Spring Fitness Training Guide for Backcountry Hunters

Every backcountry hunter's been there - just days or weeks before the season starts, you realize you've been a bit too dormant over the winter... and spring. You're not in the right physical condition for what lies ahead. It's a tough pill to swallow, and as you scramble to whip yourself into shape, you hope it's not too late. But it almost always is.

Year after year it's the same mad dash, and year after year you swear to never let it happen again. So what if this time around, instead of that last-minute panic, you start your hunting fitness journey in the spring and steadily build strength and endurance before, during, and after hunting season?

You need at least 12 weeks of serious conditioning to be ready for backcountry hunting - this isn't an arbitrary number either, there's a laundry list of physiological reasons behind this 3-month timeframe. By beginning your training in spring, you're giving yourself ample time to gradually improve physical and mental toughness, critical factors for successful backcountry hunting. Pouring this solid foundation deep into the offseason allows you to focus on fine-tuning your skills closer to September, rather than playing catch-up. You'll be far more prepared to handle unpredictable weather, tough terrain, and the mental obstacles of conquering the remote wilderness.

Your training throughout the year should be broken down into phases, with a different focus for each one. The off-season is all about hulking up muscle, strength, and size. But when spring rolls around, it's time to lean out and build endurance for the summer months.

That's where this guide comes into play. We'll show you what a proper spring training routing looks like for backcountry hunters, covering three key physical components - endurance, strength, and flexibility. We'll also spend time on ways to train your mental strength, and finally, we'll close out this intro to spring training camp with several tips on staying injury free.

MTNTOUGH Spring Training Camp

Although this short section may seem a bit self-promotional, we thought it important to add - we wanted you to know that what you're about to read isn't written by some armchair hunter with an interest in fitness.

MTNTOUGH is an elite training program built by and for backcountry hunters and mountain athletes. We know first-hand the physical and mental drain that Mother Nature takes on our bodies and minds come hunting season.

And we exist to help our hunting brethren become tougher individuals that are prepared to take on whatever comes their way - whether that's an extended hunt for elk, a survival crisis, or daily life back in civilian clothing. Hunting in the most remote corners of the globe will test a man's mettle. It requires a professional level of athleticism, which is why we train like any other professional athlete. And come springtime, we're headed to training camp.

If you weren’t training in the offseason you might’ve spent too much time on the couch, losing the endurance and strength you worked to build just before or even during the last hunting season. If you did train, but didn't focus on building muscle or even bulking up for the occasion, there's a good chance you weren't approaching the time of year correctly.

This isn't a swipe by any means - it's called out to help you better understand that peak performance for hunting fitness is purposeful throughout the year; it shifts to meet unique demands.

But, wherever you're at right now, in pre-season prep, it’s time to shed some pounds and get back into hunting shape. The focus of the MTNTOUGH spring training phase is improving endurance without losing muscle mass or strength.

Your program will be 60 days long and include 5 workouts per week. It’ll include training for your cardiovascular system and muscles. Plus, you’ll work on building mental toughness to prepare your mind for the rigorous conditions of the backcountry - more on that in a bit.

After this phase of training, you’ll be ready to fine-tune your fitness abilities in the pre-season. This means heading into summer with confidence and the right momentum for the start of the season. This spring training guide is your on-ramp to hunting season. After all, it’s far better to prepare your body now because, come fall, your training will work around your hunts.

So even if you've neglected your fitness during the winter, this is your last chance to cut across a few lanes of traffic and still make the right exit. Metaphors aside, if you want to have a successful hunting season, keep reading and take action today. Your journey begins with a customized training plan.

5 Steps to Creating a Customized Training Plan

Training without a clear strategy is like trying to field-dress a buck with a pair of scissors; you're making the task much harder than it needs to be. Building a plan with your goals in mind is the only way to stay on track and guarantee results. Whether you decide to jump into one of MTNTOUGH's many fitness programs or create a plan on your own, use the following 5 steps to build your customized plan:

1. Assess Your Current Fitness Level:

Before you start designing workouts and adding gym equipment to your Amazon cart, take a step back to assess your current fitness level. Keep an open mind here and try to be as impartial as possible. Take the MTNTOUGH Standard Fitness Test to set a baseline and use it to measure progress throughout spring training.

Skipping this crucial stage will leave you guessing what your weak points are, and you'll be training without the understanding of what needs improved and how to do so.

2. Set SMART Goals:

You may have heard of SMART goals before - it's a catchy name that's an acronym for a perfect way to set goals - SMART stands for: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.

You don’t need a Ph.D. in mathematics to create goals in this manner, and you certainly don't need to spend hours mapping out your SMART goals - but you should jot them down somewhere and look at them regularly. Doing so will make your goals stickier in your mind; increasing your accountability and also making sure you know what success looks like.

They can be simple though, for example: "5 more strict pull-ups in 8 weeks" or "run a mile 30 seconds faster by the end of training." 

Keep It Relevant

Your workout plan should also be relevant. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the latest fitness trend or shift into a new workout you saw some celebrity or athlete promoting. But remember, they were designed for other athletes and goals in mind - as a backcountry hunter you need workouts geared to you, which you’ll see later in the article.

3. Choose the Right Workout Types:

If you can agree on some sweeping generalizations, you might nod your head to the idea that bodybuilders need strength to succeed and marathoners need endurance. At the core, they can succeed by being superhuman in one facet of physical fitness.

Backcountry hunters don't have that luxury - we need to be well-rounded in each fitness category. That means strength, endurance, and flexibility are all important. In spring training your goal is to build endurance on top of strength.

Endurance is important for hunting season because you might need to trek for miles with a heavy pack. At the same time, you need to maintain your strength because if the hunt goes the way you intend, the head and hind aren't going to haul themselves back to your truck.

Don't sleep on flexibility either. It's often overlooked, but this category is a game-changer in preventing the preventable - we're of course referencing injury. And in the backcountry, it's not a matter of if you'll hit some tough terrain that will bend your body in ways it shouldn't be - it's simply a matter of when.

The perfect pre-season program blends all three categories - strength, endurance, and flexibility. However you create your plan for this time of year, yours should consider all three as well.

4. Determine Intensity, Frequency, and Duration:

There are always variables you can adjust in a program. These are the levers that can help you customize a program to where you're at or where you want to be. Among the standouts of modifications are intensity, frequency, and duration.

The intensity of your workouts is important because you have to find a sweet spot between too easy and too hard. Duration of workouts is a simple but important metric because you can’t spend all day in the gym, but you need to be there long enough to make progress. The frequency of training is tricky because you need to balance workouts with your schedule - which isn't as tidy as we always plan it to be. But there are always ways to work with what you have.

Even if it's an extra 20 minutes in your garage with a YETI cooler, some dumbbells, and your body weight, you can still get a killer workout in with something like the Minimum Gear Daily. There are far more programs than this to make sure you get what you need regardless of the circumstance, many where zero gear is needed, but you get the point. With that in mind, ideally, you'll be able to hit the gym 5 days per week, but you might have to adapt as life does its thing with your schedule. 

Effective efficiency is always the answer. If you can modify your routine to accommodate without dropping the ball, you've already set your plan up for success.

5. Monitor and Adjust:

Using the MTNTOUGH Standard Fitness Test as your baseline, monitor your progress throughout the program. As you build your plan, incorporate test points into the calendar so you don't forget. If your performance on the test doesn’t improve, you know you’re not moving toward your goals, and it’s time to make some changes to your training plan. Conversely, if your performance is steadily improving you know you’re on the right track and to stay the course.

After setting your goals and putting some thought into the layout of your spring training program, it’s time to flesh it out with detail. It's now time to match the right functional exercises to build your mind and body for hunting season.

Building A Balanced Routine

Remember, you're a mountain athlete, not an actor trying to build abs for their next Marvel flick. And while it’s fine to favor strength training during the off-season, that approach won't serve you any favors in the spring and most certainly at the start of the rut.

You need to build strength, endurance, and flexibility at the same time. It sounds like a lot (because it is), and it sounds borderline impossible for a beginner. But rest assured that it's not only possible to build strength and endurance at the same time, it might be the best way to get in shape for hunting season.

Here's a look at the very tip of the fitness iceberg for spring hunting fitness, starting with your cardio training.

Cardiovascular Training

If you enjoy struggling for breath and constantly fighting fatigue, skip this section. If you want to have the best hunt of your life and enjoy the experience along the way, then you need to reawaken your cardiovascular system in the spring.

While everyone is familiar with the obvious benefits of cardiovascular training, it's the less obvious ones that tend to get the backcountry hunters motivated to dust off their running shoes.

Cardiovascular training gives you significantly more energy to stay alert, increasing your focus and decreasing the likelihood of making mistakes. Cardio is also an unpleasant feeling - it's uncomfortable - and the first sign of discomfort is when most people tap out. But for the backcountry hunter, this is your cue to push forward, harder than before. This difficulty is going to power you through tough situations when you need it most.

All training sharpens your mental strength, but in the opinion of many, cardio workouts can create a razor-sharp edge like no other.

Looking for a few exercises to get your heart pumping and lunges expanding? Try any of these three out:

Running: Distance vs. Sprinting

There are two basic types of running workouts: distance running and sprinting. Each has its own merits, but sprint training is more time-efficient and allows you to mix in other exercises in your workout. See, we're always looking out for you.

You can run on a treadmill indoors if you like, but if you're able to head outdoors, always opt for that.

For distance running, track metrics such as heart rate and minutes per mile run. For sprinting, you can use your heart rate to measure your intensity. To make your sprint workouts harder, cut down on rest times.

Rowing: Full-Body Activation

Rowing is a full-body activity, which is helpful for anyone short on time with goals that engage their entire body - this makes it particularly useful for backcountry hunters, where your legs, back, and arms work together in the rowing motion.

Training your upper body with an endurance exercise like the rower is important because you need to fight upper body fatigue in countless ways while hunting and hiking.

Similar to running, you can do quick sprints or longer-duration rowing workouts. Doing sets of 200 meters as fast as possible will make you winded. You can also do a longer, 20-minute row for endurance, covering as much distance as possible in that amount of time. Pick your poison, just make sure it's chasing your measurable SMART goals.

Hiking + Weighted Pack

Few things will prepare you for hunting season like throwing a heavy pack on and hitting the trails. It’s the equivalent of the Oklahoma Drill for football players, but since it’s so specific to hunting, weighted pack hikes will give you a good gauge of how prepared you are for hunting season.

Throw weight into a pack and set out for a modest distance (make sure you bring plenty of water). You can also walk on a treadmill at an incline to simulate hiking with a weighted pack - try to match the weight in your pack to what you'd bring with you on an extended hunt, then level up the weight to what your goal pack-out weight would be.

Strength Training

Successful hunters need enough strength to confidently navigate the backcountry, haul their gear to their kill, and then haul a way heavier pack on their way out. It's hard to think of other mountain sports where your pack gets heavier the longer you stay in the wild if you ultimately see success. Punching a tag is a feeling like no other, but it's also an incredible amount of work. Thankfully adrenaline is there to help, but that will only get you so far. Getting stronger is the best way to tackle this - it makes carrying that weight easier and reduces your risk of injury.

Whether you give MTNTOUGH's 14-day free trial a shot to get your strength training program launched, or you build workouts on your own, don't overcomplicate it. Focus on exercises that give you the biggest return on investment, such as these: 

Deadlifts: Carry Heavy Things

There are a few variations of this exercise, but the barbell deadlift is perhaps the best. It allows you to lift a lot of weight, preparing your body to pick up and carry heavy things. Deadlifts strengthen the legs, hips, back, and core muscles. 

It’s important to note that your form is more important on deadlifts than almost any other exercise. When performed improperly you can hurt your lower back or knees. Follow the technique cues in the MTNTOUGH training videos for more help, or shoot us a note to speak one-on-one.

Lunges: Asymmetrical Balance

Deadlifts are an example of a two-legged lower-body strength exercise. Lunges are a one-legged exercise, which forces you to use more balance. Single-leg movements strengthen your ankles and prevent debilitating sprains when you’re in the backcountry.

Lunges prepare you for hiking and climbing over obstacles because you walk and often climb using one leg at a time.

Lunges place more stress on one leg at a time, rather than evenly distributed across both. It’s important to have both single and double-leg exercises in your program; individually they offer unique benefits, as a mix though, you'll create a stronger and more balanced lower body.

Rows: Upper Body Boost

Strong legs can help you get to your destination, but you need a strong upper body to hit your target, amongst other countless motions. Whether you’re bowhunting or otherwise, it takes confidence in your upper body muscles to fire with steady aim. Rows are the perfect exercise for archers in particular because they strengthen the same muscles you use to draw a bow.

They're also extremely versatile since you can do rows with dumbbells, a barbell, or kettlebells (check out our free KB20 workout to see the power of rows in action). A strong back is also useful in other ways as you might imagine, like picking up heavy things and maintaining proper posture while shooting. Little things like that...

Flexibility Training

Spend even an hour hiking in remote wilderness and you'll gain a real appreciation for flexibility and range of motion. Every turn is an opening to test how far your limbs and joints can stretch before they give out. You know all about the demands of strength and cardio for backcountry hunting but don't make the mistake of skipping on flexibility training. Well, at least do so knowing you risk a greater chance of injury by doing so.

That's not you though - you're planning to work far too hard for your upcoming elk hunt. So let's get your body on the same page as your mind and prep it to tackle cliff faces, deadfalls, and shifting terrains like a pro. We're going to pull a few of our most effective stretches for the occasion - they'll go a tremendous distance in keeping you injury-free.

Figure-4 Stretch: Prioritize HIps

Healthy hips are going to move you to success on the mountain - it doesn't take an orthopedist to explain they're pretty important for walking, hiking, climbing - just about any bipedal movement... And while some injuries you can push through without completely altering your plans if you hurt your hips, you'll soon have a new goal; getting back to safety without additional harm.

One way to keep your hips in top condition is regularly incorporating stretches like the figure-4. This stretch focuses mainly on the glutes, the big muscles that power much of your hiking. Some smaller muscles in your hips need to be stretched, like the piriformis - if this muscle tightens up you'll feel an enormous amount of pain. Nobody wants that while chasing bulls at 8,000 feet - so make sure you include hip stretching in your program.

Child’s Pose: Relax A Bit

Borrowed from yoga, this movement will stretch you out and make you feel zen at the same time. It's an extremely relaxing stretch that's also efficient since it works multiple muscle groups at once.

As you sit back on your heels, if you do so properly you'll feel a stretch in the quadriceps, the muscles that run down the front of your legs. And as you reach your arms forward you'll feel your upper back and shoulders stretch out as well. It also lengthens the lower back, a particularly important area to remember after a long hike.

Doorway Stretch: Pull Your Shoulders Back

If you work at a desk and slouch, or you've pushed your push-ups or bench presses a bit too hard in the past, your shoulders might be rounded forwards. Don't stress too much if any or all of those prerequisites apply to you, it's a common posture and it means that your chest muscles are tight.

It is cause for concern if you let this continue though. Tight chest muscles can put you at risk for a shoulder injury, so it’s important to stretch them regularly. The doorway stretch is easy to do in your home, and there's a solid chance you've unknowingly done it before, and felt some pleasant relief in your shoulders.

Simply grab onto the doorway and lean forwards, letting the door pull your arms back. Hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds and repeat 2-3 times per muscle group.

Get Your Mind Right

If flexibility gets the recognition of a bronze medalist in your hunting fitness training, your mental strength barely gets a participation trophy. This is a massive miss though. At MTNTOUGH, we value mental toughness at an equal level to strength, cardio, and flexibility. Although rare within the industry, it shouldn't be.

Mental fortitude is what separates hunters like Remi Warren from Warren Remi. You know Remi Warren - the incredibly talented hunter, guide, outdoor writer/photographer/videographer, etc. who didn't think twice about stopping bowhunting when he injured his wrist.

That's right, the same Remi Warren who embodies a positive outlook, craves adversity, and still somehow managed to be just as charismatic and talented a bowhunter with only one arm and a mouth tab. As for Warren Remi, you might be wondering who he is... so are we. And that's precisely the point.

The guys that dedicate themselves to sculpting their mental toughness just like they do their bodies are the ones that go on to accomplish amazing things, where the footnote becomes grabbing record trophies. A successful hunt to them is as much about mental challenge as it is physical. Thankfully for the rest of us on the journey, the mind is as trainable as the body.

So if you want to be more like Remi Warren and less like Warren Remi, it's time to get your mind right. All of the MTNTOUGH programs increase your mental toughness, maintain a clearer mind, and transform your thinking to the MTNTOUGH Mindset. To begin, try any of the following techniques yourself:

Reframing Negative Thoughts to Positive

Imagine the classic cartoon scenario where some characters magically see an angel and a devil appear on their shoulders. On one side you have the angel feeding you praise and guiding you in the right direction, all the while the devil is misleading you and counteracting any progress being made on your other hemisphere.

The reason this scene is so memorable is that we can all relate and understand the basics as it relates to inner monologue. While you might understand that the negative thoughts are wrong if you recognize them, it's identifying the thoughts where the trouble starts. And as this line of thinking can be quite convincing, the outcomes can be devastating as a consequence.

How to Reframe Your Thinking

It's not an "all is lost" situation, however. You can change this trajectory by reframing negative thoughts and focusing on the positive ones. You'll find a new sense of confidence in your hunting skills as a result will help you build confidence in your hunting skills. This is particularly useful if you recently missed a shot or sustained an injury due to a careless mistake and have been beating yourself up about it since.

But truthfully, although we live for hunting and fitness, the real measure of this shift in think is how it changes your life with family and friends. The first step is to identify when you’re having negative thoughts - start by checking in with yourself every few hours to see if you’re going down a negative rabbit hole.

If so, it's time to reset. Do this by thinking of ways you can spin the negative thought into something positive. It might be hard at first, but it’s a skill that you’ll slowly develop where the action becomes subconscious and the frequency increases naturally. 

Practice Gratitude

If you’re caught up in negative thoughts it can be hard to focus on anything else. It might feel like the only thing you can do is wallow, but this is far from true. It's the perfect time to put your energy away from yourself and direct your attention toward others - especially those who may need assistance at some level. This simple gesture is life's recipe for exposing you to what you truly have, and that's always going to be something worthy of gratitude.

While we've already discussed Remi Warren, he's the kind of mental juggernaut that bears repeating. We'll drop the 7-minute interview above for you to fact-check but pay close attention to Remi talking about his wrist injury and how it led to adopting a mouth tab to shoot, he quickly and nonchalantly talks about how he practices gratitude.

Remi Story - Round 2

To paraphrase, he mentions a friend of his who uses a mouth tab for archery due to a lifelong impairment. While Remi's friend was teaching him how to set his bow up and most likely learn some insider tips, instead of wallowing in 'injury-pity' - he approached the experience by focusing his energy on learning and having fun with it. Along the way, an unintended outcome was feeling grateful for what he had. While writing this out doesn't do his phrasing justice, there's something extremely powerful in how simply Remi talks about it - it stems somewhere from watching it and sensing there's no bullshit to what he's saying, but also that he's sharing what most would consider a remarkable and rare moment that seems to carry the same significance but a much higher batting average for him. Perhaps the clearest takeaway is you can tell he's a guy that practices gratitude every day.

Start Practicing Gratitude

If you're looking to start at the first step, or maybe you're several feet on the journey, if you haven't taken in simple journaling this is a great way to get the gratitude meter running. It's easy too. You write down three things you're thankful for at the end of every day. It doesn't need to be poetic or edgy either, it can be short and direct like: "I walked outside during lunch today."

If it was something that you enjoyed, profound or not, and it made you thankful you could do it, then hell, it merits making the list.

This snowball is drenched in good vibes and as you get better at practicing gratitude, it can lead to several health benefits as well - serious health benefits like reducing your risk of developing cancer, heart disease, and even infection.

Mindfulness and Meditation

Like hunting, meditation is a broad term; there are many ways to do it. Breathing, as you know, is an important practice for hunters as control over your breathing can still your body and improve your accuracy.

But mindfulness and meditation aren't necessarily the most likely pairing for hunters. Although they should be. Breathing meditation gives you a chance to focus on one simple thing, rather than being distracted by a train of thoughts throughout the day.

If you’re new to the practice, start with something simple. For example, you can sit in a quiet room for a few minutes per day and simply focus on your breathing. Seriously, it can start with that simple of an approach. Throughout the day you breathe without thinking about it, which makes breathing exercises a powerful tool for mindfulness

Even a few minutes each day of meditation practice can help you relax in stressful situations and improve your mental clarity for any place and any situation you're staring at.

Minimizing Risk of Injury this Spring

We've covered all forms of physical and mental training to this point. As we round out this spring training guide, we have to drop a bit of hunting fitness caution on you. Your goal in this timeframe is to stay healthy while you improve the overall health of your body. You're going to need every inch of your being in prime condition to navigate to the backcountry. An injury now is going to derail your training.

While you can work through whatever comes your way, we'd prefer to help you reach your initial backcountry fitness goals. Thoughtful training should be top of mind moving forward as it's the key to injury prevention.

The usual suspects are to blame for injuries this time of year, including training too hard, choosing the wrong exercises, and using improper form. These costly mistakes can take you out of the hunting season or limit your abilities - let's avoid that by avoiding injuries altogether.

Use the following proper training principles to help keep you on track with your goals:

Warm Up Properly

Even if you have limited time to work out, warming up properly should still be a priority. The few minutes it takes to warm up is much less costly than the time it takes to recover from an injury. What does this look like? A proper warm-up consists of dynamic movements that prep your body for the workout by warming your muscles and making them more elastic

Remember that type of stretching you used to do in grade school - the one where you sit still and pull on your arms and legs to stretch? Don't do that - it's not helpful. Static stretching, as it's called, might even make you perform worse in the gym. This type of stretching doesn't raise your body temperature - it literally does not warm you up - creative naming aside, make sure to take a few minutes for dynamic stretching before your workouts. Exercises like butt kicks and arm circles before jumping into your workout.

Use Proper Form

Good technique is critical for any type of exercise, and unfortunately for beginners, that means it's workout agnostic. Lifting heavy weights can damage your body if you don’t move properly. For example, it's extremely easy to round your back in a deadlift, which can lead to a serious lower back injury. For example, in a deadlift, if your back is rounded you can injure your lower back.

Be sure to digest each technique tip paired with every MTNTOUGH workout before you start the day's session - our expert coaches won't let you down.

Take Enough Rest

You don’t need to exercise as hard as you can every day. It's a great ambition, but misguided for remaining injury-free in the best physical and mental condition. Sometimes you just need to rest or change the focus of your training. Doing too much too often can wear down your muscles and joints, leading to injury. It can also be a drain on motivation too.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid doing the same workout on back-to-back days. That guarantees at least 48 hours of rest per muscle group, which should be enough time to recover. Working out 5 days per week gives you two rest days to use anywhere in your schedule.

Keep Your Program Balanced

Even if you’re not doing the same exercise on back-to-back days you can overtrain and wear down certain joints. If your program isn’t properly designed you might put too much emphasis on one body part or movement. If you bench press three days per week but never do pull-ups or rows you’re training your chest too much.

It could take a while, but over time this leads to an imbalance in muscles - where the strain between your back and chest are too lopsided. Eventually, you might develop a shoulder injury from weak stabilizing muscles in your back.

Train Like You Hunt

Mental and physical training are inevitably tied together. While putting your body through grueling workouts, and training your muscles and cardiovascular system, you’re also training your mind. You're embracing the discomfort and working toward a greater purpose. You'll feel that sweet reward in the backcountry, but not in a dreading manner. No. Rather, it will feel like a sense you've been through it before, and you know you've come out on the other side of it when you pushed forward.

If you're hunting the backcountry this fall or winter, you need to design workouts for what specifically awaits you. Take 14 days to see how MTNTOUGH can help you get where you want to go, at no cost. We've created an entire hunting fitness ecosystem just for the challenges you'll soon face. If you decide to train elsewhere after the trial, be sure to apply the methodology we've shared.

Because if your spring training plan consists of throwing a bunch of exercises into a training routine and going through the motions, you're wasting your time. If you're lucky, you'll be able to make it through the hunt unscathed. But if you're smart about your approach, you'll develop skills that have the power to change your life. And that's never something to leave to luck.