MOUNTAIN STRONG: The Mental and Physical Edge to Keep You Going

MOUNTAIN STRONG: The Mental and Physical Edge to Keep You Going
MOUNTAIN STRONG: The Mental and Physical Edge to Keep You Going

Article contributed by Field Staff Writer J. McFarland.

The aim of this article is to ramp up your mental and physical capabilities towards hunting for extended periods of time in the backcountry, off-trail, in steep and rugged terrain during inclement and severe weather. Coming from Alaska, the majority of my hunting trips involve multi-day or week excursions where I regularly pack heavy loads through some of the most demanding terrain and brutal weather on the planet. For this type of hunting, all gear and provisions are packed in and out using nothing but leg and lung power. Hauling out game requires multiple trips, and taps every bit of grit from deep within to make it back to the truck or landing strip. Success on such expeditions is a measure of knowledge, gear, and above all else, mental and physical toughness, which I define as ‘mountain strength’.

Being in serious mountain shape is a crude balance of unwavering mental toughness, strength, endurance, and athleticism. You are only as strong as your weakest link, and lacking in any one of these vital components lowers overall performance. For example, when post holing through thigh deep snow up a mountain with the last load of meat on your back on day eight of your grueling ten day hunt, you are using all four of these qualities. Your physical strength enables you to push off your hind leg and punch it into the snow for your next step. As you struggle forward, your endurance reserves kick in, allowing you to keep pushing forward despite exhaustion. Finally, you rely on athleticism to stay on your feet and mental toughness to never let you quit. Below is a break down of these elements for all ages, genders, and body types to give you the mental and physical edge to keep you going ‘mountain strong’. 

  Picture 5. This picture was taken late Fall (Sept.) at the front end of a big and unexpected two week storm that trapped us in the mountains for 4 days while moose hunting.

This picture was taken late Fall (Sept.) at the front end of a big and unexpected two week storm that trapped us in the mountains for 4 days while moose hunting.

Mental Toughness

Your attitude and mind set is the most influential factor driving virtually every aspect of mountain hunting. If your mind is not in the game, physical fitness is out the window, regardless of how ‘good of shape’ you are in. Those whom are truly mentally tough have a relentless desire to be successful and are willing to sacrifice all comforts in order to achieve the goal at hand. They are the type that can withstand the continuous rigors of packing monstrous loads, excel when being cold and wet while enduring ripping wind with extreme temperatures, yet remain highly motivated.

I ran into a guy once who smoked a pack of cigarettes and drank a case of beer every night (needless to say he does not regularly exercise), yet he successfully hunted in some of the roughest mountains in Alaska. I asked him how he did it, and he lit up another cigarette and said “If you want it bad enough, you can do anything” – and that’s the truth. Being in the best shape of your life and buying all the fancy light weight and high tech gear in the world will do nothing if your mental game is not on point. So why be physically fit if all we really need is mental toughness? Because the combination of mental and physical strength is literally a deadly mixture that can take you places and lead to successes that you previously never thought possible.

Helpful hints:
Increase mental prowess through physical fitness training. High intensity training can increase self-discipline and your ability to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Make it a lifestyle. Mental toughness atrophies if not consistently engaged. Push yourself in every facet of life, and it will carry over to when you need it most on the mountain.

Despite going as light and minimalistic as possible, mountain hunting requires a lot of gear!  Pictured is drying everything out on a rare bluebird morning on day 6 of a 10 day sheep hunt deep in the Wrangell Mountains, AK.
Despite going as light and minimalistic as possible, mountain hunting requires a lot of gear! Pictured is drying everything out on a rare bluebird morning on day 6 of a 10 day sheep hunt deep in the Wrangell Mountains, AK.

Strength

While isolating lifts (like bench, curls, etc.) might look good at the beach or in your selfie portfolio, they will not get you very far in the mountains. Mountain strength and power comes from your legs and core, so focus on them. Legs are your main power source, and cannot be over emphasized. Core strength (lower back, hips, and abs) are essential for safely maintaining heavy loads for prolonged distances. By strengthening your body you not only protect yourself from injury, but also prolong the ability to withstand the rigors of mountain hunting. Compound exercises that incorporate multiple muscle groups and require balance (like body weight excises and Olympic style lifts such as power cleans and snatchs) are hard to beat. Strength train at high intensities at least three days a week (preferably 5-7 days), and focus on different muscle groups every other day.

Helpful hints:
Perfect form comes first and foremost: Never sacrifice lifting form over moving heavier weight. If unsure about proper exercise techniques, consult a personal trainer or use online resources.
Always have a short and long term plan: Short term refers to what specific exercises you will do each day of the week and what order. Long term refers to your fitness goals per month, year, etc.
For every push, there is a pull: Over or underworking complementary muscle groups invite injury and reduce overall strength. For example, when working quads, equally work hamstrings. The same goes for abs/lower back, chest/upper back, biceps/triceps, upper body/lower body, etc.
Get in the routine of working out, but NEVER a routine of the same lifts: Constantly switch up the exercises. For example, regularly swap barbell lifts with dumbbells-both two handed and one.

Big mountains and packs while sheep hunting high in the Wrangell Mountains, AK.
Big mountains and packs while sheep hunting high in the Wrangell Mountains, AK.

Endurance

Maintaining high energy levels and efficiency while hiking all day in oxygen deprived steep terrain with a heavy pack requires a healthy dose of endurance. Proper training should incorporate low-intensity (ex. long distance runs, hikes, hill climbs, etc.) with high-intensity (ex. short distance hill sprints, stair runs, swimming sprints, etc.) workouts. When hiking, wear the SAME clothes, boots, and weighted pack that you will use on your hunt, not only to familiarize yourself with your gear, but to weed out problems (blister causing boots, uncomfortable pack, etc.). Train for endurance at least three days per week, and like strength training, always mix up your routine.

Helpful hints:
Set goals (ex. for distance and time) and make it a point to achieve them. This is also a great way to hone mental discipline and toughness.
Train as much as possible on uneven ground and off established trails. Mountain travel off established trails is NEVER flat. Traversing over logs, rocks, roots, etc. is substantially more difficult than the flat surface of pavement and established trails.

A large storm dumped 3+ ft. of snow overnight while on a late season bear hunt in the Alaska Range, AK.  The only way we escaped the mountains was by climbing straight up to the top of a peak and followed high ridgelines (where the snow was wind-blown and not as deep) all the way out.
A large storm dumped 3+ ft. of snow overnight while on a late season bear hunt in the Alaska Range, AK. The only way we escaped the mountains was by climbing straight up to the top of a peak and followed high ridgelines (where the snow was wind-blown and not as deep) all the way out.

Athleticism

Athleticism refers to agility, coordination, and balance, which regardless of your God given ability, can ALWAYS improve. Increased athleticism can considerably reduce the likelihood of injury prone falls or slips. When packing heavy weight in treacherous terrain, even the slightest of slip ups can be disastrous, and you should do everything in your control to reduce that risk.
Incorporate athletic movement exercises into your existing training regime. For example, various ladder-running exercises, box jumps, and cone, tumbling, and high knee drills can be intertwined with endurance based workouts.

Helpful hints:
By conducting proper strength and endurance training, you are also inadvertently expanding your athletic capabilities. (ex. Olympic style lifts, running over logs and adverse terrain, etc.).

Load of bear being packed out solo from the Talkeetna Mountain Range, AK.
Load of bear being packed out solo from the Talkeetna Mountain Range, AK.

Conclusion

Mountain strength is built upon a foundation of various mental and physical exercises, through comprehensive training regimes that include significant variety. It is an indefinitely sustainable lifestyle, whose workouts and goals can be modified to fit any age, gender body shape, and ability. Being mountain strong requires tremendous commitment and hard work. However, like a bank, the more you deposit in the form of effort, the more you can withdrawal in the form of improved attitude, efficiency, safety, comfort, and success not only in the mountains, but in everyday life.
Train hard, train safe, and push yourself to a new level.

Packing out a bear in the Alaska Range, AK.
Packing out a bear in the Alaska Range, AK.

About the author:
McFarland has a rich background in physical fitness. He played NCAA Division 1-AA football with the University of San Diego, and won two league championships, 2 national championships, was the no.1 ranked NCAA Div. 1 Mid-Major football program, set the school’s longest winning streak in history, and was coached by legendary NFL player and coach Jim Harbaugh.  As such, he has been trained by some of the most experienced athletic trainers in the business.  Currently J. McFarland is graduating with a Masters of Science Degree in Biology and Wildlife from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, helps teach courses centered on biology and nutrition.  This background has helped to foster a lifestyle that focuses on continuous health and fitness.  When not training, he regularly explores and hunts big game in the rugged mountains of Alaska. 

*****Disclaimer*****

Please consult your physician before beginning any exercise program. Harvesting Nature nor its authors assume responsibility for personal injury or property damage sustained by or through the use of this exercise.

The advice given on harvestingnature.com is in no way intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Discontinue any exercise that causes you pain, severe discomfort, nausea, dizziness, or shortness of breath and consult a medical expert. Start slowly and at the level that is appropriate for you. Not all exercise plans are suitable for everyone.

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