help me overcome my fears and become a competent hiker!
February 1, 2010 10:26 AM   Subscribe

help me overcome my fears and become a competent hiker!

what i want: to be able to do Real Hiking to reach those hidden areas of beauty. my problem: an intense fear of heights, especially when descending steep, steep trails.

how do other people do it? as i descend, all i can think about is losing my step or slipping and then tumbling down hundreds of feet. even thinking about it now makes me feel tense. as it is now, even with not-that-hard hiking trails, i either need someone directly in front of me to help (going down to show it's safe, offering a hand from time to time) or i just proceed very, very slowly. i'm sure this must be annoying to people i hike with who are ok with steep trails given i go at a rate 20 times slower than them. i'd like to be competent enough on my own to keep up with everyone else without being a hindrance.

help me, askmefi! what're your tips for hiking those difficult to navigate areas? did any of you have a fear of heights/steepness that you were able to overcome? also, the fear really only applies to descending- i have another friend i recently vacationed with who was running down the steep trails (and freaking me out) but really slow going up- her fear of heights only kicked in for ascending, not descending.
posted by raw sugar to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Hiking poles!

I've done a fair bit of hiking, and most of the people I know don't proceed any more quickly going up or down than they do on flat stretches. A steady pace is just fine. The poles are helpful anyways--they add another point or two of stability, which is really useful if you're already top-heavy from a pack, and would be perfect for giving you a little more confidence on steep trails.

You can spend entirely too much money on those things, but a lower-end pair is going to be a decent investment if you do this on a regular basis. A walking stick can work just fine if you tend to hike infrequently and don't do overnights, but hiking poles are 1) specially designed for the purpose and thus slightly more effective than a stick, 2) less prone to breakage and weathering (aluminum is tough stuff), and 3) one hell of a lot lighter, which can make a real difference if you're going to be on the trail for more than a day.
posted by valkyryn at 10:31 AM on February 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Use hiking sticks? Walk down the steeper sections sideways, so that you lower one foot, bring the other foot beside it, repeat. Make sure you have really great hiking boots. Proper boots should prevent your toes from sliding forward in the front of the boot.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 10:33 AM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hiking poles. I like the adjustable Leki sticks.
posted by Netzapper at 10:41 AM on February 1, 2010

Wear a whistle around your neck, so you can "tweet" for help if needed.
posted by Carol Anne at 10:41 AM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In difficult sections, take each step seriously; craft your movements the way you might craft a fried egg sandwich. How can you flip the egg without breaking the yolk? Where is the best place to move your foot to? How long does the bread need to toast? How can you steady yourself as you shift your weight? How much salt and pepper? How can I adjust my posture so that this step feels right?

Don't think that you're supposed to bound along as if you were a kid loose in a shopping mall; treat the job of movement with respect, and you'll do it well.
posted by jon1270 at 10:58 AM on February 1, 2010 [5 favorites]

Nthing trekkng poles. I once hiked and twice directed a 50-mile endurance hike in college and all successful finishers have used poles. They're like upgrading to 4wd in your car: it won't solve all your problems, but it makes some of them a hell of a lot easier to deal with.

I'd get the kind that close with an external snap thing rather than the ones that twist on internally.
posted by Aizkolari at 11:02 AM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hiking poles and good boots for sure, and really, your safety is more important than any inconveniece a slower descent might cause your hiking partners. Don't go any faster than you're comfortable with, but with good equipment you'll probably be able to speed up a little bit.

I often reflect on this passage from Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums when descending mountains. Don't be reckless, but do be aware. Happy hiking!
posted by Balonious Assault at 11:10 AM on February 1, 2010

Best answer: I think part of it is just practice. Hiking is a skill, just like anything else. And, as with any new thing you're learning, I think it's better to work up to the big stuff slowly. Otherwise it's like being mad at yourself for not being able to run a marathon when you can't even run a 5k yet. So, I would spend a lot more time on the easy hiking trails for a while. After going down a number of smaller hills without falling, you may feel calmer going down slightly larger ones, and then larger ones, and then, well, you get the picture.

And, I don't know where you're hiking, but for now, it might help if you stayed on good actual trails for a while instead of on the sort of trails that are loosely sketched through slope made out of loose rocks.

Also, are you hiking with a big pack? Because if you are, it might help to do more hiking with just a small daypack instead, because a big pack can make everything feel less stable.

Remember also that your most stable position when going downhill is to stand up straight, instead of leaning back towards the slope. It's totally counter-intuitive at first--which is why it helps to practice on smaller hills first and prove to yourself that it works--but it helps both your balance and your footing. In fact, the steadiest position for going downhill is to stand up straight--keep your hips over your feet and your shoulders over your hips--and point your feet straight downhill.

And, finally, it's totally okay to go slow. Find some hiking buddies who don't mind. I promise there are people like that out there. I once walked a student up and down an entire pass, holding her hand the entire time.
posted by colfax at 11:16 AM on February 1, 2010

Best answer: as it is now, even with not-that-hard hiking trails, i either need someone directly in front of me to help (going down to show it's safe, offering a hand from time to time) or i just proceed very, very slowly.

First off, there is nothing wrong with a "five point descent." That is, walking on your hands, knees, and butt. Sometimes it's the only safe way to get down something. Also, hiking partners need to be patient with each other. If your partners get annoyed, find some new partners.

But it sounds like you have more of a phobia for going down things that most people can just walk down. This should get better in time, but getting there can be tough and not some thing you want to do while on top of a mountain.

Hiking poles might help for some people, but I actually find sometimes they're a hindrance on the way down, especially when the going is steep. They're great for cushioning my knees on the downhill, but if it's a rocky place that might require an occasional hand or butt hold, I'd just as soon not have them. If you enjoy hiking and plan to do it long term, I'd advise you to get some poles to hike with just to save your knees. But for learning to descend steep rocky trails, I'd advise you to put the poles away and learn to do it without. Once you're comfortable on your feet, then you can decide if poles will help.

Start with your boots. You want to make sure you have well-fitting boots with plenty of ankle support and really great soles. You need to be confident that they're not going to slip out in front of you. Put your boots on and find something steep: a rock, a ramp, a hill, even a slide at a playground. Now climb up it. Here's the counter-intuitive part: No matter how steep it gets, keep your feet flat. You don't want to walk up or down stuff on your toes, unless you're doing rock scrambling. You want as much friction as possible against the rock. It takes some getting used to. You want your body straight and your feet flat, no matter how steep. On the downhill you'll have to bend your knees a bit to do this. You can also side-step up and down the hill if it gets really steep.

Do this on progressively steeper inclines. Notice your feet won't slip if you keep them flat. Get comfortable with your feet.

Are there any local areas that might have an occasional rocky part on the trail, or just some rocks in the woods you can walk over? It doesn't have to be anything big, just some rocks that you can practice on. Get to know what amazing things your feet are capable of. Once you know your feet aren't going to slip out from under you, then you're on your way to building your confidence on the trail.

Other confidence building exercises might be taking a rock climbing class (even at a gym) to help you learn about proper hand and foot holds. Or you could take a mountaineering class and learn how to walk with crampons, some of these skills (side-stepping, etc) can then be applied to bare-booting up rocky slopes.

This is a perfectly normal thing, by the way. I've led a bunch of beginner hikes and it takes a lot of people a long time to build up comfort. The main thing you can do is keep hiking. Don't let your fears get the best of you. It'll get better, I promise.

Me-mail me if you want any more advice.

Good luck.
posted by bondcliff at 11:20 AM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mr. 26.2 calls me a hiking Weeble since I'm incredibly wobbly, but rarely ever fall. Sometimes I get terrified - especially if the footing is wet or slippery.

I've gotten much better because he taught me 2 things. Stay relaxed, being stiff creates the Weeble problem. Occasionally, I need to stop and relax my body starting at my toes. The other is to create a wider, lower center of gravity. When I get stiff, I put my feet together like a bowling pin and start wobbling. If you spread your feet you feel more stable on the ground.
posted by 26.2 at 11:59 AM on February 1, 2010

If this is something that you really do see as a problem I respect that but honestly, I think it's really wise of you to be cautious and move carefully in difficult areas. I have seen people, experienced hikers, slip, fall and get hurt because they were cockily bounding around.
posted by Ashley801 at 12:01 PM on February 1, 2010

Best answer: What an eponysterical time to join this site.

The first thing you need to avoid is chastising yourself for fear. Fear is a very important tool on a trail; it breeds caution which keeps you safe. I've been hiking most of my life and I still am fearful in situations I've seen many times before.

That said, what I found best is to connect with a local network of experienced hikers, rock climbers and outdoorsmen if you can. You can usually find them in the stores you buy your equipment at. Keep a journal with you when you're hiking and record situations where your fear either kept you away from or impeded your ability to complete a goal. The place you were, the particular challenge faced, any details about the weather and/or physical limitations you felt are all great details.

When you're off the trail, approach this network of experienced people and present your challenge to them and get feedback. Draw off the wealth of experience around you. People will often suggest gear like hiking poles, which are helpful, but what's even more helpful is having a large base of knowledge to draw on. Ask them if they know any drills or skills that you can learn in your downtime that will help you conquer that challenge next time. Be an earnest learner. If possible, ask them to help you learn.

There's nothing like experience to help increase your confidence and ability to ally with fear on the trail. Best travels!
posted by Hiker at 12:09 PM on February 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

I am not a professional hiker, and my advice may cause bodily harm. In other words I have no idea what I'm talking about, this is just what works for me.

When I'm in a steep situation where I feel like I might fall, I go down the trail sideways. If I do start to slip I'm already in a good position to control the slide, kind of like a baseball player sliding into home. I just take steps like I'm walking down some stairs sideways without crossing one leg in front of another, kind of like how a young child might. If the trail is really steep this position also allows me to have one arm under me and close to the ground that I've already covered so that I can reach out an steady myself. This position works best for me when the ground is covered in loose gravel or dirt.
posted by TooFewShoes at 12:36 PM on February 1, 2010

Response by poster: thank you so much for the answers so far everyone! just reading these already increases my confidence a bit for my next hike. if anyone else still has some tips they'd like to share i'd be more than happy to hear them :)
posted by raw sugar at 12:40 PM on February 1, 2010

Best answer: Start out by walking daily wherever you can, but particularly over natural, uneven surfaces before you start to do steep climbs. Nthing excellent boots, making sure you have your entire sole hitting the ground on ascents and descents. Poles, yes, but get used to them on baby trails. Take the downhills slowly. They often come at the end of the day, so it's important to concentrate on each step even though you're tired. Be especially careful on wet trails, trails with leaves, gravel, acorns, etc. That's when the poles are useful.

Here's my huge discovery about fear of heights, which kept me from the kind of hiking I now do routinely. I took up yoga--not for hiking purposes--just for the experience before I ever thought about hiking. I started doing yoga every day at home. Before my yoga life, I was a total klutz, had lousy balance, and feared heights bigtime. After a couple years of daily yoga practice, I became the person who's first across the stream without falling, leaping across crevasses, traversing bitty inches-wide cliffs, etc. Yoga has given me excellent balance. Learn how to stand on one leg for as long as possible, then the other. It's difficult at first. Find a spot to look at while you do it. It becomes very natural. Once you can do that at will, you can climb most anything.

Happy trails!
posted by Elsie at 12:48 PM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I read your question earlier and was just coming back to offer my advice, but it's essentially what you've been given in marked-best answers by colfax, bondcliff, and Hiker. Seconding what they said.
posted by lost_cause at 1:00 PM on February 1, 2010

Let me echo bondcliff and also disrecommend hiking poles.

As attractive as poles may appear, they teach bad habits. They don't teach you good balance and permit, encourage letting your balance point get out from under your feet. This is bad. Ideally, your centre of weight stays under you, between your feet. Having good balance is a key ability for being light on your feet with a pack on your back. Over relying on your hands and arms has put many a new hiker on their butts.

There are many good ways to improve your balance. Hiking itself is good. Martial arts or dance are good. Cycling is good.

Foot sense is also really important, closely related to balance. Again, bondcliff's advice is good. I'd offer one piece further: always, always point your feet up or down the hill, never across. You want maximum friction in the direction you will most likely slide, down hill. If you have your sole parallel to the hill, you are most likely to slip.

The best thing, bar nothing, for improving foot sense is to practice climbing. Even a bit of top-roping at the gym is fine, and it's entirely safe. Martial arts and dance help a bit, but nothing like climbing.

Finally, just to clarify, if you know how to use your feet, poles can be a useful tool. They're not one I'd rely on in the place of learning good habits though.
posted by bonehead at 1:30 PM on February 1, 2010

You've gotten some good advice, but I would also like to add that there is nothing wrong with hiking very very slowly. I love to hike and I love the cardiovascular benefit of doing it at a certain pace, but my kids (teenagers, not little kids -- nearly 6 feet tall, experienced) hike at a pace 20 times slower than everyone else. They talk together, they notice things along the path, they really enjoy the hike in a different way. They're not hiking slowly for the same reason you are, but if removing the "I'm so slow I'm slowing everyone down" feeling isn't there to compound your anxiety, you may be able to enjoy the walk itself a bit more, at whatever the right pace is for you.
posted by headnsouth at 1:36 PM on February 1, 2010

I've had a similar problem when downhill skiing--you come off the lift and suddenly there's this steep slope below that seems to go on forever and it's really intimidating. I find that if I just focus on the next turn (in your case, the next step) it drives the fear of heights out of my mind.

Also, feel free to grab on to trees and roots that are reasonably thick if it helps you to take the next step down or to regain your balance. The trees are pretty resilient.
posted by A dead Quaker at 1:38 PM on February 1, 2010

I'm not much of a hiker (that's an understatement) but I do get nervous walking down slopes, particularly if the terrain is uneven. I blame it on my almost complete lack of depth perception. (I nearly failed a depth perception test during an unusually thorough physical, true story!)

I find that the more I concentrate on the ground, the slower I walk, and the more nervous I get. Whereas if I can just keep the terrain in my peripheral vision, I can get to a point where I trust my feet to do their thing.

Obviously if it's really rocky or uneven, you'd want to pay a bit more attention. But try to keep that urge to be hyper-vigilant in check. Not easy, I know!
posted by ErikaB at 3:36 PM on February 1, 2010

Get an EYE EXAM?

Personally, I have a slight astigmatism that makes judging distances difficult. Subsequently, I sometimes have a fear of heights.

Also. Totally recommend hands, knees, butt if it is careful going. No shame!
posted by jbenben at 4:38 PM on February 1, 2010

You can also side-step up and down the hill if it gets really steep.

I do this quite frequently.

I'd offer one piece further: always, always point your feet up or down the hill, never across. You want maximum friction in the direction you will most likely slide, down hill. If you have your sole parallel to the hill, you are most likely to slip.

I have the exact opposite experience, both with my own hiking and going with other people, but that may really depend on the kind of terrain we're talking about. Where I've felt it's been advantageous to sort of side-step diagonally is going down really steep slopes with footing that's likely to slip out from under me - gravel or rough sand, maybe cobbles - basically going straight up or downhill in the desert. If I go down slopes like that with my feet pointed straight down, my weight is all bearing on a point around the ball of my foot (either directly or transferred through the soil where the rest of my foot is making contact), and sometimes the soil lets go. I feel like sidestepping spreads out my weight so that the top layer of soil doesn't break free, and it seems to bear out in practice. I kind of made a conscious decision to start doing this, and haven't slipped once since. I'm a pretty big guy though, so I may be an outlier as far as causing mini-landslides.
posted by LionIndex at 7:43 PM on February 1, 2010

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