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6 uphill hiking tips to prevent your legs from turning into jelly

If there’s one thing that instills dread in the hearts of hikers, it’s a steep uphill climb that stretches on for miles.

A relentless ascent is hard for one main reason: gravity. When you’re going up, you’re fighting against it, lifting your entire body with each step. The steeper the pitch, the bigger the strain on your legs to push you forward. And if you’re heading to considerable altitudes, you’ll also have to deal with low oxygen levels in the blood, which can make you feel wobbly and short of breath.

Fortunately, learning the right tools and techniques to use will help you tackle brutal inclines faster and more efficiently.

Embrace the switchbacks

One way to make climbs easier is to choose a switchback trail over a straight one whenever possible. 

“Switchbacks are your friend,” says Gates Richards, associate director of wilderness medicine at the National Outdoor Leadership School. Experienced hikers love to hate these zig-zagging routes because they may add to their overall mileage. But maximum efficiency while conquering hills means pacing yourself and saving your legs so you can make it back down safely. Switchbacks effectively reduce the angle of the slope you’re climbing, decreasing how much you have to lift your body with each step, and allowing you to save muscle energy in the process. 

You may find switchbacks as an alternative to a straight, more direct route, but if they’re not available, you can make micro switchbacks by zig-zagging from side to side if the trail is wide enough. And if ping-ponging back and forth is your only option, don’t give into your impatience to make it to the top as fast as you can—cutting switchbacks goes against Leave No Trace principles. 

Take shorter steps

Taking large, slow steps in an effort to quickly push yourself to the top, is a surefire way to wear out your quads. This happens because longer steps mean your knee will always be bent and your muscles will stay activated throughout the climb, Richards explains. Instead, take short steps at a quicker pace.

Think of it like riding a bike. Shifting to a lower gear while cycling uphill allows you to keep the same cadence you had on flat terrain—you cover less ground each time you pedal (effectively going slower), but you have less resistance, so it feels easier on your muscles. It’s the same with hiking uphill: taking shorter steps at the same rate as usual will make for less resistance and an easier climb. 

Once you’ve shortened your stride, keep your attention on your legs. Each time you take a step, fully straighten the leg in front of you before transferring your weight to the other leg. That lets your bones bear the heft of your body for just a moment, taking the pressure off your muscles. And even if that instant of rest seems insignificant, Richards points out that all those seconds add up to much less fatigue during a long uphill battle.

Get some help from your trusty trekking poles

Science has shown that trekking poles are a useful tool when hiking uphill. They take some of the load off your muscles and joints, invite your arms to help your legs push you up the trail, and offer a great place to rest your forehead when you need to bend over and rest for a few moments.

Learning how to use them correctly is crucial to get all the benefits. With each step, swing the arm opposite to the foot you’re putting forward and plant the pole firmly. If the climb is particularly steep, you can get extra support by swinging both poles at the same time, planting them firmly, and pushing yourself up. Repeat.

Take a break

When you’ve got a long slog ahead of you, you may be tempted to push through the pain and just get to the top as fast as possible. But if the point of your hike is to enjoy yourself, don’t feel like you have to push it.

“If you need to take a break, take a break,” Richards says. Even pausing for 30 seconds without taking your pack off can be extremely helpful in boosting morale and giving your muscles some respite.

Don’t hesitate to take your pack off for 10 minutes and have a snack if that revives you. Or if you find that just a few seconds of leaning on a log to enjoy the view is enough to keep you upbeat and moving forward, do that. Either way, you won’t tire out as quickly if you take regular breathers.

Don’t forget to eat

Trudging uphill burns a lot of calories, so to keep your body energized, make sure you’re feeding it regularly. 

How often you refuel depends on how you feel, but Richards recommends eating what you’d usually eat during flat terrain hikes more often. So, if you usually have some fruit leather, jerky, or other snack every two hours when hiking on level ground, you might want to consider increasing the frequency to once an hour. 

Just don’t scarf down an entire burrito before a big ascent. It’ll feel like a rock in your gut the whole way up—that is if it manages to stay in your gut at all.

Get better, get faster

If there’s a challenging hike in your future and you want to be prepared, you can train your body for it. The best way to do so is to just hike uphill, says Richards—preferably, with a full backpack.

“The more accustomed you are to hills, the better your body will be at tackling them,” he says.

Stairs or a stair-step machine will do if there are no hills near you. Imitating the movement will help you get stronger, but Richards says there are a lot more variables in the outdoors than on perfectly spaced steps, like heat, uneven ground, and differently sloped inclines. So when possible, always choose the real thing instead. 

Just don’t pressure yourself to be the fastest or most efficient climber—take your time and respect your own pace. After all, Richards says, hiking should be fun.

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