Navigating Downhill Slopes Gracefully

...As Opposed to Falling or Tumbling

Young woman hiking on alpine meadow


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Hiking uphill is an obvious challenge, but hiking downhill... that's easy. Right? Not always. Gentle downhills are fun and easy enough that you can still enjoy the scenery -- but a steep descent, or even a gradual descent in particularly rugged terrain, requires full concentration.

Tips for Hiking Downhill

Here are my favorite tricks for hiking safely down even the steepest of slopes. Which ones you use will depend on your ability, agility and comfort levels, and of course on the slope you're negotiating. Remember: If you're not sure you can get down safely, look for an easier way around -- or don't go up in the first place!

Pace Yourself

The easiest way to get hurt when you're hiking downhill is to rush -- so don't! Leave yourself plenty of time to get down at a reasonable pace before dark, even if that means turning around early. (But you do have a headlamp in your emergency kit just in case, right?)

Look Ahead

Hopefully, you're descending the same way you came up, so you're at least somewhat familiar with the terrain you're about to cover. Still, keep an eye out for hazards that you might not have noticed on the way up -- mainly slick or unstable footing, especially if it's in terrain where a fall might have serious consequences.

Stay Centered

If there's one secret to getting down a steep slope safely, it's keeping your weight centered over your point of contact with the ground. (Hint: That's almost always your feet!)

The lower your center of balance (i.e. the more you bend your knees), the more stable you are -- and the easier it is to let yourself "fall" uphill, if need be, as a last-ditch effort to avoid a headfirst downslope fall. (But that's not going to happen because you're going to read the rest of these tips and use appropriate caution when hiking downhill. Right?)

Take Small Steps

Taking small steps makes it easier for you to stay centered over your feet, and makes it easier to recover if you slip or otherwise lose your balance. Taking small steps feels a lot safer than leaping downhill because... well... it is!

Use Switchbacks

It's much easier to maintain control while hiking down switchbacks -- that is, zigging and zagging across the face of the slope, gradually losing elevation with each pass -- than bombing headfirst down a steep slope. Most smartly-designed trails on steep terrain will have switchbacks built into them.

Even if a steep trail doesn't have switchbacks, you can create your own mini-switchbacks by zig-zagging back and forth across the width of the trail or the trail's shoulder.

Edge Down Sideways

Sometimes switchbacks aren't an option (or still feel steep/slippery enough to require additional caution). In that case, edging sideways down the trail is a good alternative.

When we do this our feet point across the trail instead of straight up and down it, and we keep our knees bent so that we can deliberately "pancake" into the slope above me, instead of falling downhill, if we happen to slip. Often, we'll crouch down low enough that we can use our hands for extra balance.

(Note: Make sure you understand the difference between hiking on steep, exposed terrain, as opposed to trying to hike down a technical climb. The latter is definitely not recommended!)

Maintain Full Contact

If switchbacks aren't an option (or if you prefer taking the short, steep descent), you can try plantarflexing your feet -- in other words, pointing your toes -- as you hike downhill. I don't mean walking downhill on your toes; I mean keeping the entire sole of your shoe in contact with the ground as your toes point downhill.

Dig Your Heels In

If you're heading downhill in soft terrain -- usually snow or scree -- facing out and kicking your heels into the slope as you descend can give you better footholds.

Face In

If you feel unstable or are worried about falling "out" (downhill), try facing in. This does a few things:

  1. It makes it easier for you to fall into the slope, as opposed to away from it
  2. It makes it easier for you to grab onto solid handholds for extra balance
  3. It makes it easier for you to lean into the slope, which -- depending on the circumstances -- might make you feel more secure.

On the downside, facing in makes it harder to see where you'll put your feet next. So this isn't always the best solution, but it's definitely a great tool to keep in mind.

Crab Walk

So what do you do if you want the security of using both your hands and feet to help yourself down a slope, but still need to be able to see where you're going? You face out and either crab-walk down on your hands and feet or even sit on your butt while you get your feet into position for the next step.

Lengthen Your Poles

Are you carrying hiking poles? They can be a big help for maintaining your balance on a downhill slope, although I wouldn't recommend resting your entire weight on them. If you're carrying adjustable hiking poles, you can lengthen them so your body remains properly aligned as you descend.

Carrying hiking poles can be a liability, though, if you need your hands-free, so make sure you know how to put your poles away when you don't need them.