Train Like a Firefighter With the Alaskan Smokejumper Workout Test

CALIMESA, CA - OCTOBER A U.S. Forest Service firefighter uses a pistol to fire flares into brush to set a backfire to control the Woodhouse fire, also being called the Calimesa fire, in San Timoteo Canyon on October 6, 2005 near Calimesa, in Riverside County, California. The wildfire spread to about 6,400 acres since it began yesterday afternoon threatening 100 homes. A break in the strong dry Santa Ana winds during the night helped firefighters create containment lines around 25 percent of the fire. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
David McNew/Getty Images

Over the last 25 years, photographer Mark Thiesssen has been shooting wildfires and the men who fight them, taking photos of some of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Thiesssen was at it again earlier this year when he embedded with a team of Alaskan smokejumpers, who he describes as the “Navy SEALs of the firefighting world.”

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Smokejumpers in the lower 48 states usually deal with fires that are an “acre or less,” with ground crews taking over the larger fires, Thiessen says. But in Alaska, smokejumpers don’t just deal with small fires: Because of the vast nature of the Alaskan wilderness, there are no roads in certain places, leaving the Alaskan smokejumpers to parachute down to battle the fires as the first—and last—line of defense.

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The training process to become an Alaskan smokejumper is a tough one. Thiessen says around 200 people apply each year for the job, and out of that, maybe 10 will be selected for the training program. Usually, the applicant will have at least five to 10 years of wildland firefighting experience before applying. To keep up with those guys when he’s on assignment, Thiesssen went through fire school training early in his career and he’s consistently used a training routine to make sure he stays fit enough to keep doing it.

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“For the last 20 years, I’ve done cardio and weight training nearly every morning,” Thiessen says. “I want to be prepared for any assignment that might come my way, whether it be fire or something else. Every other day I run three miles and alternate with weight lifting days of upper body and lower body. My knees are giving me trouble so I’m cutting back the running cardio some.”

Matt Oakleaf, camera mounted on his gear bag, drops behind the rest of his team to a landing site near smoldering boreal forest. Jumpers can put on 100 pounds of gear and get on a plane in minutes. Their mission: extinguish fires before they rage out of control. (Photograph by Mark Thiessen / National Geographic)
L: Mark Thiessen / National Geographic, R: May 2019 National Geographic Issue

But to actually become an Alaskan smokejumper, you have to pass a pretty tough physical test. Thiessen told us about the test the smokejumpers face when they are in the running for the job. If you feel like testing yourself—and only if you feel comfortable doing it—here’s the workout they go through:

  • 60 sit-ups
  • 35 push-ups
  • 10 pull-ups
  • Run 1.5 miles in nine minutes 30 seconds or three miles in less than 22 minutes 30 seconds
  • Carry a 110-pound pack for three miles in less than 55 minutes

Read more here about how Alaskan smokejumpers fight fires.

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