For hiking up steep grades, like those you find in both the mountains and in canyon country, discipline yourself to take small, slow steps. Mountaineers have used a step known as the rest step for years, and it can be a very useful tool for you as well! How slow your step should be will depend on several different factors: the elevation you live at and that at which you’re hiking, your aerobic fitness, how much weight you are carrying (both on your body and in your pack), and how steep the grade is.
Most people live at or near sea level; much of the desert Southwestern United States sits at 4000 feet above sea level and higher. Even much of the eastern Phoenix valley varies in elevation from 1200 to 1600 feet! The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is at 7000 feet and the Colorado River (which I know you know is at the bottom of the canyon!) near Phantom Ranch is 2400 feet above sea level! What I’m trying to emphasize is that this entire region will be high elevation hiking for most of you. Therefore, the air will be thin and oxygen will be at a premium just when you need it most!
While hiking uphill, you are using your large muscles, the quadriceps (thigh muscles), and your gluteus maximus (butt muscles). These are very strong muscles that shouldn’t have any trouble carrying yours and your pack’s weight; however, they also require a good, steady supply of oxygen during exercise.
Because of the high altitude, you have to breathe more to get the same amount of oxygen that you would at lower elevations. This combination ends up being very tough on people who don’t know how to hike correctly in these conditions.
If you insist on trying to maintain a relatively fast pace, your breathing becomes labored, you feel your heart pounding in your head, and you start building up lactic acid in your muscles! Lactic acid is responsible for that burning sensation in the muscles when you’re exercising hard. You don’t have to get it so badly while you’re hiking though!
I will attempt to describe the step here; although it is difficult to explain how slow and steady you must actually go to do it properly. Keep in mind that the hardest thing about the rest step is disciplining yourself to go as slowly as you should.
The step itself doesn’t have to be anything more special than a SLOW step, somewhat like the wedding march! It might help you to think of some tune, or count numbers, or repeat a mantra in your mind to get your rhythm. If while you are hiking, you can talk in a normal—not breathless—voice, you are doing it right! Remember that everybody’s rest step will be different because of his or her different fitness level.
At first, it will seem very awkward and feel like it’ll take forever to get anywhere, but you will be amazed at how quickly you actually get to your destination. Because you are not depleting your body’s resources and building up lactic acid in your muscles, you don’t have to stop near as often to rest. Therefore, you will save time in the long run.
You will find yourself playing leapfrog with all of the fast hikers and not getting exhausted like they are. In fact, by doing this, you will still have the energy to enjoy the rest of your day and not have to go straight to bed to rest! This step has been so remarkable that I now teach it in every single class I offer. Try it—you truly will love it!!
For another site with a great description of the rest step, go to the Lightweight Backpacker website.