Mountain Fitness is a Lifestyle - Initial Ascent

Mountain Fitness is a Lifestyle

“Hello. My name is Steve, and I despise gyms.” (“Welcome Steve!”)

Steve Opat - Mountain Fitness is a Lifestyle

Mountain fitness has become a craze these days. There’s now a myriad of stellar hunting-specific programs to work you into phenomenal physical condition.  For the readers that find the gym to be a place of solace or productivity, there’s never been a better period of opportunity. These aren’t an option for every mountain hunter though. I feel this. And I have a close friend who’s been a part of forty-one sheep kills that feels the same. Don’t feel dissuaded from, or apathetic towards, exercising if you empathize with us. Also, don’t feel intimidated by, or sorry for, the folks who do enjoy the gym. We can all get ready for the mountain.

Many of you can identify with something from this list as to why the gym is not the answer to our needs.

    • We’ve never felt comfortable there. We don’t excel in that setting. It’s not fun.

    • We prefer to be outside. 

    • We don’t have access to a good gym or a good coach.

    • We are more private with our lives.

    • We are battling the demons of our insecurities.

    • We have limited extra time and don’t want to delegate it to the gym process.

    • We were out of the game for too long but have a dream hunt ahead and now need to get in shape but just can’t see ourselves ever doing crossfit.

Regardless of your gym affections, this article can impact you. These are tips that we at Initial Ascent have embraced in our own lives – lives we’ve dedicated to the support of the backcountry adventurer. If you focus your mind on living a backcountry lifestyle, you can develop your grit and develoe the fitness foundation to be ready for every hunt or excursion. Accordingly, you can tell people that you are a better person because of your relationship with the mountain, with the backcountry, and with hunting.

Preface: Make sure that you are healthy enough to engage in an active lifestyle. Let’s face it,

Americans are gluttons and most of us are on the path towards heart problems. There’s no shame in confiding in a reputable doctor and making sure that you are ready to begin this journey. Just acknowledge, there’s a pivotal difference in a doctor you like and a doctor that is reputable. Go to the one who tells you what you NEED to hear; not what you want to hear.

Tip 1: Embrace the Journey.

Make this declaration to yourself: “I find peace in the backcountry. I need it.”

When you believe it, your everyday actions will support it. You’ll see progressive fitness improvements because you are focused on living an active outdoor lifestyle. Most importantly, you’ll maintain your fitness gains better than any fad diet or New Year’s Resolution ever allowed.

So much of my own daily lifestyle is built around my declaration that, “I will pack anything off this mountain because that’s what I do.” It’s as simple and as difficult as that.

mountain fitness for Caribou harvesting

 Tip 2: Have Fun.

Don’t allocate much time doing something you don’t enjoy just to train for the things you love. Reallocate minutes away from activities you abhor and find fun instead!

Here are some examples of fun activities that will leave you feeling tired at day’s end and help build a strong foundation of fitness.

    • Go to the beach. Notice how sore you get from romping in the sand.

    • Go fishing. Wading in deep water or against the current works your large leg and core muscles. Maneuvering the rolled-rocks along a creek bed is a phenomenal workout for your stabilizer muscles. 

    • Enter your town’s road race and bring your friends and family along. Make these 5k or 10k races something you do rather than something you train for.

    • Join the neighborhood kids in a game and challenge them to beat you. See how hard they’ll push your fitness as they try to take down the champ. Notice how happy you are while having fun.

    • Cut a bunch of firewood -there’s a primitive satisfaction to this. 

    • Hit the slopes and ski trails all winter.

    • Go hunting for Shed antlers, mushrooms, arrowheads, squirrels, Sasquatches, etc...

    • Take a float trip. Paddling/portaging rafts and canoes will get your core primed for the mountain.

    • Plan some late-summer scouting trips.

All these fun activities compound into a prepared state of mind and body. The true beauty of these treks is that you’ve never spent time away from your clan and have consumed minimal vacation days. My married friends label this “marriage collateral”. Also, consider this: photos of fish, antlers, mushrooms, and outdoor scenery are way more interesting than your selfies from the gym. Trust me.

Steve Opat exploring WWII shelters in Alaska

Steve Opat fishing in Alaska

Hiking through Death Valley to witness a rare ‘superbloom’; I combined fitness with fun.

Hiking through Death Valley to witness a rare ‘superbloom’; I combined fitness with fun.

Steve Opat and hunting dog in North DakotaThe best exercise I got all year was chasing these two labs across the fields and through the sloughs of North Dakota


Tip 3: Do Tasks the Hard Way.  I think this is the healthiest and most important tip.

People will ask you, “Why are you doing it the hard way?” and you’ll confidently reply, “I enjoy the exercise.” And you may also add, “...and sometimes it’s less hassle and I get the job done faster when I just do it the old-fashioned way than when I’m futzing around with a machine.”Mountain fitness training mountain fitness training

    • Shovel the snow instead of firing up the snow blower.

    • Push-mow the lawn.

    • Build that retaining wall yourself.

    • Till the garden by shovel instead of machine.

    • Walk 18 holes of golf instead of using the cart.

    • Take the stairs at work every day instead of the elevator.

    • Cut and stack your own firewood. (Minimize your use of the chainsaw and hydraulic splitter and you’ll really see the gains.) 

    • Hike to check all of your trail cameras instead of riding your ATV.

    • Walk back and forth from your long-distance targets at the rifle range.

The list of opportunities is endless and the results of all this increased effort are cumulative.

(Photo 1526: Swinging an axe is my absolute favorite workout)

Tip 4: Carry your pack.

Rucking has no substitute. There’s no indoor exercise that can duplicate the effects of carrying a pack around for several miles. Military veterans know this well. It’s important to note that this does not have to be as rigorous and back-breaking as is commonly believed. You do NOT need to carry around >40 lbs all summer; You’ll just tear your body apart. Thinking you need to carry 90lbs up the mountain all summer just to be able to carry your 57.3 lb sheep hunting pack all season is unfounded knowledge. You’ll wreck your body instead.

This Beyond the Kill podcast  with strength and performance coach Todd Baumgartner is a great tool towards understanding this concept. 

Fishing and mountain fitness

Fill a sandbag with 25-40 lbs and strap it into the pannier of your pack. Earth is pretty dense so you can discreetly carry a load without becoming known as the town’s “Pack Man”. Wear it fishing. Where it while riding your horse. Wear it during a walk with your dog or your spouse, etc. My favorite is to wear it while push-mowing the lawn and while setting/checking my rifle targets. Get creative. 25-40 lbs is all the more weight you need to prepare you body.


 Tip 5:  Play Social Sports.

Many of us were raised playing sports and had ample fun doing so. We stayed scrawny because we played constantly and never wanted to take meal breaks. Sports – even Golf - are fun avenues to enhance your cardiovascular and muscular endurance while also re-honing your competitive edge. You need this grit and competitive edge as much as you need the fitness.

From bar-league hockey to church league softball; rugby to rodeo; social sports are an action of the healthy lifestyle we’re encouraging.

Playing rugby for mountain fitness

Staying fit with kayak polo


Tip 6: Make it easy to exercise. (But don’t make your exercise easy)

This starts with a caveat: Don’t mistake activity for exercise.

We want you to be active in your daily doings in order to maintain your mountain fitness foundation. Many of us will still need to schedule in time for dedicated exercise in order to properly prepare for our planned endeavors. There are a plethora of articles and programs that can help you find a program that is optimal for your needs.

Mountain Fitness pack

As for making it easy to exercise, consider that the time it takes to drive to/from the gym could be spent exercising at home. Do some of the cliché things like moving your treadmill in front of your TV or hanging a pullup bar in a commonly used door frame. (Alternatively, get rid of your TV altogether and spend more time doing something active.) Above all, keep your hunting pack loaded with a sandbag and sitting next to the door so you wear it whenever you head outside – even if it’s just to the mailbox. These small tricks don’t work for everyone or forever, but cumulatively, they help keep you working towards your goal.]

Lastly: Practice.

Mountain fitness

The best way to get in shape for sheep hunting is to go sheep hunting. The same applies for elk hunting, mule deer hunting, and even whitetail hunting. There’s no crossfit exercise to mimic standing motionless in your treestand for several hours just as there’s no gym exercise where you fox-walk or belly-crawl for several hundred yards. You can train all year, but you can never re-create the movements and stressors of mountain hunting unless you just physically go test your mettle against the mountain. Go scale the hills, carry your pack, learn your gear, push your mind and body, and glean your grit.

Mountain and hunting fitness

In summary, we want you to invest in yourself by embracing backcountry exploration as part of a healthy lifestyle. A key term in investing is “return on investment (ROI)”. Can you improve the ROI of your time by accomplishing multiple life goals simultaneously? Your health, your wealth, your family, and your wellness can all benefit from this plan. By the time hunting season rolls around, your entire clan – the dog or horse included – can be ready to tackle their own mountain. Maybe you’ll have accumulated so much marriage collateral by then that your spouse will be sick of you, kick you out of the house and tell you not to come back until you’ve filled your tag.  With any luck right? We can always dream…

Happy Hunting

Steve Opat


Grit lives within us; To what extent we never know; We only learn by searching for it.

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