Special hiking practices reduce the risk of injury and enhance the experience.
The Calgary Outdoor Center offers year-round programs of education and activity in a wide variety of sports which are popular, but not unique, to this part of the world.
One particular course discusses how to walk in a session devoted to the human anatomical relationship to ascent and descent.
The human body is designed, or conditioned, or evolved, to lift with the large quadriceps, hamstrings and gluts. This makes the body more efficient and stable when ascending with these large muscles. Alternatively, descent is less efficient and less stable. Men and women have uniquely different gait and muscular dynamic.
For the next 20 minutes, the instructor explained every injury and decline in general leg health accompanying me for the past 20+ years. She had my attention. Then she taught me how to walk. Following is what was learned and what has been practiced since.
Always use hiking poles to stabilize the upper body and reduce pressure and fatigue in the legs and joints.
When hiking uphill, using your hiking poles, focus on even pace, natural stride length and full extension of each leg without overextending the knee. It is important to achieve a full extension of the leg until it is straight. Muscles and ligaments are moving through a full range of natural motion.
Descent on a hike is where the leg muscles and its joints are susceptible to the most damage. The single day descent off the Black Tusk in Garibaldi Provincial Park near Squamish, British Columbia, Canada required the use of crutches for several days following.
The Sherpa Step is a valuable method used for descent. The specific step cannot be used for very steep terrain nor is it needed for very shallow terrain but in between there is a wide range of angle where it can be effectively engaged. It goes like this.
- Use hiking poles.
- From a standing position swing one leg out in front of you. Straighten the leg and keep the leg straight. It looks a bit like a goose step for those with memories of the Second World War or the step used in a slow march. Do not lock or overextend the knee.
- In a reasonable range of stride, drop the heel onto the ground in front.
- Roll your weight forward onto the foot. As the body moves forward, the landing leg stays straight as the foot rolls to flat against the ground.
- The trailing leg is bent, airborne and moving forward as the load of the upper body has been removed from the leg.
This step can be practiced by making the motions slow and focused on a moderate decline. In this phase, hiking poles are required to maintain balance. Pace can be increased gradually until descent is safely executed at speeds exceeding original.
Body weight is being transferred forward, one step at a time, on one straight leg after another. There is little to no weight on the alternatively trailing and bent leg. With time and practice, the speed and safety of descents will be increased substantially. Ankle and knee joints began to improve. For me, the Sherpa Step was like a miracle after the years of increasing pain I had grown to accept.
The Sherpa Step, combined with the use of hiking poles, is important. Yes, it looks a bit strange but the benefit far outweighs the image.
The Sherpa Step does not work well, or at all, on very steep grades. The benefit of the step is to transfer body weight onto a straight leg. On a very steep grade, or unstable terrain, a side step works better to descend that section. Taking a few steps facing one way and then alternating with a few steps facing the other way tends to even out stress on the muscles. Consciously use upper body strength on the hiking poles to reduce the stress of body weight on the knees and ankles.
Learning this efficient and effective descent step for hiking may be a significant contributor to leg and joint health in later years.