Hiking is an incredible way to boost your mood, spend time outdoors, and challenge yourself both physically and mentally. As many hikers already know, it can also take a toll on your body — specifically, your knees. If you’ve ever been on a long (or short!) hike, you know that hiking knee pain can ruin your day.
The good news is that hiking doesn’t have to hurt. Knowing how to take care of and protect your knees while hiking can help keep you healthy, happy, and pain-free whether you’re a weekend day hiker or a long-distance thru-hiker.
In this blog post we share our top tips for protecting your knees while hiking.
What Causes Hiking Knee Pain?
Even the strongest and most experienced hikers can suffer from knee pain after hiking. No matter who you are, these joints are more likely to be at risk of injury simply because they carry nearly all of your body weight when you walk. Depending on your gait (which is specific to you) and the terrain you’re walking on, the kind of knee pain you experience and how best to treat it can vary.
Of course, if you think you may have a serious injury, consult a physician for medical advice. However, there are plenty of simple ways to care for your knee joints that begin from the ground up and eliminate (or at least lessen) hiking knee pain.
How to Reduce Knee Pain Hiking Uphill
The type of terrain you are walking on can determine the physics of everything from proper foot placement to form and especially where, and how, your body bears weight. In general, most of us rely on the muscles on the front of our body (think: quadriceps and hip flexors) to walk uphill instead of the hamstrings and calves to propel us forward against gravity. This is simply because those muscles are weaker thanks to the excessive amount of sitting we do on a daily basis. As a result, we overuse our quadriceps, and the knee tracks too far over the ankle, eventually creating painful wear and tear in the cartilage.
The simple way to fix this is to try and keep your knee and shin vertical to the ground as you walk uphill and use your calf muscles instead of the quads to move you upwards. You can do this by keeping your foot flat on the ground as you walk, including your heel, rather than making steps with your toe.
How to Reduce Knee Pain Hiking Downhill
You know those treks down a canyon or to a lower elevation that never seem to end? They’re steep, long, and make you feel like you’re practically running. Or maybe it’s rocky with a loose surface that has you feeling a little unsteady. Even if you have healthy joints, it’s common to have knee pain hiking downhill.
The key to preventing knee pain hiking downhill is to walk in a way that helps to soften the blow. Sit back slightly and allow your hips to shift from side to side to help disperse the weight as your foot hits the ground. Also, try to zig-zag down the trail whenever possible to avoid walking directly down on straight, extended legs which will create a painful feeling of pounding on the knees.
Trekking poles are immensely helpful for reducing knee pain when hiking downhill, which we’ll cover more in the next section.
Best Gear to Protect Your Knees While Hiking
There’s never any shame in relying on your gear to help you on your adventure. It’s both practical & smart. Whether you are on a day hike or an overnight backpacking trip, good gear can actually prevent knee pain while hiking. Here are our essentials:
Using trekking poles while you’re hiking can give you better stability and keep your knee and ankle joints safe on the trail. They are the #1 way to protect your knees from hiking knee pain. Here are a few other benefits of hiking with trekking poles:
- They help build strength and endurance by engaging your arms and core (as well as your legs)
- They improve your balance, which is great for rocky or uneven terrain and river crossings
- They help distribute the weight while carrying a pack
- They reduce the pressure on your joints
Thinking of investing in a pair but don’t know where to start? Check out our roundup of the best trekking poles where we also include more helpful tips on why you should use trekking poles regularly.
Proper Fitting Hiking Boots
Our feet are the foundation of almost every movement that we make. If you have improper footwear that makes you feel uncomfortable or restricted while hiking then that will certainly take a toll on your knees, hips, and even the low back. It’s important to choose boots with good traction, sturdy material, and flexibility that will allow your feet a healthy range of motion to help you walk. A good rule of thumb to find out if you have properly fitting hiking shoes is that you can slide a finger into the shoe behind your heel and that you can wiggle your toes. Check out our guide to the best women’s hiking boots for suggestions.
Compression Socks for your Knees
Hiking compression socks can help with improving muscle and joint stability as well as muscle recovery. BFT community member Kim wore compression socks during the first 500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail to give her added support while on the trail and to promote faster recovery while on her rest days. CEP, a well-known company amongst runners, makes a few outdoor-specific hiking compression socks of varying lengths some of which are even made with Merino wool.
Supportive Knee Braces
There are a few different supportive braces to protect your knees while hiking that are designed specifically for hitting the trails. If you’re mostly just a weekend hiker, a knee sleeve might be a good idea. My boyfriend Ryan has bad knees and finds these very useful. You can wash & thoroughly dry the brace between uses to keep it fresh.
When Kim was researching knee support for her PCT thru-hike her chiropractor recommended a brace that leaves the kneecap exposed, so you aren’t compressing your knee joint for an extended period. If you’re thru-hiking or needing a knee brace for a multi-day outdoors vacation, you might want to consider a knee strap. They are slimmer & less restrictive without absorbing as much body sweat (& smell), yet still provide ample support for your knees.
Get Plenty of Omega-3’s
Omega-3’s are fatty acids that your body doesn’t produce on its own. They help to lubricate your joints as well as decrease muscle and joint pain by reducing inflammation. Flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds, egg yolks, and olive oil are all rich in Omega-3’s. You can also take an Omega-3 supplement if you’re not getting enough in your diet – we like this all natural, fish-free vegan Omega 3 supplement. Omega 3’s have been proven to improve focus and concentration which is great for conquering those 14er’s or a thru-hike. If you’re completing a thru-hike, you might want to also consider taking glucosamin. which helps reduce pain and repair and rebuild cartilage.
How to Have Healthy Knees Off the Trail
Speed up healing and recovery by giving those knees a little extra love and attention after a long hike. Any activity that requires physical exertion will make your muscles tight and potentially add insult to injury. When it comes to your knees, that tightness can seriously stress out the joints, so make it a habit to regularly stretch and release the muscles.
- Break uptight connective tissue and relieve soreness by massaging or rolling out your feet and calf muscles with a self-massage tool like a foam roller or acupressure ball.
- Those quad muscles do a lot of the heavy lifting so give them a good stretch. You can also use a muscle roller or soft foam ball to release tightness.
- Strengthen your hamstring muscles. Exercises that help you develop strong, healthy, and resilient hamstrings will give you the push power you need to engage the proper muscles while walking and hiking. Lunges and squats are two great exercises for strengthing your hamstrings. You can even do lunges with a loaded pack on if you want to add weight or use a kettlebell or weights when doing squats.
- Practice restorative yoga or stretch your body in between your hiking adventures, which aids in your recovery time