It is a bit of a myth that you have to wear sturdy boots to go hill walking or scrambling. Looking around in the Cuillins on Skye recently it was noticeable the number who of people who were wearing approach shoes, not boots. I have been wearing light weight mid-height approach shoes (Scarpa Mescalito Mid) for a couple of years and really like them. I have been enjoying how light they are on my feet and how grippy they are on the rock.
Recently I read an article by someone who uses barefoot walking shoes for hill walking and scrambling. This was after being stopped from enjoying these things due to an old skiing injury and continuous pain as a result. It was so bad that barefoot shoes were looked into to change the style of walking, and to alleviate the pain. She was going to have to learn to walk from scratch again anyway, and she took many months to build up muscle and soft tissue strength with the new shoes. It was successful, and this person has gone on to be able to go walking and scrambling again.
The advantages of barefoot shoes were put forward as a great way of reducing stress on your joints and our impact on the ground, reducing erosion. These are great goals to achieve but I don't think that you have to go 'barefoot' to achieve them. It's one way of doing it, but not the only way. I have put a lot of thought into my walking over the last 30 years; not surprising when you think about how much time I spend walking. Whatever shoes or boots you wear, there is much to be gained by walking softly, using all your joints to reduce impact and reducing the impact of your foot strike on you and on the ground.
The goal is to change your style of walking. Rather than swinging your legs out in front to an over stride (which means that your body has to overcome a braking force with every step and the associated forces on the joints), the aim is to get your hips forward and to land on the ball of your foot underneath your hips, in balance.
If we can become more efficient walkers, we will be able to walk further and enjoy it more. If we can become better walkers, we will slip, trip and stumble less often. And, as we move into scrambling and climbing, we will move much better on steep ground if we have good foundations in our walking technique.
Here are some tricks to get you thinking about how you walk and how to make it softer and more efficient.
Often, one of the first drills you do when you start rock climbing is to climb with silent feet. The same goes for walking. Place your feet as quietly as possible as you walk along a trail (any trail). Of course, the gravel under your shoe will crunch but the thumping noise of your shoe striking the ground can be minimised. Tune in to what you are doing to make this work best.
You might find that you look to place your feet accurately instead of where ever they land, you might shorten your stride slightly, place your foot gently and softly, perhaps by putting it down toe first. All of these things are good.
Explore how you place your feet. You can use your toes, inside edge, outside edge, walk sideways. Learn to use small placements accurately and confidently. Shorten your stride to make it easier to shift your weight over the leading foot.
Pause and balance
Walking along a pavement or any regular, even surface, we tend to fall forwards onto our leading foot with full commitment. When the foot placement is predictable this is fine. Going uphill on uneven surfaces, when the foot placement is unpredictable, a moment of pause, balanced on one foot (the trailing foot) is useful so you can check if the next placement is stable. All these drills are designed to build in a moment of pause, balanced on one leg.
Be centred and smooth
Hook your thumbs into your belt in front of your belly button or hold your hands behind your back. Focus on your hands and on moving them forward smoothly. Take this up a step by balancing small stones on the backs of your hands held just in front of your belly. You can make this a competition between the people you are with – the person who keeps the stones their hands longest wins.
Balance a small stone on your head while walking!
We tend to focus on our extremities, especially when we think about skilful walking, when we should be more centric, leading with our tummy buttons. Leading with our centres makes us walk more smoothly.
It’s common to end up with a lot of shock loading when we walk downhill. Long steps, landing on your heel, falling onto your leading foot, all result in heavy strikes and a lot of stress going through your knees and hips. It’s also a good way to slip and slide. So, do the opposite. Walk on your toes in descent and take short quick, soft steps, placing your feet accurately.
Our joints can be used as shock absorbers that transfer impact force into muscles and tendons instead of the cartilage and bones within the joints. Cartilage is very hard to repair and replace, whereas muscles repair themselves and adapt quickly, and tendons are designed specifically for stretching and rebounding. If we use our ankle joints as well as our knees and hips, we add another shock absorbing joint and hugely reduce the impact force, wear and tear on our cartilage. To make this habitual (something we do all the time) we need to practice it purposefully on easy trails.
With purposeful practice of these skills by doing the drills we will build our walking technique. This means we should practice all the time we are out walking, as much as possible during the walk, regularly and often. Make it habitual; normal.
In addition, we should do specific exercises to build strength and balance in our ankles. The best way to do this is also to build it into a daily routine. We can use the time we brush our teeth for this! When we brush our teeth (twice a day for two minutes each time) –
One last thought is about walking poles. In descent, walking poles can help take a lot of shock loading off your joints relieving knee and hip pain, and they act as stabilisers, especially useful when your muscles are tired and legs are wobbly. However, there is a serious down side to over reliance on walking poles. We can learn to rely on the poles for balance, stability and correcting small errors in foot placements. This means that our muscles used in walking and our walking technique deteriorate. It seems to me that we should maintain our skilful walking technique and use walking poles only when we really need to, such as walking through fresh snow or with a heavier than normal rucksack.
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.