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Science Behind the Hike

Have you heard the term “just put one foot in front of the other?” This is a psychological helper designed to help us get through the mental challenges of hiking and similar activities, but hiking, mountain walking, or tramping as some say, is so much more than simply plodding along dragging our carcass behind us. There’s actually a science behind how we move. Many if not most people aren’t even aware, but there are certain things experienced hikers will do, and perhaps be unaware of it, that help them stay safely on their feet, gain traction, control their descent, and conserve energy. Let’s take a closer look.

1. Staying on Your Feet

This is something all hikers strive for. And it’s not that hard to do, despite wet, slippery rocks, roots, and man-made wooden water bars and bog bridges plotting to destroy us at every turn. Certain techniques are used that while initially demanding great focus, can become second nature to us once identified and practiced. The key is to first identify the dangers, then learn techniques needed to deal with them. While most gain this knowledge over time, we can save you from having a bad day at the school of hard knocks.

The secret is not asking your footwear to defy physics. Once you stop demanding your footwear do the impossible, it’ll stop failing you. That is, stop asking a boot to hold lateral forces on a slick surface. Your car won’t do it on icy roads, so why would boots be better? Pressure must always be applied into the surface you’re on, not across it (smearing). Look for points on rocks or roots, they exist, and they will offer sound support if your forces can be pushed directly into them. No points, no purchase.

2. Gaining Traction

The same nibs or points that will keep your boot from slipping will also offer a sure step up. Push into them and stand. Being aided by trekking poles, an ice axe, or any solid hand support can help. If there are no points, then create you own traction if you can. In the winter this can be accomplished with Microspikes, for example, or crampons. On rock special rubber like that found on smooth-bottomed rock shoes allows for traction at the molecular level.

With just boots, if the surface allows by giving way enough while still being supportive, edging (using the edge of the sole) can work. If not, or when wearing traction, flat-footing mountaineering techniques developed by the French can also give some tenuous support if there is otherwise nothing to edge into. These flat footing techniques, as noted, also apply to when you are wearing traction devices because, quite simply, the spikes are on the bottom.

3. Controlling Your Descent

Some will tell you a fast descent is better on your knees and joints because you’re not constantly stopping yourself, but instead performing a sort of touch-and-go. We actually agree, but a fast descent can also be extremely dangerous. If you slip or trip going up a steep hill you will probably fall forward, and only a few feet. Going down, that forward fall puts your face and head six to ten feet away from the point of impact. A really long fall!

There are many ways to descend. If the terrain is slick you can use those aforementioned points to push your feet into. Trekking poles placed ahead of you or other solid supports can help you keep your balance and take some of your weight off your legs. That said, you do want your weight over your feet. We call this down-stepping. Slowly take small steps with your nose over your knees, over your toes. Again, pushing directly into the surface as much as possible with the bottoms of your feet. A rope handrail can help take the danger out of steeper descents. You can also turn around and down-climb if necessary.

4. Conserving Energy

When rock or ice climbers think their arms are about to get pumped they will rest briefly by leaning back, extending their arm fully, and hanging from their skeleton. Sometimes shaking out one arm then the other. While this isn’t fall-to-sleep restful by any means, it’s a huge help. A brief but necessary respite. Hikers and climbers can do the same with their legs while ascending.

The “rest step,” as it’s known, allows the hiker to rest on his or her skeleton by locking out the downhill leg and swinging forward with the other leg giving a moment of rest. In the short term this does little other than help one focus and develop rhythm. In the course of a day it can tack on hours of extra energy. This can be coupled with breathing techniques like compression breathing and pursed-lip breathing that further help make us feel rested and vital on the mountain. More about those ar another time.

In Closing

This is just a glimpse into the science of the hike. Getting the full picture can be very rewarding and gaining a complete understanding of the forces at work can be of huge benefit. It can keep us healthy and vital on our forays into the wilds. To learn more, depending on your objectives and current level of understanding, these topics are covered in fine detail during our Hiking Introductory and Montaineering Skills courses.

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