skip navigation
Welcome! Orthopedics Resources Neurology Resources #PTDOS Physical Therapy Pulse Contributors Store

Injury Prevention for the Outdoor Athlete

09/08/2015, 8:45am EDT
By Christine Licata PT, DPT, SCS, CSCS

“I know that our bodies were made to thrive only in pure air, and the scenes in which pure air is found.”

-John Muir

Hiking and backpacking are 2 of the most challenging, yet rewarding activities that an individual can partake in.  The outdoors can truly point out an individual’s weaknesses and strengths and challenge a person to overcome obstacles that they never knew they would be able to conquer. In order to avoid injury and get the most out of a hiking or backpacking adventure, the outdoor athlete must train properly and consistently throughout the year. 

The Short Day Hike

The short day hike typically consists of a 5-8mile hike with minimal elevation and minimal rock and hill negotiation.  In order to prepare for these types of hikes, the outdoor athlete can utilize a treadmill or stair climber in the gym or the outdoors around their neighborhood to address endurance training.  When using a treadmill it is best to vary the elevation and speed during total mileage to address varying heart rate patterns and muscle motor usage.  This also applies to the stair climber with regards to varying speed to mimic rock and hill negotiation. During short day hikes typically the outdoor athlete will utilize a small back pack or camelback with a 2L bladder therefore training with any weight is not necessary. Target muscle areas to address for these type of hikes are hip extensors, quadriceps, hamstrings, anterior tibialis, gastroc/soleus, and core musculature.

The Long Day Hike

The long day hike typically consists of a 9-15mile hike (sometimes up to 20miles depending on what the athlete is training for) on varying terrain, elevation, and possible water body crossing.  During longer day hikes a heavier pack is often utilized for the storage of water bladder, water bottle, food, extra socks, water shoes, poncho, trekking poles, first aid kit, and extra layers of clothing depending on the location of the hike.  Training for these types of hikes will also consist of a treadmill, stair climber, elliptical trainer, and walking outdoors.  Muscle groups that need to be addressed are similar to the short day hike regime with the addition of single and double leg balance training, squats, step ups, step downs, back extensor & oblique strengthening, upper trap, lats & triceps strengthening, and plyometric training with focus on proper landing technique. A weighted vest or hand weights may be utilized to simulate the weight of the pack along with actual utilization of the day pack during cardio endurance training, lower extremity closed kinetic chain exercise, and balance activities to simulate the actual hike and utilize the proper muscles of the body.

The Weekend Backpacking Adventure

The weekend backpacking trip consists of 2-3 days of hiking with a fairly heavy pack, possible utilization of a canoe, raft or kayak, cycling or mountain biking, and the setting up and breaking down of a campsite.  Each day may consist of 10-15miles of hiking or less,  several miles of kayaking, canoeing or rafting dependent upon the location, or 10-20 miles of biking or cycling;  In preparation for such an  adventure, the outdoor athlete must address both upper body and lower body cardiovascular and muscle endurance.  Gym equipment that may be used for preparation include stationary bike, stepper, elliptical, rowing machine, treadmill, and a UBE. Similar exercise and balance preparation to that of the long day hike may be utilized along with the addition of lap swimming should the gym of use has a pool.  Proper exercise training, cardiovascular endurance training, proper nutrition and proper hydration are all key to ensure success and safety with a trip such as this. 

The Through Hike

For those of you who are not familiar with through hiking, this is a challenging and often life changing activity that consists of ~15 miles/day over the course of several weeks to months starting at one location and ending at another (not a loop hike).  It involves a variety of weather changes, altitude variations, and extreme terrain changes and at times can be very dangerous due to wilderness exposure or poor preparation and training.  Although all of the above activities can be incorporated into training the most important aspect of training for such an excursion is actually hiking with a full pack, varying distances, terrain, and elevation each day/week for several months leading up to the through hike.


Outdoor activities are some of the most rewarding and challenging experiences that an athlete can participate in and avoiding injury is crucial to allow for a lifetime filled with all that nature and the great outdoors has to offer. 

Sponsored by Christine Licata, DPT, SCS, CSCS

Christine Licata, DPT, SCS, CSCS

Visit Website

Christine recieved her Doctorate of Physical Therapy from Widener University in 2005. She is also a board certified clinical specialist through the American Physical Therapy Association in Sports Physical Therapy and is a certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the NSCA. 

Tag(s): Physical Therapy Pulse  All Articles  Christine Licata, DPT