10 Tips for Hiking Downhill

Southern Traverse' near Federation Peak | Arthur Range | SW Tasmania

Steep terrain, slippery rock, high winds, pouring rain and temps just above freezing……..better send the brother-in-law down first 😉 | Eastern Arthurs, Tasmania, 2015.

Hiking downhill is often taken for granted. In the minds of some it represents the equivalent of “backcountry gravy“; the reward that follows the exertion of a long, challenging ascent.

Yet hiking downhill takes its toll. Twists, slips and tumbles are most likely to occur whilst descending and no other type of hiking causes more wear and tear on the joints and muscles.

By learning how to hike downhill efficiently in all types of terrain, the hiker can minimize impact on the body and decrease the probability of falls and/or mishaps occurring. As a bonus, descending with good technique means that you move faster and feel lighter, without having to put forth any extra physical effort.

Without further ado, here are ten tips for hiking downhill:

1.  Centre of Gravity

Don’t lean forward. Don’t lean back. Your centre of gravity should be low and over your legs.

My downhill hiking style was significantly influenced by a couple of extended trips to Mexico’s Copper Canyon region in the 1990’s. During those journeys I had the opportunity to observe the native Tarahumaras on their home turf. Watching as they effortlessly made their way along rugged, steep and rocky trails, I couldn’t help but notice their low centre of gravity, they way they bent their knees, the way they shortened their stride; they flowed rather than hiked down the mountains. To this day, I’ve never met a people to match them anywhere in the world – Andes, Himalayas, you name it – in regards to their ability to hike long distances carrying heavy loads.

Yours truly during my most recent trip to Mexico’s Copper Canyon in 2013 | On this particular journey, Justin “Trauma” Lichter and I completed the first ever traverse of the entire region, linking together the six major canyons which constitute the Copper Canyon area (Photo by Justin Lichter).

2.  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.

3.  Focus

Pay extra attention to foot placement.  Many slips occur on downhill stretches that immediately follow long ascents. After the exertion of the climb, the tendency is “let it all hang out” on the descent, which can subsequently lead to mistakes. Make a mental note to increase your concentration level before beginning downhill sections.

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Slippery descent to Little Sandy Creek | Wind River Range, WY, 2016.

4.  Shorter Steps

When the gradient is steep, taking smaller steps will help to keep your centre of gravity over your legs, thus promoting greater balance and control.

5.  Hip Belt

On steep, uneven descents it can be helpful to tighten your hip belt. This assists in minimizing pack movement, which can impede your balance if left unchecked. This particularly holds true if you are carrying a heavyish load. Speaking of which……..

6.  Pack Weight

Travel as light as the dictates of your skillset and the environment into which you are venturing allow. An overly heavy pack will extract its biggest toll on your body during steep and/or long downhill sections.

Goat Rocks, WA | Pacific Crest Trail, 2007

Goat Rocks, WA | Pacific Crest Trail, 2007

7.  Snow Slopes

How you descend in snowbound terrain is dependant upon the condition of the snow and the gradient of the slope:

  • Plunge Step: A commonly used technique is the plunge step. Landing heel first, let the weight of your body drive your foot into the snow. The harder the snow, the more aggressive the effort needs to be. Keep your knees slightly bent to avoid hyperextension.
  • Zigzagging: When descending steep slopes, reduce the gradient by zigzagging.
  • Hiking poles may help with balance, however if conditions are such that a fall could potentially result in injury, an ice axe and/or traction devices (e.g. Kahtoola Microspikes or crampons) should be used.
  • Glissading – A controlled slide down a snow slope on your bum (or feet). Six points to remember:

1. Never glissade if you are in any doubt as to the safety of a slope (e.g. crevasses, avalanche potential, protruding rocks or debris).

2. Assess the runout. If it isn’t fully visible, don’t glissade.

3. Make sure all of your gear is stored inside your backpack or safely secured.

4. Don’t glissade while wearing crampons. Same goes for microspikes. Even though the spikes are shorter and the chances of them catching are less (particularly when the snow is slushy), it’s better to be safe than sorry.

5. Use your ice axe in self-arrest position to control speed.

6. Assuming that all of the above boxes are ticked, a minimum of three whoops and hollers is considered mandatory for your standard sitting glissade 😀  .

  • Patience: If the snow is simply too solid and you are not appropriately equipped to continue safely, drop your pack, take in the views and treat yourself to a lengthy breakfast whilst waiting for it to soften.
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High altitude snow slopes don’t come any easier than this. Descending from Pakora Pass (4,710m / 15, 453ft) in the Karakoram Range | Pakistan, 2008.

8.  Cross Country

When descending a steep slope in trailless, technical terrain:

  • Don’t rush.
  • Scope the slope“; aim for the path of least resistance.
  • Always stay in control. Constantly monitor your momentum.
  • During long descents, identify short term targets (e.g. a large boulder) and move from one to the next.
  • When descending a scree slope, take short, controlled steps. Keep your centre of gravity over your legs at all times. If there is someone below you, be sure to give them plenty of space, in case you accidentally dislodge a rock. Alternatively, fan out and descend together.
  • When descending talus slopes, even more care should be taken so as not to run the risk of causing a rock slide.
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Steep Scree Slope – Looking up towards Cashan Pass (5,143m / 16,873 ft)  | Cordillera Blanca Traverse, Peru, 2014.

9.  Flow

Once you have the necessary techniques down pat, stay as loose as possible. Think flow. Move with the terrain, rather than against it.

10.  Sand Dunes

Big strides, short strides, hoop, holler, throw your arms up in the air! Ever since I was a kid growing up in Australia, sand dunes have always been my favourite type of downhill. There is an incredible feeling of freedom that comes with bounding down a huge sand dune………….it makes me smile just thinking about it.

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Paul (U.K.) | Going Up | Khongoryn Els, Gobi Desert, Mongolia, 2009

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Going Down | Khongoryn Els, Gobi Desert, Mongolia, 2009


Comments

10 Tips for Hiking Downhill — 5 Comments

  1. Excellent post, Cam. All great advice. I frequently use tip #4 on a long downhill stretch. I like to call it my “Marvin the Martian Mode”. All the best to you in your travels. Cal H

  2. Trekking poles are a BIG help. They take pressure off your knees and also act as “brakes” – keeping you from going too fast while going downhill.

  3. I agree with all of the article–and have found that #9 is of utmost importance. I worry a lot about falling when going downhill (at my age, in the 70s, it is of more concern), but I remind myself to stay loose because I have found that the more rigid I hold myself, the more likely I am to slip and slide.

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