Trekking uphill often gets a bad rap for being difficult, exhausting, and capable of turning your legs into metaphorical jelly. But those in the know are aware that heading back down is where the challenge can get brutal. Because when you go downhill, your calves seem to shorten, your toes bruise from jamming into the front of your boots, and your knees ache from repeated relentless impact.
Fortunately, with preparation, the right tools, and the correct technique, you can make it back down after a climb without totally abusing your body.
Outfit your feet properly
If your toes and feet tend to feel brutalized after a long downward scramble, your footwear might be to blame. It’s all about the correct fit: A bigger shoe could result in blisters or feet sliding around, affecting your balance, while small footwear will make your toes pay the price as they ram into the front of your footwear on the way down.
Before you go out, check your hiking boots—they should be fully broken in and fit just right, not too tight, not too roomy. Additionally, leave at least a thumb’s worth of space between the tip of your longest toe and the end of the shoe to make room for any swelling you might experience during long hikes.
Lacing techniques can make a difference, too. One way to keep your feet from sliding forward is to unlace your boots to an eyelet or two in front of your ankle and twist the laces around one another two to three times in a surgeon’s knot. Pull tight, repeat once more between the next pair of eyelets, then re-lace to the top and the knot will stay taut, locking your foot in place. Alternatively, you can also cinch your laces tighter before descending.
Find the right route
Route-finding plays a pivotal role in easier descents. So before you head down, Gates Richards, associate director of wilderness medicine at the National Outdoors Leadership School, recommends you scan the terrain ahead for the path of least resistance. Generally, that means picking the trail that’s least steep, doesn’t feature any large step-downs, or consists of wide, curving switchbacks instead of precipitous slopes. Opting for any of these may lengthen your route, but will decrease the angle of the pitch.
If you have the choice between a longer, but more gradual grade, and a shorter route with large rocks to step down, the smooth graded path will probably be less jarring on your body. “I’ll take distance over basically doing squats all the way down,” says Richards.
If there are no switchbacks in sight but the trail is wide enough, you can create your own micro switchbacks by zig-zagging from one side of the trail to the other via a slow and tight declination.
The biomechanics of hiking downhill
Adopting the right posture is crucial to safe and comfortable downhill hiking, says Richards. This entails positioning your center of gravity and your torso (the bulk of your mass) right above your knees, neither leaning too far back nor too far forward.
Once your posture is ready, focus on keeping those knees slightly bent as you walk. If your legs are fully extended when your heels strike the ground, Richards says your muscles won’t be able to help absorb the impact. That’s essentially having your entire body weight falling down on your bones and knees with every step, which can be jarring and cause lasting aches and pains.
At the same time, bending your knees will naturally force you to take smaller steps, which will help keep you balanced and in control and cut back on the stress the impact is putting on your skeleton. Keeping knees bent may invite more leg muscles to the party, which you will likely feel in full force the day after your hike. But it’ll all be worth it—sore tissue will bounce back much quicker than your pummeled joints and bones.
Master the technique of the downhill hike
Now that you know how to position your body, you’ll need to nail the technique of walking on a decline safely and comfortably. The key, Richards says, is a controlled descent, which essentially means slowing your roll.
“You want to feel like you could stop on a dime. If you don’t think you can, slow down,” Richards advises.
Maintaining control goes hand in hand with making things easy for you—giving into your personal preferences can help. Contrary to popular belief, there’s no one way to plant your feet as you’re going downhill, Richards says, and whether you keep toes pointing straight down or slightly outward, will depend on your own individual walking style.
If you’re not sure about your own walking style, you can try different approaches and even mix it up every few minutes until you find something that feels comfortable or boosts stabilization. On a steep slope, you may even want to shuffle down sideways or turn to face uphill and carefully descend backward. Planting each foot slightly laterally will also recruit your hips to take some of the pressure off your knees.
If you’re carrying a heavy backpack, Richards also suggests loosening the load lifters—the straps that connect the top of the bag with the top of your shoulders—on the way down. This will allow the backpack to pull you slightly backward, helping you keep yourself centered over your feet.
Trekking poles can also help you stay balanced and upright, as well as take some of the pressure off your knees. Simply extend them until your arms form a 90-degree angle when the poles are planted a foot or so downhill from your feet. With each step, swing the pole in the arm opposite to the foot you’re putting forward and plant it firmly. If you need extra assistance on a large step-down, swing both poles at the same time. Then, with your hands on the tops of the grips, press down with your arms slightly.
Training for future downhill hikes
If the idea of going downhill is preventing you from exploring certain trails, you should prepare your body for them. Because you shouldn’t just train your leg muscles to push you up—they should be strong enough to lower you down, too. So if you still dread the downhill, consider tweaking your exercise routine to build strength and endurance for long descents.
Lee Welton, thru-hiker, personal trainer, and owner of Trailside Fitness, shares three exercises that bolster muscles to make downhills less painful. Perform three sets of 15 reps of each movement three to four times a week.
- Forward step downs: Strengthen your quads and calves by standing with your right foot on a 6-inch step. Flex your right toes upward and lower your left heel toward the ground slowly over three seconds. Tap your left heel on the floor, keep your right foot flexed up, and return to standing. “Fast reps won’t do you any good. Slow and controlled is the key here,” Welton says. Use a countertop or wall for support if you need to, keep your hips level, and avoid letting your knee collapse inward as you step down.
- Physioball hamstring curl: This is for the hamstrings, glutes, core, and calves. Lay on your back and place your heels on a large physioball. Keep your arms at your sides, tighten your core, and lift your hips toward the ceiling. Keep them raised and drag your heels slowly toward your behind, then push them back to the starting position and repeat without lowering your hips.
- Elevated toe raises: “The big shin muscle, tibialis anterior, is responsible for pulling the foot up as the leg swings forward, as well as controlling the foot back to the ground after the heel makes contact,” Welton explains. This exercise builds a greater range of motion in your feet so you have better control on varied terrain. Stand on a step six to eight inches tall with your toes and mid-foot hanging off the front. Use your heel as an anchored pivot point and raise and lower your toes as far as possible over three to four seconds.
Just remember: “If it was difficult going up, it’s going to be difficult coming down,” Richards says, but slow and steady will have you safely to the bottom in no time.