Sunday, November 27, 2022

Save your Knees: Hiking Tip for Steep Terrain

Watch where you step!  How many times have you heard this?  When hiking, optimal foot placement can save a tweaked or strained ankle and it can significantly improve your performance.  

This post is about a technique we teach on the trail (OTT) called the Side-Wide.  It’s especially useful for steep steps or obstacles.

When you step straight up or straight down, 2.5 to 3.5 times your body weight can go right into the knee joint, yikes!  We all know that when our feet are slightly apart as opposed to close together, we’re better balanced. Widen your stance and feel the difference.     The Side-Wide, when consciously practiced, becomes automatic.  Give yourself a little “Side-Wide” cue to reinforce muscle memory.

First, the side step

Then step wide

Stepping to the side, whether up or down, helps balance and prevents knee stress.  Stepping wide after the first step to the side feels natural as you distribute your weight into a wide stance.  It’s instinctive to shift your weight to the other foot after stepping to the side.  Notice how your body weight shifts.

Big steps can cause imbalance & knee stress

Side-Wide: First step is less steep than straight up

Then Step Wide completing the big up step or obstacle

The steeper the terrain, the smaller your step. This simple strategy is important for many reasons including your safety on the trail as well as for protecting your knees.    Practice the Side-Wide on both up and down stairs and obstacles in the trail.  See where optimal foot placement can feel more secure and easier on your knees.  For practice, pick one somewhat challenging step.  Do this technique over and over until you create body muscle memory.   Focus on the weight shift and the lack of energy going into the knee joints.

Proper planning prevents particularly poor performance. Learn this simple technique so that it becomes automatic.   Let your poles help you as you practice on terrain that feels slightly challenging.   Before you know it, you’ll gain confidence and speed.


6 Responses to “Save your Knees: Hiking Tip for Steep Terrain”
  1. Greenie says:

    I have been using this technique for a while. It is good to that someone else is using it.


  2. Thanks for the Side-Wide tip!

    I’ve also found that it’s useful to consciously engage your quadriceps as you walk. Too often people “walk on their bones” by thumping along with nearly straight legs. If instead you imagine that you’re a panther, bend your legs more, and engage more of your muscles with each stride — you’ll get a much bigger workout and you’ll reduce your risks of injuries such as a torn meniscus.

  3. Judy Young says:

    Thanks so much for this advice on saving the knees! Mine have little cartledge left and have found the side step works well on my home stairway! Very fit on flat surfaces. I have only tried my Leki poles twice and loved the experience!!! I never could have imagined how much pressure they take off the lower body for such little efort! No one uses these in my part of the country (Wash DC metro area) for daily walks, so I tend to not take them! I look longingly at your California pictures! Anyway, I am going to take ?one pole to China next month where I will be working on a Panda reserve and hauling bamboo up steep steps and generally navigating the uneven terrain at other times. In other places there will be a whole lot of touring/walking. No way to use both poles with camera equipment and frequent camera stops! I know this sounds a little silly and not very resourceful, but do you have any suggestions for maximum use of one pole for activities described! Right knee is worse than left. No harm in asking for my strong body and “baby boomer” knees! Thanks so much! Love your newsletters! Judy

    • Jayah Faye Paley says:

      Review the scapular depression post (the first post on my blog – it’s so important) and be careful not to torque as you use one pole especially on down hill. I strongly suggest you take both poles for those occasions you CAN use them.

      When travelling, I put my poles in a pole bag or even a pillow case. Especially if you have to take them apart to fit them in luggage, rubber band them together, put them in a pillow case and then rubber band again. Makes a nice package and keeps them together and well-behaved.

      Why don’t you set the trend in DC? Just walk with attitude and know that those looks you get are ENVY.
      jayah 🙂

      • Judy Young says:

        Thank for your reply and great suggestions, Jayah! The scapular exercises are wonderful and I may consider two poles for the trip! When I come back, I just have to start using the poles around town or finding a group – they are just too useful to keep stacked at the door!!

    • Arlyn Christopherson says:

      I use a $14 baby carrier for my long-lens camera (and my vest pockets for small accessories) so I can use both sticks when I am moving to find photographs.