Hiking is without a doubt one of the best ways to explore the world up close and personal. Nothing beats getting out in nature, breathing in the fresh air and walking through the trees, along the mountains and streams, and getting miles away from modern life.
Nothing, that is, until your knees start making things unbearable and you have no choice but to either rest, or worse, go back home.
If you want to enjoy those hikes without your knees giving way, you have to properly care for them as you hike. To do this, you need to work on your form and the weight of your pack. Choosing the right gear and nourishing with the right foods can also help.
Before you protest that you’re fit as a fiddle and can withstand anything, you should know that knee problems don’t just happen to older folks. They can happen at any age, even to someone who exercises regularly and is a healthy weight.
Keep reading and you’ll learn the best ways to preserve your knees so you can enjoy those long hikes, though first, you must learn why your knees start hurting while hiking.
Here’s why your knees hurt while hiking
As we just mentioned, the kind of knee pain that comes on while hiking can happen even to the most experienced and strongest of hikers. The knees are tender joints and they can suffer injury more easily because they’re bearing the brunt of your body weight PLUS the gear you’re carrying.
We often forget that this added weight is putting more pressure on our knees. Another factor is the way you walk otherwise known as your gait and the type of terrain you’re traversing. Sometimes, this is just temporary pain but in other cases, you may have sustained a serious injury. Keep reading and you’ll know more about whether you just need to make some adjustments or if you have a serious injury. If it’s the latter, you should make an appointment with your doctor right away to have it checked out.
Whether you have experienced knee pains from hiking or not, we’re here to help you minimize it in a variety of ways. By properly caring for your knee joints, you’ll have a better chance of avoiding injury and being able to get out there to do what you love, as nature intended.
1. Train those joints
Muscles train differently than joints and tendons. It takes more slow and steady training. It’s one thing to go on a hike for an hour nearby home or even on a campout. But if you’re trying to do a hike over 12 hours, you need to train for that for several hours a week over the course of years.
And yes, that includes weight. The more weight you’re carrying, the more that’s going to impact your knees. So let’s say you’ve been training for hiking but haven’t been using added weight to simulate what it will be like out in the wild, pardon the pun. In that case, you’re going to cause an injury.
What can you do to build strength and train for your hikes?
- Engage those muscles and joints! Most people that suffer injuries do so because they are inactive for a long time and suddenly decide to get out there. While that’s awesome, if you’ve been more sedentary, you need to take it step by step first.
- Strengthen the leg muscles! If you keep your legs strong, they will protect your knees. Do weight-bearing exercises that focus on strengthening the inner thighs, calves, quads, and hamstrings.
- Use ankle weights! Even just starting with 5-pound weights, you can do simple exercises at home to build up that muscle strength.
Ankle weights are great if you don’t have access to a gym. You can even do these exercises while you watch TV! Lie on your back with one leg bent while slowly lifting the other leg, then rotate that foot outward and pull the inner thigh tight. That’s just one exercise that can help you. For your hamstrings, stand while lifting one of your weighted feet behind you to a 90-degree angle. Hold it for about 10 seconds before lowering and then do it with the other leg.
2. Stretching is crucial when hiking
One thing that is super-important for hiking is to be flexible. To get to that point, you have to stretch. Not just for your knees either. Those hip flexors need your love too. All those lower body muscle groups need your love. All of these muscles come into play to keep your knees safe from harm.
And yes, it’s wise to always stretch prior to setting out on your hike. However, you should be doing this for weeks and weeks prior to your hike so your body is limbered up and ready to go the distance.
3. Choosing a better trail could be the key
Did you hurt your knees playing sports in high school? Are you obese? Have you been lethargic and out of the hiking circuit for a while? For any of these instances, you should at least start with something easier that has a more level surface.
Gradual inclines are the best to start with. You will be better able to train your way up to more challenging and longer trails. Don’t start out thinking you’re going to climb a mountain. It’s a great goal to work up to, but you’ll only be hurting yourself and possibly spoiling your potential to do so if you don’t take baby steps to get there. If you jump into intensive hiking without properly priming your body, you can suffer long-term knee and joint damage.
How to get to your hiking goals:
- Take short daily walks! Every day, get in the habit of walking.
- Go on one beginner hike a week! This will help you build more endurance for that long haul.
- Build up to that epic mountain hike! You can do it by taking time every day to work up to it.
- Be patient! It takes months to do this, but doing it right will make it sustainable rather than leave you with knee and joint problems that you might never recover from.
4. Make sure you know the right hiking technique
It’s all in the techniques you employ too. Hiking isn’t merely walking on different terrain. There’s much more to it than that. For starters, you may have noticed that when walking downhill, it’s hard to put your foot down so that the heel goes first to prevent a shock to the knees. You really could put the front part of your foot on the ground first and then engage your muscles to slow yourself so your heel just touches the ground lightly without smacking it.
To do that, you need a lot of strength and endurance built up in your lower legs, hence why we were pushing all those exercises and stretches earlier on in this post. Getting your Achilles tendon strong enough to be a good support is also important. Walking backward can really help with this, as long as the terrain allows. For practice purposes though, doing so may be the key to preventing knee and joint pains.
Why go backwards when descending? Simple. Your feet automatically touch the ground on the fronts first. Even in most other sports, you should never let your knees extend past your toes. You’re not always going to be able to avoid this, but knowing that this is the source of the pain can help you keep from making those overly exaggerated movements that can set things off.
Whether ascending or descending though, you should let those hiking poles (more on those just a bit further down) help you out. To walk on an ascent, use the left foot and right pole together simultaneously and the right foot and left pole together too.
For walking backward downhill, you really should try to walk backwards if at all possible. Sometimes, the terrain won’t allow for it. On a paved street or any easy path, you can do it though always watch out for potential pitfalls and dangers. Let the hiking poles help you too. One big tip though: DON’T walk backward on the ascent. You will really strain those knees.
– How to Safely Hike Uphill
Much of this all depends on the terrain you’re dealing with. You’re going to rely on your front-body muscles like the quads and hip flexors when going uphill. Unfortunately, most of those muscles are weak because we tend to sit so much (guilty as charged). When you’re not building up these muscles as you should, you wind up overusing them and thus allow your knee to extend way too much over your ankle. Doing this repeatedly will create a lot of pain and will eventually wear out your cartilage in the knees.
But there is a way to correct this. Walk so that your knees and shins are vertical with the ground. Make those calf muscles work harder rather than the quads. Keep your foot flat on the ground while walking (yes, even the heel) to keep it all even.
– How to Safely Hike Downhill
Some terrain can get really steep and long. And despite your best efforts to keep steady and controlled, you might feel like you’re about to take off running. Even for those with no knee or joint issues, you can easily experience pain on the downhill slopes.
So what helps when going downhill? If walking backward is impossible in this location, you have to adjust the way you walk. Lean your torso back and as you do, let your hips move from left to right to shift the weight around while your foot hits the ground. A zig-zag pattern down the trail can also help keep from overextending your legs and feeling that pounding in your knees.
5. Reduce the weight of your backpack
Remember what we said about the weight you carry? If you’re not practicing for a hike with a loaded pack, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise. Your backpack adds more weight to your hips and knees. Some math can help illustrate this point.
Anywhere from 3 to 6 times your body weight is pushed onto each knee with every step you make on level ground. Let’s say you weigh 150lbs. Then a force of anywhere from 450 to 900lbs is put onto your knees every time your heel makes contact with the ground.
Now, let’s increase that body weight by adding your pack load. So, if you have a 20-lb backpack, you’re adding an additional 60 to 120lbs of force with every step. Ouch.
So, what can you do? For starters, if you’re carrying extra weight on yourself, start reducing it to make a big difference. And regardless of that, look for ways to reduce the weight of what you’re carrying in your backpack to lessen the load on your knees. More on all this below so keep reading!
6. You may need to drop the extra pounds
Look, we don’t want to rain on your parade (or rather, your hike), but if you have any excess weight, it is best to work on losing it to help lessen the inflammation and pain. You’ll also stop any more damage from coming on. As you can see from our little math lesson above, the more pounds you’re carrying around, the more your poor joints suffer.
Don’t shrug it off if you’re young either. It WILL catch up with you. Do your best to eat right and keep active. Even if you’ve dropped 5 to 10lbs of excess weight, you’ll be saving your knees from major pains.
7. Use walking/hiking poles
Ok, so they look a little goofy, but using poles has scientific merit behind it for reducing the stress on your feet, legs, knees, and back while you’re out there hiking. They essentially share your overall weight load (from your actual weight and the weight of your backpack) and make it more evenly across your body. This helps you in so many wonderful ways.
How do they help?
- They protect your knees, especially when going downhill
- They can help you walk faster
- They improve your endurance and power
- They give you more balance on uneven terrain
- They help you walk with an upright posture to keep back strain away
- They help you strengthen your muscles along the spine
- They keep you from feeling fatigued
- They give you an added boost of calorie burn from engaging the upper body
- They build more muscles in your upper body
Now, you can use one walking pole if you prefer though doing that for a great amount of time means you only work one side of your body more than the other. That creates an imbalance which isn’t ideal, though if you switch sides often, that can help. Some hikers use just one pole for river crossings or downhill sections and not for the duration of the hike.
There are tons of hiking poles out there but the best is the kind that can help you most on your descent. You need to be able to count on them to put your weight on. Going downhill, this means you need to put them in front of you. Do keep in mind that you often curl your wrists to engage them in this fashion and when you do, it can lead to additional soreness. Looking for poles that allow you to have a perpendicular grasp can make all the difference, like Foxelli’s carbon fiber hiking poles (Amazon link) for example.
But just because you get hiking poles doesn’t mean you’re using them the right way. It might seem like a non-issue, but really, if you’re going to hike for any duration, using 2 of them is best. You’ll get more traction and support plus you’ll keep things symmetrical when working your body. Symmetry translates to balance, something that can only help you when you become an avid hiker.
Walking with the hiking poles, you should use the right pole with the right foot, placing that right foot next to the pole. The left foot should move with the left pole and be placed next to it as well. Some people find that doing left pole with the right foot works better for their pain while others will switch it up. Either way, you’ll have a less painful experience when you really use them. Poking the ground with them on the mountains isn’t using them correctly. Walk with them and you will notice a big difference in how you feel after hiking.
8. Take it slow, no need to hurry
If you’re hurrying along, you’re missing the point of hiking. Go at the pace that fits you at this point. In several months with plenty of practice, you’ll notice you’re moving at an accelerated pace. For now, pushing yourself will only lead to problems for your knees and joints.
And it probably goes without saying but we’ll say it… don’t jump! This can really pain your knees, especially since you’ll have that backpack on. Remember what we said about force? You will be in a world of hurt if you try that!
9. Wear proper-fitting shoes
If you’re going to invest time in hiking, then you need to invest in proper shoes. The shoes you choose should be well-cushioned. That way, when your heel hits the ground, your shoe will absorb that bodyweight instead of your knees.
Shoes that are too tight can cause toenails to come off. And while we’re on the subject of toenails, make sure you have trimmed them before your hike. You don’t want them encountering the front of your shoe or all you’ll think about as you hike along is how much your feet hurt.
Conversely, shoes that are too big can be problematic too. You can use those gel toe inserts like a ballerina which can be incredibly comfortable when you’re making really steep descents.
Slide-style shoes aren’t recommended for hiking. You want hiking shoes that can be tied tightly for a snug fit on your feet. This keeps the toes in the right place and gives your feet the proper amount of support during your excursion.
10. Invest in good quality insoles
Even some of the best shoes out there have cheap insoles. Since every foot is different, most commercially-produced shoes will have inferior insoles. The reason is people that know the difference replace those insoles in favor of something that is designed to fit their specific needs.
Sure, foot comfort has a lot to do with your hiking, but the insoles can also directly impact your knees. The arch of your foot needs proper support. Without it, it flattens as you walk and then your toes push forward. Doing this puts a slight twist on your ankle and hence, leads to strain on your knee. A misaligned foot means a misaligned body. If you want to avoid joint pains, use insoles.
It might seem insignificant, but during a hike, you’re going thousands upon thousands of steps each day and all those little steps add up. On top of that, the more fatigued you are as you get into the thick of your hike, the more of a struggle it is to walk correctly with proper form. Good insoles in your good hiking shoes are one very small change with one big positive impact for you!
11. Compression socks for your knees will make quite a difference
Compression socks designed for hiking aren’t just beneficial for muscle recovery. They can also help you improve your joint and muscle stability. With this simple way of adding support, you can keep your body moving and thriving without pain. You’ll find these in a variety of styles and lengths, even ones made from wool to keep you warm in colder weather.
12. Supportive knee braces can help too
You don’t need to wait until knee pains come on and become problematic. You can prevent it with supportive knee braces. If you just like to hike on weekends, using one of those knee sleeves (Amazon link) can really help. The ones that leave your kneecaps exposed are great for preventing compression on the knees.
Knee straps are best if you are doing longer hikes like a multi-day adventure. They’re a bit slimmer and tend to be less restrictive while giving your knees the support they need.
13. Foods that may help your joints when hiking
If you want to keep your joints healthy and free of pain, especially in your knees, you’ve got to eat like you mean it. The main things you need to eat are:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in salmon, olive oil, and walnuts, among other foods. You can take olive oil along with you or nuts for an easy snack too. With olive oil, you can use it in many ways on the trail for lubricating joints, a quick boost, or for keeping skin soothed. Eating more of it can make a huge difference.
Bromelain is in pineapple. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory. While it might be hard to take a pineapple along, try dried pineapple. Make your own trail mix with it and enjoy more than its sweet and tropical taste. The bromelain in pineapple can help speed up your recovery from joint and knee pain.
If you have severe joint pains, you can take supplements. Glucosamine is very beneficial for reducing pain and helping repair damaged cartilage too. Chondroitin also has similar effects.
14. Don’t forget to pack ointments
When out in the beauty of the wilderness, take your first aid kit full of ointments too. Making sure you have the things you rely on when knee and joint pain comes calling is a blessing when you’re miles away. Make sure it’s something you’ve used with success before first though. There’s nothing worse than trying something new that doesn’t help as well when you’re too far to do anything else about it.
You might not have experienced any knee or joint pain yet as you’ve been hiking or doing any sports. That doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen. Remember, it can come on suddenly even if you’re at a healthy weight and incredibly fit. By knowing what can bring pain and how to prevent and treat it, you’ll go on to have happier, healthier, and lengthier hikes for years to come!