An Anatomical Lesson in Walking and Hiking Safely

Camping & Hiking expert Hannah K. deep dives into posture, as well as how to stand, walk, and hike correctly.

Backpacker standing on a rocky summit

Photo by Ophelie Authier

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Hiking correctly all relies upon walking correctly. And walking correctly relies on your ability to stand correctly—anatomically correct, that is. The way you stand reveals so much about muscle weakness, which shoulder you wear your backpack over most, previous injuries, which side is your dominant side, and so much more. For those looking to learn about posture and how to keep their body healthy and strong, below is a helpful anatomical guide on how to stand, walk, and hike correctly.

Standing with Neutral Spine

First step: lay down. That may seem counterintuitive (because this subheading reads “standing”) but trust me on this. Lay down on a flat surface (ideally not your bed) and settle in a position that you feel is anatomically correct. Arms should be equal distance from your body, your legs should fall under your hips, and there should be a slight natural curve to your back.

Now focus solely on your back for a moment. You should not be able to stick your entire arm under your back but there should be a natural curve. Use your core and abdominal muscles to allow your back to lengthen and find your natural curve.

Another great way to find your natural curve is to sit upright and use a yardstick (or pole) to align yourself. The yardstick should be able to touch your tailbone, land between your shoulder blades, and be positioned behind your head. Your lower back and neck should be slightly ahead of the other points and should not be touching the yardstick. This is called your neutral spine and is the safest position for your spine.

Now that you have discovered your neutral spine, stand up! (Finally, that took way too long!) Keep your neutral spine in mind and when you feel confident in that position, focus on your feet. The weight should be balanced equally on all parts of your feet. Imagine there are three main points of contact: your heel, big toe mound, and little toe mound. If you can feel all points of contact connecting your foot to the ground, then your weight is equally distributed.

Next, are your feet positioned under your hips? Anatomically speaking, this is a very safe position for your body and your pelvic muscles. Then, focus on your knees. Are they pointed over your toes? It is dangerous for the ligaments and tendons around your knees if they are pointed inwards or outwards. Push your feet into the ground and use your inner thighs to ensure that your knees are aligned with your toes. This is a really challenging thing to do and took me a while to understand and correct on myself. But your knees will thank you when you crush that mountain range.

Finally, make sure your hips are under your shoulders. The shoulder to hip relationship is very important. It is the core of your body and will keep your back safe. We don’t want to be sitting into our lower back and not engaging our core. Also, is your neck relaxed over your spine and in that neutral position? If not, use a ruler to find it if need be.

Once you have all these connections and feel comfortable managing them, you can start to walk (aka hike).

A hiker standing on a rock, contemplating the cloudy, snow-topped mountain scenery beyond

Photo by Sean Thoman

Walking

Walking, like your posture, can tell you a lot about your body. When you walk, focus especially on your feet. What part of your foot is making contact with the ground first? Are all three points of contact actually making contact with the ground? If you aren’t sure, a great way to find out is to look at the sole of your oldest shoes. Look for what part of the sole is more worn out than others. That is how I found out that I pronate.

So what is pronation? If you pronate, the arch of your foot is often closer to the ground and your little toe mound is not making contact with the ground. This suggests that your knees will point inwards as well. The opposite of pronation is supination. Supination is where you emphasize the little toe mound and your big toe mound will not make contact with the ground. Your knees may point outwards.

Either of those walking positions have long-lasting effects on your entire body. Problems that start in your feet often have ways of making themselves show up in your upper back or neck. Additionally, when you walk, keep your gaze up and your chin slightly ahead of your chest to keep your momentum going.

I once had a teacher who taught me how to walk as if I didn’t already know. She said that each step you take is a fall and the next step is you catching yourself. If you think about it like that, much of the power of walking and hiking comes from the backside of your body.

This is very important: the backside of your body is so overlooked. Imagine that there is a gust of wind pushing you—or like my teacher said, “Imagine your ass is on wheels.” That imagery really helps me find the true power of walking. Give your quads a rest and activate those hamstrings and glutes!

Hiking Up

Hiking uphill is my favorite challenge. Nothing is better than pushing off your foot strongly, feeling your hamstring and quad engage, and working your way up to the peak. To do this safely and anatomically correctly, focus on keeping your knees directly over your toes.

Remember to use the backside of your body—your hamstrings, calves, and glutes are usually forgotten. This forces our quads and hip flexors to work overtime. Hip flexors are easy to irritate, so try to relax them and use your booty instead.

Hiking Down

Hiking downhill is a knee killer. It just is. There is not much we can do about that but go slow, use hiking poles if you can, lean back, and if need be, do the classic butt scootch down!

Keep your knees over your toes and really engage your core. When we hike down we often slightly lean back which puts a ton of pressure on our lower backs. Engage your abdominal muscles to avoid any lower back pain.

Have any other tips for keeping your body safe and anatomically correct? Hit me up and let me know! And if you’re interested in more, check out these helpful guidelines to stay strong, healthy, and happy!

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Written By
Although I've been hiking for most of my life, I didn't start backpacking and camping until college when I joined the University Outdoors Club at my school. My first backpacking trip was ambitious, the Batona Trail in the Pinelands in New Jersey done in two days. To do that, we had to walk a maratho...

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