Form Walking for Hiking the Backcountry?

Do you have a hitch in you giddy-up or are you a easy-strider? You may already be able to hike twenty miles a day through alpine terrain with time and energy left over to setup camp in the daylight. This article isn’t going to help you double that mileage, but it may help you get there 10% quicker and be more comfortable doing it. When I’m out on the trail and I feel myself starting to fade, I take a moment to analyze my hiking form to see that everything is in check. Usually, I’ll find a relatively small issue, like my knees slightly bowing outward and I’ll focus to bring them back into form. This typically results in immediate positive feedback of an increased pace without exerting any additional energy. I ran track for a time growing up, mostly mid-distance events like the mile, and we used to spend a lot of time focusing on form. This wasn’t necessarily to create a running posture fit for the cover Runner’s World Magazine, but rather to focus on small imperfections in your mechanics that would suck away energy or otherwise make you vulnerable to injury. I’ve found a lot of crossover in the techniques to analyze running form that can be used for hiking. I wouldn’t recommend someone try to force a stiff upright posture, since we are inevitably going to be making adjustments while hiking due to pack loading and varied terrain, but small imperfections can be corrected with a little attention and time. Once issues are identified, a lot can be improved through focused stretching and exercise. If you’ve got any real joint or back issues, you should get with a specialist to work them out as soon as you can. Procrastinating on chronic issues is just going to make them harder to correct in the long run.

When to analyze your stride? Start out by focusing on your hiking stride without a pack, while on a relatively flat surface. Be relaxed, just act natural as you walk. If you try to walk too perfectly, you’ll likely stiffen up with tension and cause more imperfections. Walking unladen on a flat surface will give you a pretty good idea of your baseline mechanics. Once you have that, focus on how your mechanics change when you are hiking inclines, mellow declines, trails, when loaded up with a pack, and (most importantly) when you’re fatigued. Weaknesses always show themselves when your tired, and this will cause the most exaggerated breakdown of your hiking mechanics. Personally, I have a left ankle weakness that causes a slight slap in footfall rather than a smooth roll from heel to toe. I try to strengthen it by doing exercises like one-legged squats, as well as performing other isometric dumbbell lifts while standing on one leg at a time. I’ve also got some reduced hip mobility that causes my right foot to swing slightly outward when running. I’ve come up with a nightly stretching routine which includes attention on glutes and hip flexors which has largely improved this issue.

What should you focus on? It’s tough to look at everything at once, so the best approach is focus on one joint area, and in one plane of movement. Are your knees bowing outward, or moving like two efficient pistons moving you forward with no lateral sway? If your knees are moving efficiently on one plane, are your feet following them or do they wander to the side and travel through an elliptical orbit in the horizontal plane? If someone were to view you looking straight down at the top of your head, would they see your hips stay relatively on the same plane as your shoulders, or do they open up to one side as you stride forward? Do your toes of each foot point in the same direction throughout your stride, or do they stray inward or outward as you swing your leg forward?

Our hiking mechanics usually feel so natural to us, it is difficult to analyze on our own. If you don’t have a friend to help out and give observations, or if you don’t want to look like a weirdo asking your buddy “Hey would you mind checking me out as I walk this trail today? I mean, really focus on my body and my movement, and give me your honest impressions. I can do the same for you later.” Just set up you cell phone to get some video from a couple different angles; one at your feet and knees, one at your hips, one at your shoulders, and make sure you get both profile as well as directly in front and behind you. Check your shoes and gear for uneven or unusual wear as well, which could be an indicator of imperfect hiking mechanics. Small improvements in mechanics can yield real results on the trail.