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):
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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