Compared to all of the modes of land transportation nature has invented—galloping, slithering, hopping—walking on two legs is one of the most efficient at covering long distances. And easiest: A 2010 study by the University of Utah found that it takes 83 percent more energy to land first on the toes, as most mammals do, than to step first on the heel and rock forward, like humans. Clearly, when we left the jungle to roam the plains, bipedal locomotion gave us an advantage. We could cover vast distances while carrying tools, supplies, and carcasses—backpacking, in its most primitive form—and even wear down faster prey with our superior endurance (as famously argued in Christopher McDougall’s recent bestseller, Born to Run).
“Backpacking used to be a necessary part of survival,” notes author and back-pain specialist Esther Gokhale, who has studied healthy sitting, standing, and walking postures in native cultures in India, Africa, and South America. People have been doing it for millennia. It’s in our DNA. But if you think you learned everything you need to know about putting one foot in front of the other as a toddler, think again. In a modern world dominated by sedentary office jobs, cardio-focused gym workouts, and overbuilt footwear, the fundamental biomechanics of healthy walking often get, well, trampled. Even small problems in your gait—a sagging arch, cramped toes, a pronating ankle—can reverberate up your body and cause knee, hip, and back pain. And hiking on an uneven trail with a 35-pound pack on your back only increases the potential for problems. The waiting rooms of podiatrists, orthopedic surgeons, and chiropractors are full of people, including otherwise healthy backpackers, who are suffering from walking-related ailments. And as a result, a new science of smarter striding is evolving.
My own reeducation in walking started with what I thought was a pebble in my shoe. After emptying out my boot several times and finding nothing, it dawned on me that the sharp pain at the ball of my foot could actually be coming from my foot itself. A trip to the podiatrist and new hiking shoes with a stiffer, more-padded midsole provided some relief, but the pain nagged at me with every run and hike. As the snow melted off the trails come spring, I trudged on and unknowingly changed my gait in an attempt to relieve the foot ache, which subsequently expanded to include calf pain as well. Then one day, the pain in my right calf became so intense that it stopped me in my tracks. I could barely limp the mile back to my car.
The torn calf muscle landed me in a Flagstaff, Arizona, clinic where I hobbled on a treadmill as physical therapist and sports medicine expert Brian Schmitz analyzed my gait. I felt oddly self-conscious, since I had always prided myself on a sturdy stride. But I had obviously been doing something wrong. “You’re forefoot striking, probably due to proximal hip weakness,” announced Schmitz. Translation: After a long, snowy winter that kept me from my daily running and hiking routine, my hips and glutes had weakened and I had hit the trails that spring with a sloppy stride. And I had hit them hard—excited by the prospect of getting out—without allowing my body to rebuild strength. But I hadn’t been fully utilizing leg and hip muscles to ease myself forward, so I pounded my forefoot as I ramped up the miles. That caused the “pebble pain,” and I only got relief after a long break and treatment last summer.
After three months of physical therapy and focused training—literally, learning how to walk again—I returned to the trails stronger, pain-free, and with a mission to investigate the latest advice from sports medicine specialists, gait mechanics experts, and footwear designers. I wouldn’t make the same mistake again. Read their tips on stride, posture, strength, balance, stretching, gear, and injury prevention, and you won’t wind up with a rock in your shoe—or an ache in your calves or hips. What’s more, your more efficient, more fluid stride will help you log bigger miles with more speed and less fatigue.
Take the Test
Rate your biomechanical fitness for moderate backpacking.
1. Glutes and hips
Balance standing on one leg (each side) for one minute without assistance.
Lie on your back, and while keeping one leg straight and flush against the floor, raise the other leg straight to at least a 45-degree angle.
3. Alignment and stability
Do a one-legged squat down to 90 degrees and hold it for 10 seconds without your knee drifting inward. Do it successfully with each leg.
Do 10 full calf raises on each leg.
5. Knees and feet
To check for overpronation and other instabilities, stand on one leg, hands on hips, in front of a mirror. Slowly bend your weighted knee. Does it rotate inward or outward? Do your hips or shoulders drop forward or to either side? Is your head tipped forward, backward, or to one side? If you see any of these problems in the mirror—your body should be symmetrical, as in the illustration at right—your stance is off-balance.
Number of failed tests
0: Hit the trail;
1: Enjoy your hike, but fix the problem;
2-3: Head to the gym;
4-5: …with a personal trainer
Note: For alignment issues, consult your doctor or physical therapist.