We’ve all felt the fatigue and pain in our legs joints after a long day’s hike. We collapse at our campsite, with barely enough energy to put up a tent and prepare a meal before bedtime. One thing I always consider at times like these is: “How can I hike that far without exerting so much energy?” So, I decided to do some research, and I’ve discovered some great tips to help you hike more efficiently to avoid injury and conserve energy.
Hikers travel most efficiently if they use the correct gear, properly focus on the terrain, have properly conditioned their body, and hike with the correct movements for differing terrain and conditions. A combination of pre-hike preparation, training, and practice will help hikers conserve more energy on the trail and enjoy their hikes even more.
Get The Right Gear
A relatively simple way to hike more efficiently is to be comfortable on the trail. The gear that you utilize on the trail has a major impact on your level of comfort, which in turn impacts how efficiently you walk on the trail.
Check Your Backpack
Consider a situation where you have a backpack that doesn’t fit your body. If your pack isn’t comfortable on your back, you will struggle to be an efficient hiker. You will likely stop more often to adjust your pack. You could also experience pain or suffer injury that will cause you walk differently to compensate for your pain and discomfort. These issues will cause you to expend more energy, leading to a less efficient hike.
As you choose a backpack, fit and comfort will be key to helping you become a more efficient hiker. Two factors can influence how your pack fits – the size of the hip belt and the length of the suspension system.
If the hip belt is too large, the load will not rest correctly on your hips, putting greater strain on your shoulders and back. Your hips and midsection have larger bones and muscles, so they should carry the brunt of the weight. Be sure to have a pack with a hip belt that you can adjust to your body.
The same goes for the shoulder harnesses. Packs are sized by the length of your back or torso. In order to measure a pack to your body, measure from your C7 vertebrae (the prominent bone at the bottom of your neck) down to your iliac crest (the line running between the tops of your hip bones). That length, measured in inches, will correspond to each manufacturer’s sizing charts.
Pay attention to how your pack carries a load. If it leans to one side or another when carrying weight, you will have to compensate for that as you are pushed off balance. This will require extra exertion of energy and too much movement from side to side, leading to inefficiency in your hike.
Footwear is Key
Likewise, if you are hiking with the wrong footwear, you are likely to be a less efficient hiker. A heavy, stiff boot may sound like a good solution to become a more efficient hiker because they can protect your feet from unforgiving terrain. However, hiking boots are not a good solution for many hikers who want to be more efficient as they walk.
I recommend trail runners, or at least hiking shoes, instead of boots, because they are lighter, provide more room for your feet as you step, and allow you to feel the terrain better.
The less weight you have on your feet, the lighter your steps will be. This will help you conserve energy, but it will also help you make necessary adjustments to your gait to ensure you avoid potential injury from poor or changing terrain.
Further, lighter shoes like trail runners usually offer more room in the shoe to let your toes splay naturally. This increases the surface area on your foot absorbing energy, which will lessen potential stress on any one particular area of your foot or lower leg. You will also be able to feel the ground better, meaning you can properly step to propel yourself, with as little wasted energy as possible.
While your backpack and footwear are key pieces of gear to make your hiking more efficient, you should examine all of your gear and evaluate how comfortable and compatible it is with your hiking. If you can cut some weight and get more comfortable, this could dramatically help you become a more efficient hiker.
Exercise With Hiking In Mind
Core, balance, stretching, and strength routines will help you become a much more efficient hiker. First, you will be able to propel yourself down the trail with less exerted energy. You will be able to avoid and maneuver obstacles that could otherwise slow you down. And you will also avoid injuries and soreness that will cause you to hike slower and exert more energy to compensate for your pain.
Weighted Stepup – This workout will simulate climbing and using one leg to push off and up a slope.
You can complete this exercise with bodyweight, holding dumbbells, or with a pack on your back. Set up a bench or stool about knee height. Place one foot fully on the bench and push through your heel to lift your body up to an upright position. Lower slowly and safely back to your starting position.
Set a goal to complete 3 sets of 8 to 10 repetitions on each leg.
Split Squat – This workout lets you build strength from a striding position. This helps you build balance and stabilizes your hips, which is key to staying efficient on the trail.
Again, you can complete this exercise with bodyweight, dumbbells in either hand, or with a pack on your back. Stand in front of a bench or chair and place the top of one foot on the bench so that this leg is almost fully extended behind you. Begin to squat with your front foot until your rear knee almost touches the ground, and then lift back to an upright position.
Set a goal to complete 3 sets of 8 to 10 repetitions on each leg.
Single-Leg Bridge – This workout targets your lower back, glutes and hamstrings, which are vital muscles for hiking, especially uphill. This will provide greater stabilization and protect other parts of your body, including your knees.
Lie on your back with both of your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Use your core muscles and extend one leg straight out. Engaging your abs, glutes and hamstrings in your planted leg, lift your hips off the flor and push them toward the ceiling. Squeeze your glutes at the top of this motion, and then slowly lower to the ground. For more difficultly, keep your hips off the ground throughout the workout.
Set a goal to complete 3 sets of 12 to 15 repetitions.
Full Body Plank – This exercise will help you build necessary core strength, which will help you have better balance on the trail, absorb heavy and uneven steps more efficiently, and will activate proper use of your lower body muscle groups.
Start in a plank position on your toes and forearms, with the rest of your body, including your hips, off the ground and parallel to the floor. Hold this position, using your abs, glutes and lower back to stay parallel to the ground.
Set a goal to hold this position for 1 minute, repeating at least 3 times.
Single-Leg Pushup – This exercise will help you build strength throughout your core, forcing you to engage your core as you work other parts of your body.
Get into pushup position, resting on your toes and hands with your back flat and almost parallel to the ground. Raise one leg to be about parallel to the ground, and lower your chest to the ground. Keep your foot elevated as you lower down and push back up to the starting position.
Set a goal to complete 3 sets of 6 to 8 repetitions on each side, alternating legs.
In conjunction with building a strong core, developing good balance is key for an activity that requires carrying a load for many miles over uneven terrain. Having better balance will help you avoid injury and keep your momentum and energy moving forward down the trail.
One good balance movement is a single-leg balance with a knee lift. Stand on one foot and slowly lift your other leg until your thigh is parallel to the ground. Hold this position for 30 seconds. If this is relatively easy for you, lift your raised knee higher or extend your leg in a controlled manner.
You should get a goal to complete 3 to 5 sets of 30 seconds to 1 minute on each leg.
Step-back Lifts– This exercise incorporates strength into a balance routine, taking your overall balance to a higher level and making you much more nimble and efficient on the trail.
Start from a standing position and step back and extend with one leg until your knee almost touches the ground. Then, in one fluid motion, push into the ground with your planted leg, swinging your back leg up until the knee is parallel to the ground. At the same time, you should extend on your planted leg until you are on your toes. Quickly (but under control) bring your swing leg back to starting position, with the knee almost touching the ground again. Go slow at first, as this can be a complicated motion.
Set a goal to complete 3 sets of 6 to 8 repetitions on each leg.
A strong stretching routine for hikers will focus on the key muscle groups – glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves, and also the ankles. I would recommend making stretching a part of a daily routine, not just something you do on the trail – although you should definitely stretch before, during and after a day on the trail.
Keep Your Head Up
Hikers often fall into the trap of looking down at their feet as they hike, especially when they grown more tired. For the sake of efficiency, this should be avoided. Keep your head and eyes up on the trail ahead of you, and pick a route that will keep your steps as natural as possible. Knowing what lies directly ahead of you on the trail helps your brain subconsciously pick the right path to expend the least amount of energy possible.
The next time you are on a hike, force yourself to study the 30 yards of trail directly in front of you. Practice finding the most efficient line through the trail. This will train your mind to habitually map out the right path for you. Once this happens, your pace will quicken as your brain tells you where to place your feet. You will be able to anticipate potential bad steps more easily, without having to make last-second adjustments that expend more energy and can lead to potential injury.
This is one reason why experienced hikers can and do often travel more than 30 miles a day. They are experts at finding an efficient path to help them hike faster and longer, using less energy than less-experienced hikers.
Find Your Stride
To be the most efficient hiker you can be, you will need to change the way you hike depending on the trail. You have likely felt your body use different muscles and joints based on whether you are hiking uphill, downhill, or on flat ground. This is your body telling you to pay attention and adjust to the trail. Learning how to traverse these differing sections of the trail will help you hike more efficiently and exert less energy.
An important part of hiking as efficiently as possible is to hike within your capabilities. Hiking at a pace that your body cannot maintain will exert to much energy and actually lead to a much slower pace. The same certainly holds true when hiking uphill.
If you have a sustained climb in front of you, choose a pace that you can maintain over a longer period of time. Don’t push so hard that you lose your breath and your legs become exhausted. This will lead to fatigue and inefficiency for the rest of your hike, even on flat ground. If y ou can’t speak a full sentence as you hike, you should slow down.
Shorten Your Stride: When going uphill, you should try to shorten your steps, but maintain the same sort of rhythm you had approaching your climb. Your rate might slow compared to hiking on a flat surface, but you will be able to maintain a rhythm that helps you conserve energy and prevent overwork of your legs and lungs.
Stand Up Straight: While it may feel natural to lean forward as you climb uphill, you should try to stand up straight and keep your center of gravity over your hips and knees. Leaning forward as you hike uphill can put you out of balance, which may cause a fall, and cause you to exert extra energy.
Trekking Poles: Trekking poles can lighten the load and transfer some weight to your arms as you work uphill. You should shorten your poles so that your arms are at a 90-degree angle as you stand straight up and put your poles into the ground. As you hike uphill, keep that angle (don’t reach too far up the hill) as you put the poles into the ground and pull as you step through the poles. As you repeat this motion, you will become more efficient and expend less energy.
Hiking downhill can be the cause of much of your inefficiency and lost energy. A downhill hike puts up to 4 times the strain on your knees and ankles as flat terrain. This sort of load over a longer period can lead to significant soreness and even injury – which will severely hamper your ability to hike efficiently.
Fight To Stand Up Straight – Just the opposite of hiking uphill, you will want to lean back as you descend down a slope. However, you should fight to keep your weight over your hips as much as possible. A poor center of gravity will increase your chances of falling, and will cause an extra expenditure of energy.
As you descend, your knees should be bent as your foot hits the ground. This will allow more of the weight and force of your load to be absorbed by your leg muscles, instead of your joints. Land on your heel first, and roll the weight to your toe.
If your knees are starting to really hurt, if you have a particularly steep descent in front of you, a crab walk is a good way to avoid too much discomfort. I have used this technique on several hikes where my knees were bothering me, and it was a huge help.
As you make your way down the trail, exaggerate your knee bend and splay your feet out, landing on your heel first. This may slow you down a bit, but will help your legs absorb more energy than your knees, which will lead to greater efficiency for the remainder of your hike as you talk more favorable terrain.
Trekking Poles – Trekking poles can help absorb even more energy as you hike downhill. With each step, place your pole in front and to the side of your foot to take some of the weight off your legs. This will take some practice, but once you get into a rhythm, you will be able to descend faster and with less discomfort.
Hiking on a flat surface might seem like a relatively simple activity, but you may not be hiking as efficiently as possible. Most people normally walk on a flat surface with their heel striking the ground first, and the weight rolling to the toe. However, this sort of action puts undue stress on your legs if you are hiking 10-20 miles during the day.
Try instead to shorten your stride and land more on your toes. The balls of your feet are designed to bear weight and distribute it throughout your foot – much more than your heel is. Practice landing on your toes and the balls of your feet as you walk, and you will find that you exert less energy and fell less fatigue and pain in your legs over the course of your hike.
The key to hiking efficiently is to maintain a good pace while avoiding injury and exerting as little energy as possible. Improvements to hiking efficiency can be had by adjusting or improving your gear, being physically prepared for a hike, teaching yourself to pick the most efficient route, and hiking in the most efficient manner possible, regardless of terrain. With practice, your efforts to hike efficiently will become natural and ingrained in your mind and body, and you will be amazed with the results!