As Seen In: USA Today, Discovery Channel, US News & World Report

Walking Principles

Up scree or talus, through boulder fields or steep wooded mountainsides, over snow or grass-covered slopes, the basic principles of mountain walking remain the same.

  • The soldier’s weight is centered directly over the feet at all times. He places his foot flat on the ground to obtain as much (boot) sole-ground contact as possible. Then, he places his foot on the uphill side of grass tussocks, small talus and other level spots to avoid twisting the ankle and straining the Achilles tendon. He straightens the knee after each step to allow for rest between steps, and takes moderate steps at a steady pace. An angle of ascent or descent that is too steep is avoided, and any indentations in the slope are used to advantage.

  • In addition to proper technique, pace is adapted to conditions. The mountaineer sets a tempo, or number of steps per minute, according to the pace of the unit in which he is moving. (Physical differences mean that the tempos of two people moving at the same speed will not always be the same.) The soldier maintains tempo and compensates for changes of slope or terrain by adjusting the length of his stride. Tempo, pace, and rhythm are enhanced when an interval of three to five paces is kept between individuals. This interval helps lessen the "accordion" effect of people at the end of the file who must constantly stop and start.

  • The terrain, weather, and light conditions affect the rate of climb. The more adverse the conditions, the slower the pace. Moving too fast, even under ideal conditions, produces early fatigue, requires more rest halts, and results in loss of climbing time. A soldier can only move as fast as his lungs and legs will allow. The trained, conditioned and acclimatized soldier has greater endurance and moves more efficiently. Rest, good nutrition and hydration, conditioning, acclimatization, proper training, and the will to climb are key to successful mountain operations.

  • Breaks are kept to a minimum. When a moderate pace is set, the need for rest halts decreases, the chance of personnel overheating is lessened, and a unit can cover a given distance in a minimal time. If possible, rests should be taken on level ground avoiding steeper inclines.
  • (1) During the first half-hour of movement an adjustment halt should be taken. Soldiers will loosen or tighten bootlaces as needed, adjust packs and add or remove appropriate layers of clothing.

    (2) Following the first halt, a well-conditioned party may take a short rest every 1 to 1.5 hours. If possible, soldiers lean against a tree, rock, or hillside to relieve the shoulders of pack weight, breathe deeply, hydrate, and snack on trail food. These halts are kept short enough to avoid muscles stiffening (one to two minutes).

    (3) Later in the march longer halts may be necessary due to fatigue or mission requirements. At these halts soldiers should immediately put on additional clothing to avoid chilling—it is much easier to keep a warm body warm than to warm up a cold one.

    (4) After a climb, a good rest is needed to revive tired muscles.

  • The rest step is used for steep slopes, snowfields, and higher elevations. It controls pace and limits fatigue by giving the lungs and legs a moment to recuperate between steps. Pace is kept slow and rhythmic.
  • (1) After each step forward, the soldier pauses briefly, relaxing the muscles of the forward leg while resting his entire bodyweight on the rear leg. The rear leg is kept straight with the knee locked so that bone, not muscle, supports the weight.

    (2) Breathing is synchronized with the rest step. The number of breaths per step will change depending on the difficulty of the climb. Steeper slopes or higher elevations may require several breaths per step. When the air thins at altitude it is especially important to breathe deeply, using the "pressure breathing" technique. The soldier exhales strongly, enabling an easier, deeper inhale.

    (3) This slow, steady, halting rest step is more efficient than spurts of speed, which are rapidly exhausting and require longer recovery.

  • Downhill walking uses less energy than uphill but is much harder on the body. Stepping down can hammer the full bodyweight onto the feet and legs. Blisters and blackened toenails, knee damage, and back pain may follow. To avoid these problems the soldier should start by tightening bootlaces to ensure a snug fit (also keep toenails trimmed). A ski pole, ice ax, or walking stick will help take some of the load and give additional stability. (Refer to Chapter 11 for techniques and use of the ice ax.) Keep a moderate pace and walk with knees flexed to absorb shock.

  • Side hill travel on any surface should be avoided whenever possible. Weighted down with a rucksack, the soldier is vulnerable to twisted ankles, back injury, and loss of balance. If side hill travel is necessary, try to switchback periodically, and use any lower angle flat areas such as rocks, animal trails, and the ground above grass or brush clumps to level off the route.
  • Back to Mountain Walking Techniques




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