“The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” 1841
One of the things I love most about hiking is the simplicity. One foot in front of the other. Everything you need in the world on your back. Wake up with the sun. Go to sleep when it gets dark. Walk, listen and observe in between. That being said, being able to consistently cover long distances over rugged terrain is by no means easy. Experience will ultimately be your best teacher. In the meantime, consider the following observations:
Pace: Aim to finish the day walking the same speed at which you started. Think rhythm and flow. Tortoise rather than hare.
Pack Adjustments: Regularly make small adjustments to your pack’s harness, hip belt, shoulder and stabilizer straps. Alternate the weight of the load between your shoulders and hips. By fine-tuning your load in such a fashion, you can help to minimize the build up of tightness/stress in any one area.
Mix It Up: The same principle of making adjustments to your pack equally applies to your gait. Shorter strides, longer strides, up on your toes, back on your heels. Whatever it takes to minimize muscle tension in particular areas. Think about it – if you are using the same muscles in exactly the same way hour after hour, day after day there are bound to be repercussions. If you are sitting at a computer for long stretches, do your eyes and hands not feel the strain?
Stretching: Help keep your muscles supple by doing some light stretching during breaks. In addition, try to do 10-15 minutes at the end of each hiking day. Think of it as an investment in your on-trail health.
Breaks: Try keeping them short and regular rather than long and occasional. This allows less time for the muscles to stiffen up, thus making it easier to get going again. This especially holds true for those chronologically challenged amongst us. If you are taking a longer break, particularly on a cold and windy day, consider putting on some warmer clothes so as not to catch a chill.
Rhythm: Find a rhythm between your breathing and stride. This is most applicable to long gradual uphills on relatively even terrain, where you don’t have to worry too much about foot placement.
Breaks: Maintain a steady pace and take fewer breaks, rather than walking faster and having to stop more regularly. By keeping your heartbeat relatively constant rather than subjecting it to dramatic fluctuations, you will expend less energy and cover more distance. Once again, think tortoise rather than hare.
Positivity: Focus on positive thoughts, rather than how exhausted you feel. Repeat a mantra or positive expression to yourself over and over. It really does help.
Hang Loose: Undo or loosen your hip and sternum straps. If they are too tight they will constrict both your stride and breathing capacity whilst ascending.
Zigzagging: To decrease the gradient on very steep ascents, consider zigzagging rather than going straight up.
Rest Step: If you are really feeling it on a long, steep ascent, consider using the Rest Step. With each stride forward, lock/straighten your back leg, momentarily shifting the weight on to the joints rather than the muscles (see photo above left | Ascending El Misti Volcano | Peru).
Centre of Gravity: Don’t lean forward. Don’t lean back. Your centre of gravity should be over your legs.
Minimize Stress: Keep your downhill leg slightly bent on impact. This will help minimize stress on the knees, as the muscles rather than the joints take the brunt of the strain.
Foot Placement: Pay extra attention to foot placement, as many slips occur on down hill sections which immediately follow long climbs. After the exertion of the ascent, the tendency is ‘let it all hang out’ on the subsequent descent which can lead to mishaps.
Hip Belt: On steep, uneven descents it can be helpful to tighten your hip belt. This will help to minimize pack movement, which can impede your balance.
Know Your Position: Have map and compass handy at all times. Regularly check your bearings.
Least Resistance: When going through thick scrub, look for the path of least resistance. It may be longer, but it usually is quicker. In such conditions, try to limit or avoid having items strapped to the outside of your pack, which can easily snag on branches or bushes.
Don’t Rush: Better to take a few extra minutes in order to discern your position, then to be going in the wrong direction for an hour or more.