Trail walking techniques

Gentle footpaths

Unless you are seriously out of condition, you will already be an expert in gentle walking. Many of us keep reasonably fit by everyday living; cleaning houses, gardening, strolling or dashing around shops and miles of tube corridors, and especially by climbing stairs. If you have supplemented these activities with regular exercise sessions, you will be capable of enjoying walks of a reasonable length, say, 12km (7.5 miles) right away. All you will need are suitable footwear, a waterproof and a route.

To get fit for walking it is a good idea to walk. When I was studying in Dundee, I used to walk to the top of Dundee Law (174m/570ft) every Wednesday lunchtime, then run back down for the afternoon lessons. Some writers urge you not to run downhill, but it is very satisfying. Do not try it until your knees and ankles get really strong. Running downhill is not recommended if you are overweight or carrying a heavy rucksack. If your boot gets trapped in a bit of boggy ground the momentum of your sack may want to keep twisting you round. The foot is immovably wedged from rotation and you may get a very badly twisted knee.

There are some excellent walks in urban areas: the walls around Chester, Berwick and Conwy; the parks of London and Hampstead Heath; the contour roads of Cape Town’s Table Mountain; Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat; the Thames Embankment and the canal towpaths through the Pennines in West Yorkshire. These are all wonderfully interesting walks, but the endless stretches of ribbon development and housing estates are less satisfying. Get away from the fumes and noise of motor vehicles if you can.

Rough footpaths

Following any footpath is probably easier than following no path at all, except across boggy or peaty hillsides where the path tends to get boggier with use. An example of this used to be the path from the head of Loch Brittle into Coire Lagan, Skye, where everyone thought their chosen line the best and a 20-track ribbon scarred the hillside. I do not remember if an erosion-conscious group cleared it up or if all the peat in one of the narrower tracks got washed away – whatever the reason, it is much easier now, walking on the rocky ground that was under the peat. Examples of popular paths that have been improved by hard-working groups are the Ben Nevis Path from the Youth Hostel Bridge, and the tracks near Dungeon Ghyll in Langdale in Cumbria.

As more and more walkers take to the hills, perhaps those of us who are concerned to limit the damage should try to keep exactly to the faint line as new tracks appear on virgin slopes in order to limit the extent of the damage, because eroded paths cause very ugly scars.

Walking uphill

Uphill walking and scrambling is rather different from the way in which we walk across level ground, simply, almost unthinkingly, placing one foot in front of the other. It takes a lot of discipline to shorten the stride enough to avoid exhaustion after a few hundred feet. A rhythmic, steady tread, ‘guides’ pace’, should be the aim, but it is not easy to achieve at first. Some experts seem to stan off at a funereal pace uphill; but the proof that they are conserving valuable energy is that they can go very much faster at the end of a long, hard day. Remember that Colin Jackson and Linford Christie want to expend all their effort in about 10 seconds, whereas yours may need to last 10 hours. City dwellers may never have walked uphill for any distance, or climbed into anything higher than a bus, so a lot of gentle practice may be needed before ambitious projects are attempted.

By ‘funereal pace’ I do not mean that your pace timing is slower uphill; on the contrary, you actually pace faster, but shorten the stride so much that the overall speed slows down. On the flat I take 1.08 seconds for every double pace, but cover a distance of 1.59m (5.22ft). Going up a 1 in 10 slope at an unhurried pace my pacing is a bit faster, taking 0.9 seconds for each double pace, but I cover only 1.19m (3.90ft). Do not consciously try to speed up the pace when climbing, but shorten your step. It is important to keep moving all the time. If you are panting or even breathing hard, do not stop, but shorten the pace even more. Covering the ground slowly is quicker in the long run – remember that the tortoise beat the hare – and it is the stops that take a long time. With experience, and with no one else to consider, you should be able to walk uphill for an hour, or several hours, without even a slight pause. Younger people tend to find it boring at first, but they learn very quickly, because it actually works. If you get really expert, the movement becomes automatic and unconscious, and just consider the relaxation and the amount of constructive thought you can achieve. The uphill stretches may not be long enough for you!

While you are walking uphill, try to spot rugosities, or little ledges in the ground, so that you can get the whole of your foot flat, and use your big thigh muscles rather than the calves if you can. I have never heard of anybody walking 20 miles on their toes, so avoid trying to do so, even for a short distance, as the calves can be easily overstrained. It is a good idea to immobilize your arms. Waving arms may seem necessary to preserve balance, but they can waste a lot of the energy you need for upward progress. Practise and you will find you can be very steady with your thumbs tucked into, say, your belt, your pockets or the waist strap of your rucksack. It is best not to jam your hands deep into your pockets, as you may need their help if you do overbalance.

Try to keep your body weight directly above your feet and avoid a tendency to lean in to the slope. Even on very steep ground consciously lean out – it seems like outwards, but is really only vertical. Do not grab plant roots and tussocks and pull your body in, rather hold on and push out. Nobody ever falls off outwards; they lean in too far and then slide down.

Unpleasant terrain

On paths, mental relaxation is possible – you just follow the track and that is it – but once you have left the path, walking demands route planning. At all costs, avoid bouldery slopes with head-high bracken in the gaps; newly ditched and planted forests; and clear-felled forest slopes whether they have been replanted or not, for the lopped branches are slippery and treacherous underfoot and many trunks seem to get abandoned. It is exhausting to fight uphill through deep heather, although it can, provided you do not suffer from asthma or hay-fever, be delightful to descend if the angle is suitable, with the pollen billowing in clouds around your head. Most of us dislike ankle straining tussocks. Broken ground, like deep vegetation, can be frustrating or rewarding; there is nowhere as depressing as the plateaux of Kinder Scout and Bleaklow in Derbyshire when the temperature is just above freezing, when it has rained for a week and the cloud base is down below the edges; great ditches, about 3.7m (12ft) deep, with liquid peat in their entrails, come about a hundred to the mile. I have waded through bogs more than knee deep to get to the summit of Black Hill, above Holmefirth, Yorkshire. Return after a month of drought, however, and it is a different world; the peat is firm and springy, and there is exhilaration from the clear streams trickling through the natural trenches, over particles of fool’s gold sparkling in the sunshine. Progress can be easier still in the winter when the hollows are overflowing with consolidated hard snow, and the broken knolls are hardly discernible.

Downhill walking

Steep descents often occur at the end of the day when muscles are very tired, and it is then that vigilance is needed as accidents are much more likely when descending. I get far more complaints about the difficulties of going down than about the drudgery of ascent. It is just as important to lean out when going down. Lean well out and look for ledges that you know will provide good footholds. Difficult descents often take longer than level walking. Descending very steep, long slopes should be avoided. The majority of hill walking accidents are caused when walkers slip as they are going down steep slopes. It is permissible to descend steep slopes that are no more than 10m (33ft) high and where a fall would not be disastrous. Go down diagonally, making sure of every step and checking that it is secure before transferring your weight onto the lower foot. Face sideways or even inwards if necessary (although footholds may then be difficult to see below you). Use your hands if you need to push your body away from the slope – you should not lean in.