Backpacker Magazine – August 2011
How to Walk
Ups and Downs
When the slope changes, so should your gait. Here’s how to adjust your stride on hills.
Choose the Right Footwear
>> Push your body uphill with your glutes, rather than pulling yourself with your quads and calves. Create a pushing motion by straightening your support leg. Well-trained glutes are less prone to overuse injury than the smaller muscles.
>> Keep your stride short so that you are stepping underneath your torso rather than in front of it, which strains knees and ankles.
>> Lean forward slightly to counter the slope angle. The amount of the lean depends on the grade (do what’s comfortable), but make sure to angle forward from the ankles rather than the waist, keeping your spine straight. You don’t want to hunch forward into the hill, which can cause a sore back.
>> Shorten trekking poles so you can plant tips beside you—grips even with your elbows—and push off from behind as you move forward.
>> Bend your knees to absorb shock, and keep steps short to minimize impact. A study by the University of Salzburg found that, for downhill walkers, a 50-percent increase in stride length resulted in 220 percent more force on the knee and 360 percent more force on the hip.
>> Although the downhill slope prevents a full heel-to-toe gait, strive to land on your heel or midfoot (not the ball of your foot), then transfer your weight to the forefoot to decrease pounding on joints.
>> Keep feet, knees, and hips aligned and pointed in the direction of travel. Avoid flaring knees and feet. Walking with your feet angled outward might seem like a way to apply the brakes, but it can cause injury as the body attempts to compensate for skewed alignment.
>> Lengthen trekking poles so you can reach forward and absorb and redistribute downward pressure.
Too-heavy boots and too-light insoles cause some of the most common foot problems.
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 three-pound bar bells strapped to each ankle) could cause your feet to drag and/or land unnaturally. What you want: a shoe with a partially rigid midsole that flexes at the ball of the foot and is roomy in the toebox. That allows a natural gait, so your arch (not the boot’s) absorbs shock and the metatarsals and toes provide stability and evenly distribute body and pack weight. When you shop, you’ll know a shoe is too rigid if, when you’re walking around the store, you literally hear a ker-thunk sound because the boot isn’t flexing at the ball. (Very stiff boots often have a rockered, or curved, sole to give the feel of a more “natural” stride, but that’s not the same as flex.) How do you know if it’s too light? Hold the heel of the shoe in your hand and push the toe down against the floor or table. “If the sole collapses anywhere but at the ball, it’s probably not supportive enough for backpacking,” says Brandan Hill, a designer at Chaco. In the store, exaggerate a strong toe-off to make sure the natural flex point of the ball of your foot matches the boot’s flex point. Try going up and down in half-size increments to get a feel for how the flex point shifts.
Shoemakers use the words “insert,” “insole,” and “footbed” interchangeably to refer to the same thing: a contoured platform that’s supposed to provide additional cushion and stability, and keep your foot in a neutral position (level, with arch raised). The problem: Most shoes come with thin foam insoles that do squat. The solution: Get an after-market insert made specifically for hiking or running; most feature a molded, hard-plastic base for arch support, and resilient foam for all-day cushion. Most BACKPACKER editors swap out thin, noncontoured footbeds for a supportive insert like this:
>> SOLE Signature EV Ultra
A 3.2-mm-thick layer of dense foam sits atop a rigid plastic platform that molds to the foot with wear. A deep heel cup and pronounced arch support cradles the foot, providing excellent lateral stability. Our flat-footed tester found this insole ideal for reducing overpronation. This model is also a good choice for hikers who suffer from knee pain or ankle rolling caused by an uneven foot strike. $50; yoursole.com