10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier

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No. 5 Step Lightly

Make your own little switchbacks in the trail when going downhill. Walking straight down a slope’s fall line puts the greatest pressure on your feet, knees, leg muscles, and soft tissue in joints. To lessen that impact, especially on steep trails, I like to zigzag slightly in the trail—as if creating my own tiny switchbacks within the footpath—so that I’m landing with each foot at a diagonal angle to the fall line rather than stepping straight down it. Work on it, I think you’ll notice the difference once you get the knack of it.

No. 6 Choose Your Steps Carefully

Step onto stable, relatively flat rocks and earth when walking downhill. That not only reduces your risk of slipping and falling, but those feet-friendly platforms act as small, natural braking mechanisms for your body, thus relieving your muscles of some of that effort. It may sound minor, but over the course of many miles and thousands of steps, it can make a difference. I frequently walk along the tops of the bigger rocks that are sometimes set in place at the edges of trails to keep hikers from wandering off the trail; they usually provide a stable platform (they won’t roll) and make a descent easier on my legs. (This tip is closely related to no. 7.)

No. 7 Take Baby Steps

Long strides are fine on flat terrain, but when going up or down, shorten your stride. Bending your knees deeply, as you do when taking big steps up or down, works the large muscles and your joints harder than bending your knees more shallowly. (Think: what’s harder, walking up and down a stairway one step at a time, or two?) In the same way that long switchbacks in a trail ease its difficulty by lessening the path’s angle, while you’ll take more steps by shortening your stride, you’ll work less hard than if taking big steps up or down.

A side benefit of this technique when going downhill is that you’re less likely to slip and fall, because you land with each foot more directly below your body weight, rather than ahead of you. The reason most falls occur walking downhill (we rarely fall when walking uphill), is that when stepping up, we land with each foot almost directly below our body—a balanced position—whereas when walking downhill, we land on a foot that’s out in front of our body, a position that’s more off-balance.

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