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The Art of Walking

This article approaches Walking as the fundamental skill that all of our other trail skills are built upon. Long walking must be properly supported with proper gear, food, clothing, and shelter. These elements are dealt with in other parts of this trail guide, but the physical consequences of carrying this load are addressed here. We will take walking apart, examine its fundamental role in tying together locomotion and metabolism under the self-regulating feedback loop of your senses.

Humans were designed by Nature to Observe, analyze their surrounding terrain, devise a route through the observed terrain, and successfully negotiate a projected route while carrying heavy loads. Though most Americans have lost these fundamental skills, it is an inherent human design capability. This is just a social refresher of natural skills.

Walking is a two-part process, and though separate, the two parts of this process cannot be divided without entailing great danger. Walking is simultaneously both a perceptive and a physical process.


It was within this feedback loop of walking through environment that our powers of observation morphed into the power of abstraction: Walking was the cradle from which human consciousness grew into abstract self-consciousness. Humans learned to predict outcomes as they walked the trail, so to speak.

If you observe carefully you will experience your footsteps through the wilderness echoing across the endless trails of time, back to when humans made their first steps onto the path of consciousness, up to your present footsteps carrying us into the future.

Remember, Buddha walked to the tree with all the tools he needed. His mistake was sitting down.

Practical Applications

Pacing, Perception, and feedback

Hiking towards any goal down the trail causes you to set a given pace to accomplish your goal. You will first conceive of pace during a trip's planning stages as the number of daily miles you have decided to hike, divided by the hours you plan on hiking, over the difficulty of the terrain.

When you finally bring your hiking plans to the trail head your planned daily mileage turns into the physical reality of mentally setting and physically supporting your pace. The hiking plan is translated to reality on the trail, and reality responds.

This efforts of your first step put a load on your muscles, which then demand your heart and lungs respond.

This pace started in the head, with an idea. The idea drives your legs forward. A level below your ability to directly control, your heart responds to the demand for O2 and picks up it's pace. Your lungs quickly follow suit, and within seconds your heart and lungs attempt to balance themselves with the demands of your legs. You are in control of your heart and lungs, through your legs.

Your metabolism detects the extra heat generated by all of this work, and you begin to sweat. In the meantime, other metabolic systems are kicking into action, and all of them quickly make you aware of their status.

The digestive system is taxed to supply calories, the lungs are straining to supply air, the muscles are screaming for both air and food. Everyone wants water. The circulatory system responds to satisfy all these simultaneous demands to supply the O2, calories, and water that all of your bodily systems are screaming for.

The effects of all this activity are instantly fed-back to your brain, where you experience the subjective effects of walking as pain, strain, and pleasure. Getting ready for this is treated in the physical preparation section.

I am experiencing this feedback as various forms of pain: my feet hurt, my legs are straining, my hips hurt, my lungs are burning, and my heart feels like it's about to jump right out of my chest.

Did I mention that we're at 10,000 feet of elevation carrying a 55 Lb backpack with 5 days of hard backpacking behind us, and another 5 days of hiking ahead?

Trail goals demand a certain pace that is up against the responses of my body to that pace. Previous training prepares you body to respond well to work, but your capacities and limits can only be determined on the trail under your full load, at your climbing angle, under the stress of high elevation, after a few days on the trail.

This balance reveals both your past and your future. You will instantly understand that the nature of this balance between your goals and your capabilities is a direct implication of your past preparation. You will also know that this balance will condition and control the future of your pace down the trail and how you feel about it.

Walking draws upon the past and determines the future, all balanced upon your present pace. This pace can be slowed, and your daily hiking hours expanded, or sped up, and your hiking day can be shortened.

By the time I've hiked a couple of days my body is sending clear messages to my brain reflecting the levels of strain this pace is putting on every system. This feedback loop is an ongoing exact analysis of my fitness level, if I can properly interpret the data. I can.

Fitting your pace into your trail plans

I now know exactly how my lungs, heart, legs, stomach, and feet are responding to the loading of this particular pace. This feedback instantly clarifies if your hiking plans are realistic. Will you have to slow your pace and extend your hiking day? Can you speed you pace and shorten your hiking day?

Your food supplies were calculated on a given pace producing an expected amount of daily miles. Falling below your planned pace over a period of days will shorten your daily food supply to cover the extra time you will be spending on the trail.

Or you can shorten the planned mileage of the first few days on the trail to allow you to adjust to the work load and strains of acclimating to elevation.

If you ms-calculated the pace you can hold, you can make up lost time during the last days of the trip, when you will be theoretically stronger, and inured to both the physical strains of walking as well as the hidden drain that exposure has put on your system.

Your physical response to your planned pace must be kept within your ability to recover. If you exceed your recovery point you will become more and more fatigued as you continue down the trail.


Fitting your pace into the Trails

Balance and Rhythm

Balance and Rhythm characterize a professional pace, regardless of strength and speed. Balance and rhythm are not just physical requirements, but also apply to your metabolism.

This highlights the critical role of your perception in balancing the physical and physiological rhythms of long-distance walking.

Self-knowledge of the capacity and endurance of your heart and lungs, the muscles in your legs, and your ability to recover is the factor controlling your rhythm, which is how you adjust the loading on your legs, lungs, and heart. Self-awareness will allow you to determine and stay within your own limits, setting a limit on your rhythm that balances your metabolism and your muscles within your capacity to maintain pace and easily recover during breaks.

Walking Styles

All walking styles, be you a heavy stepper, a pro or supanator, or if your gait is centered on the fronts or backs of your feet, all obey the rules of pace, balance and rhythm. But walking styles are very important over the long and short terms.

The most important aspect of a walking style is longevity. If you have a bad gait, you can easily walk yourself into serious foot, knee, hip, and back problems. If your gait is adjusted and balanced to your body, all of these parts will be strengthened.

A good way to determine your gait is to look at a pair of shoes you've worn for a while. Where the wear shows up tells you which part of your foot your 're transferring most of the stress of walking to the ground.

Foot protection

I break backpacking footwear down into three levels of protection. We deal with this topic in the boot selection section. Once you have determined your proper foot gear set-up, we need to figure out where to put our feet.

Foot placement

There are two types of foot placement I address. The first concerns finding the trail within the trail. This has to do with the nature of the trail, terrain, weather, and trail crew practices.

Trail crews cut wide paths through the terrain as smoothly as possible. Every Winter the snows and weather push rocks and fell trees onto trails, runoff cuts channels, and the trail becomes cluttered with debris. Every Summer backpacker and saddle traffic wears a foot path through the seasonal trail debris and various obstacles that litter the trail. The result is the "trail within the trail."

Observe the route of your upcoming trail and observe the trail within the trail.

Foot position

The other type of foot placement is the angle the terrain forces your foot into as you walk the trail. This basic angle conditions the stress lines from your foot, though your ankle, though your legs and hips, and up through you spine to your shoulders, all amplified by the weight of your load.

There are a number of foot positions that can be troublesome, and should be avoided if possible, and not featured as a regular feature of your gait. The basic positions the trail will try to force your feet into are the Wedge and the Smear. The secondary positions are the jam and catch.

The wedge happens in two basic ways: the toe wedge and the heel wedge. The toe wedge happens when the toe box is wedged upward against a rock or terrain feature. This has the effect of placing a tremendous amount of your pack weight on the front of your foot. This has the secondary effect of forcing you into a short step.

Smears generally occur when crossing a plate of angled rock. The angle of the rock causes the pack weight to focus in a shearing action across the bottom of your feet to push, or smear your foot laterally across the bottom of your boot.


Gait changes with the requirements of foot placement, rhythm and balance must instantly compensate to "float" your upper body and load through the gait change.

The result is that you carry the momentum you are generating with your rhythm and balance through changing sets of trail obstacles by altering you gate to accommodate the "trail within the trail." your

Shaping your steps-Manuvering your Momentum


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