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Advanced Hiking Footwork

Old Bridle Path, Mt Lafayette
Old Bridle Path, Mt Lafayette

Have you ever observed the footwork of a very experienced hiker? They tend to walk very efficiently, at a constant pace, often without looking at their feet. It’s something I do unconsciously now, but it took a couple of year of serious hiking to internalize.

Edmands Path, Mount Eisenhower
Edmands Path, Mount Eisenhower

Take Small Steps

For example, we have a lot of very rocky trails in New England, especially in the White Mountains in New Hampshire. If you were to try hiking them by climbing up or over all of the rocks on the trail, you’d quickly burn out the big leg muscles in your legs and run out of gas.

However, there’s a way to preserve your energy on these long approach hikes. Instead of stepping on and over the big rocks, try to walk between them, taking the route with the smallest elevation gain possible. Taking small steps like this will preserve your leg muscles all day. It also makes it possible to keep a steady pace, which is physically and mentally less taxing.

When I’m hiking up a rocky trail, I try to visualize what it would look like if it a riverbed covered in water. I used to whitewater kayak quite a bit, so this is a natural thing for me to do.

If I were kayaking down such a river, I’d follow the easiest line, picking my way around the big drops created by the large rocks and following the gentlest slope downriver. That’s the line I follow (uphill in reverse) when I hike on rocky trails like this. It works great and keeps my legs fresh all day.

What kind of footwork techniques do you use to preserve your energy when hiking?

13 comments

  1. I have witnessed a few AMC leaders in my time “flow” down a trail or set a steady but ground-eating pace that all the newbs (me included) in my group were admiring. I’ve noticed that many of them wear trail-runner or similar hiking shoes (even when for an overnight backpack of about 30 lbs.).

    I wish someday to have their trail-sense; I wonder what combination of experience, physical conditioning, and footwear choice makes for that “float on air” option. Generally I’ve noticed less reliance on trekking poles with these rare individuals…

  2. The primary benefit in my mind of taking the shortest vertical steps as possible is the reduced stress on the knees. Every degree your knee is bent is a higher maximum stress on knee ligaments (and muscle forces).

    The other interesting thing is sometimes the shorter vertical step is a backwards step instead of a forward step.

  3. This was the topic of conversation along the AT this past weekend on our hike. I like taking turns in the middle and at the back of a hiking group, instead of always in the lead, so that I can observe the footwork of others. It’s fascinating to watch other hikers and see how they place their feet around, on, or between obstacles and how (or if) they leverage their trekking poles to make their footwork less effort.

    I have a birth defect in my right ankle that results in limited range of motion and reduced flexibility in my Achilles tendon. It can be very challenging to hike uphill for hours on end or around uneven surfaces and I find that I over compensate with other muscles.

    I would say that improving my footwork placement, pace, and confidence (not having to stare at my feet), combined with being able to visually “see” the path I’m going to take, is probably one of the single most useful skills that I have developed over the years and something that I hope others reading this will realize is extremely important. It will significantly improve your enjoyment and endurance of longer hikes. Great post, thanks for sharing!

  4. That is perhaps the soundest advice I have heard for climbing peaks in a long time.
    “Rock Skipping” is a sport I practice going down. Rarely, going up. Basicly that is a game to see how far I can go by stepping on nothing except the tops of the rocks. It requires a good sense of balance (which should be present for climbing anyway), a good kinesthetic sense(knowing where your body parts are in space, especially the feet) a good judgement for distances, slope and terrain, and, a willingness to accept an occasional fall as a consequence. Su need to know how to fall without getting hurt, beyond a couple scrapes or bruises. It also helps to have a sub-20 pound pack, well fitted to your body. It takes extra energy going up, or down, so I don’t usually do this uphill. Generally it allows you to travel a trail at about the pace of a slow jog without getting overly tired for the distance, about 4mph. .
    A hiking staff is almost useless at that speed, more for balance, so, you get a good eye for spotting your staff. Like you, I learned this doing canoing down rivers many years ago..

    Trail walking also involves that look ahead that lets you pick the easiest path between two points. For the next few steps, you should know where you will step, look up and plan the next set of steps as you make your way up the trail. This is usefull up or down.

    On the upgrades, never place your foot on a downhill segment of trail. While not a big help, it can save about 40-50′ of climb on a 5000′ peak if this is done consistantly. Bill, a hiking partner, complains “I HATE giving up elevation.” I agree, totally. Avoid it, if possible.

    Most hikers agree that our steep, erosion washed trails (good pics, BTW,) are as hard as any. A steady, often slower, pace will let you cover 15mi per day. I have done 20mi in the peaks, but was pretty worthless the next day, only managing 7mi before we needed to stop for camp; both of us fairly exhausted. A better approach is to plan on ~15mi, start easy (till 0800-0900 or so,) Break for a light snack, then maintain a higher pace for the rest of the day. We start looking for campsites about 1800 or so. Take a 5 minute break every hour to rehydrate and/or snack. The hills are relentless if you get exhausted.

  5. Excellent post and great comments. I’m amazed with how the load on my back affects my ability to gracefully glide down a trail. With a simple day pack and I look like a pro, add a screaming baby in a baby carrier who likes to lean to the right and I look and feel like an elephant sometimes.

    I agree with the comment about given up elevation, once I take a high step I try to avoid taking a low step. It’s all about efficiency.

  6. Yes! Even in my relatively limited experience (lots of shortish day hikes) I think about this a lot. I agree about efficiency. I constantly think about whether I am giving up elevation or not, and I try to take small, smart steps when going uphill. I need to work on my downhill technique as it tends to be rather clumsy and heavy. I’m not a fan of trekking poles, but I am experimenting with them now to see if I can find a way to work them in.

  7. on the uphill I’m a short stepper with a lot of trekking pole use pushing myself up and conserving my leg strength. I don’t watch my feet too often with the exception of steep down hill sections where I feel I’m more prone to take a fall without solid footing. If I need to ford I watch water flow, read the current and take small steps with a strong stick so I don’t break my trekking poles.

    I have found it’s easier for me to hike solo at my own pace rather than with others where I sometimes unconsciously fall into following their pace. If I hike with friends, I will always be out front or way-way behind, NEVER in the middle of close behind.

  8. I have trouble hiking behind people unless its really steep. My style is fast and aggressive bursts of energy. I rock hop a lot which I find in the snow adds a lot of speed and if you can avoid drifts, saves tons of energy. I use the river approach but I generally try to take the high road or use the highest footsteps possible. I’ve never seen anyone else do this though, its really not the safest method. I use high boots and poles though and don’t get too reckless.

    Definitely a hare and not a tortoise but I get more breaks and pics this way and I get my beer and burger way before the tortoise does. :)

    Also what Marco said, never give up elevation.

  9. Hiking with Scouts, I see a lot of wasted energy. My basic test is whether someone steps up onto a small log across the trail, lifting their whole body a few inches, or steps over it, keeping a level track.

  10. The faster I go the less I look at my feet. When I get tired at the end of the day I slow down and spend more time looking at the ground. That is also when I stumble more.

  11. I focus on keeping my knees slightly bent at all times. This saves my joints and makes it easier to respond to the terrain and recover from slips. When I hit the steeps, my stride shortens considerably. On the really steep sections, I will take short switchbacks within the trail to avoid stepping too high. This saves my legs considerably. On the descents I am always looking a couple of steps ahead for foot placement and keep a very steady pace. Also focus on keeping my heels from stepping out beyond my chest on the descent. This prevents me from locking my knees, reduces slips and aids recovery from missteps. I follow the fall line within the trail – up and down – without even thinking about it. I use trekking poles on the uphill runs to take the slightest bit of weight off my steps – it makes a difference. And I keep them ready on the descents for balance – if needed.

    • Excellent insights! Yes, leaning backwards on the decent can cause falls because your heels slip out from underneath you. Takes some real concentration to do this, as it’s not a natural behavior. I also meander back and forth on the trail looking for the easiest way up a slope rather than following a direct line up.

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