Knee Pain Hiking Downhill? 10 Tips To Lessen Discomfort on the Trail

Struggling with knee pain when hiking downhill? Discover our expert tips for preventing knee pain on the trail and off.

Bearfoot Theory founder Kristen Bor hiking the Kaweah Gap with backpacking gear in Sequoia National Park

Knee pain while hiking can turn an enjoyable day on the trail into a painful – and sometimes even excruciating – experience. I’ve definitely been there.

Knee pain hiking downhill is more common than you might think. For many people, discomfort happens on the return trip back from the summit or high point. But the good news is that there are ways to take care of your body and knees so that hiking doesn’t have to hurt.

In this blog post, we share our top tips for protecting your knees when hiking – and at home – so you can mitigate knee pain on the trails.

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Causes of Knee Pain When Hiking Downhill

Even the strongest and most experienced hikers can experience knee pain when hiking, especially when walking downhill. Knees carry nearly all of your body weight when you walk, after all.

Here are a few reasons why you might be experiencing discomfort:

  • Weak or imbalanced leg muscles: This can put extra strain on your knees as they try to overcompensate for the lack of muscle strength.
  • Knee hyperextension: Extending your knee joints too far, especially when walking downhill, can lead to knee pain.
  • Tight or weak hip muscles: Everything is connected, so if you have tight or weak muscles, your knees might be picking up the slack.
  • Unbalanced gait: Old injuries or imbalanced muscles can affect your gait, which can put more strain on your knees (particularly one more than the other)
  • Leaning too far back on the downhills: We naturally lean backward a little bit when hiking downhill to compensate for the slope, but leaning back too far can really put a strain on your knees.
  • Poor footwear choice or worn-out shoes: Hiking in shoes that aren’t made for hiking or have passed their expiration date, can be the culprit for knee pain.
  • Prior injuries: A rolled ankle or torn ligament can definitely lead to hiking knee pain down the road, but with proper care and management, prior injuries don’t have to be a clincher.
  • Inadequate recovery time: Not letting your body rest and recover during hikes – especially long or strenuous ones – can exacerbate knee pain.

If any of these causes ring true for you, the good news is that there are plenty of simple ways to care for your knee joints, which I’ll dive into below.

Woman using trekking poles while hiking down trail through a rock field in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado

Tips for Hiking Downhill

Knowing why you might be experiencing pain on downhill hiking trails is great and all, but what can you do about it?

There’s no one quick-fix answer that works for everyone, but here are a few tips and strategies to try:

1. Use trekking poles

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 pain when downhill hiking.

Here are a few other benefits of hiking with hiking poles:

  • They help build strength and endurance by engaging your arms and core
  • They improve 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 them regularly. 

Bearfoot Theory Pick

REI Trailmade Trekking Poles

If you’re looking for a solid pair of hiking poles for everyday hiking, the REI Trailmade Trekking Poles are a great option. They’re easily adjustable to match your height and they’re designed with ergonomic grips for comfort.

Where to shop

2. Choose Proper Footwear

Our feet are the foundation of almost every movement that we make on the trail. If you have improper or worn-out footwear, that will most certainly take a toll on your knees, hips, and even the lower back.

It’s important to choose boots or shoes that have good traction, are made from sturdy material, and have good flexibility. These features will allow your feet a healthy range of motion as you walk.

You may also want to consider a mid or high-ankle boot, which will give your knees (and ankles) more support than a hiking shoe or trail runner.

Tip: A good rule of thumb to find out if you have properly fitting hiking shoes is to see if you can slide a finger into your shoe behind your heel while still wiggling your toes.

Another thing to look at is how worn your shoes are. Like car tires, hiking shoes will loose tread over time and wear in specific spots. Too much wear can lead to an uneven gait and extra pressure on your joints, resulting in knee pain.

If it’s time for a new pair of shoes, check out our guide to the best women’s hiking boots for suggestions.

Bearfoot Theory Pick

Oboz Sypes

The Oboz Sypes (men’s) are my favorite pair of hiking shoes for everyday hikes. They have mid-ankle support and a cushioning footbed to relieve impact on the knees. They’re also fully waterproof, making them ideal for any trail or conditions.

Where to shop

3. Keep your center of gravity over your knees

Knee pain can be caused by too much strain on your knees due to poor posture when hiking.

When hiking, your center of gravity should be directly over your knees while keeping your knees slightly bent.

  • On the uphills, you want to lean slightly forward to compensate for the angle of the uphill slope.
  • On the downhills, you want to lean slightly backward to compensate for the angle of the downhill slope
  • On flat ground, you want your torso and hips to be directly over your knees

Important: One of the common reasons for knee pain when hiking downhill is leaning too far back. This puts a lot of strain on your quad muscles and knee joints. Make sure your center of gravity is over your knees, not behind them.

4. Take smaller steps

Taking big, long strides can put a lot of strain on your knees and even lead to hyperextension, especially when walking downhill.

Small, deliberate steps are better and can improve balance and stability.

This may mean you have to go at a slower pace, but that means more time to enjoy the trail and scenery! (And not have to deal with knee pain).

5. Avoid walking on the balls of your feet

This may sound like a no-brainer, but a lot of hikers actually walk on the balls of their feet subconsciously on steep or uneven terrain.

Instead, you want to aim for flat foot placement on the ground. Making complete contact with the ground helps distribute your weight evenly, taking pressure and impact off of your knees.

6. Stretch before you start

Taking a few minutes to stretch out your calves, hamstrings, quads, and hips at the trailhead can help prevent aches and pains during your hike.

You may also want to stretch during your hike on breaks or before you start your descent back down to the trailhead.

If you need some ideas on good stretches for hikers, head over to our post on Best Yoga Poses for Hikers and Backpackers.

Woman doing a quad stretch on trail before a hike
Stretching before your hike can help prevent knee pain during your hike

7. Try zig-zagging down the trail

Hiking downhill in a straight line can be really hard on the knees, especially if the pitch is steep.

Instead, try moving in small zig-zags down the trail whenever possible. This will put less pressure on your knees and help prevent you from hyperextending your joints.

8. Use knee joint support

Hikers who are dealing with previous injuries or arthritis in their knees may benefit from using a supportive knee brace designed for hiking.

If you’re mostly a weekend hiker, a knee sleeve is a great option. My boyfriend Ryan has bad knees and finds these to be very helpful for alleviating knee pain when hiking.

Bearfoot Theory Pick

Pro-Tec Gel Force Knee Sleeve

Designed to provide joint support for the knee and patellar area, the Pro-Tec Knee Sleeve is lightweight and breathable and provides moderate compression. The oval gel pocket around the knee cap helps the patella track straight and supports overall stability.

Where to shop

Another option is a knee strap. These are braces that leave the kneecap exposed, so you aren’t compressing your knee joint for an extended period. 

If you’re thru-hiking or need a knee brace for a multi-day outdoor adventure, you might want to consider this option. They are slimmer & less restrictive than a sleeve and don’t absorb as much body sweat (& smell). Yet they still provide ample support for your knees.

Bearfoot Theory Pick

Pro-Tec Patellar Tendon Strap

If knee sleeves aren’t comfortable for you or you’re doing a thru-hike and want something less bulky, we recommend the Pro-Tec Patellar Tendon Strap. It provides support under your kneecap for those experiencing knee pain.

Where to shop

9. Wear compression socks

Hiking compression socks can help reduce knee pain by improving muscle and joint stability and aid in muscle recovery.

BFT community member Kim wore compression socks during the first 500 miles of her Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike and experienced first-hand their ability to aid in faster recovery and less pain throughout the long days.

Bearfoot Theory Pick

CEP Compression Socks

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.

Where to shop

10. Lighten your load

Heavy backpacks can increase the pressure and stress on your knees, especially when you’re hiking downhill.

The extra weight forces your knees to absorb more shock with each step you take.

Over time, this added pressure can lead to increased wear and tear on the knee joints, potentially leading to soreness, strain, and even more serious injuries.

Tips for lightening your load:

  • Pack only the essentials. Whether you’re day hiking or backpacking, try to only bring what you need like the 10 hiking essentials or backpacking necessities.
  • Opt for lightweight gear. Nowadays, there is a plethora of ultralight hiking gear available that can significantly reduce your backpack weight without compromising on the necessary functionalities.
  • Share the burden: If you are hiking with a group, distribute the common items evenly among all members to ensure no one is carrying too much weight.
  • Water Sources: If there are reliable water sources along the route, carry a water filter and refill your bottles as necessary to decrease the weight in your backpack.

If you need some recommendations for packs, check out our top picks for the best women’s backpacking backpacks and women’s day packs.

Woman standing at lookout wearing a hiking backpack in Sedona, Arizona
Try to lighten the load of your backpack by carrying on the essentials

Caring for your knees off the trail

If you’re experiencing pain when hiking downhill, it probably means that your knees and body could use a little TLC off the trails, too.

Here are a few ways to care for your knees at home:

Start a stretching routine

I probably don’t need to belabor this point, but stretching is really good for your body.

Especially as hikers, our muscles can get tight and sore from hiking long miles, exploring uneven terrain, carrying heavy packs, and so forth.

Some light stretching can help your body recover from these outings and even reduce recovery time.

Muscle groups to focus on are:

  • Hips
  • Glutes
  • Quads
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves

Not sure where to start? Check out our post on Best Yoga Poses for Hikers and Backpackers

Yoga and stretching can help keep your knees healthy for hiking
Starting a yoga or stretching routine at home can help alleviate knee pain when hiking

Use a Foam Roller

Foam rollers are great for myofascial release, which can help ease tightness, soreness, and knee pain when hiking.

They’re particularly helpful along the outside of your tights on the IT Band, which get notoriously tight on hikers and backpackers.

If you’re new to foam rollers, here are 8 foam roller exercises to help you get started.

Get Plenty of Omega-3’s

Omega-3’s are fatty acids that your body can’t produce on its own. They help decrease muscle and joint pain by reducing inflammation.

Flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds, egg yolks, fish, 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.

Omega 3’s have also been proven to improve focus and concentration which is great for conquering those 14er’s or tackling a thru-hike.

Bearfoot Theory Pick

Freshfield Vegan Omega-3

Ryan and I follow a plant-based vegan diet, so we supplement with these vegan Omega-3 capsules derived from DHA & DPA-rich algae.

Where to shop

Take a joint-support supplement

If you’re completing a thru-hike or your knee pain is severe, you might want to also consider taking a supplement that contains glucosamine.

Glucosamine is a compound (usually derived from shellfish) that helps build and repair joint tissue including tendons, ligaments, cartilage, and synovial fluid.

There are a number of studies that show that glucosamine does help reduce joint pain.

Bearfoot Theory Pick

Thorne Joint Support Nutrients

Taking a joint supplement is a good strategy for protecting your knees, especially if you know the problem is due to arthritis, prior injuries, or damage to cartilage. The Thorne Joint Support Nutrients contains a blend of compounds that support joint health.

Where to shop

If you’re still experiencing knee pain when hiking after trying these tips, I recommend contacting a physical therapist so they can help you determine the root of the problem.

How do you protect your knees while hiking? Do you have any advice to share about knee pain when you hike downhill? Leave us a comment below!

Bearfoot Theory | Are you a hiking enthusiast but dread the knee pain that comes with hiking downhill? Our latest blog post is tailor-made for you! Dive into our expert tips and strategies to avoid knee pain while hiking downhill. Learn about the proper footwear, the right way to use trekking poles, and exercises to strengthen your knee muscles. Say goodbye to knee pain and reclaim the joy of hiking with our comprehensive guide. Pin now to take a step towards pain-free downhill hiking adventures!

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7 Comments

  1. Great tips! I’m starting to prep for the summer hiking season and my knees are always top of mind. I like to “train for the downhills” too, since I find that to be the hardest on my knees. I add heel drops and step downs to my squats and lunges to help with that. A little prep can make a huge difference out on the trail!

  2. I like the post about compression socks. I’ve heard they are not only useful for long airplane travel, but also for hikes. I’ve started to wear them. I will continue to test post-hike recovery.

  3. Hi, following three knee surgeries, I have invented and patented an accessory which negates and or reduces strain on knees for hikers descending slopes. Check out trekstepper.com. The first generation product is being replaced by a much more practical and simple to use model. The new model should be on the website within 10 days as website is being updated soon.

  4. Hi: A very good technique to protect your knees is to lower your back, as long as the mountain allows it. It is a technique used for many centuries by the Chinese. It may seem strange but you get used to it and your knees appreciate it.