While hiking on exposed terrain does require a certain degree of physical agility, it’s also a mind game of sorts. Knowing your physical abilities – and your limits – allows you to make smart, confident decisions when facing difficult terrain.
If you’re new at hiking, I recommend starting with easier trails and working your way into challenging terrain gradually. Logging a lot of miles on your feet is the best way to get a feel for what degree of height, steepness, and potential fall hazard you’re comfortable with.
For those ready and willing to tackle the steeper stuff, here are some tips to help you make smart choices and manage the risk:
Do you really need to take that exposed route? Sometimes there’s an easier way around or over if you just bother to look for it. Even if going the easy way takes you a longer distance, it’s worth doing if it’s safer, faster, or more comfortable than taking a quick, exposed shortcut.
Can you get back? There are two issues here. First, if there’s no alternate route around whatever exposed terrain you’re looking at (say, a trail that leads along the top of a crumbling cliff), that means there’s no alternate way back. Once you’re in, you’re committed to making the same traverse again on the way out — no matter how sketchy it may be.
Second, if there’s any scrambling involved, be warned that going down is usually harder than going up. Beware of scrambling up steep terrain if you’re not positive you can get yourself back down the way you came!
Traversing Steep Terrain
Adjust your load so there’s nothing protruding from your pack or clothing that can catch on trees and terrain features, swing around to pull you off-balance, or in any way get you tangled up.
Check for solid footing. Eventually, even the sturdiest stone will fall to pieces; make sure you’re not standing on it when that happens. Use all your senses to look out for signs of instability. Feel for unstable footing; look for cracks that might signal loose rock, or patches of mud or gravel that could cause you to slip. If you kick or bang on a piece of rock and it sounds hollow, it’s probably loose – don’t trust it with your weight.
Consider facing in. There’s no blanket “best approach” to crossing steep terrain; at times, facing inward (traversing with your face toward the slope) won’t be the best bet. Sometimes, however, this comes in handy because it gives you the option of using both hands for support and balance.
Hiking poles are a double-edged sword. They do offer you two extra points of balance, but they also keep your hands full — so if you need to use your hands to help you navigate a particularly dicey portion of the trail, you’ll have to find a place where you can safely stow your hiking poles before proceeding.
Also, I’d be wary about trusting my weight and balance to hiking poles in an exposed situation. The chance that well-made adjustable hiking poles will collapse beneath you is very small, but it can happen. If that pole fails, you don’t want it to be while it’s the only thing between you and a yawning drop.
Watch out for the weakest or slowest member of your group. This is a basic tenet of hiking nicely with others, but it goes double or triple when you’re on more difficult terrain. Even if you’re comfortable hiking on exposed terrain, be aware (and kind) enough to notice if a less-confident member of your group can’t cut it.
Options for managing this kind of situation include coaching him or her through the traverse (if you’re both up to it) or being the one to suggest turning back. You can always return later and have another go with more confident hiking buddies.