Those who claim that it is easier to walk uphill, should just check their ascend time and compare it with their descend time. This will tell it all.
There are at least two possible aspects to consider when answering the question from the title:
- Aspect of physical forces.
- Aspect of body reaction, and this includes breathing, muscles, knee conditions, and age in general.
But all in all, in my view, it is far easier to descend and walk downhill, and here you can read why this is so.
Why is it harder to walk uphill than downhill?
Physical forces when you go uphill and downhill
The sketch below explains it all. This is mainly about gravity that acts vertically. This gravity vector can be presented also through its two components 1 and 2 in the picture.
Clearly the object in the picture cannot move into the ground (the vector 2), so it can only slide down the hill. This is presented by the vector (arrow) 1.
In the case of such a ball, it will roll down by itself. To move it up the hill, you have to do lots of work and apply force against the gravity component vector 1.
So the conclusion is, if you are in such a position on the slope, it is definitely far easier to descend (and to work with the help of gravity), than to ascend (and to work against gravity).
You will need far less energy to descend than to ascend. In other words, descending is more about controlling momentum and using the passive energy you already have.
But we all know this, don’t we. It is about something else, more below.
If you are on a scree, it may be really hard to go uphill. You can read more about this in my text entitled Strategy to Ascend a Steep Scree Slope.
Here just to stress the following. Because the surface is not compacted, with every step you will probably also slide down a few centimeters. So you lose energy more than when you ascend on a hard terrain.
On the other hand, when you descend on such a scree surface, you may slide in the direction of your movement, so this is gain in your overall progress. Have you ever seen people sliding fast down such steep scree slopes?
But wait, this is not so simple, see also about body muscles below.
Body reaction regarding uphill and downhill walk
Difficult breathing when ascending
When we ascend, we breathe at a faster rate. There are several related reasons. Our muscles do more work against gravity, so our heart must pump more blood through the body. In result, we have to breathe more because we need more oxygen and to pump out carbon dioxide.
So you understand how it all works together. As a result, you will also sweat more, and this will be with any pack as I discussed in my another text about ventilated backpacks that reduce sweat. The picture below tells you all.
Legs muscles aspect
On a rough steep slope you may need a lot of energy simply for balance. So this is a different type of hard work. Walking uphill is easier in this sense, but you spend far more energy to work against gravity.
As for the mentioned balance for downhill walk, here you use different types of muscles that are less used in your daily routine. In other words, unless you are specifically trained or you live on a 6th floor in a building without lift, you are probably less conditioned for a steep downhill walk.
This is why you might have trembling of your legs muscles after such a descent, and you may have a feeling that this is harder than going up.
Knee pain when descending
In my case, this was far worse years ago when I was regularly running quite long distances, 12-15 km or so. This was for years and I had to stop as my doctor strongly suggested.
So in that period, when I would go to the mountains, I would really suffer from my knees. But this was because they were already damaged by my running.
It is far better now after I stopped running. Though, in general, for me, it is still more painful going downhill than uphill. But remember, I am talking about pain and not about general easiness.
I have added this video which explains some details of how to walk. So have a look, it is useful. This is a mom with kids who are dealing with the camera, so you simply have to admire it.
But why do I have knee pain walking downhill?
I am not a medical doctor, but being one of those who suffer from keen pain, I was reading about it. Here are some possible reasons behind knee pain:
- Knee osteoarthritis: It seems that in most cases this is age related. Your cartilage that supports a knee can degenerate and bones do not have a proper cushioning. I found a number that 80% of osteoarthritis cases in the US are in fact knee osteoarthritis. So this is a serious issue that affect many, tens of millions to be precise. Is there a cure? It seems not.
- Patellofemoral pain syndrome: This refers to anterior knee pain, and it is frequent with runners and jumpers. It is caused by a damage of the soft tissues around your knee joint. Symptoms include grinding or clicking, and also swelling and pain in the knee cap. I find this interesting to compare with my case, I have such swelling behind the knee.
- IT Band syndrome: This is due to repetitive knee-bending which you surely have in hiking. You feel it as a strong pain when you ascend.
- It can also be some ligament injury, so it is good to consult your doctor.
How do I walk downhill the right way?
Most likely everybody will find his/her own best ways. But if you suffer from knee pain, here are some tips that some suggest. Though I want to stress that some are contradictory, but see the first sentence above:
- It is suggested to keep the knees slightly bent. This may be a bit tricky because you descend, and you have to extend your leg to put it on the ground which is lower in front of you. So frankly speaking, this is not so easy to apply.
- It may help in the previous case to land on your forefoot as some suggest. Apparently, this will come natural because you will have to extend it in any case. With such movements, plenty of muscles will be activated and you will not simply drop your body weight with every step onto your knees.
- However, I have seen some suggesting just the opposite, to dig and have a heel strike.
- Some also suggest to ‘lean slightly forward’. Imagine, on a steep downhill facing motion! I wonder if such people have tried this. You will lean forward naturally if you carry your pack, this is the way to maintain balance. But if you lean more, you are out of balance, so you need to use your muscles more, and this means wasting energy.
My own way
Here is something what I do, this is a way that works for me, and I mentioned it in my another text about ways to walk in extreme downhill.
First, it is best to descend at a mild angle. This means zig-zagging or going switchback style. The reason for this is that you have less stress on your knees.
Second, for the same reason, it is best to make small steps. This is good for stability, and also to reduce downhill acceleration that you have per each step, so less force/pressure is generated onto your knees.
Third, I use trekking poles. In fact, I never go without them. There are two reasons for this. They are good for stability, and with them I transfer a part of the weight to them and reduce it on my knees.
So extend your telescopic trekking poles a bit, dependent on the slope, this is better for stability.
One extra note
As a more general advise, reduce your body weight. I know this from my personal experience after reducing my weight for 18 kg. Trust me, you will not be the same person any longer, and you will be pleasantly surprised with your performance.
This holds both for uphill and downhill walk. In the case of uphill walk, you are lighter, your heart needs less to work, and your progress is faster.
For downhill motion, because you are lighter, there will be far less stress onto your knees, and you can also much better control your body on such an unstable terrain.
So this is what I had to say about this issue of walking uphill and downhill. The term ‘easier’ from the question in the title may not be completely clear. It is physically easier walking downhill, but regarding possible presence or absence of pain, and difficulty of breathing is a completely different aspect.
All in all, I am sure that for most people it is physically easier to descend, though perhaps not less painful. But you can read in my another text why it is easier to fall when walking down a slope than walking uphill.
How about you? Is it easier for you to walk uphill or downhill? Please share your thoughts, there is a comment box below. Thank you for reading and have a nice day.