Over the years of my thru-hiking endeavors I have progressed in my ability to be a better hiker. I think most long distance hikers naturally strive to do the same, no matter the pace and skill level. Our skills and knowledge about the gear we use, the food we eat, management of our bodies and minds, our pace and hiking style, and resupply and time management strategies all get fine tuned. Most of these qualities become second nature, as they have done to me. The past year, I have begun to really investigate the way I walk. This seems like it should be one of the first qualities or skills to obtain but I think it may be one of the later ones to develop. Through my observations I have gathered thoughts on how to be even more efficient, stronger, and fluid. All these effects empower me to enjoy and flow with nature even more.

morning lake

A primary notion to occupy my mind is the difference between the relentless urge of forward progress and the skill of forward progress. These, obviously, are 2 very different things. The relentless urge to move forward is a product of will and will propel you further in disregard to injury and lack of experience. It is a quality that is omnipresent on all my thru-hikes. The skill of moving forward presented thoughts on the actual skill of walking, in particular a straighter line. Throughout all the thousands of miles I have walked and the hikers I have met I had heard the constant talk of the relentless urge of moving forward. I also heard a lot of talk about gear and how to be a more efficient hiker. However, I have hardly heard much talk on the topic of actually walking straighter. This may seem trivial to some but please bear with me.

hiking forest

In 2011, I trekked the PCT. I battled foot hardening and other physical wear and tear. I learned more about the gear I used, the effects of food on trail, and time management, though I could hardly master the simple art of walking. I stumbled side to side, I felt hurky-jurky in my stride and movement and labored through big miles.

The next year on the CDT I got a lot better in my gear tactics and usage. I became more efficient in my time management, gained endurance especially in my feet and core, and became a better navigator. These refined skills helped me move through the CDT in a swift manner despite a foot injury. I walked in better form but because of the injury I still avoided rocks, ruts, and such that would hurt my feet. So, even though I still did big miles I worked harder in maintaining balance which enabled me to move side to side more to brace the pain. Overall, the hurky-jurky movements exerted more effort.

mountain view

On my lonesome Hayduke Trail trek in May/June of 2013, I inspected footprints. Some were old, say 15 years that had been crystallized in the desert sun. Some were stamped out within the previous year. I noticed the meanderings of the prints within crooked washes and slots, all of the same non-efficient nature though I understood that most of the meandering footprints were due to the hiker's nature observations and wonderment. I physically felt great and I could make decisions in going 'over' rugged terrain rather than going 'around,' say, a jut in a wash. I walked over obstacles I would have clearly avoided in years past. I chose 'lines' or routes to move swifter in trail-less environments. My gear was streamlined, my navigation was on point, and my experience and physical endurance may have been the best yet. However, I attribute the efficient swiftness and un-labored effort of 30 miles per day in the rugged terrain of the Hayduke Trail from the ability of walking straighter.

On the Lowest to Highest Route in early April of this year, I saw an even higher form of efficiency in the manner of a 55,000 mile hiker named Swami. His stride and foot placement were unbelievable. Even with my long stride and synchronized steps he still moved more forward. I could not keep up. His steps were fluid and what I saw more than anything straight-lined. I followed his steps from behind. He clearly timed his route selection, he read the trail and obstacles with uncanny anticipation, and he stepped on things I habitually avoided.

clouds hiking

Next, I took my thoughts and observations of walking straighter to the PCT while hiking with my fiancé, Bearclaw, who is a first time thru-hiker. Most of the days I follow her. In doing so I obsessively track others' footprints. I clearly see the trail widen in areas that are laden with rock, mud, and water. Hikers avoid such areas by 'side-stepping' but I also believe some of those areas are avoided due to the 'newness' of walking long distance. Southern California on the PCT has hikers limping along. I know what it is like to have blisters, shin splints, etc. and to walk side to side in hopes of alleviating pain. There are so many new facets to one's life in the beginning of a thru-hike that the refinement of the skill of walking is put on the back burner in the favor of eating, gear, environmental necessities, and such. Rightly so, I guess. It is just hard for me to not witness the inefficiency.

I have purposely slowed my pace at times to experiment with my thoughts. Can I move faster or more forward without expending any more energy if I choose a more straight-lined route? I have done these experiments in technical sections, downhills, and in open, flat terrain while following Bearclaw or trying to catch other hikers. You name it, I have tried it. Recently, Bearclaw has applied this technique in her walking, as well. Even with really sore feet she covers more ground without striding faster with just the simple act of walking straighter. I count steps and seconds behind her while gauging her tired level. Then, I immediately compare my steps and seconds. In April and May, Bearclaw worked her butt off to get 22 miles per day. And now, even with sore feet, I see her continually going farther while using better technique and using less effort.

sunset mountain

The most noticeable difference in efficiency in walking straighter is in the technical areas where stride length is almost negligible. Strides tend to go side to side rather than straight, no matter the gait or length. I also noticed trail weavings in areas where a protruding rock alters the straight-lined movement of hikers. Rather than walk over it, the tread shows the foot path moving around it. I have found other aspects where just by walking straighter I used less steps. More often than not I saved steps. Say in a length of trail covering 30ft I could practically save 5 steps. Now, I realize I'm not using a scientific basis but I do have a respectable background in hiking. What I'm saying is that I believe I could save nearly a 1/4 mile per day just by walking straighter, all the while conserving energy and wear and tear on the body. I have heard some say other hikers urinate while hiking to save time. I'm not sure if you've tried peeing whilealking straighter.

ray of light

Reasons to Walk Straight

  • Save wear and tear on your joints by limiting the side to side movements.
  • Helps lessen trail impact by keeping the corridor 24-36 inched wide, which keeps the corridor in a more 'wilderness' feel. Overall, walking a straighter line is better trail etiquette. Often times I see a trail widened in places where hikers avoid or walk around obstacles. Keeping a trail corridor 'lean' will invite less four-wheeled bandits too.
  • Better hiking efficiency and physical energy conservation on your overall hiking day. Go farther with less effort.
  • Enjoy the trail more while walking more with your head up. You can see the environment around you better, which will also help in navigating. It is hard to walk straight if your head is looking straight down.
sunset on the trail

How to Walk Straight

  • Proper footwear, inserts (if needed), and socks will help with blisters, support, and foot movement which will help in overall foot placement. This will help in less side to side movement and the bracing of any foot pain. I'll throw in trekking poles in here too. The support of the poles helps maintain balance, though I think once a strong core and good walking form is developed the poles can become nonexistent. These items will aid in the technique of walking straighter.
  • Gear. Overweight, unbalanced gear and oversized gear can cause a hiker to be unstable and hike side to side. Proper backpack fit is equally important. Lightweight gear can cause the upper body to be agile in side to side movement while the lower half stays stable.
  • Exercise. Strengthen your core for overall balance, as well as your ankles. Yoga, sit-ups, and other exercises will help for the core. For the ankles try farmer's walks, wall squats, hiking in sand, rock and snow, and smaller yet longer distant hikes.
  • Build endurance. I can speak for everybody that when we get tired we stumble and stagger. I have a tendency to kick rocks and side-step on the mini-berms on the side of the trail. I end up exerting more energy in just trying to keep myself better aligned. Get outside frequently to build a healthy endurance level, even push yourself to go farther so your body will adapt to a tired condition.
  • Practice scouting a more efficient line/route through the trail. Once you can get an eye for a better route hop on a mountain bike to help your mind and eye grapple with processing information quicker. This will also help with quickening your pace. I often see pace as the way our mind transmits information to our legs and feet. An acute sense of anticipation will develop, as well, aiding in fluidity of striding and walking. Along the lines of practice is to gain more experience. Eventually, try moving onto trail-less routes to help with line selection. This will also help your map and navigational skills. To hike fluidly on a route, within a landscape, and with nature is a great feeling.
  • Learn the personality of trail and develop a good trail intuition. Understanding why a trail is in a certain place or goes a certain way will help in keeping you eyes and head up and looking out ahead. I see hikers out there with no knowledge of trail terminology and the history of trails. There are books and pamphlets put out by the SCA and USFS. Grab yourself a copy. It will help in understanding more aspects of trail and trail etiquette.

Like I said, I am presenting this 'skill' with no cemented scientific facts. It is totally my opinion. I'm sure some people will think I'm silly. All I ask is to try it. Follow your hiking partner, go on a day hike with a buddy, and see how many times you'll almost walk on top of them because of walking straighter.

couple backpacking

This post was contributed by former Trail Ambassador Ryan "Dirtmonger" Sylva.

September 09, 2014 — Brian Fryer