“Hiking technique” sounds like an oxymoron. You’ve been walking since you were 11 months old! Why do you need to learn how to walk?
Well, as someone who hiked swamps, mountains, deserts, canyons, bogs, forests, and most everything in between, yes, hiking does take some technique!
Simply putting one foot in front of the other” will move you from Point A to Point B. And on a 3-mile stroll, your inefficiencies may not be noticed. But on a 20-mile day hike or a weeklong backpacking trip, your inefficiencies will be magnified. Translation: You’ll be sore and exhausted.
This is not a generic “how to hike” advice column. I’m specifically talking about the act of walking up hills.
I’ve learned these techniques from ascending Crestone Peak in Colorado to South Guardian Angel in Zion to Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. If you want to hike long distances and not hate yourself the next day, here’s how to do it!
1. Walk Like You Aren’t Wearing Shoes
Whether you’re an advocate of barefoot hiking or not isn’t the point. The fact is, most of us are used to clomping around on a cushioned foam insole. Insight of alighting gently on the ground, eliminating shock impact, we stomp the ground and trust that our shoes will cushion the impact.
Don’t do that. Imagine you weren’t wearing those comfy boots. Tread lightly. You’ll find that you walk with greater balance, more careful poise, and less stomping around. Your knees will thank you.
2. Keep Walkin’
Breaks should be like steak: rare! If you’re taking breaks every 15 minutes, you’re moving too fast. Slow down. The trailer is bigger than you, and it doesn’t give two sh*ts about your ego. Hiking is a Cardio Level Zone 1 activity. If you can’t sing a bar or two of the national anthem, you’re moving too fast!
Breaks should be 5-15 minutes. Any longer, and your muscles will start to “stiffen.” In cold weather, even resting 15 minutes can be too long. Your muscles will cool down, and you’ll feel like a rusty Tin Man when you begin walking again.
Aim for a trail break every 50-90 minutes.
3. Stop Smart
I may not take hiking breaks all the time, but when I do … I really rest.
Don’t “take a break” by standing with your hands on your hips, huffing and puffing, baking in direct sunlight. That’s not a break. That’s a pause.
- Get out of direct sunlight.
- Sit down on a tree or boulder.
- Loosen or take off your backpack.
- Drink up!*
*During breaks, drink water, and eat a little food. You need to eat before you feel hungry and drink before you feel thirsty. Otherwise, you’ll be perpetually dehydrated and underfed.
4. Step Between, Not Atop
As all trail runners know, the safer strategy when navigating tricky terrain is to plant your feet between the obstructions, not on top of them! Leaping from boulder to boulder looks fun and makes mountain goats jealous, but a single slip can sprain your ankle.
5. Walk to the Beat
Everyone knows hiking to a rhythm is critical. You’d be amazed what your muscles and mind can get used to as long as it’s consistent.
You can establish a rhythm in all sorts of ways:
- Monitor your heart rate range
- Listen to music
- Make your own music!
- Swing your arms
- Plant your trekking poles
- Listen to your breathing
However you do it, get in the zone, and stay there!
6. Lean From the Ankles
Most of us, when walking up a hill, naturally lean into the hill from the waist. This makes you look (and feel) like an Egyptian slave hauling rocks up a pyramid.
Instead, lean forward from the ankles. This maintains proper posture and reduces strain on your lower back. It’s also essential for maintaining balance – you don’t want to lean backwards on a hill!
7. Slow Down
The treadmill lies. I don’t really care if you can pound out 5 miles on the treadmill at 3.4 miles per hour. The average hiking speed on moderate terrain is 1.5-2.0 mph. Even skilled, speedy hikers rarely break 3 mph on moderate or mountainous terrain.
So slow down. Literally, everything around you is moving faster than you. That bee? 15 mph. The wind? 9 mph. That puffy cloud? 48 mph. The only thing slower than you is that millipede – which you didn’t even see because you were moving so fast! So slow down, and take it all in.
On the steeps, it’s the vertical feet per hour that counts more than the mileage. And that varies drastically based on your pack weight and altitude.
8. Don’t Front Point
Some people hike hills like mountaineers ascend on crampons: By pushing off their toes. No good, I say! Unless you’ve specially trained your calf muscles, they are likely relatively weak.
Instead, place your foot flat on the ground, lean forward, and push off your heel first. This requires some flexibility in your ankle, but it engages your hamstrings before your calves.
This one technique can literally transform the difficulty of a hill! Walk it like a continuous slope, not a set of stairs.
9. Hate The Burn
The “burn” or the “pump,” so coveted by bodybuilders, is anathema to a good hiker.
If you have a burning sensation in your muscles, that indicates a buildup of metabolites. Contrary to what your PE teacher told you, no, it isn’t due to an excess of lactic acid, and the latic acid isn’t what gives you DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) the day after. Regardless, a burning muscle will be a sore muscle!
So if you can avoid the burn, you’ll avoid most of tomorrow’s soreness!
10. Take Dainty Steps
As the slope steepens, you’ll need to shorten your steps. I’ve seen people (particularly college guys on break) try to dominate a long slope by simply increasing the length of their stride. This effectively turns each step into a one-legged partial squat, and you can’t keep that up forever.
Shorten your steps on the steeps. The shorter your stride, the less you have to bend your knee. It’s far more energy-efficient to shorten your stride and increase your cadence rather than take Jack-the-Giant-Slayer strides.
11. Use Trekking Poles
I’m a total hypocrite for writing this piece of advice, as I don’t like the feeling of trekking poles. But scientifically speaking, they can give you a boost when walking up hills. By pushing down on the poles, you engage your upper body muscles and reduce the work (a tiny bit) done by your lower body.
12. Walk In a Straight Line
This advice may sound like something from the playbook of Captain Obvious, but I’ve seen many, many hikers start to wander when the route gets rocky.
If you encounter talus, boulders or roots, pick the straighest line through the rubble. If one out of every three steps is a sideways juke to get around a small boulder, multiply that lost forward momentum by thousands of steps!
13. Choose Your Switchback
In most mountainous terrain (the Adirondacks being the exception), trail builders intentionally zigzag the path up a slope. This adds more distance but decreases the slope.
When bushwacking, you can carve your own switchbacks simply by zigzagging up a slope rather than ascending in a straight line.
However, there’s a delicate balance between switchbacking versus sidehill traversing. The more you angle sideways, the more you will roll your ankles. That’s exhausting. And a tired ankle is a good candidate for a sprained ankle.
So zigzag up the slope, not across it. Better to have tired quads than weak ankles! If you must traverse, use the French crossover technique.
14. Use the Rest Step
Most hikers have never used the rest step. Below 8,000 feet, you don’t need it unless you’re packing a lot of weight. It’s common in high-altitude mountaineering.
The rest step can also be described as a locking step.
- As you step up and forward, lock the knee of your back leg. This aligns your bones so your skeletal system, not your muscles, take most of your weight.
- Land on your front foot but keep your weight on your back foot. Don’t transfer your weight yet.
- Pause. It could be for as quick as a millisecond to as long as 10 seconds.
- Transfer your weight to your front leg, and repeat the process.
The rest step will transform you into the Energizer Bunny. You can ascend slopes that would completely shut down mere mortals – as long as you take that micro-pause with every step.
15. Don’t Chafe
Nothing ruins a hike like chafing. Use petroleum jelly, chamois cream, or whatever your preferred lubricant is!