Advanced Hiking Skills: Climbing and Descending a Steep Muddy Hill Without a Rope

James Ryan

DISCLAIMER: Before attempting any level of exercise, please consult with your physician to ensure that you are in good physical condition and able to participate in any of the explained activities. You should understand that when participating in any form of an exercise program, there is always the possibility of physical injury. If you engage in these activities, you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, and assume all risk of injury to yourself.

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Sometimes, particularly with inclement weather, there’s just no avoiding the treacheries of mud when hiking out on the trails. Granted, some trails are better suited for beginners than others – flat, smooth and in some cases partially paved, but more often than not, if you spend enough time hiking and exploring off the beaten path, particularly in the Niagara Peninsula, weather will play the biggest determining factor when rating the difficulty level of most any trail.

I think it goes without saying that dry conditions are a lot easier to maneuver and keep your balance on, especially on a fairly steep hill without a lot of natural footholds, than a muddy one.

To start with, the best and biggest piece of advice that I can give to anyone hoping not to slip, fall and maybe even injure themselves on a wet, slippery incline would be to get yourself a decent walking stick – about four to four and half feet in length. I never would have used one when I was younger, I admit, but I don’t hike without one anymore. Such a valuable tool that a lot of beginner to novice hikers just don’t appreciate. It also makes a great pole vault and defender against coyotes.

WHEN CLIMBING up a steep embankment or hill, I’m reminded of the advice that I gave to my kids when they were very young and we’d all go out for what would start off as an easy little hike but always somehow ended up as an unexpected adventure. First, make sure that if you reach up to grab something like a rock or a root (don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty) that they are secure enough to hold your entire body weight if you were to accidentally slip. Assuming you could hold on of course. In other words, test the security first before committing yourself. What you thought was a root might actually be a stick and that wouldn’t be good. You definitely do not want to go ass over tea kettle down a big lumpy hill.

Then when possible, always attempt to follow the tree line. You’d be amazed at how roots, branches and even the trees themselves can make for an excellent ladder. And lastly, moss on a rock is usually a good sign of a natural foothold. So I find anyway. Just watch your step on any leaves.

When hiking, you might also want to consider wearing decent hiking boots with good soles and comfortable ankle support. I would also recommend investing in a good pair of hiking socks – something that will keep your feet warm and dry. And last but not least, I personally wear ankle high gaiters under lightweight, breathable rain pants. Together, they keep the mud and water from getting inside and ruining my boots. Do I recommend them? Yes.

WHEN DESCENDING I take my time. The biggest mistake I think anyone can make is when they try to rush down the hill. I imagine when I was young and stupid I would have just slid down as if I were standing on some imaginary surfboard. But not now though. Now I take the time to fully enjoy my surroundings and the entire process of something that I often equate to the skill-testing game of chess. Finding the best possible pathway with the least likelihood of slippage results in careful planning mixed in with a certain element of danger – the perfect game of risk and reward.

Again, use trees and roots whenever necessary. Don’t be afraid to bend low and use your hands. Keep your feet turned sideways. If you are right handed, put your left food forward and lean back onto your walking stick (right hand) so that you 1) anchor yourself, and 2) distribute the majority of your weight onto your right (hind) leg which will definitely improve your balance. Bend those knees.

I don’t know guys, it’s not rocket science. Just get out there and take your time. It’s beautiful. Enjoy it. And I only just realized right now that on my last two hikes, I hadn’t even encountered one¬†other person out there on those trail sections. A darn shame if you ask me, but oh well… more mud for me.

Be safe. Have fun. And remember – no achievement in this life is too small.

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James Ryan
James Ryan


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