The Truth About Mountain Fitness

There’s no better preparation than putting on your backpack and hiking yourself into shape

Hunter hiking through a rocky hillside.
The best way to get ready for a hunt in the mountains is to hike yourself into shape.Tyler Freel

Backcountry, backpack hunting has seen a huge surge in popularity in recent years. More and more people are taking to the hills in pursuit of a more challenging and hopefully fulfilling adventure. It’s become so popular, in fact, that an entire side industry has popped up just for preparing to go hunting. Whether it’s supplements, special workout programs, or hunting fitness competitions, aspiring mountain hunters are bombarded with options and advice about how to get prepared. Much of this messaging is well-intended, but it can turn an already daunting hunt into a seemingly impossible trip.

You Don’t Need to Be a Super Athlete

At the core of it, everyone wants to be prepared for their hunt and have an enjoyable experience, and fitness is an important part of that. However, this subculture of hunting emphasizes the physical fitness side of a backcountry hunt so much that it can leave you thinking you need to be a super athlete to survive a 10-day hunt in the mountains, let alone kill a big ram or bull. There is plenty of marketing and many personalities that are presenting a somewhat exaggerated picture of what it will take to be successful and have fun on a backpack hunt. So how fit do you actually need to be?

Naturally, with mountain hunting being an activity that usually involves very high levels of exertion and discomfort, often for long periods of time, it’s important for a person to be physically prepared. At minimum, you need to be fit enough to not get yourself injured. If you have weak ankles, or an old injury, you need to prepare them. If you can’t walk a mile with a backpack without feeling like you’re going to die, then you’re not ready.

However, a six-pack and gym selfies are not required to do well on a mountain hunt. In my experience, the biggest factor in how well you do and how much you enjoy a hunt sits between your ears. Young men in prime physical condition call it quits while old men march on past them every single season. Mental toughness and an unwillingness to quit are your best assets on the mountain. No matter the shape you are in, it’s going to be hard, and you will suffer. The successful hunters are those who stick it out and keep pushing, regardless of how bad it sucks at times.

It Helps to Be in Good Shape

The amount and type of physical preparation you will have to do is specific to each individual and each mountain hunt, but it often has a direct correlation with experience level. If you’re new to the mountains, work as hard as you can in the offseason. The discipline of preparing yourself physically will help your mental toughness, too. The better shape you are in, the more it will help make up for lack of experience and saltiness.

As you become more experienced, you will know what you can do, and more importantly, you will have a better idea of what to expect, and pace yourself accordingly. You may well find that backing off of the “extremeness,” and slowing down the pace a little bit helps you spot more animals or take more time to enjoy being out there. You may also find that the extra 10 pounds you put on in the offseason gives you a bit more energy on the final pack-out of a brutal hunt (hey, it’s worked for me).

Getting in shape (for any reason) is a good thing, and it will help you enjoy your time in the outdoors. But don’t forget that there’s much more to hunting than just running up a mountain like a wild man. If becoming an elite mountain athlete gets you excited, good for you, but if you just want to hunt and have fun in the mountains, put on your backpack and start hiking. There’s no preparation better than that.