Tips for Hiking Uphill: Learn to Love Steep Slopes

Hiking uphill is always a challenge, but it doesn’t have to be a miserable experience. In fact, I’ve found that steep hikes often have the best reward-to-distance ratio. There’s nothing like topping out over a beautiful view and knowing you earned that vista, one step at a time.

Here are my favorite tips for turning an uphill slog into an enjoyable adventure:

Choose the Right Hike

With the right training and conditioning, you can definitely tackle the most demanding uphill hikes. But if you’re not used to hiking uphill, it’s a good idea to start with smaller, more manageable slopes and work your way up to the harder stuff. Hiking steep slopes is both a physical challenge and a mental one, so both your body and mind will benefit from a chance to adapt to the new challenge.

Take Smaller Steps

Have you ever climbed a set of very tall stairs — so tall you had to make a giant lunge just to get to the next step? How about very short stairs, where every step is within easy reach? The “shorter” staircase is a lot easier to climb. Taking small steps as you hike uphill makes getting up your favorite mountain just as (relatively) easy.

Use Switchbacks

Beelining up a steep slope means you cover the shortest distance possible – but it’s hard! Using switchbacks – that is, zig-zagging back and forth on the face of the slope, moving uphill a little bit with each zig or zag – makes for a longer total distance (and time) hiked, but feels a lot easier. Many established trails have switchbacks built into them for just this reason.

Place Your Feet

Pay attention to where you’re placing your feet with every step. Not only does this let you choose safe, secure footing for every step, it also lets you choose routes that allow you to take easier, smaller steps along the way. This doesn’t require a lot of brain power or attention – just keep an eye on where you’re putting your feet and you’ll quickly get used to looking a few steps ahead.

Shorten Your Poles

Are you carrying hiking poles? If so, shorten them for the uphill portion of your hike. Your poles should be the right length. Stow them in or on your pack when you don’t need them.

If your hiking poles aren’t adjustable, just shift your grip farther down the handle. Some poles have a second, lower set of handgrips on the shaft for just this reason.

Grab Hold

If you’re not using hiking poles, your hands are free to grab onto secure tree roots, rocks, or other handholds, for balance. You can even use these handholds to help pull or push yourself upward. Just keep in mind that if you really need your hands to make safe upward progress, you’re not hiking anymore – you’ve entered the world of technical climbing. Oops!

Pace Yourself – Breathe!

Remember the fable of the tortoise and the hare? When you’re hiking uphill, slow and steady definitely wins the race.

You can (and should!) still take rest stops for water, to nibble on food, or to admire the views. But if you’re going so fast that you have to stop for breath every few hundred yards, you’re probably going too fast. Why not slow down and enjoy the journey? You’ll still get to the top, and you’ll probably enjoy the process of getting there quite a bit more.

Go Ahead and Rest

This might seem a little contradictory, seeing as how I just said that you shouldn’t be constantly hiking yourself out of breath. Here’s my reasoning:

  • There’s no shame at all in stopping to rest – just think how many people are sitting at home dreaming about the hike you’re actually doing; and
  • Having a laid-back attitude toward rest stops, and hiking, in general, is usually much more fun in the end than stressing about it.

So if you feel the need to rest, go for it! Just keep in mind that one cardinal rule of hiking as part of a group is understanding each others’ expectations.

If the others in your group are bent on hiking as fast and as far as reasonably possible, you might want to wait and do that steep hike with partners that are more your speed. On the other hand, if you’re comfortable hiking alone, you can let the faster hikers continue ahead and then catch up with them (or not) in your own time.