Tips for Hiking Downhill

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 challenging ascent. Yet hiking downhill takes its toll. Twists, slips and tumbles are most likely to happen while descending and no other type of hiking causes more wear and tear on the joints and muscles. By learning how to efficiently hike downhill in all types of terrain, the hiker can minimize the impact on the body and decrease the probability that falls and mishaps occur. 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 a dozen tips for hiking downhill (Note – This article is an expanded version of a piece I wrote for the website ten years ago):

'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 😉 / Arthur Range Traverse, Tasmania, 2015.

1.   Prepare your Gear

Before beginning a downhill section give your gear a quick once-over:

A. Tighten your hip belt and shoulder straps – on steep and uneven descents this will assist in minimizing pack movement, which can impede your balance if left unchecked.

B. Check that your shoelaces are properly tied – you want them tight enough that they feel secure, but not so tight that they restrict blood flow. 

C. If you’re carrying trekking poles, lengthen them accordingly. Poles that are too low will have you reaching unnecessarily forward, thereby disrupting your centre of gravity.

D. Pre-hike tip – Don’t forget to trim those toenails.

Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva on the Cordillera Real Traverse | Bolivia, 2017.

2.   Centre of Gravity

Don’t lean forward, don’t lean back – while descending a mountain your centre of gravity should be low and over your legs.

My downhill hiking style was significantly influenced by my first visits to Mexico’s Copper Canyon region in the 1990s. 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, the 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, Himalaya, you name it – in regard to their ability to efficiently hike long distances in challenging terrain while carrying medium to heavy loads.

Justin “Trauma” Lichter descending into Urique Canyon | Copper Canyon Traverse, Mexico, 2013.

3.  Minimize Stress 

Due to the force of gravity, hiking downhill takes significantly more toll on our bodies than other types of walking. According to a study by pub-med.gov, the “increased moment and knee flexion angle yield a 3 to 4 times bigger femoropatellar joint compressive force for downhill walking compared to level walking.”

That being the case, how do we minimize weight-bearing impact while descending? You can start by always keeping 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. “What about trekking poles?”  Poles can help by redistributing some of the load to your arms and shoulders, thereby reducing strain on the lower body. As a bonus, poles can also assist with balance and stability by providing two extra points of contact with the trail; particularly helpful for folks that aren’t especially surefooted and/or have pre-existing leg issues.

4.   Pack Weight

One of the best ways of mitigating the risk of musculoskeletal issues is by carrying a light pack. An overly heavy load will extract its biggest toll on your body during steep and/or long downhill sections, so a hiker should always aim to travel as lightly as the dictates of their skillset and the environment into which they are venturing allow.

Yours truly the Long Crossing of the Lofoten Islands | Norway, 2018.

5.   Shorter Steps

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

6.  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.

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

7.   Don’t Cut Switchbacks

Cutting switchbacks contributes to erosion, damaged vegetation, and altered hydrology. While the impact of a single individual cutting switchbacks may be minimal, the damage caused by a number of hikers doing exactly the same thing is most certainly not. Before considering shortcutting a switchback, hikers should ask themselves “is saving a few seconds or minutes of time worth the potential environmental repercussions”? 

8.  Comfort Zone

Trips and falls can occur when hikers are rushing unnecessarily to keep up with their partners. When it comes to hiking downhill – particularly in technical terrain – there can be a big difference in comfort levels between hikers. Descend at a pace that feels right for you. By diligently practising good technique, over time the speed and confidence with which you descend will increase (Chronological Caveat: I believe this last point holds true up to a certain age, after which no matter how good your technique might be, you won’t be going faster downhill).

9.  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 snow slopes, reduce the gradient by zigzagging.
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High altitude snow slopes don’t come any easier than this. Descending from Pakora Pass (4,710m/15,453 ft) in the Karakoram Range | Pakistan, 2008.

  • 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:

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

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

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

D. 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.

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

F. 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/brunch whilst waiting for it to soften.

Joshua “Bobcat” Stacy descending Mount Whitney after finishing the Lowest to Highest Route (April 2014).

10.  Scree Slopes

  • Don’t rush. Monitor your momentum.
  • During long descents, identify short term targets (e.g. a large boulder) and move from one to the next.
  • 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 largish 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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Looking up towards Cashan Pass (5,143m / 16,873 ft)  | Cordillera Blanca Traverse, Peru, 2014.

11.   Flow

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

12.  Sand Dunes

Let’s end on a fun note. Ever since I was a kid growing up in Australia, sand dunes have always represented my favourite type of downhill hiking. Big strides, little strides, hoop, holler, throw your arms up in the air. 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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Going up the dunes at Khongoryn Els | Gobi Desert, Mongolia, 2009

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And going down | Khongoryn Els, Gobi Desert, 2009

17 Replies to “Tips for Hiking Downhill”

    1. Often “traverses” will include varying amounts of off-trail hiking. Exceptions that come immediately to mind are the Presidential Traverse in the White Mountains and Utah’s Zion Traverse.

  1. Congratulations Cam, this is the most concise and informative article I have come across in many many years. I think that you have covered every aspect concerning safe travel down hill; I can wish that I had this for my students information when teaching outdoor pursuits in the UK. FANTASTIC!

  2. Cam, would you have something to say about following a ‘stretching regime’ of some sort, let’s say a few months before a long hike? Perhaps Yoga, or just generally working on leg flexibility. Is that likely to help those of us with our fair share of knee/ankle pain?

    1. Because each individual case is different, the best advice is usually to go and see a doctor and/or physical therapist to work out a regime that’s right for you. Very generally speaking, I think that gradual strengthening complemented by gentle stretching is the way forward. The goal being to increase the strength of the muscles around the knee and/or ankle joint, while still keeping them flexible. If all goes well, this should help on the stability front, as well as alleviating at least some of the pain and strain that folks feel in the joints during long descents.

  3. Hey Cam 😀
    which part of my foot should hit the ground first?
    When I walk (or hike) on flat terrain I land mostly on my midfoot naturally. Going downhill it is tempting to heel-strike.
    Keeping in mind not to hyperextend the knee, what do you recommend? Or what do the Tarahumara do?

    1. Hey Ray,

      My foot strike tends to vary when going downhill. Sometimes I’ll land on my heel, sometimes midfoot, sometimes forefoot – whatever feels natural at the time. This is not that difficult when all or most of your hiking is done on uneven terrain. However, I think mixing up your foot strike can also be a good idea when walking on smooth trails or roads, as it helps to share the load between different muscle groups.

      Cheers,

      Cam

  4. I still remember your advice (from one of your hiking gurus) about ascending with your heart and descending with your legs. Hope you’re well, Swami!

    1. That’s still one of my favourite sayings! All things considered, things are going pretty good. Hope you are safe and healthy as well.

  5. G’day mate!

    Hope all is well in your world.

    Thanks for all the great tips across the website! Fantastic to have such detailed reports/lessons available as a resource.

    I’m about to set off on the TMB followed by the GR20 a few days later and one of my biggest fears is the effect of so much downhill in a condensed period of time; I’ve never used hiking poles before but am considering whether this should be the time… I’ve read a multitude of opinions online and still don’t feel I have a lot of clarity on whether it would be beneficial, especially considering I have no previous experience, with some seemingly suggesting they take some time to get used to.

    I don’t suppose you’d care to weigh in with any advice?! Also might be worth noting I’ll be completing both hikes pretty quickly, carrying all camping gear etc (no rifugio stays this time!).

    Thanks!

    Also I’m looking forward to reading your Triglav report – I lived in Slovenia for a stint when I first travelled (from Melb) and have been back countless times since (I absolutely love the place!), but have somehow, despite loving the Julian Alps, never completed Triglav. It was meant to be completed this year as part of a trip completing long distance hikes around Europe and Central Asia, however plans have changed and I’m gonna be stoked if I can just get TMB and GR20 done for the time being!

    Anyway thanks again for the incredible site, and happy hiking!

    Cheers,

    Nathaniel

    1. Hey Nathaniel,

      It depends on a bunch of different factors including pack weight, the character of the terrain you’re traversing, and the balance, experience, injury history, and strength of the hiker in question. I’d disregard the advice of those who unequivocally claims they are “necessary” for everyone. Personally, I’ll use a trekking pole if I’m hiking in snowy/icy terrain and/or on a trip that involves numerous challenging fords. Other than that, I rarely hike with poles and the only reason I’ll be carrying one is to set up my shelter at day’s end.

      All the best on your trip!

      Cheers,

      Cam

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