Tips for Walking On Rugged Outdoor Terrain
Traversing Difficult Terrain Without Falling Down
There is no worse time for your rig to unceremoniously lose power and roll to a bumpy halt than miles from nowhere at the edge of your known universe. All around you is mountainous terrain you were hoping to traverse in the comfort of Detroit’s finest, navigating your way toward the base camp for a relaxing time with friends around a campfire. That plan has been shot to hell when your auxiliary belt gave way, leaving your alternator, water pump, and power steering pump inoperable and your vehicle lifeless. What now? Well, it’s time to start walking.
The human body was designed for walking. The animal kingdom is full of many modes of transportation—swimming, crawling, flying—but only humans walk. We can cover long distances efficiently and effectively, basically outlasting our prey, and our method of walking—heel to toe—uses much less energy than the gaits of nearly all other mammals. If you’re staring down a dusty trail with trepidation, remember that human beings were born to walk.
That doesn’t mean we don’t fall down. Even on relatively small hills, uneven ground can cause a variety of injuries, both minor and major. Loose rocks and gravel on a slanted surface only increase the chances of a misstep or a fall. From twisted ankles to falling rocks to the grisly death of plummeting from great heights, the peril of traversing uneven and unknown terrain can be daunting. For starters, you’re venturing into an unknown situation. How far will you have to travel? How much daylight is left, if any? Do you have the right equipment and gear to even make the trip safely? Would you be better off staying next to your Jeep and waiting for help to arrive?
These are things you must consider before even walking a step back toward camp.
Venturing Off Right
Assuming nobody’s coming to your rescue, you’ve got to walk back to civilization on your own. What you should take with you depends on your situation. Generally, you’ll need most all of the 10 Essentials if you want to be amply prepared for what might come your way. That means you’ll want gear to cover all of the bases, especially if you expect to be gone overnight. This is why you should always carry a go-bag in every vehicle for the off chance you’ll need to return on foot. Inside should be methods for light, navigation, sleeping, eating, and protection from the elements.
Additional items you may want to help make your trek easier are trekking poles. They’re lightweight and easily storable. They transfer some of the weight from your knees to your arms and can help steady you over uneven ground. As well, make sure you bring plenty of water. Knowing how much depends on your body type, the weather, and the length of your trip.
Footwear: The best backpacking shoes are as light as possible while still providing adequate arch and ankle support and protection against the elements. Heavy boots, besides weighing you down, can restrict the motion of the foot and actually alter your foot strike as the added swing weight (picture 3-pound bar bells strapped to each ankle) could cause your feet to drag and/or land unnaturally.
But if you’re stuck with whatever you happened to be wearing when you got in your truck that morning, you’ll have to make do.
Find Your Stride
Even though you’ve been walking your whole life, hiking on a trail you’re not familiar with is like learning to walk all over again. There are a few new principles you’ll need to understand if you want to get down (or up) the mountain as painlessly as possible.
Stretch: The last thing you want to add to your situation is a pulled muscle, so before you trek off, do a few simple stretches to make sure your muscles are loose and ready for whatever strenuous activities await. Think of your body as the engine of your rig, your muscles are the pistons, and oil is your flexibility. You wouldn’t dare run your engine without oil, in the same way, you shouldn’t do any repetitive activity without first stretching.
Pace: It is important to maintain a steady pace. It isn’t a race and you win nothing if you get there first, just make sure you get there. The aim is to finish your hike at the same speed at which you started. You want to find a rhythm between your steps and your breathing. If you don’t have to worry about foot placement—like on a mostly level trail—you can find a comfortable median between how many steps you take and how many breathing cycles you need.
Breaks: Remember, you’re not Superman. Take a break from walking. Rest, stretch your muscles again, take a drink, enjoy the hike. Breaks should be short and regular. Don’t allow time for your muscles to stiffen up, which will make it more difficult to get going again. Instead, plan a break of 5 to 10 minutes for every hour of walking, more if you are going uphill.
Fatigue: The effects of fatigue range from just being worn out to more dangerous symptoms, such as headaches, sore or aching muscles, and, worse yet, dizziness, muscle weakness, and impaired decision making. The human will is strong, and often a person’s mind attempts to overcome and ignore the warning signs that the body has reached its limit. That’s when accidents can happen. Leg cramps make climbing or powering through a steep hill extremely difficult, and underestimating grip strength or upper-body strength as a whole when fatigued can also end in tragedy.
Going Up is Easier Than Going Down
It sounds counterintuitive, but it is true. Walking uphill is easier. Though you’re fighting against gravity by having to boost up your body at every step, you are in less danger of injury due to a fall or by being struck by something falling around you—it will likely fall behind you. In order to decrease fatigue and stress on your ligaments, muscles, and joints, it’s best to ascend using a zigzag-type pattern to reduce the direct upward angle. It may take a bit more time to reach the top, but you’ll reduce the overall wear and tear on your body by flattening out your trajectory.
Watch Your Steps: The steeper the terrain, the shorter your steps should be. Your body should be bent forward and trekking poles placed in front of you and at a width slightly wider than your shoulders. Place your feet carefully and use as much of your boots’ soles as possible with every step; stay off of your toes when the trail isn’t too steep. However, the more steep you climb, the more you’ll want to place down only the ball of your foot to maintain proper balance, body bent forward.
Downhill: Heel First
After climbing up a steep hill, you’ll probably welcome a nice sloping downward stretch of trail, but this is when you should be most cautious. Descending is where most dangers lie. Losing your footing and tumbling downward, even on small hills, can produce bumps, bruising, broken limbs, and even a concussion.
As you descend, always keep your center of gravity well in check—that is, low and always over and slightly behind your legs. Never let your body lean forward or too far back and keep your legs bent to cushion each step. Short steps will keep your center of balance consistent. If you attempt to take larger strides to get down quicker, you run the risk of your balance shifting and you losing control and tumbling hard downhill.
Conversely to the hiking uphill, you’ll want to step with your heel first. To reduce tripping, keep your eyes on the ground right in front of you and watch out for any loose rocks or soil. If you’re unsure, give it a quick test step; that is, put your foot down and slowly add a little weight to see if it will hold.
If it is especially steep or if the ground is covered in loose gravel or sand, it is best to turn your whole body sideways and side-step down. This way, you’ll be able to use the entire sole of your boot to maximize traction. Don’t be afraid to sit down and scoot the rest of the way. There’s no shame in safety.
Roots, rocks, downed trees, vines, obstacles hidden by undergrowth, and random natural debris can all pose a hindrance when hiking. Observe your immediate environment for loose soil, especially after an intense rainstorm. This will mitigate you from climbing on unstable ground on which you could loosen the surrounding rocks and bring them down upon you. If such conditions are noticed, plan an alternate path—one where the ground is solid under your feet or where there are few to no rocks positioned above your climbing path.
Above all else, go slow, go carefully, and go deliberately.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the November/December 2019 print issue of Tread Magazine.