Do you ever feel stiff and sore while backpacking? Maybe you wake up in the morning with creaky knees and achy muscles, wondering how you’re going to get the day’s miles in.
Yes, you’ll eventually warm up once you hit the trail, but I’ve found that a quick morning warmup at camp starts my day off on the right foot, so to speak. By waking up my sleepy, lazy glutes and core, I help protect my knees right from the very first step – especially essential (for me anyway) if the day starts with a long downhill.
Another big bonus on cold mornings: this warmup routine is a fantastic way to get some blood flowing and take the sting out of leaving your cozy sleeping bag!
If you tend to get a bit stiff on backpacking trips, combine this morning warmup with this evening stretching routine to keep your muscles strong, flexible, and happy. Happy muscles make a happy hiker!
Core Brace and Pelvic Tilt
Our core supports us through every movement, including hiking, so let’s wake it up gently but firmly. This exercise is an easy one to start with while you’re still in your sleeping bag.
Bend your knees and put both feet flat on the ground / sleeping pad. Contract your lower abs and think about pulling your bellybutton downward toward your spine, tilting your pelvis up. It should feel like your pubic bone is moving upward, your lower back is flattening against the sleeping pad, and your tailbone is moving down toward your feet. Hold for a few seconds, relax, and repeat.
Once you feel those lower abs start to wake up, try straightening one leg at a time and hovering it just off the ground while keeping your pelvis in that same position.
Now that your core is awake, let’s wake up the glutes. These powerful muscles often get weak and tight when we sit a lot in daily life, and need to be persuaded to do their job while hiking. Lazy glutes can lead to knee pain, foot pain, and pretty much any other type of pain depending on your particular biomechanical bad habits.
Keep your core braced – lower back flat – as you did in the pelvic tilts above. Now, contract your glutes and push your heels down into the ground, lifting your hips upward. Keep your core tight, think about pulling your heels toward your butt (without actually moving them) to wake up your hamstrings, and focus on squeezing your butt muscles.
It’s not about how high your hips go, so don’t arch your lower back. Just focus on getting a good strong glute contraction. Hold for a few seconds, relax, and repeat a few times. You should feel your glutes kicking in more strongly with each repetition.
Clamshells are great for waking up your glute medius muscles on the outer hips. These little guys are key for stabilizing a single leg stance, and they get overworked when we hike all day with a heavy backpack.
Lay on your side and bend your knees. You can experiment with different angles of bend; generally a shallower bend (straighter legs) works the glute medius more, while a deeper bend (like sitting in a chair) targets the glute maximus.
Now, using the muscles on the outer hip of the leg on top, rotate your knee upward while keeping your feet together. Squeeze toward the top, lower, and repeat. Do 10 – 20 reps on each side, or until you feel the muscles starting to wake up.
Mini Band Exercises
I hate to say it, but at this point it’s time to get out of your sleeping bag. Hopefully the exercises above got your blood flowing and made this a little easier. I would suggest eating breakfast, breaking down camp, and then doing this next round of exercises right before you start hiking.
The following exercises can be done on their own, but they’re even more effective with a mini resistance band. I actually bring one of these on the trail with me – they’re very small and light. I recommend the blue color for most people, and the black color (heavier resistance) if you have a regular strength training routine. Place it just above your knees, not on the joint itself, for all the exercises that follow.
You can also use a resistance band for clamshells and glute bridges above, but if you’re just waking up it can be a little much.
From a hands and knees position, contract your glute to pull your heel up toward the sky, keeping your knee bent at a ninety degree angle. Squeeze your glute at the top, lower down, and repeat. Do around twenty reps per side.
Then try one of these other variations to target slightly different muscles:
- Instead of kicking back, lift your leg out to the side (sometimes known as a “fire hydrant / peeing dog” for obvious reasons) to target the glute medius.
- Start by kicking up and back as above, then rotate your knee outward and bring it around through the “peeing dog” position in a circular motion. Then reverse.
- Instead of keeping your leg bent, kick it straight out behind you, pushing the heel as far back as possible. This should target the hamstrings a bit more.
Now that your glutes are warmed up, let’s get them ready to do their job: stabilizing your pelvis in a single leg stance. Using a tree for balance if needed, kick your leg backward and a bit out to the side. You should feel a strong contraction in your glute. Do around 20 reps per side, experimenting with angle to find what feels most effective.
Mini Band Side Steps
With the band around your upper legs just above the knee, drop into a partial squat. Take a few wide steps to one side, then to the other, repeating a few times on each side. Tighten your core, like you did in the pelvic tilt exercise above, to really isolate the effort into the muscles of your hips.
As with the clamshell exercise above, you can target different parts of your glutes by varying the depth of your stance. Do a few reps in a quarter squat to target the glute medius, and then a few reps in a deeper squat (thighs parallel to ground, butt pushed back, weight in heels) to target the glute maximus.
Mini Band Squats
Even without the resistance band, squats are a great way to activate your glutes and quads. The resistance band adds extra challenge for your glute medius muscles.
Be sure to keep your spine as straight as possible, and focus on pushing your butt backwards. Your knees may travel in front of your toes just a little bit, but try to keep your shins as vertical as possible in order to target your glutes most effectively. Your weight should be mostly on your heels, not your toes. Do 10 – 20 reps.
Alternating lunges are the final exercise I like to do before hitting the trail. They take the strength we just activated with all those other exercises and apply it to stabilize our hips in challenging positions, just like we need to do while hiking.
From a standing posture, take a big step forward. As your foot lands, bend your front knee to around ninety degrees. At the same time, bend your back knee to ninety degrees as well; it should be hovering just off the ground. Then, push through your front heel (think about pulling your front leg backwards, instead of kicking it forward) to return to standing. Then, repeat on the other side.
Alternate legs for around 20 reps, focusing on smooth and balanced movement. Be sure to keep your core tight – remember those pelvic tilts from the beginning – throughout the whole movement.
For the most advanced version – and a perfect transition into walking down the trail – try walking lunges instead.
By now you should be awake, warmed up, and ready to enjoy the day. I hope this little morning warmup routine helps you enjoy your hike from the very first step. Pair it with this evening stretching routine (that you can do in your tent) for a well-rounded approach to strength and mobility while on the trail.
More Backpacking Resources
If you love backpacking, you might also find these helpful:
- How to Pack Lighter for Backpacking
- Hiking in Trail Running Shoes: Pros and Cons
- How to Choose the Right Trekking Poles
Or, check out the complete list of hiking and backpacking resources!
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