Descend: How to walk downhill?

Most injuries happen during descent, i.e. the downhill walk.

I started training for Mount Kinabalu in early 2010, hiking in a nearby forest reserve hill. In first two rounds of climbing, I slipped and landed on my back twice during the downhill walks. Once, the back of my head hit the ground. I was lucky as my head landed on soft soil.

In my first Mount Kinabalu climb, during the 9km descend from Low's Peak to Headquarter of Kinabalu Park, both my knees suffered severe pain. It was a 2.5 hours downhill walk from summit to Laban Rata and another 7 hours downhill walk from Laban Rata to Headquarter of Kinabalu Park in heavy downpour. With the help of walking stick, I wrongly decided to walk side way to "reduce" the worsening knee pains. The knee pains continued a few weeks after the climb.

I knew I have problem with downhill walk and I started to research on proper downhill walk methods.

Descend from the Peak, after Sayat Sayat checkpoint

How to walk downhill?

I had a good downhill walk in my second climb to Mount Kinabalu. Below are the downhill walking methods.

Walk front way (not side way)
I got a piece of very good advice from my hiking friend, who got the advice from his physiotherapist friend: when we walk downhill, we walk front way (as opposite to back way or side way), walk toward where your toes are pointing. This is especially true when you started to feel pain in your knees. Don't walk side way to "reduce" pain, insist to walk front way downhill.

During the descend of my first climb, I walked side way when I started to have knee pain. Although it seemed to reduce my knee pain at that moment, it actually aggravated it subsequently. It got worse every step I took. I could hardly walk when I reach the foot of the mountain. In my second climb, I stuck to walking front way when I felt knee pain early in the descend downhill walk. The knee pain went off after a while, and I walked downhill without further problem.

Lean slightly forward and don’t land on your heel
During downhill walk, lean forward and land on full sole of feet or land slightly on ball of feet. I used to have the habit of leaning backward and land on heel. This was the reason why I slipped easily during downhill walk. Landing on heel will also create direct impact on your knees that would cause knee pain.

Walk in small stride (and, therefore zigzag)
Walking small stride will avoid slip and knee pain. This means you will probably walk in a zigzag route (still, walk front way, toward where your toes are pointing) as the height of steps in Mount Kinabalu are relatively (or slightly) big.

Change your landing legs frequently
The height of steps of Mt Kinabalu are relatively big. So you will always land on next step with one leg and follow by another leg. Systematically and frequently change your landing leg. You may land with your left leg 5 steps downhill and land with your right leg the next 5 steps downhill. The mountain guide praised my uncle who adopted this method of walking.

Shoes matter, but branded shoes don’t matter

  • Wear a pair of snug fit shoes. Tighten shoelaces when walking downhill. This is to protect your toes.
  • Wear a pair of shoes with good grip. I like Adidas Kampung. In fact, I wore Adidas Kampung for my entire second climb of Mount Kinabalu and I plan to wear it for my numerous future climbs.
  • Branded hiking shoes like Nike or Adidas are good, but not as good as Adidas Kampung. When I wear my Adidas or Nike shoes with thick cushion, I tend to land on my heels and that hurts my knees. Moreover, the grip of these branded shoes is not as good as that cheap rubber shoes called Adidas Kampung.

Walking pole
It is really helpful to have a walking pole or walking stick while walking downhill. You can put some of your body weight on the pole and lessen the burden on your legs.

Trim your toenails
During the downhill walk, my friend who forgot to trim his long toenails had one of his toenails broken and flipped up. It was really really painful.

More resources and links on Walking Downhill on How to Walk Downhill?
Live for the outdoor's The Best Way to Walk Downhill
Mountaineering and mountain survival on Mountain Walking Techniques
My rain forest adventure on Adidas Kampung shoes on Adidas Kampung shoes
My site on Adidas Kampung and other branded shoes

The view of walking downhill.


To prepare for uphill walk, read here.