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This question has been eating my head for quite some time now.

I trek often and most of the treks involve climbing up to a peak or something similar. I usually carry heavy loads of around 13-15kgs on my back and I've always found that walking up the slopes of a hill/mountain at a brisker pace is easier with the heavier loads. I climb fast, rest for a minute or two and start off briskly again. However, I have met trekkers who have told me that this is not a good practice and it's better to maintain a slow pace while going up the slopes. I did try this a few times but a slower pace tires me down faster while carrying heavier loads.

Hence, which is better while walking up the slopes? Slower pace or the brisk one? Or is it just a matter of choice and nothing more? (Better in terms of the ease of the climb and avoiding injuries over a period of years)

I would appreciate both personal preferences as well as scientific answers for the question.

Note: I am not referring to high altitude climbs i.e more than 3000m (at higher altitudes, slow pace is the only one advisable due to acclimatization). Also, the slopes I refer to have gradients from 30 - 50 degrees.

Please note that I'm not worried about maintaining the group structure of a trekking group or the time taken for slow vs fast walk. I'm concerned about the injuries one might incur and the ease of the climb.

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My guess is this is purely personal preference but would love if someone has some facts! I've always been faster than average, both up and down slopes, and found it felt both easier and safer, particularly while going up since changing my natural rhythm affects my balance. That was for both days walks and up to 6 day trips, mostly in NZ, so nothing very high but often rough terrain. Of course, that is the forest and sub alpine terrain I grew up with - as soon as there is ice around I'm down to a slow pace. –  David Hall Nov 19 '13 at 7:36
@DavidHall Same here. Even I have found it much easier and safer while going up. But since I have got so many comments from so many other trekkers, I thought of asking the opinion of you guys. –  Unsung Nov 19 '13 at 8:27
Just for clarification, as the meaning of the term "higher altitudes" might vary a lot depending on personal experience and "habitat". So could you give either some height figures where you would set the border to "high altitude" or some other measure, maybe depending on one's own acclimatization? –  Benedikt Bauer Nov 19 '13 at 9:48
@BenediktBauer Added the edit. –  Unsung Nov 19 '13 at 10:37
Hence, which is better? What is your definition of better? Finishing faster? Getting less tired? Producing more of an improvement in your physical conditioning? Less chance of injury? Less chance of slipping? Getting more of a chance to observe nature? –  Ben Crowell Nov 19 '13 at 20:08

4 Answers 4

I would say there is no point in walking briskly. With a heavy backpack, it's a no-no for me. I have observed and have struggled with the same problem when I started off towards some serious trekking with genuinely elevated/steep climbs with a heavy haversack on my back. The sack that I usually carry weighs about 18 kg.

People who are advising you to walk slowly are not precisely correct either. I believe when it's about trekking, the term slow has lot of variants. For example, what is slow for me, would be extremely slow or probably out of rhythm for you. The point is, everybody has his/her own rhythm of walking (especially while ascending). So, if you ever feel like you are unusually panting for breath, it means that either you are carrying more weight than you normally do, or you are walking faster than you normally do (i.e. walking out of the rhythm that suits you, or you have developed over the years).

I have seen people who don't walk briskly, but they go miles without stopping. Now that's rhythm! And, I have also seen people who literally run through an ascend and then rest for quite some time. That is exertion.

It's an art to maintain the rhythm and keep yourself fit to walk the entire day. Walking in rhythm (neither too fast, nor too slow) over ascends and meadows and plateaus, I have trekked for 22 hrs, without resting for more than 20 min at each break, with a total of around 2 hrs in resting.

It is important for a group to be in pack during the entire trek/hike. We simply can't expect every other guy/girl to walk with your rhythm. There will be rolling stones (I meant, people who walk a little slower than what suits your walking style). In that matter, you shouldn't just go ahead, find a tree to rest by and wait for them to come, this isn't the way to trek within a group. I have observed this humongous amount of times that people who have developed the habit (ability is not the word) to walk briskly often do the same thing. Rather, if I am a guy who can walk at a mild pace, I can accompany almost every single fellow in the group often shifting my gears just a bit to get along with the guy/girl marching ahead of the group and ask him to slow down if he/she is going too fast, and without much of rest needed, can simply walk a little slow to get to the guy/girl trailing behind the group, having tough time and try to make him/her feel better by deviating his/her mind from the exhaustion that he/she is feeling, help him/her boost up his/her morale to carry on a little further. To achieve this, I need to have a rhythm that is neither too fast, nor too slow. Someone who walks briskly/faster won't be able to do that task over the longer formats of the treks.

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This is the correct answer indeed. A couple of suggestions for improvement: 1) The second row from the second paragraph sounds a little rude/boosting to me. 2) More importantly, it would be nice to mention how could a group synchronize their walking, if each person has his own unique rithm. –  Vorac Nov 27 '13 at 13:26
@Vorac Didn't get why you added the group part. My question in no way is related to "retaining the pack structure" during a trek. Adding this to the answer in someways would deviate the answer. And which part of the answer sounds rude? Can you point that out so that we can get it corrected. –  Unsung Nov 28 '13 at 8:37
@Unsung, you also didn't explicitly mention to hike always alone. And an advice on efficient hiking, which however tears up the group, would be useless IMHO. The "rude" thing was an extremely minor, subjective issue. –  Vorac Nov 28 '13 at 9:20
@Vorac Oops. Sorry about missing out the "group" part. I was mostly focusing on walking up slopes as a personal thing. Of course, when in a group, the dynamics are totally different and one does slow down to help/stay with others. –  Unsung Nov 28 '13 at 9:25

As already said in WedaPashi's answer, the question in my personal experience is not so much about fast and slow. It is mainly about finding your own rhythm and walking speed that you can then sustain for long times.

Whenever I go too fast, I come to a state where I have to take a rest, after some minutes I feel like "Oh, I'm fine again", start to walk again too fast and have to stop after some minutes again breathing like a steam engine. Overall this takes me much longer than walking with lower but quite constant speed. But once I am in this "run and rest" mode, it is very hard to get myself out of it again and regain a more constant walking mode.

Just recently I had to walk behind someone who was walking slightly slower than my own rhythm was. It nearly drove me crazy as it was always an interplay between catching up and letting me fall back, because when I went my own speed I was too fast but at the speed of the guy in front I felt like being totally out of rhythm.

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Exactly! That is why I said here that everybody may have a different rhythm of walking developed over the time :) –  WedaPashi Nov 19 '13 at 15:39

This answer address efficiency i.e. to climb quickly, without getting too tired. It is something in between an answer and a comment.

One advantage of walking consistently is thermal balance. That's how some old people in my area hike for several hours in the snow, wearing only shoes and short pants.

And by thermal balance I mean avoiding the vicious cycle of

  • dress comfortably for the weather
  • walk 10 minutes
  • become too hot and sweaty and stop to remove a layer
  • walk 50 minutes
  • stop for a 5 minute rest
  • become cold from the wind and put extra layers on
  • depart from the rest and repeat the whole procedure.

This not only introduces huge time-outs for re-clothing, but can also be hazardous to health in colder climates.

However, this is only a secondary benefit and is in no way as significant as Weda's argument. Keeping consistent, slow (i.e. not exhausting) pace is the way to hike far and swiftly, for many days.

Interestingly, the same discussion applies to cyclists. Pedalling hard in a difficult gear is a performance-killer. It took me 10 years to learn that :D

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Upvoting it. Though I would love get some explanation on whether what you are referring to as Thermal balance is same or somehow correlated to Breathing? –  WedaPashi Nov 27 '13 at 13:01
Again, my concern is specifically with slopes with steeper inclinations. I feel that by talking about trekking in general, the focus on climbing slopes is lost. –  Unsung Nov 28 '13 at 8:43
@Unsung, my bad. Have you tried this experiment. Find a serious slope, for example a peak, that takes about 1-2 hours to climb. Climb it as you would. Return to the starting point and now climb it in such a way, as not to make any rests on the way, but still travel as swiftly as possible and still be nt any more tired when at the top, the you were climbing it briskly. Compare the times. –  Vorac Nov 28 '13 at 9:18

A slower, steady climb is better for me, because it takes energy when I stop to:
(a) stand with the pack on,
(b) remove and re-load the pack, or
(c) sit and standup with the pack on.

Taking shorter steps going uphill will help a lot. You have better leverage with your leg muscles. A walking motion is easier than a stair-climbing motion, but of course this depends a lot on the steepness of the trail.

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