Walk down hill safely with these simple tricks

Looking down hill from the Arden-Sturbridge trail in Harriman State Park

When a lot of people think of hiking, they think of huffing and puffing up hills.  Believe it or not, walking up hill gets naturally easier over time as you get in shape and build up endurance.  On the other hand, there are some skills and tips that are necessary for you to properly learn to walk down hill.

  • Tighten your shoelaces
  • Don’t Side Step
  • Use trekking poles
  • Let go of your dog

Tighten your shoelaces before you walk down hill

As you walk throughout the day, your shoes become looser.  Laces stretch, knots become undone, and your feet shift around.  While walking on flat ground or up gentle slopes, you may not notice the effects of loose shoes, but when you hike down hill, they may become uncomfortable or even dangerous.  Of course everyone is aware that loose shoes may cause you to trip over the laces, but they don’t need to be all the way undone to become a problem.  When walking downhill, your feet will tend to slide forward in your shoes, causing your toes to become crunched up.  If you rely on a high top boot for ankle support, the laces must be tight, especially when walking downhill with your shin pressing against the front of the boot.  I always tighten my laces before beginning a long descent.

Many trail running shoes now come with a pull-tight quick lacing system that let's you adjust your laces quickly.
Many trail running shoes now come with a pull-tight quick lacing system that let’s you adjust your laces quickly.

Don’t side step when walking down hill

I used to be guilty of this, and I see a lot of people still doing it.  For some reason, we have a tendency to think that we’ll have better traction if we turn our feet sideways, but that isn’t the way the treads on our shoes are designed to work.  You’ll always have the best traction if you keep your toes pointing straight down the hill.  Not only does side stepping reduce traction, but it also increases your risk of ankle injury.

Walk down slick surfaces with your toes pointed down hill. Use your trekking poles to guide you and probe ahead.

Using trekking poles when you walk down hill

I’m a proponent of hiking with trekking poles.  They help you maintain a good pace, keep your balance, supposedly take up to 30% of the effort of walking off your legs.  They’re also great multi-use items, especially if you use a trekking pole supported shelter or tarp.

While I sometimes stow my poles when walking up-hill or on flat terrain, I always use them while walking down hill. They help keep my from falling forward and take a lot of the pressure off my knees.  If the hill is steep, I’ll usually increase the length of my poles by a few centimeters to compensate.  If you don’t have trekking poles, don’t worry; there are plenty of sticks in the woods that are completely free. (please leave your adopted walking stick at the end of the trail when you’re done: part of leaving no trace is to leave what you find.)

Trekking poles help when walking down hill, and they’re also among the best multi-use items. Mine serve as hiking aids by day and tent poles by night.

Let go of your dog!

Most recreation areas require you to keep your dog on a 6-foot leash at all times, and you should usually follow this rule.  Not only is it courteous to other hikers, but it also keeps your dog from threatening wildlife.  However, if you have ever hiked with a dog, you know they like to go fast.  Their four feet mounted on short legs give them a big advantage when navigating certain types of terrain, and they might not need to slow down when you do.  Holding onto a dog while trying to walk down a steep hill may be dangerous, as the dog tries to pull you faster than you’re comfortable walking. If you trust your dog, let her go ahead so you can walk down safely.  Don’t do this when there are other hikers coming up the hill, as they may get nervous.  It’s also a good idea to keep a few treats in your pocket as a reward for waiting at the bottom.

This is Penny, the crazy dog that hikes with us. She’s very well-behaved, but we only let he off leash for short stints while we walk down hill.



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