out for an hour or so at a good pace wearing a 20-pound daypack. As opening day gets closer, I start carrying my backpack with increasingly heavy loads, working up to 100 pounds, which is about what my camp and a boned-out deer or sheep, plus cape and horns, will weigh. I don’t carry that every day, but I try to get my muscles used to that load. It’s also very important to train not just on flat ground, but also on inclines. Stadium steps, hills and the stair machine at the gym all factor into this program.
What About Stand-Hunting?
Sitting for hours in a tree stand while whitetail hunting certainly isn’t an aerobic test. But setting stands, scouting for hot sign, climbing up and down your tree and then dragging your deer to the road all take physical effort. The better shape you’re in, the easier and safer all this will be. Also, research has shown that people who are in good physical condition have more energy, are more alert, are able to concentrate better and sleep better than those who are not.
Today, receiving professional advice about achieving your fitness goals is as easy as joining a local health club or YMCA or signing up for a class at the local college or other accredited institution specializing in physical fitness. Most of these places employ trained professionals who can help you design an exercise program to meet your specific goals, as well as help keep you motivated.