Just the Basics

Fitness for Outdoorsmen

Some time around seventh grade I latched onto the idea that physical readiness often meant mental resilience and  conditioning. So I started rising very early in the morning before daylight to go out and crawl uphill through often wet woods before hiking with the biggest pack I could find at the time on longer treks than I’d ever felt comfortable with before. Each session ended with simply sitting my sweaty self in the icy garage until I couldn’t stand the cold anymore.

It was rudimentary, just stuff that I thought were good ideas at the time, things that I didn’t want to do because they were uncomfortable or painful but that I did anyway. Things changed, my family moved and I went in new directions physically but I always remembered those strange sessions around my Cortalnd, New York home. None of what I did made me into a basketball star that year but it did radically ramp up my capacity for endurance in the years ahead.

This post is about training to maximize your outdoorsmanship, stretching your capabilities. It’s about being ready to paddle, portage and carry a pack. I think that everything relayed here though is an equally excellent starting point for preparedness, for survival. People too often rush to the latest, greatest of survival products without preparing their own bodies and minds first.

Simply stated, the goal is preparedness. And if there’s one central concept, it’s versatility.

As with many other types of fitness programs, the regimen you design for yourself should have two significant components: cardio-respiratory and strength training. Add in some stretching or even something like yoga if you’ve got the time or if flexibility is a problem area for you. Some would contend that the stretching should be primary and I wouldn’t argue with this. I just don’t do this consistently myself so I’m not going to pretend like I do. Beyond all of this, there’s a strong mental component to all described below.


Running comes first. There are a lot of outdoorsmen who’ve probably heard enough at this point and are ready to move on. But you need cardio if you’re going to claim you’re physically prepared and I know of no better way to get it and no more accessible way, available to anyone anywhere. I know all too many rugged backwoodsman types who would have a hard time keeping up a good pace along a trail for half a day. There are all kinds of scenarios in which you may need to do this and you can’t whip heart and lungs into decent shape the week before an elk hunting trip. You have to do it all the time – habitually.

A couple of more points along these lines: The men I know who are still running in their 70’s have virtually always run. It has been consistent for decades. And think about this: why do military boot camps, universally, emphasize running? The more elite the unit, the more of it you’re likely to have to endure.

Here’s some more specific advice for planning your program, based on an awful lot of experience, having made many mistakes and watching the mistakes of others:

Start easy. Do less than you think you’re capable of for the first couple of weeks. This avoids early burn-out. Go ahead and run on that nice, cushy rail trail or track. But don’t get too used to it. To this day, I start almost all my runs easy as well, building into a decent pace over a mile or more.

Your longer-term program should better approximate the environment in which you want to be able to perform. Hence, mine is mostly done along trails through the woods. Incidentally, this is also a good way to avoid the impact-related stress injuries that come along with running on pavement. Your feet and all your leg muscles will have to deal with unpredictable and erratic irregularities in the trail, strengthening these parts in ways you’re not even aware of.

To achieve your fullest potential, you should vary the running workout even more than this though. The trail runs will seldom work the heart and lungs the way they’ll work in a serious track session or in interval training so take a little time for this as well if you want to be elite, maybe just once or twice weekly. This is the time to enjoy a perfectly flat track or trail. Counterintuitively, these sessions will improve your longest runs as well, partly by working the lungs hard and partly by habituating a long runner’s stride.

Don’t get too comfortable in any pattern for too long. Versatility is best – forcing yourself to adjust, if only mentally, to radically different environments and programs. This is a key concept to the following section on strength training.


Why it’s useful: to portage canoes, to paddle all day, to swing an axe, to remove fallen trees, to build shelters, just for starters.

And it’s important to be able to do all of the above without incapacitating yourself from getting up and doing it all again tomorrow.

I’m going to describe here an unorthodox method I’ve used for strength training for quite a while. I really rely on this nowadays to work the whole body and to keep my muscles guessing.

I have an excellent book describing about 110 body-weight exercises, many based on those used in elite military training. These exercises are numbered and I run a random number generator weekly to tell me how many exercises I’m going to be doing each day and then which ones. I really don’t know what I’m going to be doing next until it’s time to exercise and I flip the pages.

This sounds risky. What if I over-exercise certain muscles? What if I don’t rest enough or what if this week’s regimen is just worthlessly easy? Fair enough. And all I can say in answer is that I’ve been doing this quite a while and there has never been a program I’ve been as consistent with or that has acheived comparable results. At 44, I’m not about to try out for the Olympics but I’m physically competitive with many men in their early twenties. I also maintain a physicality that would let me ramp things up overnight if I had to to train for a special event or excursion.

Finally, just do as much of this as possible out in the elements where you’re uncomfortable; too hot, too cold and with bugs crawling on you. This is how you become mentally at ease in the wild. Set yourself some big tests, maybe long runs with a backpack where you know you’ll fail at some point but you will have tested your limits.

One of the most oft-repeated quotes a trainee for the Navy’s SEAL team encounters is this:

“98% mental, 2% physical.”

If that formula’s good enough for some of our most elite units, it’s good enough for you and I. And if that doesn’t motivate you, you could try this one:

“There’s plenty of time to rest when you’re dead!”

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