As hikes get longer and steeper, the pressure on calves, knees, ankles and hips can start causing discomfort and pain. Working on leg and core strength helps, but there are also techniques that even the pros use, including on steeper pitches and snow and ice. For us novices, these techniques come in handy on all kinds of trails.
Resting as you continue hiking uphill: The Rest Step
Many great hikes have areas of hilly terrain, including steeper parts that can strain your calves and put severe angles on your ankles if you hike with your feet pointed straight uphill and use continuous motion. Instead, use the Rest Step, a technique where you get a bit of rest in each leg as you climb.
To describe the motion, imagine standing on an upward sloping hill with both feet stable beside each other. To take a step forward with your left foot, swing it forward and up the hill while keeping your weight on your right foot, which for a moment takes all the pressure. Once you have planted the left foot a bit uphill, transfer the pressure to it as you move up, taking the weight off the right foot and swinging it uphill past the left foot. Now all the pressure is on the left foot. Push up enough on the left foot so that it locks at the knee and for a second that whole leg, from foot to hip, becomes a solid supporting unit. While that planted foot bears all your weight, the other foot is actually relaxing as you swing it uphill.
At each step up, you can stay in the position where one foot is locked and bearing all the weight for multiple seconds to allow your other foot to rest. This delayed movement upward will slow your pace, but it can help ease fatigue as you climb.
Don’t be intimidated by others who may be flying up the slope. You are in good company using this technique. For example, a mountain climber in the Himalayas may stay motionless between steps for 10 seconds or more. At lower altitudes, you might only need a half-second pause. If you have hiking friends showing impatience, find new hiking friends. I am always climbing with younger and stronger mates, but I only go with those who are not in a race to the top, who instead prefer to dwell in the beauty of the scene.
You can practice this technique on your steps at home. Or better yet, with the use and safety of elevators in flux in a post-pandemic world, use it to hike up the stairs of multi-story buildings.
The French Technique – the Cross-over Step
Several foot-placement techniques were devised for increased security and reduced leg strain for snow and ice climbers, but I use one of them all the time even on dry rocky or steeper uphill and downhill hiking. Some call it the French technique or “cross-over” step.
If you restrict yourself to straight-up hiking, you will feel strain in your calves since you are pointed straight uphill. Your feet at the ankles will be bent far forward as well and that will cause another strain point. The technique described here is simple: it entails three different foot angles to the uphill line, each giving rest to the muscles and joint pressures from the other two positions.
The technique is to sidestep up the slope. To do this, plant your uphill foot solidly, but not straight uphill; aim for 45 degrees or greater to the uphill line (skiers call it the fall line). Then cross your lower foot over your planted foot as you lift it uphill, keeping both feet parallel and pointed to the side. Then, shift your weight onto your uphill leg. Step your back leg uphill, keeping your feet parallel and pointed to the side. Your back leg always moves uphill behind your front leg, and your front leg always moves uphill in front of your back leg.
You can repeat this process for a while, then rotate and sidestep, still facing uphill but with your body pointing the opposite way. You can intersperse this sidestepping technique with periods of hiking straight up. This lets you have three very different muscle and joint pressures with two of the three resting while the muscles in the active position are working.
This is also a useful technique descending on loose or steeper rocky terrain. Crossover sidestepping presents a bigger footprint right on the ground, giving you greater stability in addition to varying leg strain.
I think these techniques may have been originally created to deal with steeper ice and snow slopes, sometimes with crampons. While neither you nor I will be climbing Everest any time soon, we may choose to hike on hills before snow has fully melted. This is another good time to use this variation in footwork. Here is a short video on snow – starting with me hiking straight uphill and slipping – and that wasn’t even staged.