Rest Steps!

[This is a repost from my Climbing Mt Kinabalu blog, slightly edited.]

As I wandered around reading different web sites on hiking and related subjects, I ran across a reference to rest steps. After checking out several web pages and videos, I realised that not only is rest-stepping a supremely useful technique for high-altitude hiking, it can also mean the difference between a successful and unsuccessful attempt on Mt Kinabalu. Strangely, I couldn’t find any reference to rest stepping on any of the Kinabalu related web sites.

Rest steps are a technique for conserving energy and resting your leg muscles as you climb steep slopes. Simply put, when you straighten each leg as you climb, pause for a moment with your leg locked before taking the next step. When you do this, your bones take the weight of your body and give your leg muscles a momentary rest. This has the effect of both slowing you down (so you burn less energy) and giving your body a brief rest every step. All these short breaks add up. Hikers who rest step not only take fewer breaks but are also less tired at the end of the day.

It helps to synchronise your breathing as you rest step. Breathe out completely as you take a step, then on the rest step inhale deeply. If you feel winded or are feeling the effects of high altitude, slow down and take two breaths with each step. This helps keep your blood oxygenated and reduces the effects of mountain sickness.

Two of the pages that I found most useful on the topic are Next Level: The Rest Step and Rest Step for Uphill Hiking. In addition, Backpacking.net has a good technical description of how rest stepping works as well as numerous tips for reducing back strain.

There are a number of short videos on YouTube that demonstrate the technique. The ones here and here are good.

I wrote the above before even trying the rest step technique out. This afternoon I went back to my training mountain and gave it a go. I rest-stepped in two different sections: the steepest part of the mountain, a 200 metre rocky stretch with a 30-35% slope and my regular training section.

The results were amazing. First of all, it was remarkably easy to get into the rhythm – step, rest… step, rest… step, rest. It was particularly easy on the steeper rocky section. While I was in the rest phase, I was replanting my poles for the next step. The best part, however, was on my training section. I was certainly climbing much more slowly than normal, but my heart rate and breathing were about the same as I would expect on a moderately brisk walk. I reached the top feeling like I’d been for a 2-3 km stroll.

I can’t stress enough how useful a technique this is. It quickly became such a natural part of my hiking rhythm that I wonder if it’s not in our genes somewhere. As soon as I start breathing hard on a hill, I automatically start rest-stepping.

Rest-stepping was an invaluable technique when I climbed Mt Kinabalu. Here you have nearly nine kilometres of nonstop uphill hiking. Taking rest steps made it possible to reach the summit without feeling absolutely exhausted.