Hiking offers incredible rewards—beautiful vistas of towering forests, soaring mountainsides, and yawning canyons—but they can also leave you with sore, throbbing knees. What can hikers do to enjoy nature and protect their knees? Read on to find out.
Demands on the Knee
To navigate gains and losses in elevation, hikers subject their bodies to forces they’re not accustomed to on level ground, which presents a greater potential for pain or injury. Our knees must work especially hard in such environments, making knee pain a common occurrence on the trail. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to minimize knee pain during hikes.
According to a recent Harvard Medical School article, your knees absorb a force 2 to 3 times your body weight on inclines or declines, and 4-5 times that force when squatting. Over the course of a hike these stresses can add up to very sore knees, especially when hiking through rugged terrain.
Depending on where you venture, how many miles you put in, and how much you’re packing, you could be exerting as much as five times your body weight on your knees for hours – and sometimes days – on end! This is why even fit, experienced hikers can still be struck by knee pain during their outdoor adventures.
Strategic Support: Tips for Dealing with Knee Pain on Hikes
Veteran hikers can keep at the trails year in and year out because they’ve learned some key strategies for properly supporting their knees against the pressures of the hike.
These strategies are not a guarantee that you won’t at some point experience serious pain or injury, in which case you should seek the advice of a medical professional. But taking these measures into account will go a long way towards alleviating the demands we make on our knees.
Exercising the muscles of the leg, especially the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves, can help to head off knee pain from the start. These muscles surround, support, and stabilize the knee, absorbing and offsetting some of the impact upon it.
Stretching those legs before and after the hike is also crucial. This is because stretching warms and loosens your muscles, increases flexibility, reduces soreness, and limits the chances of injury by making movements more fluid and dynamic.
If and when knee pain does occur, there are also specialized stretches that can help to address it.
Hiking uphill and hiking downhill require different tactics. While going uphill requires more physical exertion, going downhill can exert more physical force on the body. This is why knees are more prone to pain on the downslope: because the impact on them is greater. The trick is to walk in such a way that lessens this impact.
Walking straight down the trail at high speed isn’t the best approach. Instead, weaving from side-to-side at a steady, rhythmic pace will shorten your steps and keep you from lurching from one foot to the next.
It’s also important to avoid jumping from higher points to lower ones. It’s better to use your arms for support while lowering yourself down, easing rather than crashing your way onto your feet.
Hiking poles allow you to redistribute weight away from your legs, letting the arms and shoulders take on a portion of the force acting on your knees. Hiking poles can be especially helpful when used to stabilize the high-impact momentum of moving downhill.
A quality pair of hiking shoes or boots can reduce stress on the knees by helping to absorb the force of your footfall. Consider ones that fit snuggly, feel strong and sturdy, and that cushion and support both the foot and ankle.
Finally, patella tendon support straps can relieve pressure on tender knees and secure them from wayward movements that add to inflammation.