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How to Walk Straight while Hiking

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 while walking but it is pretty darn hard. Practicing the craft of walking seems a bit easier. So, I figure I can save that time of peeing while walking in my ability of walking 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

12 Responses to How to Walk Straight while Hiking

  1. Daryn September 9, 2014 at 6:06 am #

    Great article. Thank you for sharing your experience and your thoughts. I believe that anything that can help with efficiency is going to allow the trail experience to be even better than before. I had never considered walking straighter as an option in this regard, but it makes total sense to me.

  2. Clint Stevenson September 9, 2014 at 7:40 am #

    Ray Jardine talked quite a bit about ” walking straighter” in his pct trail guide.

  3. papawhisky54 September 12, 2014 at 5:11 am #

    I enjoyed the article. As I walk, my mind is often engaged in how to be more efficient. As an aging ‘boomer’ I find that going lighter, and being more energy efficient are important parts of the effort to stay out there walking. Thanks!

  4. Downhill Bob September 12, 2014 at 9:53 am #

    Thanks for the tips. At my age I’ll never get rid of the hiking poles. In fact, they have become an integral part of the mechanics of efficient walking. Great picture of the two of you!

  5. Len September 12, 2014 at 5:39 pm #

    Thanks for the article, efficiency in walking is indeed one of the later skills we learn. Aging or just plain walking a lot will force you to look at it in the end.

    Oddly enough as I have got older I find the tracks that can easily allow me to walk straight are the ones that I find the hardest on me physically. The narrow band of load it places on my joints and feet really takes a toll. Mixing it up helps enormously.

    That said, I am sure efficiency comes in different ways for a all the ways we are different and some of that we will have to work out for ourselves. But great to see articles about it and what works for others.

    @ Downhill Bob, 100% with you, I love my Pacer Poles.

  6. Helga O'Donovan September 16, 2014 at 3:31 pm #

    Your observations are not at all trivial. The modern — as in “industrialised” — human is the only creature that actually tries to expend as much energy as possible in order to burn as many calories as possible. Watch a “power-walker, or anyone who walks for exercise. Without exception, they use an inefficient walking technique that is ultimately very hard on the body.

    One of the skills I teach in my fitness/conditioning classes is called “samurai walking”. It is a very old style of walking used by the Japanese people prior to Japan’s westernization in the latter half of the 19th century. With samurai walking you move your hips forward alternately (with no side-to-side motion), essentially pivoting around the base of your spine, while almost imperceptibly moving your same-side arm/shoulder forward. With practice, your upper body will remain mostly still while those powerful hip muscles do all the work. It may look and feel odd at first, but it is an extremely comfortable, relaxing, and fast way to walk.

    The bonus is that it is also much more stable if you are walking on uneven terrain, and, if you slip or trip it is much easier to catch yourself or break your fall, as you don’t have to untwist your torso mid-stride. By the way, torso-twisting uses an awful lot of energy!

    The same-arm-same-leg concept, of which samurai walking is just one technique, is at the very heart of traditional Japanese martial arts such as sumo, jiu-jutsu and aikido. It’s all about efficiency and effectiveness.

  7. Curt Carmack September 22, 2014 at 6:35 pm #

    One of the best things I’ve found for developing efficiency and head-up skills is trail running. Just like mountain biking, you learn to “read” the conditions more quickly. Unlike mountain biking, you learn foot placement and “line” efficiency skills that translate directly to walking. Thanks for the nice write up of your important thoughts on this subject!

  8. Thomas Braford September 26, 2014 at 6:10 pm #

    Unreal! I thought I was the only one who ever thought about this. On the PCT this year I also studied footprints, noting stride and how a certain hiker would go around something where another hiker would choose a different route around the same obstacle. I often wondered what would be going through someone’s mind when they’d deviate from an obviously better route selection.

    p.s. Constantly talking about the footprints you’re following annoys your hiking partners. 🙂


  9. tjamrog July 26, 2015 at 4:54 pm #

    I am a big proponent of straight line hiking, and also combine that with staying on the high side. I favor boots, because they allow me to stick to a straight line , even if there are pointy rocks. It’s a great combo. I also encourage you to branch out and do some study about walking gait. I ended up altering mine considerable after an sports podiatrist watched me walk and then told me that I had a dysfuctional gait.

  10. Dav100m September 5, 2015 at 3:54 pm #

    Excellent article. I find myself thinking quite often about efficiency and become obsessive about concentrating on foot placement when I become more weary throughout the day.

  11. Lee January 20, 2016 at 7:16 pm #

    The one benefit I disagree with is your first: saving wear and tear on your joints. Why? Simply put: repetition. Cycling is often cited as a low impact sport to save the joints. But, because of the repetitive motion – up and down, up and down – the joints are subjected to incredible wear over time. I know I get fatigued much quicker when I walk a straight path – whether pavement, cinders, sand, soil, whatever. It also means using same muscles over and over to maintain the same position. An uneven trail requires use of different muscles sets and varies the pressure points on joints. Obviously, any trail hiking will introduce variations. Bottom line, as in all things: All things in moderation.

  12. Joerg Zuend January 21, 2016 at 3:03 pm #

    You may have a point, but I think you miss the biggest contribution to energy usage in human propulsion: The vertical movement of the center of gravity of the human body. The human propulsion system could be modeled as a two hinge inverted pendulum. The hinges are the hip joint and the knee. (I ignore for this simple analysis the ankle which is very relevant to achieve horizontal propulsion). So the inverted pendulum makes it necessary that the center of gravity moves up and down; as you straighten your knees. The Energy expenditure for doing that is:
    A) m*g*h where m is your weight, h the vertical displacement of your hip and g the gravitational constant. Plus
    B) m*v*v/2; the kinetic energy, v is the vertical velocity of the center of gravity. It is important to realize that although v is negative on the down movement, the negative speed cannot be converted back into chemical energy to power your muscles. You have to absorb that negative acceleration by expending energy. Also not that v is squared. This is the reason why going faster for the same distance requires more energy than glowing slow for longer. The vertical v is increases as in increase the horizontal speed.

    It follows that the biggest contribution to reducing energy expenditure in running and hiking especially on trails is to minimize the vertical displacement and vertical velocity of your center of gravity.

    How can you do this? Picture walking over a ten inch obstacle like a small boulder. You can fully extend your leg on top of the boulder but then you lift your entire weight by 10 inches. On the other hand you may wish to create more forward propulsion by pushing harder on the hind leg and keep the knee flexed on top of the boulder thus reducing the vertical displacement of your center of gravity upwards (using the forward kinetic energy to get over the boulder).
    In addition going slower for longer will decrease your energy expenditure as well. Of course going longer cannot work indefinitely because you got to sleep. But it is certainly is more energy efficient to walk 4 hours at 3 miles/h than 3 hours at 4 miles/h to cover the distance of 12 miles.

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