Backpacking Fitness
Fitness tips for hiking in Yellowstone

Backcountry Fitness & Nutrition

Fitness tips to help you prepare for hiking in Yellowstone
by Dr. Melissa Wolf, MD

Hiking is one of my all time favorite activities and Yellowstone National Park is a great place to explore. Those of us lucky enough to live in nearby Bozeman, MT, are already acclimatized to the weather and altitude, and can make an easy day or weekend trip to the park. However, if you live at sea level you need to take special precautions. Smart physical conditioning prior to your hiking trip can make a huge difference in your enjoyment of the experience. Here are five tips and strategies to physically prepare for a visit to Yellowstone.

TIP #1
Consider the altitude change. Most of the park is at around 8,000 feet above sea level. The highest point is Eagle Peak at 11,358 feet, and the lowest point is Reese Creek at 5,282 feet above sea level. This means that even the lowest point is probably quite a bit higher than many visitors are accustomed to. Exertion at altitude makes you more easily fatigued, dehydrated, and winded (not to mention sunburn sets in faster too). In preparation for your visit be sure to focus on cardiovascular fitness especially if you will be climbing peaks or hiking long distances. Be prepared to tire more quickly if you are visiting from sea level and account for this in your hiking plans. Also, if you are elderly or have a heart/lung condition, check with your doctor prior to your trip to see if hiking at altitude is safe for you. Some physicians encourage the use of a heart rate monitor during exertion for those with underlying medical conditions.

TIP #2
Remember your ankles and knees. If you are used to exercising on city sidewalks, blacktop, or treadmills, consider doing some stability work to strengthen your ankles and knees. Trails can be muddy, rocky, and uneven. It is so easy to twist an ankle if you are not accustomed to covering uneven terrain, and limping back to your vehicle with an injury could ruin your vacation. If you have a chance to hike some trails in your hometown, that would be best; however, if this is not an option, try balancing one leg at a time on a Bosu ball at your gym. Work up to 2 minutes on each side. Also remember that supportive shoes are critical for everyone but especially those who are not used to covering trail terrain.

TIP #3
Wear your daypack. What daypack? The one with your bear spray, sunscreen, snacks, water, trail maps, first aid kit, emergency kit, and rain gear. I know, you don’t usually hike with a pack. You shove a Cliff bar in your pocket, carry a bottle of water, and tie a windbreaker around your waist. It’s easy. Bad plan. Always carry a day pack when hiking, especially for longer trails and especially when you are visiting an area that you are unfamiliar with. Since you will be carrying your pack while visiting the park, it is wise to cover a few miles at home with your full pack on. It might seem comfortable in the store, or in your living room, but I recommend filling it up with whatever you plan to carry and trek around a bit. This way, you can condition your neck and shoulders to carry a pack, you can learn where the abrasive spots are, and make sure it is comfortable enough to carry all day. Personally, I hiked the Grand Canyon with a new pack and spent much of the trip tending to a huge blister on my back from an abrasive waist strap. Not fun. I know it sounds hokey but your neck and skin will thank you later.

TIP #4
Try your snacks in advance. Many a marathon runner and hiker have been taken down by an untested snack. Nausea, heartburn, diarrhea, and bad taste can ruin your adventure. Whether you plan to hike with electrolyte goo, snack bars, energy jelly beans, or cheese and crackers, be sure to have taste tested these well in advance. You don’t want to find out 8 miles into a hike that the goo not only tastes awful but ties your stomach in a knot.

TIP #5
Don’t forget your quads. Your quadriceps will likely be doing most of the muscular work while hiking. They help you climb uphill and stabilize your knees on the downhill. Especially if you are planning consecutive days of hiking, be sure to condition your quads properly in advance. If you forget to do this, you might enjoy the first day of hiking, but then find yourself much too sore to go out again on subsequent days. It is a challenge to enjoy beautiful scenery when each step causes excruciating pain. To condition at home, climb up and down stairs at work (especially if you typically take the elevator) or try some squats at the gym. If you don’t belong to a gym and don’t have stairs, hold a full gallon plastic water jug in each hand and do lunges up and down your street or across your living room. Of course, if you feel motivated, also strengthening your hamstrings and calf muscles can only make your experience more enjoyable and less painful.

Yellowstone National Park is a beautiful destination for visitors of all ages and physical conditions. However, if you plan to hike, a little preparation can go a long way. Taste your snacks, wear your pack, condition your heart, and strengthen your legs/ankles in advance. You don’t have to take on a boot camp training program but what you want to avoid is getting up off your couch at sea level and then trying to hike 10 miles at 8,000 feet with no physical conditioning. This is a recipe for disaster. Enjoy your visit and don’t forget the bear spray!

Dr. Melissa Wolf is board certified obstetrics and gynecology physician who lives and works in Bozeman Montana.

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