Hiking is a labor of love that takes us places that cars simply can’t. It’s a way to connect with nature on an intimate level on the two sole express and spend time away from the constant buzz of technology. It’s no surprise that knee pain and hiking go hand in hand.
If you hike long enough, knee pain is an inevitable consequence of pounding out miles on the trail. Our knees and legs take bear the weight of our bodies and absorb the lions share of the impact of each and every step.
Commonly referred to as “hikers knee”, pain in and around the kneecap is a common ailment among long-distance hikers, as well as, day hikers. While knee pain is something that we can’t control there are preventative measure that we can take to avoid knee pain ruining the day. These tips and tricks will give you an idea of how to protect your knees while hiking.
Why is knee pain common among the hiking community?
Simply put, hikers abuse their knees more than the average person. Hiking is rarely done on a well-maintained trail and the most enjoyable hikes are found in places that are hard to reach. Knee pain varies from person to person and is largely dependent on how they walk, their gate, and the condition of their knees.
According to the Journal of Ergonomics, “In the USA about a third of the adult population participate in hiking, and the participation rate is supposed to increase up to 10% in the next decades. 80% of the injuries in hiking occur in the lower extremities and of them 19.2% occur at the knee.”
Needless to say, finding ways to mitigate knee pain is the key to enjoying a lifetime of hiking.
9 ways to protect your knees while hiking
Hiking is a glorious activity, however, there is always the chance of injury or pain in your knees. Take these 11 tips and put them to work to protect your knees to the best of your ability.
1. Strengthen your muscles before the hike
There’s an old saying, “the best defense is a good offense.” One of the best ways to avoid knee pain while hiking is to strengthen the muscles in and around your knees. Increasing the strength in your legs stabilizes the knee and strong muscles absorb the stress that the trail puts on them.
Strengthening your knees begins with focusing on your quadriceps and hamstrings. It doesn’t end there, according to Dr. Richardson via Harvard Health, “In the old days, we just strengthened the quads. Now we know that it’s also important to strengthen the hip and core muscles to maximize the function of the knee.”
There are a number of exercises that you can do at home to increase strength. You don’t have to hire a physical therapist or pay for a trainer make moderate gains that will make your next hike pain free.
2. Maintain a healthy weight
If you’re overweight, the added stress to your joints will be heightened during an intense hike or other physical activities. Getting down to a manageable weight will have benefits that reverberate throughout all aspects of your life, including your time on the trail.
When you’re overweight, every extra pound of weight equates to 4 pounds of added pressure on your knees (source). In other words, if you are 10 pounds overweight, there are an extra 40 pounds of pressure on your knees. It’s important to get down to your optimal weight. It’ll take stress off of your knees, joints, and muscles.
3. Increase your range of motion (yoga)
As we age, our muscles and joints tend to stiffen up, especially if you work in a sedentary environment. Hip and knee joints begin to lose cartilage and muscles weaken which are contributing factors to fatigue and reduced activity tolerance (source).
One of the best ways to increase your range of motion is to practice yoga on a regular basis. Yoga has a number of benefits on the body, including…
- Increasing your range of motion
- Strengthen muscles that support joints
- Increasing bone strength
- Keeps cartilage healthy
- Circulates synovial fluid in movable joints (source)
4. Use trekking poles
Trekking poles are a simple way to take some of the stress off of your knees. By using trekking poles you are transferring some of the pressure from your knees to your arms and shoulders.
Trekking poles also do a fantastic job of assisting hikers as they head downhill, which is one of the hardest portions of any trail on your knees. The constant downward force and awkward steps make heading down stressful on your hips and knees. Trekking poles are designed to help you maintain balance and limit stress on your hips and knees.
5. Stretch before every hike
Stretching is something that we learn how to do at a young age, especially if you played sports. As we prepare for a hike at any age, it’s important to get the muscles warmed up and stretched out before hitting the trail.
Stretching before you engage in physical activity is an important part of any exercise. By definition, stretching is the deliberate lengthening of muscles in order to increase flexibility and range of motion.
- Increases performance of physical activities
- Decreases your risk of injury
- Enables muscles to work efficiently
- Helps your joints through their full range of motion
6. Wear good hiking boots or shoes
Comfortable and supportive shoes take pressure off of the knee joint through increasing leg alignment and balance (source). A proper pair of hiking boots or hiking shoes will limit the stress on your knees and the pressure on your tendons. You want to find a pair that has a supportive sole, cushioning and good ankle support.
If you have spent a lot of time hiking there is a good chance you have had the unfortunate experience of wearing a bad pair of boots. Not only will your knees hurt, but there’s also a good chance you will have blisters, a sore back, and sore feet. Not the ideal way to end the day.
7. Hike carefully downhill
You would think that hiking downhill is the easy part of the hike. The truth is that hiking downhill causes significantly more stress on your knees than the uphill portion. As you hike downhill your steps are longer, the impact on your knees is greater, and the pace is more similar to a light jog.
According to the US National Library of medicine, “Prolonged DW induces damage to leg muscles, reducing force generating ability and muscle coordination. These increase risks for more serious injuries and accidents in mountain trekking.”
The trick to avoiding knee injuries and impact while hiking downhill is to take your time, limit the impact with trekking poles, watch your step, and keep your weight behind you.
8. For chronic pain use a knee brace
Chronic knee pain is any type of repetitive strain or injury that reappears over time. It’s long-term pain, swelling, or sensitivity that shows up in one knee or both (source).
Knee braces for hiking are designed to add support and stabilize the knee and surrounding areas. If you suffer from chronic knee pain or are recovering from an injury a knee brace will help you enjoy the hike with limited discomfort. Knee braces will add extra cushioning if you slip and allow you to hike without aggravating an injury.
9. Limit backpack weight
A common theme so far has been reducing stress on the knees. One of the quickest and easiest ways is to limit the weight of your backpack. Ultralight backpacking has blown up in recent years and the principles can be applied to any hike.
Take the essentials with you, things like water, snacks, and a first aid kit. Any more than that and you’re adding unnecessary weight to your knees. Heavy backpacks will lead to injuries over time so it’s always a good practice to go as light as possible.
Hiking is an amazing way to spend an afternoon. Whether you choose to go solo or hike with friends, just being outdoors and with nature is grounding. Knee pain while hiking is something that most people will suffer at one point in their life and is no reason to give up.
It’s important to take care of yourself before the hike and during the hike to ensure that you’ll have many more to come. Take these tips and use them to your advantage, a little knowledge goes a long way.