How To Hike Up A Hill

Ever wonder why some people seem able to hike farther with less effort than you? It's not necessarily that they're stronger; it may be that they simply know the principles of efficient walking. The principles are simple, but it can take years to learn them by trial and error. Here they are:

Don't get out of breath.

Who hasn't had this experience: After hours of driving, you arrive at the trailhead, eager to get started. You lace up your boots, throw on your pack, lock the car and set off briskly down the trail. After about 5 minutes, you stop, panting and out of breath.

We all have a natural tendency to want to get going; but the fact is that getting out of breath, stopping to breathe, and then setting off again and repeating the cycle uses far more energy than setting a slightly slower pace you can maintain indefinitely. Any time you find yourself getting out of breath over regular terrain (no matter how steep), it's a sign that you're not working efficiently. Slow it down, and you'll find that at the end of the day you have covered far more ground, and you have been happier while doing it.

Maintain a steady cadence.

There's a reason why soldiers have marching songs and marching chants (remember the old "Sound off, one two / sound off, three four" song from World War II?). That's because slowing down and speeding up cost energy. Stopping and starting cost even more. Whatever the conditions, set a steady rhythm that you can maintain over those conditions and try to stick to it. If the trail gets steeper, shorten your stride rather than slow down the cadence; if it gets steeper yet, slow the cadence down, but avoid making constant adjustments.

Sometimes a steady cadence is not possible—usually where the terrain is too rough and uneven to permit it. If so, don't kill yourself trying to do the impossible. The point is to recognize that starts and stops are expensive and avoid them when you can.

(By the way, this is why trails are so much easier to walk than plain wild terrain. It's not that the trails are less steep; it's that they are regular and even enough that you can set and keep a steady cadence. Without a trail, even a flat meadow has enough unevenness to require constant adjustments to pace and footing.)

Use the rest-step on steep climbs.

Walk normally on a level surface, and observe how your body does it. Notice that at no time are you in a stable, balanced position; on the contrary, you are constantly moving forward in a kind of perpetual fall, with one foot and then the other thrown out ahead of you to keep you upright. Notice also that the muscles of both legs are working constantly, either in pushing off or in moving the foot forward. This works fine on the level, but it starts to break down when the going gets steeper and you have to slow down.

The solution is a wonderful invention called the rest-step. A full rest-step, of the sort mountaineers use at high altitudes on very steep slopes, works like this: As you step forward, you lock your rear knee and keep all your weight on that rear leg. The forward foot rests on the ground, but carries no weight at all; you could pick it up off the ground without disturbing your position. (This technique of taking a step without putting any weight on the stepping foot is well known to practitioners of Tai Chi as a way of keeping a solid balance at all times.) When you're ready to take the next step, shift your weight to the front foot, step forward with the other (no weight please!), and lock the rear knee again.

The rest-step accomplishes two things:

  1. The locked rear knee provides support for your weight without requiring help from the leg muscle. That means your leg gets to rest. Even if it's only for a tiny moment, you won't believe how much difference that bit of rest makes until you try it.
  2. The position—weight on rear leg, rear knee locked, front leg forward for balance—is completely stable. You can stop in that position for as long as you need to.

Stay paused in that position for however long it takes to avoid running out of breath. A mountaineer climbing a steep Himalayan snow field at 20,000 feet might stay motionless between steps for 10 seconds or more. At lower altitudes, you might only need a half-second pause. The point is that the length of the pause is up to you.

In summary:

As you walk and the trail gets steeper, you will find yourself going through a series of incremental changes:

Have a great hike!

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