East Meets West – How and Where to Train, By Beau Martonik

Growing up in the Appalachian Range of Pennsylvania, I’ve chased whitetails, turkeys, and coyotes my entire life. I never realized how lucky I was to live in the largest National Forest in Pennsylvania, and hunt public land “mountain” whitetails every year. The more time I devoted to bowhunting these whitetails, the more I wanted to experience the other side of the spectrum.

At twenty-four years of age, I decided it was time to push myself out of this comfort zone. I embarked on my first Western hunt of any kind, in new country, in search of a different kind of adventure. It was a learning experience, without a doubt, but I’m beyond happy I made the commitment to pursue my dreams. I know there are many Eastern hunters that tell themselves “this will be the year” only to see that dream fade away as doubts creep in. As many in this community will tell you, there is never a perfect time to embark on your first Western hunt, but if you’ve been putting off that dream hunt because you’re afraid you won’t be physically ready for the demands of the mountains, believe me when I say that could be not be further from the truth. If you live in the East or the Midwest, you can adequately prepare for a Western mountain hunt for elk or mule deer by doing a bit of research and committing a bit of extra time to training in the right places, close to home, before you head West. This article will handle the research part, the commitment is up to you.

I will break down how I was able to prepare physically, and how I’ll continue to do it every year as an average guy living 2,000 miles away from the Rocky Mountains. To go a step farther, I collected the input of six other adventure hunters from the Eastern and Midwestern parts of the United States to find out how they too prepare for the rugged terrain the West has to offer.

Functional Training

If you search the internet or social media for ways to get fit for hunting, you’ll find a million different ways to do so. There are plenty of people more qualified than myself to discuss this subject, but keeping it simple and functional has worked for me. The articles I’ve read in The Journal of Mountain Hunting’s Mountain Fitness section have set me on the right path to do exactly this. Although I feel people often overcomplicate this subject, it is extremely important.

The mountain doesn’t care who you are or what you’ve done, so physical preparation is crucial. This can seem like a daunting task, but being in shape provides health benefits that will change your life beyond the hunt itself. Whether you live in Bozeman, Montana or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, you can find places to get outside and hike. The gym has its place, but there is nothing that replaces getting outside with a pack and hiking. I travel on occasion for my day job and have been able to find places with hills to hike in some unlikely places. For most of the hunters in the Eastern US, the Appalachian Mountains are within a reasonable drive from their homes.

Pennsylvania – Beau Martonik

Top 3 Locations: 

McConnells Mill State Park – Located just 40 miles North of Pittsburgh, this is a hidden gem in Western Pennsylvania. The Slippery Rock Gorge Trail is approximately 6.2 miles from point to point and has frequent elevation changes with rough terrain to help strengthen your ankles. I use this trail at least once or twice a week during the summer to trail run or hike with a weighted pack.

ABOVE: Author on the move in McConells Mill State Park

Allegheny National Forest – In general, the ANF located in Northwestern Pennsylvania has a countless number of trails and spans over 500,000 acres. Specifically, the North Country trail runs from North Dakota to New York. The part of the trail that I’ve found very useful in my backcountry preparation is the 97-mile section that runs through the ANF. The terrain varies and allows camping throughout. This can be great to test out the camping gear that you are planning to use on a Western hunt. In addition, if you hike the section near the Kinzua Reservoir, you can bring your fishing pole and enjoy some great fishing in the evenings after a long day of hiking.

Elk State Forest – My third location is another large area of almost 200,000 acres. Instead of hiking specific trails in this area, I load up the pack with weight and put on countless miles during the spring months looking for elk sheds from the Pennsylvania herd. Finding the sheds from these elk is definitely not easy, but why not combine a pack workout with the potential to find a giant antler off of a Pennsylvania bull?

Every Day Workouts

I’ve canceled my gym membership and created my own budget gym in my basement. Kettlebells, sandbags, a 16” step up box, a TRX suspension trainer and my backpack make up my home gym. I find time to fit in my workouts before work at 4:30 am, and they vary from fifteen minutes to an hour depending on the amount of time that I have available. I like to always stay moving to implement an element of cardio into these strength workouts.

Another training method that I’ve found to be extremely beneficial that anyone can do is, shooting under stress. This can be as simple as sprinting back and forth to your target between shots and shooting with an elevated heart rate. Whether you’re hunting whitetails, elk or mule deer, your adrenaline will be making your heart beat out of your chest. The Training Under Stress article by Rob Shaul in a past issue of the online JOMH goes into more detail on this topic and presents a very specific methodology for incorporating this into your archery practice.

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Takeaways From Past Western Hunts

If I could give one piece of advice to a hunter looking to head West for the first time, I would say that whenever you think you’re in good enough shape, throw on the pack and hike some more. The mountains were bigger than I ever could’ve imagined. With that said, you will only learn what you need to improve upon by actually doing it.

New Jersey – Kurt Martonik

Top 3 Locations:

Rancocas State Park — This is a small state park located in Burlington County that I use frequently when putting weight in my pack. There isn’t much elevation gain in the park, just minor inclines and declines, but there are endless amounts of roots on the trails that help strengthen your ankles. My favorite thing about this park is that you almost never see another person. Most evenings will have mountain bikers on the trails but the early mornings and weekdays are empty. This is a great place to trail run and take the family to watch deer and turkey.

ABOVE: Technical Trail in Rancocas State Park

Clayton Park — This County Park located in Monmouth County has quickly become one of my favorites for trail running. It features a mixture of ups and downs and long inclines that will make anyone’s legs burn. The park can be divided into two sections; the fields and the woods. Both areas are great to hike with a pack or run on but I prefer the woods as there are endless amounts of trail that you can easily make 6-7 mile runs out of. This has also become one of my favorite places to test out optics on the plethora of wildlife. 

Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area — This area is huge and stretches from New Jersey into Eastern Pennsylvania. There are endless numbers of hikes but Mount Tammany continues to be my favorite. This trail is short but has a good elevation gain compared to most areas in New Jersey. It climbs 1,250 feet in the first 1.5 miles and includes some scrambling. The downside to this trail is that it is right off I-80 so it brings in a lot of hikers during the summer months. The Appalachian Trail goes right through the lower parking lot and provides some good trails to hike on as well.

ABOVE: Kurt putting in some time on the Delaware Gap Trail System

Every Day Workouts

When I can’t make it onto one of the parks mentioned above, I have some key workouts I do at home and at the gym. At home I have a very basic kettlebell set-up that allows me to do weighted lunges, squats, farmer carries, Turkish get-ups, and high rep deadlifts. At the gym I concentrate on strengthening my legs, deadlifts and squats are my go to there. Aside from these easy weight lifting exercises, I do a lot of cardio. I try to run at least 3 miles every time I go out, and the more the better. Running not only strengthens your core, but also strengthens you mentally. Pushing through cramps and running farther than planned are good ways to train your mind for the challenges of a mountain hunt.

Takeaways From Past Western Hunts

One takeaway from my recent hunting trips out west is to not underestimate cardio. Going from 100 feet above sea level to 11,000 feet is not easy, and keeping yourself in good shape is key to being able to survive and thrive in the mountains.

New York – Tim Buano

Top 3 Locations:

Letchworth State Park – Located in Western NY this park was voted the best in the nation in 2015, and once you visit you will see why. While it is a great place to hike and sightsee with family and friends, don’t overlook this area as a training ground. With trails ranging from under 1 mile to 21 miles and easy to moderate ratings, it’s a great place to get a heavy pack hike in while enjoying the sights with loved ones. Camping is allowed so it’s also a great opportunity to start getting familiar with your gear and go for another hike in the morning. I really recommend Trail 1 Gorge to start. Good views and a long moderate hike most people can do.

The Adirondack Mountains and the Catskill Mountains – The only difference between these two ranges and the Rocky Mountains are elevation and the lack of certain species of big game. The ADK Mountains have 46 peaks over 4,000 feet while the Catskills have 35 peaks over 3,000 feet. Both have easy to difficult routes with multiple side trails. These are great places to fine tune your gear and practice for the real thing. Something many people neglect is practicing with a GPS, but don’t neglect proper map and compass usage either. After all, a GPS is an electronic device that can fail at any moment no matter the manufacturer. There is nothing more gut-wrenching than being 2,000 miles away from home, miles away from the nearest trailhead in an unfamiliar place when your new GPS stops working.  

State Game Lands – The state game lands are a personal favorite of mine. Most of these areas do not have trails and you can often find some really steep terrain. Being a mobile, public land hunter, my training for the West doubles for my whitetail deer season. Scouting with a GPS and a heavy pack is one of my favorite ways to get a good training session in by crouching under brush and high stepping over dead trees. State Lands such as Shindagin Hallow and Oakley Corners in Upstate NY have plenty of mountain biking trails that are excellent for trail running, with or without a weighted pack.

Every Day Workouts

My workout routines for those days when I cannot get into the mountains or hills vary greatly. In the gym, I focus on strength and endurance focusing on my legs, back, shoulders and core. At home, I primarily do bodyweight exercises such as lunges, air squats, burpees, jump rope and some focused stretches. Flexibility is another important aspect that often goes overlooked.

Takeaways From Past Western Hunts

One piece of advice I would give to someone going West for their first time is cardio. Cardio is probably the least favorite exercise for most people. If you can, slowly begin to force yourself to do it. You will not only benefit physically but also mentally. Swimming, biking, running or whatever you can do to get that heart rate up is going to help with the climbs and heavy pack outs.

North Carolina – Brandon Hall

Top 3 Locations:

Lake Johnson Park – This is a 300-acre park with a 3-mile loop around the lake and roughly 130 feet of elevation gain, featuring a couple of steep hills. You can find places to workout in unlikely places, and this is an excellent example.

 Surf City & Topsail Beach – I posted a photo on Elk101’s private Facebook page when I first joined of me running on the beach in order to prepare for my upcoming trip for elk, deer, and antelope. I started getting flack from other members about training at zero elevation when I’ll be hunting at much higher altitudes. My response was that running at sea level is much better than sitting on my butt at sea level. I have to play the hand I’m dealt. Have you ever tried running in loose sand? Most people run close to the water at the beach because the sand is hard packed, running higher up the beach where the tide never reaches provides you an awesome leg workout. Running on sand strengthens arches, ankles, and other muscles and mimics the loose footing you’ll encounter in the alpine.

ABOVE: Live at sea level? Play the hand you’re dealt

Hemphill Bald Trail at Polls Gap – Great Smokey Mountain National Park – Approximately one hour west of Asheville, this 13.6-mile loop has almost 3,000 feet of elevation gain. There is plenty of wildlife in the area including black bears and elk. Taking the loop in a counterclockwise direction will lead to some strenuous uphill hiking for the last 4-5 miles but well worth it for training. I hiked this trail last year, however, I took an extended loop which pushed the trail to about 17 miles, stopping at a backcountry campsite to spend the night around mile 12.

Every Day Workout

When I can’t make it into the hills or mountains, I like to run 3-4 miles around my neighborhood on the sidewalks. Again, it’s better than sitting on my butt and will better prepare me for the mountains than some bodybuilding weight program. In addition, I go to the local park and take my pack loaded with a sandbag. I practice running through the scenarios I’ve encountered in the Train to Hunt event. This includes sprints, tire pulls, shooting my bow, burpees, box step ups, and sandbag get-ups. Lastly, I have some basic weightlifting equipment in my building, which includes a barbell bench and a few dumbbells.

Takeaways From Past Western Hunts

Biceps and chest workouts are great but they don’t carry you up and over the mountains. Legs and lungs are the name of the game. Start small and work your way towards the goal of being in better mountain shape. If nothing else just change your diet for the better and get in some cardio. My house is located approximately 60 feet above sea level. Hills, mountains, and steep slopes are all hard to come by which makes ingenuity, creativity and some travel a necessity in order to properly prepare for Western hunting.

Virginia – Matt Comment

Top 3 Locations

Shenandoah National Park – This park holds 200,000 acres of public land located between the Blue Ridge and the Appalachian Mountains. The park is two hours or less from most major cities in Northern and Central Virginia including Washington, D.C. There are over 500 miles of hiking trails located within the park and they range from short-stretches to a 101-mile segment of the Appalachian Trail. Most of the park is open to camping including almost 80,000 acres of designated wilderness area that requires a permit. The park is broken up into three sections: the North, Central and South districts.

ABOVE: Matt combining training and fatherhood in Shenandoah

Little Devil Stairs, Buck Ridge to Mary’s Rock, Robinson Mountain and Old Rag – Hunters looking to get the most bang for the buck should focus their efforts in the Central district of trails, with the Old Rag being the most popular in the state, so get to the trailhead early. These trails offer quick elevation gains and some technical terrain which is perfect preparation for a Western hunt. The Buck Ridge to Mary’s Rock trail gives you access to over 2,500 feet of elevation gain in just over 4 miles.

Leading Ridge Trail – There is one hidden gem that most hikers overlook or don’t even know about called the Leading Ridge Trail. This trail drops 1,648 feet in one mile and ends at the park boundary, forcing you to turn around and hike back up to the parking area. These are my go-to trails I use to prepare for any type of Western hunting. For the backpack hunter, start with 30 lbs in your pack and work up to at least your pack weight. I prefer to go 15-20 lbs heavier which makes your full kit weight while hunting feel much lighter and gives you a mental boost on the first day. These are great trails for day hunt training as well. Use a lighter pack and increase your intensity over time.

Every Day Workouts

My pre-hunt training consists of two days of weighted hiking in the park, one day of interval cardio work — mostly hill sprints or sessions on the rowing machine — and three days of weight training. On my weight training days, I focus on power movements like deadlifts, some type of weighted squat, and a press. I keep the reps in the 3 to 6 range to build strength/power and compliment these with accessory work to improve muscle imbalances and overall fitness. When I can’t make it to the trail, I utilize a combination of weighted step-ups and weighted rucking and sandbag get-ups for the same amount of time as my hike would have been. You will need to focus on keeping the intensity up as it is much easier to back off when the monotony of the plywood box starts to take its toll. I keep a time and number of reps in mind and count to 100, which helps to keep me on track.

ABOVE: Matt grinding it out in his driveway prior to NWT sheep hunt.

Takeaways From Past Western Hunts

My biggest advice to hunters who are traveling West is to train as hard as possible while keeping the mindset that no matter what you do it won’t be enough. This will keep you motivated and focused and you might just surprise yourself. No matter what you do, you cannot train for the lower percentage of oxygen in the air at elevation without living in it. The more efficient your lungs and legs are the faster you will acclimate and perform at your best.

Michigan – Ray Bickel

Top 3 Locations

Manistee River Loop Trail – This is easily one of the best backpacking trails in Lower Michigan. You can gain up to 2,887 feet in elevation. The loop is 29.6 miles and located near Brethren, Michigan with some absolutely stunning scenery! If you are heading West on a backcountry hunt I would highly suggest hiking this trail.

Takeaways From Past Western Hunts

My biggest advice to hunters who are traveling West is to train as hard as possible while keeping the mindset that no matter what you do it won’t be enough. This will keep you motivated and focused and you might just surprise yourself. No matter what you do, you cannot train for the lower percentage of oxygen in the air at elevation without living in it. The more efficient your lungs and legs are the faster you will acclimate and perform at your best.

Michigan – Ray Bickel

Top 3 Locations

Manistee River Loop Trail – This is easily one of the best backpacking trails in Lower Michigan. You can gain up to 2,887 feet in elevation. The loop is 29.6 miles and located near Brethren, Michigan with some absolutely stunning scenery! If you are heading West on a backcountry hunt I would highly suggest hiking this trail.

Highbanks Trail – This trail is located in the Huron National forest in Oscoda, Michigan and is a 12.7 mile out and back trail that gains roughly 700 feet in elevation. This is a great trail for hiking and running, with some excellent scenery.

Millington Hills – I saved this for last because it’s a trail around the backside of Murphy Lake located in Millington, Michigan that not too many people know about. If you start on Swaffer Rd and hike to Sheridan Rd, it’s about 4 miles with rolling hills and an elevation gain of 800 feet. This trail is also great for running and one of my go-to options since it’s so close to home.

Every Day Workouts

When I can’t make it to the hills or the gym, my workout routine will look like this:

1-Mile Run

20 Tire Flips

Sprint 200 Meters

20 Box Jumps (with 50lb sandbag)

Sprint 200 Meters

Walking Lunges for 20 – 30 Yards (with 50lb sandbag overhead)

Sprint 200 Meters

20 Burpees

Sprint 200 Meters

20 Front Squats (with 50lb sandbag)

Sprint 200 Meters

Kettlebell Swings (10 per side)

1-Mile Run

Takeaways From Past Western Hunts

One takeaway for those of us that don’t live in the West is altitude. It might take a minute or a couple days to get used to, you just won’t know until you’re there. The best advice I can give anyone headed West is get those lungs in shape and field test your gear. You don’t necessarily have to run but do whatever you can to improve your cardio. And get those hips and legs in shape! Take a weekend off and backpack in somewhere. Test all your gear and write down what works best and what doesn’t.

Ohio – Clint Casper

Top 3 Locations:

Wayne National Forest – This National Forest has tons of great hiking and biking trails that can provide a great workout with some beautiful scenery as well. The Scenic River trailhead is one of my favorites here as it winds you up and down the hills, giving you good elevation change throughout its course. I like to throw 30lbs of weight in my pack along with some water and go get after it on this beautiful piece of public land.

Highbanks Trail – This trail is located in the Huron National forest in Oscoda, Michigan and is a 12.7 mile out and back trail that gains roughly 700 feet in elevation. This is a great trail for hiking and running, with some excellent scenery.

Millington Hills – I saved this for last because it’s a trail around the backside of Murphy Lake located in Millington, Michigan that not too many people know about. If you start on Swaffer Rd and hike to Sheridan Rd, it’s about 4 miles with rolling hills and an elevation gain of 800 feet. This trail is also great for running and one of my go-to options since it’s so close to home.

Every Day Workouts

When I can’t make it to the hills or the gym, my workout routine will look like this:

1-Mile Run

20 Tire Flips

Sprint 200 Meters

20 Box Jumps (with 50lb sandbag)

Sprint 200 Meters

Walking Lunges for 20 – 30 Yards (with 50lb sandbag overhead)

Sprint 200 Meters

20 Burpees

Sprint 200 Meters

20 Front Squats (with 50lb sandbag)

Sprint 200 Meters

Kettlebell Swings (10 per side)

1-Mile Run

Takeaways From Past Western Hunts

One takeaway for those of us that don’t live in the West is altitude. It might take a minute or a couple days to get used to, you just won’t know until you’re there. The best advice I can give anyone headed West is get those lungs in shape and field test your gear. You don’t necessarily have to run but do whatever you can to improve your cardio. And get those hips and legs in shape! Take a weekend off and backpack in somewhere. Test all your gear and write down what works best and what doesn’t.

Ohio – Clint Casper

Top 3 Locations:

Wayne National Forest – This National Forest has tons of great hiking and biking trails that can provide a great workout with some beautiful scenery as well. The Scenic River trailhead is one of my favorites here as it winds you up and down the hills, giving you good elevation change throughout its course. I like to throw 30lbs of weight in my pack along with some water and go get after it on this beautiful piece of public land.

ABOVE: A Plauground for hiking and mtn biking

Mohican Memorial State Forest – There are more than 22 miles of trails in this forest that can be accessed via the main trailhead. Hiking trails wind through the primitive and scenic areas of the forest and park and lead to such attractions as Pine Run Creek, the Fire Tower, and Clearfork Gorge. Some absolutely kick-ass trails and cool historical spots to check out along your workout make this area one of my favorites.

Atwood Lake – This lake is actually only a few minutes from my farm, which makes it very convenient. I absolutely love being able to drive right down the road, throw my pack on and go get after it for the day. Although this piece of public ground has the smallest number of trails, don’t be fooled as it can give even the seasoned hiker a great workout. Starting off at the Welcome Center trailhead is usually my go to as it winds you up, over and around Atwood Lake giving you good elevation change with plenty of hills.

Highbanks Trail – This trail is located in the Huron National forest in Oscoda, Michigan and is a 12.7 mile out and back trail that gains roughly 700 feet in elevation. This is a great trail for hiking and running, with some excellent scenery.

Millington Hills – I saved this for last because it’s a trail around the backside of Murphy Lake located in Millington, Michigan that not too many people know about. If you start on Swaffer Rd and hike to Sheridan Rd, it’s about 4 miles with rolling hills and an elevation gain of 800 feet. This trail is also great for running and one of my go-to options since it’s so close to home.

Every Day Workouts

When I can’t make it to the hills or the gym, my workout routine will look like this:

1-Mile Run

20 Tire Flips

Sprint 200 Meters

20 Box Jumps (with 50lb sandbag)

Sprint 200 Meters

Walking Lunges for 20 – 30 Yards (with 50lb sandbag overhead)

Sprint 200 Meters

20 Burpees

Sprint 200 Meters

20 Front Squats (with 50lb sandbag)

Sprint 200 Meters

Kettlebell Swings (10 per side)

1-Mile Run

Takeaways From Past Western Hunts

One takeaway for those of us that don’t live in the West is altitude. It might take a minute or a couple days to get used to, you just won’t know until you’re there. The best advice I can give anyone headed West is get those lungs in shape and field test your gear. You don’t necessarily have to run but do whatever you can to improve your cardio. And get those hips and legs in shape! Take a weekend off and backpack in somewhere. Test all your gear and write down what works best and what doesn’t.

Ohio – Clint Casper

Top 3 Locations:

Wayne National Forest – This National Forest has tons of great hiking and biking trails that can provide a great workout with some beautiful scenery as well. The Scenic River trailhead is one of my favorites here as it winds you up and down the hills, giving you good elevation change throughout its course. I like to throw 30lbs of weight in my pack along with some water and go get after it on this beautiful piece of public land.

ABOVE: A convenient trailhead is the best trailhead

Every Day Workouts

I am a firm believer in a few things when it comes to preparing for a backcountry or mountain style bowhunt. In my opinion, core strength, flexibility, and lung capacity are three key components to a good workout routine for the mountain bowhunter. When I cannot hit the hills or am limited on time I like to focus on these three key components, as I feel they are the most important. Stretching, core-challenging movements like lunges, leg raises, sitting twists and planks, and sprints/jogging are my go-to exercises. These all offer excellent results and do not take a bunch of time, as we all live busy, hectic lives. 

Takeaways From Past Western Hunts

One tip that I will give is to not only make sure you’re physically prepared, but also mentally in shape as well. In short PUSH YOURSELF during your training sessions. Work on striving for more and mentally pushing yourself further than you thought possible. Get five more reps or run two extra sprints! This not only gives you a better, more intense workout, but it will also build your confidence in knowing that you can push through your preconceived stopping point. These western hunts can be tough physically and mentally, and the tougher you are mentally the further you can push yourself physically.

Conclusion

There’s one thing that every one of these experienced hunters agrees on, and that’s fitness can improve your odds of success. Do you need to be in great shape to kill an elk? Absolutely not, but being in shape can help you go longer, push farther and live an overall healthier life. You owe it to yourself to live an active lifestyle so that you will still be climbing over that next ridge well into the latter years of your life.

Posted by Adam Janke