Of the many obstacles the wilderness can throw at you, deadfall is among the most exhausting. It’s difficult enough to climb over a tree when you’re not carrying all your gear, but add extra weight on your back and repeat this movement a hundred times, and you'll quickly drain your energy stores while increasing your risk of injury. The only solution is to be in peak physical condition to tackle them head-on.
Sure, strength comes in handy when you’re climbing over fallen trees, but all the squats in the world won't prepare your body for climbing, crawling, and scrambling over deadfall at an incline. You need the right mix of strength, mobility, and endurance to get through this maze of dead trees.
In the wild, conditions can change rapidly, and the same path you carved last season may not even be accessible this year. That's why it’s better to be prepared for anything. So if you’re planning a Western hunt soon, this article's for you.
Why Deadfall Causes Issues
Deadfall refers to a bunch of fallen trees and branches that create a tangled mess. One fallen tree can in your way isn't the problem. A group of fallen trees and their branches on the other hand is like trying to get knots out of a spider web - it takes time and planning to pick your way through.
Navigating through a patch of deadfall is time-consuming. If you’re trying to make it to camp before nightfall you need to do so efficiently. Plus, large storms are nature's demolition crew, responsible for heavy accumulation of deadfall, so if you’re going hunting after a storm, you'll wish you had prepped with some deadfall training. It's dangerous to boot; stepping over and around fallen trees and branches puts you at risk of twisting an ankle, hurting your hips, or falling.
So let's start with the basics - the hunting-specific training you should incorporate to build a strong foundation, improve your flexibility and mobility, and how to increase your cardio.
Building a Strong Foundation
Just because you do leg workouts in the gym doesn’t mean you’re ready to hike mountains and traverse deadfall. You need to do specific movements that mimic what you'll need to do in context.
For example, step-ups and lateral lunges are more effective than barbell squats and deadlifts because they’re more similar to the motion of climbing over objects. In case it's not abundantly clear yet, you need balance, coordination, strength, and flexibility to get through deadfall.
Your training program should address all of these areas. It’s easy to put strength, flexibility, and mobility into one workout so that you don’t have to spend your entire day in the gym. If you're planning your workouts without the help of MTNTOUGH's Backcountry Hunting Programs, consider incorporating the following exercises into your workouts.
Backcountry Strength Exercises
Getting through deadfall requires unconventional movement, motions you're not accustomed to. That's why your exercises should be unconventional to match; they'll make your body more resilient to face the field of matchsticks. So ditch the traditional gym exercises and try the following exercises to enhance your hiking and climbing:
This movement is highly specific to hiking in the mountains. It’s the same as a traditional step-up but you’ll hold the dumbbells on your shoulders instead of by your sides. The height of the box you use depends on your mobility, but generally a higher step-up is better. The added stretch means that this exercise doubles as a mobility workout for your hips.
With this movement, you have to balance and squat on one leg. It’s difficult for many reasons, but practicing this exercise will make you a better backcountry athlete.
Some exercises in the gym give you an ego boost because you can lift an impressive amount of weight without worrying about things like balance and coordination. This exercise is the exact opposite. Touchdowns will prepare you for the awkward motions used while climbing over deadfall.
Flexibility and Mobility Workouts
Lifting your legs up and over trees, rotating your hips, and training your knees from weird angles can take a toll on your body. If you don’t have enough range of motion to handle it, your risk of injury goes up.
A daily stretching routine will keep you loose and limber. You can practice yoga or Pilates to keep your joints mobile and your core strong. However, there are some specific mobility exercises mountain athletes should focus on.
Traditionally, mountain climber is an exercise used to burn calories and increase your heart rate. For a mountain athlete though, it provides an opportunity to work on your hip flexion. As you raise your knee towards your chest, you’re performing hip flexion.
When you do this exercise, be sure to move slowly and focus on lifting your knee as high as you can, improving your range of motion.
Fatigue is a recipe for mistakes. Without incredible endurance in the mountains, you'll move slower, shoot less accurately, and sour one of the last great experiences untouched by man. With the high altitude and fight for oxygen, you need an effective cardiovascular system to power through. You can improve your endurance in several ways, but if you want to shorten the timeline for aerobic capacity, do high-intensity interval training. Here's one to get you started:
VersaClimber sprints are one of the best forms of cardio for a mountaineer because they mimic the motion of steep climbing. They’ll condition your legs and mind to fight through fatigue the next time you’re navigating tough terrain.
If you don’t have a VersaClimber you can use other forms of cardio equipment, but try to keep the same high-intensity format of your workout. In other words, do short, intense bursts of activity followed by rest.
The Best Workout for Deadfall
MTNTOUGH Trainer Jimmy Alsobrook brings you this workout designed to help you navigate deadfall. Use it to improve your strength, cardio, and endurance before your next outing to stay injury-free and move with confidence.
In the workout, you’ll do three blocks of exercises, each with different exercises that deserve your full attention and effort. Don’t skip any rounds, but take breaks if you need them.
Warmup #1 : 3 Rounds
Hip Thrusters - 10 Reps
Hip thrusters fire up the big glute muscles that you’ll use throughout this workout. While many exercises, such as squats, use the glutes for assistance, few target them as directly as the hip thruster. Plus, doing hip thrusters can make you faster and more powerful.
- Step 1: Sit on the ground with your back against a bench or box and your legs flat
- Step 2: Roll a barbell over your thighs, then plant your feet on the ground
- Step 3: Pressing your heels into the ground, lift your hips up towards the ceiling
- Step 4: The barbell should stay in your hip crease throughout the movement
- Step 5: When your hips are in line with your shoulders and knees, lower your hips and return the bar to the ground
Muscles Worked: When performed properly, this exercise targets the gluteus maximus, the largest of the glute muscles. It also works the quadriceps but not nearly as much.
Modifications: If you lack the proper equipment or simply don’t feel comfortable lifting the barbell, do the same motion without weight. You can also do it with your back on the ground.
Bandwalks - 20 (10 each side)
Hip thrusters strengthen your hips in a forward-to-back motion. Bandwalks are designed to strengthen them to move laterally, focusing on a slightly different part of the glute.
- Step 1: Put a resistance band around your ankles
- Step 2: Stand up, make sure you have room to move side-to-side
- Step 3: Bend your knees and push your hips back slightly
- Step 4: Take a big step to the side and plant one foot
- Step 5: Lift the other foot and step in
- Step 6: Repeat for 10 total steps, then move in the other direction
Muscles Worked: The gluteus medius is the main target of this movement. It’s a small muscle on the side of your hip that lifts your leg out to the side. It’s useful for the side-to-side motions you’ll use when climbing over obstacles.
MTN Climbers (with pause) - 20 (10 each side)
This is different from the traditional, fast-paced mountain climber. On each rep you should move slowly, lifting your knee as close to your chest as possible, to increase hip mobility.
- Step 1: Start in a push-up position with your arms and legs straight
- Step 2: Lift one knee towards the elbow of the same side
- Step 3: Pause for a second, then return that foot to the ground
- Step 4: Alternate legs until you’ve done 10 reps on each side
Muscles Worked: You’ll use your upper body muscles, including the shoulders, triceps, and chest to stay in the push-up position. Your abs will also work throughout the movement.
However, the primary muscle group used is the hip flexors. Those muscles bring your knee up close to your chest, and very few gym exercises target them directly.
Warmup #2 : 2 Rounds
Forward Hurdles - 10 (5 each side)
This seemingly simple exercise is useful for moving quickly and clearing tall obstacles. It’s a hip mobility and strengthening drill that’s perfect for people who sit a lot during the day.
- Step 1: Stand with enough room in front of you to go at least 10-15 steps
- Step 2: Lift one knee out to the side, then up in an arc until it’s pointing forwards
- Step 3: As you lift your leg, imagine you’re stepping over a fallen tree
- Step 4: Put your foot down in front of you and switch legs
Muscles Worked: Your hip flexors are used in the exercise, as well as your groin muscles.
Modifications: You can do this exercise while standing in place if you don’t have a clear runway to go down.
Backward Hurdles - 10 (5 each side)
This is essentially the same exercise as the forwards hurdle but it forces your hips to move in a different motion, improving your hip mobility in the opposite direction.
- Step 1: Stand with plenty of room behind you to move without tripping over or hitting anything
- Step 2: Lift one knee up straight in front of you, then make an arc out to the side of your body with your knee
- Step 3: Drop that foot to the ground and step back onto it as you raise the other knee in front of your body, repeating on the other side
Muscles Worked: Similar to the forward hurdle, this movement works the hip flexors and groin muscles.
Modifications: You can also do this movement while standing in place. The key is to lift your knee and move it through the largest range of motion possible.
Lateral Lunges - 10 (5 each side)
Most lunge variations are performed in a forwards-to-backwards range of motion. This is helpful for the most part, but what happens if you have to take a big step to the side? To build the muscles and range of motion required for such a movement, you need this exercise.
- Step 1: Start standing with your feet together
- Step 2: Step out to one side, bending your knee and putting all of your weight onto the leg you stepped with
- Step 3: Push off of that leg and step your feet back together
- Step 4: Step out to the other side, repeating the same motion
Muscles Worked: The lateral lunge uses the quadriceps and hamstring muscles, but the main focus is on the glutes. It works the gluteus maximus and medius muscles.
Touchdowns - 10 (5 each side)
Not to be confused with a single-leg deadlift, this tricky exercise strengthens your legs and balance to tackle awkward obstacles while out in the backcountry.
- Step 1: Hold a kettlebell in front of your hips with both hands on the handle, as though you’re going to deadlift it
- Step 2: Kick one leg back and lean forwards with your upper body
- Step 3: At the same time, squat down on the leg that’s touching the ground
- Step 4: As you go down, hold the kettlebell far enough in front of your body that it doesn’t hit your knee, and reach it towards the ground
- Step 5: Go as low as you can then come back up by lifting your torso and straightening your bottom leg
- Step 6: Perform all reps on one leg before switching to the other
Muscles Worked: The leg that’s on the ground will use the hamstrings and glutes to go down and up. You’ll also use the glute muscles on that side to press yourself up. You also need strong front deltoids (shoulders) to keep the kettlebell in front of your body, and a strong lower back.
The Workout: 7 Rounds
VersaClimber Sprint - 1 min (increase by 30 sec each round)
Few forms of cardio are as potent as the VersaClimber. Working out with one burns a lot of calories and improves your aerobic endurance. You get to use your arms to help your legs pump up and down in this full-body cardiovascular exercise.
- Step 1: Step onto the machine and strap your feet in
- Step 2: Adjust the handles so that they’re at a comfortable height
- Step 3: Lift one leg and press the other down, being careful not to push the machine to the maximum distance
- Step 4: Continue to alternate sides as fast as you can for the required time
Muscles Worked: You’ll use the quadriceps a lot in this exercise, and you should feel burning in the front of your thighs. You’ll also use the back muscles, such as the latissimus dorsi and teres major, as you pull down on the handle.
Modifications: If you don’t have a VersaClimber, don’t worry. You can use a stationary bike, row ergometer, or even sprint on a treadmill instead.
Front Rack Step-ups - 10 (5 each side)
This is a tough exercise in more ways than one. It strengthens your leg muscles, improves your hip mobility, and tires you out. Carrying the weight on your shoulders makes it more difficult than you might think.
- Step 1: Stand in front of a box or bench, holding a dumbbell in each hand
- Step 2: Swing the dumbbells up and let them rest on your shoulders
- Step 3: Put one foot up on the box or bench
- Step 4: Lean forwards and stand up on the box using the leg that’s up
- Step 5: With control step back down to the ground with the same leg you stepped up with
Muscles Worked: In this movement, your hamstrings, quadriceps, and glutes power you through the step-up. Your core muscles, including your abs and lower back, must work to stabilize the heavy weight on your shoulders. Your deltoids must also work to keep the weight from shifting too much.
Modifications: You can start with a shorter box or bench if you lack the range of motion to use a large box. It’s also a good idea to try these without weight at first to make sure you’re comfortable with the motion.
Pullups - 5
Few exercises are as timeless as the pull-up. When the going gets rough, you might have to use your arms to lift yourself. That might mean you’re reaching for branches or trees to use as an anchor while climbing up a cliff.
- Step 1: Grab a pull-up bar with your palms facing forwards
- Step 2: Without swinging your legs or lifting your knees, pull your chest towards the bar
- Step 3: Once your chin has cleared the bar, come back down until your arms are straight to complete one rep
Muscles Worked: Pull-ups are a pure upper-body and core exercise. Your latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, teres major, and trapezius are the main back muscles you’ll use. The triceps are also involved. In addition, your abdominal obliques and lower back muscles will be used to stabilize your body and prevent excess swinging.
Modifications: Pull-ups are extremely difficult. You can do these one at a time, and if that’s too much, tie a resistance band around the bar and put one foot in it to give yourself some assistance on the way up.
This workout, done over the course of a few weeks, can help you tremendously in the "wicker basket" this fall.
Training with a Purpose
Without a goal in mind, it’s hard to tell if your training is working. By setting targets, even if they’re just in your head, you have something to aim towards. Then, you know if your training program is working.
To truly know if your training plan is working you need to set a baseline. Use the MTNTOUGH Standard Fitness Test to gauge your strength and endurance. Every few weeks take the test again to see if you can complete it in less time. If not, it’s time to change your training plan.
As a backcountry athlete, your training should include movements that have a direct carryover to the things you’ll do in the wild. That’s why you should prioritize functional exercises and even training outdoors when possible.
Preparing for the Hunting Season
Building your endurance for hunting season while maintaining strength and flexibility is challenging. Fortunately, MTNTOUGH has mapped out what your workouts should look like year-round so that you don’t need to guess.
Before hunting season starts, you should enter a final phase of physical and mental preparation that gets you ready to conquer the backcountry. That includes doing workouts with your pack on, bringing you as close as possible to the physical demands you’ll face in-season.
Once hunting season begins your workout routine will look different. You’ll have less time to hit the gym, which means you should take advantage of the time you have in pre-season to build strength and endurance.
This is also the time to think about what gear you need for hunting and what you need to pack. Take that into account as you train, because you want to know how much weight you’ll be hauling on long hikes.
Mental Preparation and Mindfulness
In the wild, you might face cold nights, hot days, fatigue, and even injury. To keep pushing you need to be mentally tough. It’s hard to develop that toughness in daily life, but there are ways you can train it.
Toughness isn’t something you’re born with. You can develop it over time in the same way you develop your muscles. Workouts are one way to sharpen your mind. By putting yourself through challenging routines you’ll build discipline and the ability to push through discomfort.
Mindful meditation is a practice you can do in only a few minutes per day that can foster mental calm and clarity. Sit in a quiet place and focus on taking slow, deep breaths in and out of your nose. Another helpful practice is to write down three things you’re thankful for each day to help you focus on positive thoughts.
Conquer Every Obstacle
Mother nature isn’t very forgiving, so you should be ready for anything that’s thrown your way. The stronger you are the more adaptable you become, and that’s a trait every hunter should have.
Don’t wait until the weeks before hunting season to start training. Preparing your body takes time, so start now. Sharpening your mind and body will give you the confidence to tackle any obstacle that gets in your way, including deadfall.
For structure and guidance, the MTNTOUGH coaches are here to help. With years of experience training backcountry athletes, they understand and can prepare you for whatever lies ahead. Don’t go into the gym without a plan, try the 14-day trial to see what you’re missing.