Walking Skills

Walking is one of those skills we mostly take for granted and people who spend a lot of time in the outdoors will develop efficient walking techniques over time without having to think about it.

Many others however often spend little time in the outdoors except when on a walking trip. The rest of the time is usually behind a desk at work, so these skills and techniques do not come naturally but can make a huge difference to your experience on the trip by relieving stress and strain on the body, conserving energy, providing good balance and confidence and generally making it easier to cover the distances required comfortably.

Being Prepared

Of course the first aspect of good walking skills is to be properly prepared with well worn-in and fitting boots, good socks, comfortable balanced pack and possibly trekking poles. There are two very different techniques when using walking poles. Trekking technique and Nordic Walking technique. It is not our aim here to teach the difference, but just to say once you know both you will be about 80% more efficient when walking.

Once out on the trail, there are a number of things you can do to make life easier. Even walking on a good trail will make your heart and lungs work harder so you need to take it easy the first few days. Steep terrain and rough trails put extra strain on the body so this is where good technique comes in to make your body into an efficient walking machine.

To find out more about how the terrain conditions, what we call ‘Conditions Under Foot’ (CUF) affects your walking, have a look at the section on the CUF Scale.

Basic Principles

Before we get into the actual techniques, here are some basic principles that always apply:

  • Keep balanced. Nothing should be tied loosely to your backpack – swaying / swinging items affect balance.
  • On easy terrain legs are generally swung from the hip and the head is centred between the front and back foot for good balance.
  • Start off dressed a little cooler than you’d like to be – strip off a layer just before starting so you do not have to stop after 10 minutes to take off a layer.
  • Check boots and laces before starting to walk. Seems obvious but most people don’t and they have to stop a short while later to tie them properly.
  • If you still need to make adjustments, stop after the first 20-30 minutes:
    • Adjust backpacks
    • Adjust boots
    • Shed or add a layer of clothing
  • Pace your self – most walkers start at a fast pace, enthusiastic to get out on the trail, but this is counter-productive. The body needs time to warm up. You should not get out of breath when walking. If you cannot hold a conversation and walk at the same time you are going too fast.
  • Try to maintain a constant rhythm when walking – if necessary adjust your stride length. You need a pace that you can sustain all day.
  • Try not to take too frequent breaks – they disrupt your rhythm and you never really get going. Resting for 10 minutes every hour is great, but in very wet or cold conditions you may want to keep going until you have found shelter as you may become more prone to hypothermia. If there is no natural shelter, carry a portable emergency group shelter. Just a two person one is fine.
  • On up-hills take baby-steps: find the smallest step up that you can each time.
  • Trekking poles are a great tool for saving energy.
    • They assist with balance, saving leg muscles and reducing injuries.
    • Also useful for river crossings and difficult terrain.
    • Using Nordic technique will turbo boost your walking.

Foot Placements

The placement of each footstep must be deliberate and focused on stability. This will become automatic with practice.

  • When moving uphill step over small rocks, not on them.
  • On boulder terrain, use the stiffness of your boots sole to ‘bridge’ between rocks.
  • If you are forced to cross boulders, step directly on top of the boulders, moving slowly from one to another, always ready to hop to the next if the one you’re standing on shifts or rolls.
  • Look at rocks and judge what leverage you’ll be applying before you step. Will it move? If it does what will I do? What’s my next step going to be?
  • In grassy areas step on the uphill side of the grass tufts – the ground is more stable
  • In areas of boulders look for texture on the rock on which to get grip. Choose lichen-covered rocks, since lichen is usually a sign of long-term stability, the rock is less likely to move.

Walking in Groups

Walking in a group can be a challenge for many people. You may not be able to maintain your favoured pace, and on narrow trails, stopping can hold up the whole group. However we need to adapt to the situation finding our most efficient pace and walking style whilst still in the group.


Experienced walkers will often have forgotten what it was like on their early treks so will set a pace inexperienced walkers cannot maintain. When walking in a mixed group, remember newbies will take longer to get ready, walk slower and stop more frequently. Experienced walkers can assist the group by helping newbies with packing, advice and befriending them whilst walking. The conversation can help them maintain a faster pace. If they are still slow however, perhaps offer to carry some of their load, or simply accept the slower walking speed.

Group sizes should ideally be small, but commercial treks become unviable in very small groups so they tend to be larger. Large groups have a greater impact on the land, local population and other trail users. Also the bigger the group, the more there will be differences in abilities.

Walking in a group has other benefits. More knowledge and expertise to draw on, easier to carry loads, bigger range of interests and experiences to share, better safety. However you will also be less likely to see wildlife in a large noisy group.

If there are children in the group, everyone will have to realise that the pace will be much slower. There are advantages though as children tend to see much more than adults do. For the child the experience is totally new and opens their eyes to the wonders and excitement of the natural environment. Adults can be reawakened to this as well by the children’s excitement.

A few tips for walking in a group:

  • Discuss at the start of the day how the group will plan the day. How often will stops be? Fast or slow pace? What will the group do if someone is battling?
  • In a group, try not to get too close to the person in front – 3m is already too close as:
    • You can’t anticipate foot placements
    • You can’t compensate for changes in place
    • You can’t compensate for sudden stops
  • Try not to get too far away from the group – if the group gets too spread-out the leader has to stop too frequently to re-group which ruins everyone’s pace.

Walking Through Bush

Trails often have sections of dense bush – especially in the gullies where rivers flow. Certain precautions make walking in bush easier:

  • Allow additional space between yourselves to allow for branches flicking back
  • Remove your hat – the brim obscures the branches you’re going to hit your head on.
  • Be aware of the possibility of stumbling across wild animals who may be frightened by your sudden appearance.

Waterlogged Ground

Trails will invariably try to avoid waterlogged ground, but if the weather has been very wet this may not be possible. The mud becomes very difficult to cross with each step becoming an effort as the mud sucks at your boots trying to keep you in one spot.

If you have to cross waterlogged ground, try to follow as many of the following hard spots as possible. Look for and follow natural hard spots. Tufts of grass will often provide a firm footing, as will the ground around larger trees a shrubs. Rocks also provide hard stepping-stones. Your poles come in handy for balance here.

Steep Terrain

Most walking routes will avoid steep terrain, but they do not always do this. If you have to walk in steep terrain there are additional skills and knowledge which can make life easier and safer for you.

Gullies are narrow areas which channel falling rocks like a funnel, so avoid entering or passing below a gully when sun is melting snow or ice, loosening rocks above or when there is a group ascending or descending the gully. If you have to climb a gully, do so one at a time, and don’t climb directly above or below companions. You could send a rock flying onto someone below you. If staggered travel is impossible, walk close together so rocks loosened by one walker doesn’t have time to gain speed before striking those below. If a stone goes flying, shout “Rock!” to alert others. Wearing a helmet is wise if they are available.

Be very weary of climbing up unknown gullies or slopes unless your leaders / guides have specifically told you to. Scrambling upward is always safer and less awkward than coming down, because your eyes lead your body, making holds easier to find. That’s the reason people get stuck up high, they’ve climbed up through sections they later find too frightening or difficult to descend. Look down while going up, imagining yourself coming back down. Don’t like what you see? Then turn around before you get too high.

The constant freeze and thaw of some environments loosens potential hand-holds. These can come off suddenly if pulled on, causing falls or showering loose stones on others. Test every hold before you rely on it; pull, hit or kick down to see if it shifts and listen for a hollow sound which means the hold is loose.

If you have to cross snow slopes, check the “run-out”, the place you’d end up if you slipped and slid. Don’t cross hard snow if there is a cliff or hard rocks below. Look for a crossing place with a smooth soft run out of snow or grass that will catch you.

Moving Up Hill

Ascending is physically more difficult than descending, but is easier for most people as your eyes can easily see where to go and what the next safe step is. When descending your vision is less clear and often you cannot see exactly what you are going to step onto making for a more hazardous movement.

A few points to remember when moving uphill on steep terrain.

  • The first tip is do not rush. Constant slow movement will get you to the top faster than trying to race up. By constant movement we include mini breaks of a few seconds to get your breath back. It does not mean you cannot stop.
  • Look backwards often to see how much you have climbed. The top always seems far away, but when looking back you will be reassured that you are gaining height.
  • Soft scree is hard to go up (two steps up and one step back), but great to go down. Try to kick toe steps and create platforms for firm footing. For better traction zigzag with your feet angled across the slope rather than pointing straight up.
  • On harder surfaces with stones on them, put your toe on the slope and heels onto a stone. This will help level out your foot-bed.
  • Employ the mountaineer’s rest step to conserve energy in very steep terrain. With each step, pause for a breath or two with your lower knee locked, bearing weight on your skeletal structure.
  • Loosen any pack straps that inhibit your ability to twist and turn or step high. For instance, the “stabilizer straps” on the sides of your hip-belt, shoulder straps and load-lifters, but do not make them so loose that you become unbalanced.
  • Loosen the upper laces on tall, stiff boots so your ankle can flex fully forward to relieve strain on the Achilles tendon.
  • When moving uphill step over small rocks, not on them.

Moving Down Hill

Moving downhill can be more dangerous because it is not as easy to see the footholds you will use, and because the mind thinks it’s easier so relaxes your concentration just when you need to concentrate more. Make an effort to keep concentration high when descending slopes. Most accidents happen on the downhill section of trails.

  • The best way to go down a steep, soft surface such as snow, scree or soil is to plunge your heels hard into the surface (Plunge Step) with your knees slightly bent. Bend forward at the waist slightly for stability.
  • Pull your pack’s hip-belt and stabilizer straps comfortably snug to prevent your load from shifting.
  • When crossing slippery slopes, use the edge of the boot to ‘cut in’ to the slope to make a more comfortable footing.
  • On harder surfaces with stones on them, put your heel on the slope and toes onto a stone. This will help level out your foot-bed.
  • Lace your boots snugly by lacing the lower half of the laces tight for optimal support and stability, and to avoid jamming your toes into the front of the boots.
  • In descent, the centre of gravity should be over the load bearing leg which prevents tumbling forward.
  • Step down moderately steep slopes sideways crab style. This will assist with keeping good balance and allows edging with the boot for good stability.
  • When descending steep terrain, “Bum It” by facing away from the slope and go down “crab” style, using your bum for friction (but don’t let your pack launch you out from the slope). As the descent steepens, face sideways to the slope. This allows a good view of holds and the route below. When it’s nearly vertical, face directly into the slope, just like when climbing down a ladder.


Andrew Friedemann

Author: Andrew Friedemann

Andrew holds qualifications in South Africa, Australia and the UK as an Outdoor Recreation Instructor and qualified Mountain Guide and Instructor. Passionate about developing the Adventure Industry in South Africa to make it safer and provide opportunities to a younger generation of adventurers. Represented South Africa on the World Mountaineering Federations (UIAA) International Training Standards Commission for 10 years and has administered the South African Mountaineering Development & Training Trust. A qualified Wilderness EMT and Emergency Care Practitioner. Qualified as an Skills Development Practitioner, he has been intimately involved in the development of Adventure based qualifications particularly with regard the quality management of adventure qualifications. Founder of Adventure Qualifications Network, he was instrumental in the development of National Vocational qualifications for the adventure industry in South Africa, but also worked closely with Australia where he attained the Cert IV in Outdoor Recreation Instruction. Currently resident in the Scottish Highlands - UK, with his wife, Michelle, they travel to many areas of the world gaining information and skills. A keen adventurer, Andrew has participated in mountaineering, skydiving and scuba diving among other activities.

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