Home / Advanced Backpacking Skills / Hiking Footwork

Hiking Footwork

 Climbing the Carters, Appalachian Trail

Next time you go hiking try paying close attention to your footwork. Chances are it is very different from the way you walk on level ground and pavement.

Let me give you an example to make this more vivid. Imagine you are hiking down the side of a mountain over large boulders and rocks. You come to a steep section that has a 30-45 degree grade. There are no trees available on the side of the trail that you can grab onto and the rocks have water streaming over them.  How do you get down it?

One option is the butt brake. You sit on your butt and slide down feet first until you can get a decent foothold. This works but it rips up your pants and you get a wet butt.

Another option is to turn around, facing uphill and walk backward down the slope on the balls of your feet or tips of your toes, grabbing onto ledges or cracks in the rockface to get down.

If there's a boulder abutting the wet rock you might be able to use what I call the boot break. This is where you jam the side of your boot against a rock oriented at a perpendicular or acute angle to the boulder you are descending.The friction of your boot or trail shoe against the vertical rock face gives you an anchor and helps slow down your descent. I use this one all of the time.

Learning these moves takes experience and it's one of the big differences between walking and hiking. Add some weight to the equation and you have backpacking, which requires even more nuanced and deliberate footwork because you need to factor in inertia.

Hiking with more experienced hikers on rough trail is one way to pick up these skills. Watch where they place their feet and how they shift their bodies when they climb and descend

Another way which I'd recommend, is learning to top rope, which is a very safe form of rock climbing that you can do outdoors or in a rock gym. Rock climbing has heavily influenced my hiking footwork and taught me specific techniques like stemming, lay backs, balance shifting, and down climbing which I frequently use on rocky ascents and descents in rough terrain.

Rock climbing experience also transfers well into winter backpacking and mixed climbing (rocks and ice) because it teaches you about ropes and climbing protection which, depending where you hike, can be critical cold weather skills.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *