How To Walk Downhill


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 young woman, from the Kinesiology Complex at the University of Calgary, taught The Sherpa Step.

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.


  1. Use hiking poles.
  2. 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.
  3. In a reasonable range of stride, drop the heel onto the ground in front.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.








Mr. McGowan, I thank you for your comment. It is the first time a comment has been longer and more detailed than my post. I am a huge fan of comparison to a different point of view. I believe there are some good suggestions in this fascinating article. Although I have not done it personally, I have heard that soaking feet in tea will help prepare the feet for desert hiking. This may equate to soaking them in a solution of tannic acid. The fact this article was originally written in 1917 discounts technological innovations which may help or hinder. I am opposed to descent on bent legs. I believe it harms the knees and there may be some evidence to suggest the damage may be cumulative over time. I am a strong advocate for the use of hiking poles, from my own personal experience. I believe four legs are better than two and increased upper body stability eases burden on the legs. It may not be true for everyone. I agree with side stepping down steep terrain. I have never been a fan of 'quick time' unless circumstance, such as rescue or encroaching inclement weather, make it nescessary. Time in the mountains is so valuable to me that I choose to take a leisurely pace and thoroughly enjoy the experience. Again, I thank you for your submission. It is very interesting indeed. There are points I have never heard before. I have attempted to buffer references which could be derogatory by nature of race or gender. Remember, it was written nearly a hundred years ago and we have come a long way since then.

DATELINE: The Duck Ranch, 1,500 m a.s.l., central Nagano Prefecture, Japan Dear Hiking With Barry, Here is a piece that I have made a point of sending to my perspective clients in preparation for a hiking/mountaineering tour. "Share and enjoy." Roddy McGowan, A.C.M.G./I.F.M.G.A. Mountain Guide Reference: see to check on my credentials. You may also speak to Robert Sandford about me. How To Walk – from Woodcraft , Chapter IX, (1917) by Horace Kephart In walking through a primitive forest, an Indian or a woodsman can wear out a town-bred athlete. This is because a man who is used to the woods has a knack of walking over uneven and slippery ground, edging through thickets, and worming his way amid fallen timber, with less fret and exertion than one who is accustomed to smooth, unobstructed paths. HOW TO WALK—There is somewhat the same difference between a townsman’s and a woodsman’s gait as there is between a soldier’s and a sailor’s. It is chiefly a difference of hip action, looseness of joints, and the manner of planting one’s feet. The townsman’s stride is an up-and-down knee action, with rather rigid hips, the toes pointing outward, and the heels striking first. The carriage is erect, the movement springy and graceful, so long as one is walking over firm, level footing—but beware the banana-peel and the small boy’s sliding-place! This is an ill-poised gait, because one’s weight falls first upon the heel alone, and at that instant the walker has little command of his balance. It is an exhausting gait as soon as its normally short pace is lengthened by so much as an inch. A woodsman, on the contrary, walks with a rolling motion, his hips swaying an inch or more to the stepping side, and his pace is correspondingly long. This hip action may be noticed to an exaggerated degree in the stride of a professional pedestrian; but the latter walks with a heel-and-toe step, whereas the Indian’s or sailor’s step is more nearly flat-footed. In the latter case the centre of gravity is covered by the whole foot. The poise is as secure as that of a rope-walker. The toes are pointed straight forward, or even a trifle inward, so that the inside of the heel, the outside of the ball of the foot and the smaller toes, all do their share of work and assist in balancing. Walking in this manner, one is not likely, either, to trip over projecting roots, stones, and other traps, as he would be if the feet formed hooks by pointing outward. The necessity is obvious in snowshoeing. A fellow sportsman, H. G. Dulog, once remarked: “If the Indian were turned to stone while in the act of stepping, the statue would probably stand balanced on one foot. This gait gives the limbs great control over his movements. He is always poised. If a stick cracks under him it is because of his weight, and not by reason of the impact. He goes silently on, and with a great economy of force… His steady balance enables him to put his moving foot down as gently as you would lay an egg on the table.” There is another advantage in walking with toes pointing straight ahead instead of outward: one gains ground at each stride. I have often noticed that an Indian’s stride gains in this manner, as well as from the rolling motion of the hips. The woodsman aquires this habit, if he ever gets it, but an Indian is molded to it in the cradle. If you examine the way in which a papoose is bound to its cradle-board, this will be made clear. Immediately after birth the infant is stretched out on the board, its bowlegged little limbs are laid straight as possible, and the feet are placed exactly perpendicular and close together before being swaddled. Often the squaw removes the bandages and gently drags and works on the baby’s limbs and spine to make them as straight as possible. Then, in rebandaging, care is always taken that the toes shall point straight forward. The woodsman walks with a springy knee action. There is a “give” at every step, and in going downhill the knees are bent a good deal, as they are when one carries a heavy burden. It is said of the Indian “he does not walk, he glides.” No Indian glides in boots, but put him in moccasins and the word does express his silent, rhythmical, tireless, surefooted progress, an admirable example of precision of movement and economy of effort. A woodsman aquires somewhat the same glide after getting used to moccasins, and especially after some experience on snowshoes, which compel him to walk with toes pointed straight ahead or a little inward. OVER-STRAIN—When carrying a pack on your back, do not over-exert yourself. Halt whenever your breath is very laboured or exertion becomes painful. Nobody who understands horses would think of driving them ahead when they show signs of distress, and there is quite as much common sense in treating yourself with the same consideration, if you want to travel far. Rig your pack at the start so it can be flung off whenever you sit down for a moment’s rest; it pays. But don’t halt more than three to five minutes. Long halts eat up daylight; they stiffen muscles; and they cause chills and colds. Over-exertion is particularly disastrous in mountain climbing. Not only in marching but in other labours, go steadily but moderately. Do not chop to the point of exhaustion, nor strain yourself in lifting or carrying. A feat of “showing off” is poor compensation for a lame back. One who is unused to long marches may get along pretty well the first day, but on the second morning it will seem as if he could not drag one foot after the other. This is the time when the above remarks do not apply; for iif ones uses the gad and goes ahead he will soon limber up. But by the morning of the third day it is likely that complications will have set in. the novice by this time is worn, not only from unaccustomed exertion, but from loss of sleep—for few men sleep well the first night or two in the open. He is probably constipated from change in diet, and from drinking too much on the march. More seriously still, he probably has sore feet. This later ailment is not so much due to his feet being tender at the start as from his not having taken proper care of them. Aside from the downright necessity of seeing that one’s shoes and stockings fit well, and that the shoes are well broken in before starting, there are certain rules of pedestrian hygiene that should be observed from the word “go.” CARE OF THE FEET—“An once of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I have already said a good deal about the choice of shoes and stockings (Vol. I {Camping}, Chapter IX). Let me add another reason for wearing heavy but soft woolen socks when you are in the wilderness, regardless of season; they ventilate the shoes. You probably will be wearing rather heavy shoes coated with some waterproofing preparation. The pores of the leather are filled so that no air can get through. But one’s feet cannot be kept in good condition if the shoes are not ventilated somehow. Thick socks do it in this way: when your weight is thrown on one foot as in stepping forward, the air that was confined in the meshes of the fabric is forced out through the shoe tops (but not through a high laced boot); then, when the pressure is relieved, fresh air is sucked back to fill the partial vacuum. Thin socks, especially cotton ones, become saturated with perspiration, and little or no air can get into them at all: then the feet have their pores clogged and they become tender. Thin hose also admit sand and dirt more readily than thick ones. One’s feet can be toughened and hardened before starting on a hike by soaking them for some time, the night before, in a solution of alcohol and salt, or in one made by dissolving a tablespoonful of tannic acid in a wash-bowl of cold water. (American Red Cross Text-Book on first Aid) A little alum in water may be substituted. Every morning before starting on a hike, rub some talcum powder over the feet and dust some inside your shoes. One’s underwear should also be dusted with it at all places where the garments are likely to chafe. If you have no talcum, then rub the feet with Vaseline, melted tallow from a candle, or oil. Soap is often used for the purpose but some soaps contain too much free alkali, which is bad for the skin; Castile or Ivory soap is not objectionable. But the main thing is to keep the feet clean. Wash them well every evening, preferably in hot salted water. If they are strained, swollen, or hot, the best treatment is to rub them with alcohol or whiskey, but hot salted water and massage will do very well. Keep the nails cut close and square. If the feet are washed in the morning, or when resting on the march, it should be done briskly, not by soaking, and they should be thoroughly dried, otherwise they will be tender. In winter, if water is hard to get, the feet may be cleansed by rubbing them with snow. Should you step in water over your shoe-tops, or in any way get the feet sopping wet, stop as soon as you can and wring out the hose; do not “walk them dry,” for that makes the skin tender. As soon as a blister is discovered, it should be opened in the right way, so that the skin may not be rubbed off and infection ensue. Sterilize a needle by holding it in the flame of a match. When it has cooled, prick the blister, not directly, but through the skin at the side, and gently press out the fluid till the blister is flat. Then put a light pledget of absorbent cotton on it, or a little square of sterilized gauze, and over this strap a bit of adhesive plaster. A second similar strap may be stuck on top of this in the opposite direction. Such a dressing keeps the skin from rubbing off, prevents infection, and enables you to travel on without inconvenience. A raw blister is treated in the same way, but a little Resinol or carbolized vaseline smeared on it with a clean splinter, before the pad is applied, will help it to heal. When walking long distances, it is a wise plan to change feet with one’s socks at noon. Cramps in the leg muscles are best treated by massage. THIRST—In warm weather, one’s first few days on the march will bring an inordinate thirst, which is not caused by the stomach’s demand for water, but by a fever of the palate. This may be relieve somewhat by chewing a green leaf, or by carrying a smooth, non-absorbent pebble in the mouth; but a much better thirst-quencher is to suck a prune or carry a bit of raw onion in the mouth. One can go a long time without drinking if he has an onion with him; this also helps the lips from cracking in alkali dust. Drink as often as you please, but only a sup or two at a time. Sip slowly, so as not to chill the stomach. If one drinks till he no longer feels thirst, he is likely to suffer first from “cotton mouth” and then from the cramp of acute indigestion. Never try to satisfy thirst by swallowing snow or ice; melt the snow first by holding it in the mouth if no fire can be had. It is best to eat a cracker or something with it, as snow water is bad on an empty stomach. TO AVOID CHILL—Wear a woolen undershirt (woolen gauze for summer). Do not sit around when overheated and damp from perspiration, unless you have a sweater of extra wrap of some sort to put on. Do the same when reaching the top of a mountain, or other place exposed freely to the wind. But do not muffle up on the march. MOUNTAIN CLIMBING—The city man’s gait, to which I have already referred, is peculiarly exhausting in mountain-climbing. He is accustomed to spring from the toe of the lower foot, in going uphill. That throws nearly the whole weight of the body upon the muscle of the calf of the leg, a misadjustment of strain that would soon wear out even a native mountaineer. The latter walks uphill with a woodsman’s gait, planting the whole foot on the ground, and swinging or rolling the hip at each stride, thus not only gaining an inch or two in his pace, but distributing the strain between several groups of muscles. When going downhill, bend the knees considerably so that the leg forms a spring to land on at each stride. In Dent’s Mountaineering are given some useful hints to climbers that I take the liberty of condensing here: In walking up a steep hill, go slowly and steadily. If you cannot walk without catching your breath, it is a sure sign that you are going too fast. If you slip on a loose stone, do not try to recover your lost ground quickly, but slip away until your foot is checked a few inches below. Thus keep up the rhythm of your footfall. On an average mountain, where the slope is tolerably uniform, and the climber has no long journey before him, an ascent of 1,000 feet an hour is quick walking. In beginning a long climb, 800 feet of vertical ascent in an hour is good work. On a good trail, for a moderate distance, 1,500 feet an hour is quick walking. Under favourable conditions a good climber can ascend from a height of 7,000 feet to 14,000 feet in seven hours; at greater altitudes the pace will slacken. In descending a mountain, the pace, however slow, should be continuous. To remain stationary, even for a moment, not only necessitates a fresh start, but demands an adjustment of balance which implies an unnecessary outlay of muscular effort. To descend rapidly and safely without exertion, a certain looseness of joints should be cultivated. On a steep slope one should descend sideways, so that the whole length of the foot can be planted fairly on any hold that offers. A man or woman will never sprain his or her ankle when he or she expects to do so at any moment, nor will he or she be likely to slip if he or she is always prepared to fall.

I tried this on the HBC trail this summer, there was drastic up and downs, one we did was 3000 ft (990m) down in 4km! Two things: 1) It worked great! 2) For the first time ever I managed to keep up with my brother's massive gait

Good to hear, Gord.  The method was taught to me by the folks at U of C Outdoor Centre and the method continues to make a big difference in my leg health.  The disciplined technique, combined with the use of hiking poles, made a huge contribution to my leg health.