Walking with a weighted backpack is a way to build strength and endurance while upping your calorie burn from a normal walk. In fact, the term rucking was recently developed to describe this method of exercise. Weighted walks are easy to structure, and the workouts can benefit many individuals.
When Not to Use Weight
Throwing on a weighted backpack is not just a simple solution to burn more calories. It can work really well when used as a tool in a bigger picture approach to fitness and training. Weighted packs are especially useful when preparing for a backpacking trip or an event that requires your legs to carry an extra load.
Before using a pack or any weights for that matter, train by walking without weight to build up core strength. Just like weightlifting, adding weight is a gradual process. Start by walking with no weights and an empty backpack. You will build endurance and strength while becoming accustomed to wearing the pack.
Gradually, you can add weight to the pack to increase the load and caloric requirement to move that load. Walking with the extra weight burns more calories than walking normally on the same route.
The point here is to start without weight and gradually increase the load as your body becomes more capable. An overweight walker can add weight to the pack as his body slims down, while a weak individual can add weight as he gains muscle mass.
Types of Packs
The type of pack used influences the weight distribution and the amount of weight you can carry. The best method of weighted backpack training is to keep the weight close to your body. A standard book backpack works well for light loads, but the distribution sags and most book bags don't suffice for carrying heavier loads.
Backpacks built specifically for backpacking and carrying heavy loads of gear are perfect for walking with weight. These models have reinforced straps to handle the weight without tearing and they utilize chest and weight straps to pull the load close to your body.
If you plan on training for a backpacking trip, using the same pack during training and the trip is also a good idea. You will know exactly how to adjust the pack for maximum comfort on your trip.
The other type of pack that works well is the external frame style. These have the same straps and load-bearing system, but the pack is simply an open metal frame. They are frequently used to pack loads of meat by hunters or equipment for loggers and trail workers. You can attach a bag system to function much like a regular pack or keep the frame open for odd-shaped objects.
Types of Weights
After finding the right pack, you need a weight source. Adding weight in increments and knowing the load used helps you track progress.
Simple dumbbells or weight plates for a barbell are easy to use, and they show the number of pounds right on the weight. The trick here is to distribute the weight evenly while using an appropriate amount to avoid overloading the pack, as the American Council on Exercise points out.
Walking with several 10-pound weights in a pack is not a problem, but adding 40, 50 or even 100 pounds requires a system to hold the weights securely and close to your back. A backpack with compression straps can help pull the weights in tight. Using a pack with multiple pockets is also a good method.
Carrying larger weights becomes more difficult with a system of dumbbells. One easy method is to use either your backpacking gear or heavy duty sacks of gravel.
Gravel is heavy and when placed in sacks, it can mold to the pack dimensions. That level of flexibility makes it easier to manipulate the shape and manage the weight load. Weigh the sacks in advance and shoot for 5 to 10 pounds in each one.
Alternative Weight Options
Several alternatives to the weighted backpack exist and they are also effective. The weighted vest, according to a February 2014 study published in the University of Mexico Digital Repository, is one option that simplifies the entire process. The vests come either pre-weighted or with interchangeable weight systems to adjust the amount carried. The study was small but does help validate the value of a weighted vest.
The primary benefit of a vest is the even weight distribution across the upper body. The downside is the lack of utility and crossover use. The vest is only useful for training and it will not carry your tent and sleeping bag up a mountain. If you train on a treadmill and want a more challenging workout, a weighted vest is a good option.
Ankle, arm and wrist weights are also a viable means of adding weight to walks. They work more specific areas of the body, and the resistance can increase your stretch while helping to tone muscles and burn a few extra calories. Use these cautiously, however, as they can cause muscle imbalances in some cases, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Indoor Versus Outdoor
Both methods of walking with weight are effective. The outdoor walking routines do expose you to sunshine and can have positive mental health benefits. Hiking is especially effective and it may help boost your mood.
The best way to train for a hike or backpacking excursion is by simply hiking. The trails require subtle movements, and they work more muscles than a standard treadmill.
The treadmill does, however, offer convenience and complete control over the time walked and the settings. Hiking trails are not accessible to everyone, and treadmills represent a nice alternative. They also make it easy to train indoors when the weather turns bad, and walking paths and trails are covered in snow and ice.
Ideally, you will have access to a combination of indoor and outdoor opportunities where you can strap on the weighted pack and complete your workout anytime.
Weighted Backpack Training Considerations
The exact number of calories burned walking for one hour with a weighted pack varies. A treadmill or fitness tracker can help track the burn, but ultimately it depends on your routine. A routine with hard inclines at a high-intensity pace, for example, will elevate your heart rate and increase your energy expenditure.
Walking at an incline with the load is also advantageous as it reduces the strain on your joints when compared to the same motion on flat ground or a decline. A treadmill routine can control the incline and alternate between mild and steep hills, but walking outdoors often means you are forced into a variety of different levels and terrain. This is not a bad thing by any means, but avoid routes with sharp declines unless you are really comfortable carrying the extra weight.
Maximizing the calorie burn happens with interval training that pushes you for short periods with low intensity walking between the bursts. You can, however, use a consistent distance routine with relatively low intensity and mild gradients to burn calories while building strength under a weighted pack.
Walking with a weighted pack will increase the difficulty and effort required by your lungs and muscles in either scenario, according to a June 2012 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology. The study had only seven participants, but its findings illustrate the benefits of using this form of exercise for overall conditioning.
- PubMed: "Effect of Carrying a Weighted Backpack on Lung Mechanics During Treadmill Walking in Healthy Men"
- University of Mexico Digital Repository: "The Metabolic Costs of Slow Graded Walking With a Weighted Vest in Untrained Females"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Wearing Weights - How They Can Help or Hurt"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Health Benefits of Hiking - Raise Your Heart Rate and Your Mood"
- Boys' Life: "Internal or External Frame"
- American Council on Exercise: "Outdoor Workout: Backpack Circuit"