5 Steps to Hike Efficiently, Like a Mother F’ing Ninja

Have you ever noticed how some hikers seem to glide over rough trail?  They barely slow down for the roots, rocks and slush that leave you stumbling and gripping your trekking poles until your hands turn white?  That’s what a mother effing trail ninja looks like.  I learned how to do it hiking all over the White Mountains of New Hampshire and let me tell you kiddo’s, when you get here the AT will kick your ass, seventeen hundred miles in or not.  Every summer us NH regulars hear AT thru-hikers complain of rough, boulder strewn, steep and wet trails that climb and descend forever.    Well, at least we hear it from the NOBO’s since Maine does a good job breaking in the SOBO’s right off the bat.  That said, learn how to hike smooth now and save yourself some pain!

Step 1: Lighten up

I’m not going to spend this article on ultralight backpacking techniques but it’s pretty easy to imagine carrying 20 pounds over rough trails is a hell of a lot easier than 40.  Scrambling up rock faces, climbing rungs and ducking under boulders will all be much easier with a lighter anchor on your back.  Less weight means your balance is less affected and your knees, ankles and core don’t have to work as hard to stay fluid and float over the trail.

Even on flat trail each step you take moves your center of gravity, and your pack with it, up and down several inches.   That adds up to a lot of rep’s over the course of a day, not to mention the whole trail.  If you’re going to spend 6 months walking, you might as well make the walking part easier.  Do some research on websites like Backpacking Light for lighter gear and techniques to stay comfy at camp and still be light.  UL doesn’t have to be expensive either, check out this $350 gear list from LytW8.com.   Other weight saving techniques, like only carrying 1  to 2 liters when there are water sources every few miles or carrying a realistic amount of calorie dense food, are free!

Step 2: Work on Your Balance

Hiking fluidly demands good balance.  We balance on one foot each step we take but some can do it better than others.  If you’re like me you spend most of your time in front of a desk and hike on the weekends (at least for a little while longer…).  Try some new activities you might turn out to enjoy that will help your balance like cross country skiing, Tai-Chi, yoga, trail running, skateboarding, mountain biking or fencing.  All of these force you to develop the balance  required not to fall on your face and will pay dividends on the trail.  Most of them will help develop the strength in your ankles, core and ligaments to resist injury and help you float down the trail.

Here’s a quick balance test for you: Stand on one leg, untie and remove your shoe.  Then put it back on, lace ‘er up and set your foot down slowly.  If you can do that, you’re on your way to trail ninja-hood.

Step 3: Free Your Feet

Most new hikers go into their local REI or EMS and ask for hiking boots without really thinking why they need boots – they just assume that’s what’s needed for hiking and the store is happy to oblige.  When the salesperson asks what kind of hiking and you say backpacking the AT, they’re going to try and sell you the biggest baddest boot they can while spinning tales of broken ankles, arch support and smashed toes.  The problem is when you can’t feel what you’re walking on, you don’t know how much traction you have.  Further, the stiffer your boot sole the less it will conform to and grip the terrain.  I watch hikers in New Hampshire in big boots slip and slide their way up the trail since they barely pay attention to what their feet are stepping on while I float along without a problem on flimsy trail runners.

Instead of big bad boots, try low cut hiking shoes or trail runners that let you feel what’s going on under your foot instead of heavy boots.  They still have enough padding for gravel and we’ll get to dealing with rocky trails in Step 4.  The lighter weight on your feet is like taking ankle weights off, making the miles roll by a little bit easier.

Now, if you’ve been using boots all along don’t go buying a pair of the flimsiest trail runners you can find and try a 20 mile day.  That’s a recipe for injury.  With any change in footwear your body needs time to adjust.  Get some lighter shoes but not minimalist and do some short hikes with them, say after work.   Or you could use them at the beginning of a normal hike, then switch to boots part way in.  Usually a good rule is to make one footwear category change at a time, say from high-cut boots to low cut boots, from low cut boots to hiking shoes or from hiking shoes to trail runners.

The idea is to let your feet get used to the new shoes and let your ankles strengthen slowly and without injury.  Hiking too far in new shoes can over stress your ankles and feet, but building up the mileage will make you stronger.  This is especially true if you’ve been using high cut boots and hiking poles – your ankles are probably weak since they haven’t had to do any work.  That weakness can lead to injuries even with big boots and poles, since you will inevitably roll and ankle or your poles will slip; you’re better off strengthening those feet and ankles now even if you end up preferring boots later.

No boots here! (Image Source)

Step 4: Walk with Intention

Pay attention to where you step.  Most hikers don’t read the trail, they simply plod along down it.  The trail is like sheet music and to walk efficiently we have to sight read our way down it.    If you’ve ever played an instrument you know to sight read you have to look ahead a few measures and go with the flow.   Trail running and mountain biking will help build the right mentality since you fall if you stop paying attention.  Look for good spots to plant your feet 5-10 feet ahead of you, like flat rocks, flat dirt above roots or on roots that are wide and not too slick.  Occasionally look further ahead for obstacles that might require a longer step to get over and a particular approach.  The way leading up to the obstacle is as important as getting over it and makes you hike without the wasted effort of slowing down, stopping and stepping awkwardly around of over something.

Pay attention to how you step.  We’ve been walking as long as we can remember and often forget to do this.  What part of your foot strikes the ground first?  How does your weight roll off your foot?  Does that change for uphill or downhill? How long are your strides?  Shorter strides stress your joints less and make easier work of steep descents.  Lean back and weight your heel on the downhill for better traction and less knee pain.  On open rock slabs weight your foot evenly for maximum traction and look for the roughest part to step on.

Strike the ground lightly, land on your forefoot and you will have better balance.

Try this other test:  Stand up, balance on one leg and shift all the weight to your heel.  Now do the same thing but shift all the weight to the ball of your foot.  It’s a lot easier to balance on the ball of your foot since its wider and has the muscle and ligaments to adjust for movements in your upper body.

Slamming your heel into the ground as you walk will lead to stress fractures, requires a lot of flat trail real estate to land on and thick footwear to cushion.  It’s better to walk softly on the front of your foot since you only need a flat piece of ground the width of your foot and an inch or two long.  Now your options for good places to step have vastly expanded and you can use fast, short steps to avoid joint stress.  This is the hardest part to learn and will stress your calves and arches like never before.  Slowly increase your mileage and they will grow stronger.  “Zero drop” style footwear will also help.  Again, I can’t stress the importance of a slow and steady transition.  Gradually introduce yourself to this new way of walking.

Step 5: Lose the Poles (At Least Sometimes)

Most pole users love their poles.  They help propel you up hill, slow you when the trail pitches down and keep you from falling on your face.  Many tarptent style shelters now use them for support and you can even find fishing rod and camera attachments for them.  Hiking poles can be essential when there are no good spots to step, like on wet snow or very slick trail.

Most of the time however, they aren’t needed for balance and actually impede it.  Our balance is more like a muscle than a sense.  If we exercise, it improves.  Try doing that for your sense of smell! If we stop using it, in time we will revert to poor balance.  Hiking poles are cheating; you don’t need to work your balance “muscle” and after a long enough time the gains you’ve made will be gone.  Instead of hiking with poles every time the going gets rough, try putting them away for a while.  You will be forced to make every step count, stressing your balance and improving your trail reading.  Use your feet to feel the ground under you and pick the best spots to step. If things get worse or you don’t feel safe, use the poles.  All I am saying is don’t let hiking with poles be your default method of hiking.  It’s only walking.

Also, please don’t use pole straps in rugged terrain.  I know too many people who have taken a dive with their hand in their strap and wrenched or torn a shoulder up here.

Hopefully that’s given you something to think about and the next time you hit the trail you’ll try out some of the techniques I’ve outlined.  If you have questions, think I’m a nut or agree completely, put them in the comments!  Follow along with me this March as I hike 5,000 miles and check out my fundraiser to help the AZT, CDT and Te Araroa!

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Comments 5

  • Molly : May 25th

    There are excellent reasons to choose stiff-soled boots for hiking on steep, slippery, or rocky terrain. Stiff soles keep people upright where they would otherwise have slipped or fallen.

    The ankle support provided by good boots is also important. The premise that being able to “feel” the terrain justifies speeding up is questionable. Whether one can “feel” it or not, if the terrain is tricky, a deliberate pace is the most safe and appropriate.

    As for poles causing people to lose their natural sense of balance, there is nothing to support that assertion, either. People use poles to work their upper body, to reduce shock on descent, and for many other good legitimate reasons.

    Straps keep hikers from losing dropped poles and also protect people below from being hit by them. The chance of falling in a manner that furthers injury due to a pole is probably far lower than the chance of dropping a pole.

    Please stop blowing smoke up people’s….

  • Chris : May 26th

    I’ve been hiking around SW PA in the Appalachians for over a decade, and this is right on point. I learned to hike with a big old backpack-style pack, wearing good sneakers, and never saw anyone with poles until I started reading about doing the Appalachian Trail. While I will upgrade my pack to an internal frame, I don’t get what the deal is with poles. I’ve slid down muddy embankments in a squat position, and it’s no problem for me to climb up or down, use my hands, crouch and step, whatever I have to do not to fall. In all these years, I’ve fallen twice that I can recall. Both times were at the beginning of the ‘season’, in mid-spring, when my ankles were soft. I wasn’t injured either time (because I had already squatted or crouched, I ‘fell’ a few inches by bailing onto my side). I tried boots once, for a few months, and couldn’t stand all that weight and restriction. They tired out my arches and hurt my toes.

    I think hiking is like any other sport or physical passtime out there– different strokes for different folks. I learned to hike ‘wrong.’ Wrong equipment, wrong clothing (I wear cotton! I should have died!), wrong approach to weight (my pack is, by hiker standards, woefully heavy and not built for its task– no hip belt, etc). You know what, though? It works for me. I will try out different stuff, but there is more than one way to skin a cat. I dislike that you’re getting hated on for writing out your opinions. Happy trails!


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