In New Zealand we have an abundance of hunting opportunities from the variety of game animals, the hunting ‘seasons’ throughout the year, and of course the small game and game bird hunting that allow us to take a walk and enjoy the many aspects of a good hunting adventure. We all have different experiences of hunting – and some of those hunts can be grueling and enduring on the body!
Many hunters put in a fair amount of boot time to get to their hunting grounds. Typically an early start followed by a day of chasing quarry and moving over terrain to get into those animal ‘hot spots’. By the day’s end, and if the right opportunities present themselves we are (hopefully) taking that walk back to camp under load with some meat over the shoulder. Many hunting trips (especially for big game) take place over a number of consecutive days so the body gets a pretty thorough dose of exercise and can take a real beating.
So what can we do to best prepare ourselves physically to make the most of those hunting opportunities and give ourselves the greatest chance of success?
The settings and type of hunting in New Zealand can vary substantially which can somewhat determine how physical the hunting trip is. Things like whether the area is public or private access – how close you can get your vehicle to those hunting grounds for walk-ins and animal recovery. Is there a well-marked track for walk-in hunting or are you bush bashing? What is the track terrain like? What method you are using to hunt the game (long-range, bush stalking, tops hunting, pig hunting over dog). Is helicopter or boat access an option etc.
Any way you look at it – we can all experience a greater ‘comfort’ factor if we are physically conditioned and prepared for the demands of those hunting situations.
Rather than using the word ‘fit’ I prefer to use the word ‘conditioned’. The word conditioned can mean ‘being accustomed to a predictable pattern, acclimate, or become prepared by training.’
If you have a think for a moment about the factors that affect your movement while hunting on the hill you can start to build a framework as to what your training methods and how you should train to help get you ‘conditioned’ for that hunting environment. Things such as the hunting terrain, the altitude climbed to get to your hunting area, the amount of equipment you carry, the time you will be walking under load commuting time to huts/camp, carrying heavy loads of meat or game, whether you are pushing faster through open tops hunting or more slowly through tight bush, how long and how far you hunt each day etc.
If you could create the ultimate ‘mountain athlete’ what could that person be able to do physically that would get them to more animals and cover more ground?
We all have our physical strengths and we should also be able to identify what aspects we need to work on to be more well rounded. A significant number of hunters identify that mobility is something they wish they could develop!
Backcountry hunting not only requires hunters to maintain their physical strength, endurance, mobility, and energy for multiple days but it is also imperative to have a strong mindset to keep on pushing when the body starts to slow down. Many hunters, even those that may be regulars at the gym do not always ‘condition’ their energy production systems, core and legs adequately to perform well on the hill.
For those that can’t be out there all the time, we can at least get prepared! If you hunt with a dog – build in some conditioning work for them in your workouts and it doubles as an opportunity to keep up your training or commands with them.
What would be the top 5 conditioning ‘elements’ that hunters should focus their training on? And let’s break down what these elements actually mean.
Cardio Fitness which can be classified as either ‘aerobic’ or ‘anaerobic’:
Aerobic exercise (aerobic – ‘with oxygen’) stimulates the heart rate and breathing rate to increase in a way that can be sustained for the exercise session. Aerobic exercise is typical of a low to moderate or moderate to high-intensity level (around 40-80% of max-effort) and often referred to exercising in a ‘steady-state’ or at a controlled intensity. It is any activity that you can sustain for more than just a few minutes – This would be comparable in hunting terms to a flat terrain pack walk into your hunting zone/campsite or slow bush stalking during the day.
Anaerobic exercise (anaerobic – ‘without optimal oxygen’) is an activity that causes you to become quickly out of breath and a very high heart rate. This would be comparable in hunting to an uphill pack walk at a brisk pace or running quickly to the top of a ridge to catch a glimpse of an animal or chasing after your dogs who are on to a pig (even more so because the adrenaline levels are super high).
** The bottom line is that the intensity at which you do an activity determines if it is aerobic or anaerobic and how quickly you get out of breath.
Mobility – Range of Movement (ROM):
Hunting puts our mobility to the test every time we hunt. If you can’t get yourself into a good position to execute a movement, you won’t be able to engage the muscles you need to work, and you are just increasing your risk for injury. Getting injured out in the backcountry isn’t good news for you or your hunting mates, so mobility needs to be an intentional focus in our training plan. By incorporating some mobility work into your daily routine it can prevent a devastating injury which may keep you off the chase and gather adventures for months (and in a significant amount of pain)
Mobility isn’t the same as flexibility, though it is related. Mobility incorporates flexibility and strength, and it’s crucial to help you squat deeper, move more efficiently, and use the right muscle groups. Most people can get away with poor mobility and movement for a finite amount of time but after a while, the overused muscles will eventually get injured. A better range of movement lets you become more efficient in many of your hunting situations and can often translate into you being able to cover more ground through being able to squeeze through tighter spaces, climb over a log rather than a long walk around or getting your foot on to the next foothold on a slip face.
While a 6 pack looks good, this outside layer of abdominal muscles is not the same as a strong ‘core.’ The core is a group of muscles that stabilize and control the hips, back, pelvis, and spine. Core strength is about having a solid trunk (like a tree) so that all of the limbs are well supported and able to play their role. The core provides the foundation for being able to maintain the body in ideal postures and to unload the joints from too much pressure.
A strong core can significantly reduce injury and improve performance. As we age, we develop degenerative changes, very often in the spine. The structures of the bones and cartilage are subject to wear and tear. Very often, we are able to control and reduce symptoms with the appropriate core exercises. Having an imbalanced core can lead to problems throughout the body. For example, some knee pain can be caused by a weak pelvis, core, and poor hip alignment. The muscles in the body act as shock absorbers to an extent so if they aren’t firing properly our joints and bones can take a real toll.
As an example in hunting, we have prepared an animal for a carryout and we need to get it off the ground – we use our trunk muscles, abdominals, lower back, and everything all together to make that happen. Walking in with heavy packs require a great deal of core work stabilizing that weight across the hips, pelvis, abdominals, shoulders and lower back. Things like balancing while crossing a stream, log, or pausing for a moment on a steep hill climb with a heavy pack are great examples.
Muscular Strength & Endurance:
Muscular strength and endurance are two important parts of a hunter’s physique – they provide the ability to move, shift heavy loads, and walk for hours on end. Muscular strength is the amount of force you can put out or the amount of weight you can lift in a small number of repetitions. Muscular endurance is how many times you can repetitively do a movement without getting fatigued. Hunting is often a full day or multi-day activity so building muscular endurance and strength are two of the cornerstone fitness elements we need to include in our training plan.
Body composition (the makeup of our body):
Our body is made up of four elements: water, muscle, minerals (eg. in the blood and bone), and fat (stored energy). Ideally, we all want to carry as little weight on the hill as we can – and that includes our own body weight. Increasing muscle mass through resistance training is beneficial to carry (without getting too bulky!) and being well hydrated is too but carrying extra body fat can really affect stamina and mobility in a big way.
Moving through the hills all day carrying extra body weight will wear you out more quickly (and you will need to carry and eat more) than your mountain goat mate who is skipping away up the hills. Losing body fat is very achievable if you are intentional and committed. Even losing 5kg of body fat (that is 10 blocks of butter) can make a big difference in how you feel on the hill, and that is way cheaper than spending a few grand to lighten the gear in your pack instead! Not only will your hunting conditioning improve but your risk of having a health-related heart or respiratory issue on the hill will also reduce.
Let me straight out say, there is no better ‘conditioning’ than getting out there and hunting as often as you can. One of the very best training methods for hunter conditioning is to load your hunting pack with all the gear you will need, plus more, then hike or walk tracks and hills in your local area.
Written by Michael McCormack (B.PhEd).
Credit to NZ Hunter for the initial publication of this article in issue 71 of the magazine.
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