Rucking – How NOT To Do It!

Exhibit A - squashy backpack. Not the best choice for me.

It seemed like such a great idea for a blog post. I had a cast iron, rock solid, A1 plan – a mission! A purpose! An idea! ‘I know!’ I thought, ‘I’ll do something on fitness!’ Unfortunately, it didn’t go well. Here’s what happened… Exercise is something I avoid if I can – I really don’t enjoy it at all. I’m knocking on these days and I did all that stuff back in the day, before I had loads of kids, and, to be honest, I find it boring (unless it’s dancing – I LOVE dancing). However, I’m very much aware that this isn’t the best frame of mind to have, especially as I’ve dreamed for many years of embarking on a long distance walk along The Ridgeway with the sun on my back and a stout staff in my hand, stopping off along the way to explore long barrows, chalk figures and hill forts. This is a dream that I’ve held dear for a very long time and I’d really love to make it a reality sometime soonish. A change of attitude is called for – or, if not, an upcoming blog post to provide the much needed incentive to get out there!

I’d come across the idea of rucking some years back when, in conversation with an instructor friend, he told me that he would wear a lightly loaded backpack around the house whilst doing chores, just to make his muscles work a little bit harder and to help keep him in shape. This idea took root in my mind and has been sitting in the background quietly for the last few years and, over these last years, I’ve seen many a sporty youngster out and about, running down the road wearing weighted vests which is much the same idea. So, a few weeks ago, I decided I would set out my own rucking plan. Having had a cursory glance at a few choice websites, my plans was as follows:

Overall aim – to build up fitness, stamina and weight carrying ability by walking with a loaded backpack several times a week and record the results.

Week one – up to the fountain and back (about two miles) with 5 kilos (that’s about 11 lbs and I had a baby that weighed almost as much as that so I thought that would be a doddle).

Week two – up past the undertakers’ in a big loop (about three miles) with 10 kilos (I’ve definitely carried 22lbs and more of small child in one of those child carriers. I basically used to live in one – this’ll be a breeze!)

Week three – up to the next village and back in an even bigger loop (four miles) with 15 kilos (after two whole weeks of muscle building under my belt, I’ll be well on my way! Awesome!)

Week four – same route with more weight if all goes well (which it obviously will. What could possibly go wrong?!)

Fully prepared with a vague idea and minimal research, I dug out a backpack (a wholly inappropriate backpack as it turns out), a hooped bivvy and, just to make things realistic for a long distance walk along The Ridgeway, two bottles of really tasty mead to make up my five kilos of weight. I then strapped on my floppy, formless rucksack full of booze, grabbed my massive, pain in the backside German Shepherd and hit the road! Yay!

Exhibit A - squashy backpack. Not the best choice for me.
Exhibit A – squashy backpack. Not the best choice for me.

I had decided to stay on the pavement rather than walking across country, as I didn’t want to slip and slide on mud whilst carrying extra weight. This was just about the only sensible decision I made during my experiment (the other one being to stop the experiment). However, the avoidance of slippery footholds was negated by the fact that I took the dog. She’s an expert lead puller, despite halters, treats, training – you name it, I’ve tried it – and the combination of an unfamiliar load and an all too familiar and difficult canine companion meant that my body was heaved too and fro in all sorts of new and exciting ways. Getting to the fountain proved an unexpected challenge for a route I walk about a billion times a year – getting back even more so. Even though the distance wasn’t far at all – only a couple of miles – I was very sore indeed when I got back to base. My shoulders were complaining, my back was whinging, and my legs sent me a strongly worded letter of complaint (figuratively speaking). I spent the rest of the day hobbling about and reaching for the Ibuprofen.

Exhibit B - annoying dog. Poor choice of rucking buddy but great for ball chasing and cheese eating.
Exhibit B – annoying dog. Poor choice of rucking buddy but great for ball chasing and cheese eating.

The next day, still feeling decidedly twinge-y, I made a plan. ‘The best cure for feeling saddlesore is to get back on the horse’, I thought. So I did exactly the same thing again – same pack, same load, same route, same dog, same result. It turns out that the cure for being saddlesore is non-transferable! I staggered back from the fountain in a very poor state indeed and the next day I felt even worse. My neck was out, my legs were burning in ways they’ve never burned before, my back was creaking. At least at this point I stopped bashing my head against the wall and took a break for things to settle down. Several days later, I was still in a bad way and had the good sense (eventually) not to head out and about again. I booked an appointment with my osteopath friend, Jez The Back. “Oh dear,” he said. Crunch. Crack. Yelp…

I asked him, “So Jerry – I’d really love to walk along The Ridgeway some time. Are there any exercises I could do to build up my strength and stamina?”

“Absolutely!” he said. “What you do is, you get a backpack, put some weight in it…”

Three weeks after messing myself up, I took a more sensible route. I dug out a backpack with an internal frame and a nice thick waist belt, put a few lightweight bits and pieces in it (no mead this time!), and went for a gentle bimble with no dog, no schedule, no aim but to enjoy the outside with the extra weight as an aside rather than a focus. What a difference…

Exhibit C - backpack with internal frame and comfortable waist belt. A much better choice for my physique and level of fitness.
Exhibit C – backpack with internal frame and comfortable waist belt. A much better choice for my physique and level of fitness.

If rucking is something you’d like to try, be sure to start slowly and take things gently with a properly fitting backpack and a light load over a short distance. A backpack with a frame and a waist belt works much better for me as I’ve got very troublesome shoulders, but you may be different. Three to five percent of your bodyweight for either a mile or twenty minutes, whichever is shorter, is a good place to start, especially if walking isn’t something you do regularly, but don’t be in a hurry to up the weight and distance. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (or sixty pounds sterling of osteopath in my case). Keep the weight as high up in your backpack as you can by popping something light but poofy in the bottom of the pack – perhaps a fleecy blanket with a dictionary perched on top. Or, if you’re keepin’ it bushcraft, a lightweight sleeping bag with a billy can full of useful bits and pieces nestled somewhere towards the top of the pack. However you decide to arrange your kit, make sure you listen to your body and don’t push things too far too fast – be your own best friend and take good care of yourself. All of the usual caveats apply – consult your doctor before taking up a new form of exercise. Your body is your most important piece of kit so look after it!

I’d love to hear from our lovely Woodland Ways community as to how you keep yourselves fit for all your bushcraft adventures. Share on our social media pages if you’d like to – it’d be great to start a conversation!

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