So how much is in your pack?

It appears that question has replaced “how much can you bench” for outdoor fitness enthusiasts and it is maddening. Like most of my pursuits, I am late to the game with the addition of rucking to my training protocol for both cardiovascular fitness and hunt-specific conditioning. I wish I had adopted it much sooner. It is easier on my joints, is helping me build a granite-like core, and translates to my outdoor passions much better than running.

Lately, I have observed a trend that has the personal trainer in me a little disturbed. I am seeing people on social media being shamed for the poundage that they are carrying in their pack. It is deflating and discouraging to those who are looking to get and stay #FitToHunt. Let’s spend a few moments breaking down just how much you should be putting in your pack to train for your fall hunts and the right way to progress.

The Basics

If you are new to rucking, purchasing a solid pack that will fit properly, not rub your shoulders, and will adhere to your lumbar spine is important, but how much should you start with? The short answer is not 100 pounds. Currently, I have a 71-year-old grandma in New York State rucking, and we started her with 5 pounds in a backpack. Just enough to know something is there but not too much where she will compromise good form or invite injury.

Unfortunately, there are few rucking protocols in the outdoor fitness world rooted in exercise science. There are, however, a lot of opinions and experiential suggestions that you can use to form a rucking program that will allow you to progress linearly. This not only allows you to see gradual changes over a defined time period but also reduces the risk of injury that could happen if you are a newbie, throw 60 pounds in a pack and go for a hike.

#FitToHunt personal trainer and owner of the Beast Mode Archery Challenge Brian Austin lives to ruck and shoot his bow. When working with a new client, Coach Brian has some very simple philosophies.

“When starting someone on a rucking program I typically start them with a back weight that is 10% of their body weight assuming they are healthy and don’t have a lot of excess weight.  Some folks will start with an empty pack and that’s just fine.  Depending on their fitness level and the type of terrain they are training on I may ramp them up to 30lbs in a week to a month.  The more rugged and steep the terrain is the slower the increase in weight as ligaments and tendons need more time to adapt to carrying a load than what your muscles do.”  

And is there a difference between rucking for fitness and rucking for hunting? According to Austin, the answer is yes! “For my clients that are not hunters or even backpackers, they will probably never haul more than 30 lbs on their back for a training session.  The benefit of carrying a heavier weight for most people is not worth the increase in discomfort that most entry-level backpacks will make you feel.  Most “backpacking” packs don’t feel great once you have 40 lbs in them.  Rucking for fitness and rucking with the intention of hauling your harvest out of the mountains are two totally different scenarios that require specialized gear and a much bigger commitment.  With that said, over 80% of my ruck training is with 30-45lbs.  I will complete maybe 10 ruck workouts a year with 80-100lbs to prepare for my September elk hunt.”

Rucks are great for both hunt-specific training and socialization!

An elk hindquarter is an elk hindquarter

I’m 5’7 and weigh 150 pounds. Sam Roberts is the polar opposite standing 6’2 and weighing 240 pounds. Sam is a powerlifter and competitor in the Beast Mode Archery Challenge events which require men to carry 80 pounds throughout the competition. There is a good chance that Big Sam is going to be able to carry that weight more efficiently than I am but if you are going out west, the mountain does not care if you are 5’7 or 6’2. An average elk hindquarter weighs 65 pounds, so no matter your size, stature, or fitness level, you will have to pack it out when you tag an animal.

However, if you are rucking for fitness or to excel at less arduous styles of hunting like turkey, whitetail, and even waterfowl, do you need to carry 80 pounds in a pack? The answer is no unless that is your goal.

I have seen many an athlete push the boundaries of safety over a deadlift bar in an attempt to compete with the other, stronger athletes in the room. It resulted in injury. This is a gray area but understanding the level of performance you will need in the field will help you formulate how much weight you will eventually need to carry.

Former Army Ranger and #FitToHunt field team member SFC Steve Branch knows a thing or two about leading rucks. As an army Infantryman, he has served in every enlisted position of a rifle company and spent all 13 years on Airborne Status; jumping out of airplanes and living out of a rucksack for weeks at a time. His job is to prepare the best of the best to protect our great nation and knows how to push his soldiers to new levels, so how would that translate to us mere mortals? Branch Stated, “The ability to carry a heavy load in and out of an area is fundamental to the success of the mission! Sometimes that mission might be moving off an objective in the middle of the night with all your people and critical items of equipment, and sometimes it’s the rewards of a hard hunt with your harvest quartered and packed away.  Regardless of the mission, the result MUST be the same, moving off the X with everything secured and resting on your shoulders!”

Or in other words, slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. Focusing on proper form and training to be able to move off the X is paramount to a good experience in the field and a strong body.

You have time

Earning higher levels of strength & conditioning is progressive. No matter what you do today, it won’t matter if you don’t layer that up with another workout and remain consistent. There is no reason you have to throw heavy weights in a pack today because if you are consistent and do the work, you will be able to add poundage incrementally. Similar to the bench press; you might be able to hit a one-rep max lift of 225 pounds today but it is highly unlikely you started at 225. It took time.

How does this impact you if you are not rucking right now and have a hunt in September? My suggestion is you better get to work ASAP, and build the best conditioning you can with a combination of rucking and a solid strength program like our Backcountry DIY before day one of your hunt. Regardless of how fit you are when you punch a tag, ready or not, you will have to pack out a lot of meat. Even if you are just now wrapping your head around getting in shape for your elk or mule deer adventure, what you do today will impact your performance tomorrow.

Rucking is not only an incredible activity to boost your fitness level, but it is also social and is a great way to enjoy creation. Use the tips from our experts and your own research to build a rucking program that will allow you to CRUSH the woods, water, mountain, or whatever you are pursuing in this life.

Thanks for reading and stay #FitToHunt