How to Prevent Knee Pain when Hiking?
August 26, 2022

Knee pain is a common tourist ailment; the load-bearing joint is not structurally ideal for hiking. Walking on an incline puts two to three times your body weight on your knees. Small decisions you make can have big consequences for your hiking health. A backpack that is too heavy increases the pressure on the knees and joints. Ill-fitting shoes can cause blisters and even make you change the way you naturally walk, increasing your risk of injury. Opting for poles means that your knees absorb a lot of unnecessary weight and distribute the weight more evenly across your body. None of this means you should hang up your hiking boots for good if you start to experience knee pain when hiking. Be smart about how you handle it.

Why do I have knee pain after hiking?

Our knees endure a significant amount of stress during daily activities, not to mention hours spent on rocky and uneven trails. This is why knee pain is very common among avid hikers. For many people, this pain occurs around or behind the knee joints and can also cause stiffness. This type of pain is usually worse when walking downhill or upstairs because of the excess pressure you put on your knees in these situations. Research suggests that the force on your knee joint is up to eight times your body weight when going downhill. In addition, the force on the knees is two to three times greater when you simply walk up the stairs.

Other hikers report inner knee pain in the area closest to their inner legs, usually caused by a tear or sprain. This can be the result of a specific injury or one of the many overuse conditions that cause inflammation. However, you may also feel sharp stabbing pain in knee comes and goes.

How to avoid knee pain on the trail?

For minor knee pain, strengthening and stretching are the name of the game. Tight leg stretches are a great start, but your hips also play a huge role in regulating knee pain. These 6 hard-to-reach sections are a great way to relax after a hike, and there’s no shame in stopping on the trail for a toe and shin stretch mid-hike. While you’re on the road, there are a few other things you can do to help with the pain:

  • Avoid locking your knees when hiking downhill keep them slightly flexed, and go slow.

  • Use trekking poles.

  • Try a knee brace or Kinesio tape.

  • Drink plenty of water.

  • Create your mini-switchbacks when hiking downhill by traveling in a zig-zag pattern.

  • Take breaks as much as needed.

Similarly, strengthening your hips and glutes can also help with knee pain. Many times these muscles are much weaker than our knee muscles. This is a big deal because these are the muscles responsible for holding your thigh bones in place, which is very important when hiking, walking, and pretty much any other physical activity.

How Do I Protect My Knees When Hiking?

If you’ve ever experienced knee pain after hiking, you know how excruciating it can be. Alleviating and eliminating knee pain requires preparation. Everyone is susceptible to tourists’ knees, even if you’ve never experienced it before. Here are some tips to avoid knee pain when walking downhill:

1. Wear the right footwear

Proper footwear is essential to protect your feet, ankles, and knees while hiking. It is extremely important to wear the right footwear. Always wear hiking boots or shoes (like runners) that fit well, provide enough support, and have plenty of cushion in the sole to absorb shock.

2. Use trekking poles for downhill hiking

If you experience knee pain after a downhill run, try using hiking poles. These poles absorb some of the impacts from the hill and protect your knees. A good pair of trekking poles is essential for hiking, especially downhill hiking and walking.

3. If possible, hike in a transition scheme

Hiking straight downhill on steep terrain can cause a direct impact on your kneecap. This can cause not only pain but also damage. If possible, take switchbacks or zigzags when going downhill. It might take you longer to get down, but your knees will thank you.

4. Drive slowly and avoid leaning

Take your time going downhill. Using a combination of trekking poles, zigzagging the route, and driving slowly will help protect your knees. Be aware of your posture. When you lean when walking downhill, you put more stress on your knees. A reverse route can help prevent this.

5. Consider a knee brace

If you experience knee pain after hiking, consider wearing a knee brace during your hikes, especially those with significant elevation changes. If you decide to use a knee brace, be sure to buy a brace specifically made for hiking that has lateral stabilizers and gel pads to support the patellar tendons. Everyday knee braces do not provide the proper support and alignment needed for hiking and may even cause more harm than good. Other considerations include taking joint supplements or eating foods rich in omega-3s, as well as strength training between hikes.

How do prevent knee pain after hiking?

As with any medical injury or condition, prevention is your best defense. With a few changes and adjustments to your hiking routine, you can get back to enjoying the outdoors pain-free. Try these simple steps to prevent pain:

  • Choose supportive footwear: Hiking involves rough terrain, rocks, and lots of other obstacles. Finding supportive and comfortable hiking boots is essential. They should fit properly and offer enough cushion to relieve excess pressure on your joints. Replace them if necessary after excessive wear.

  • Stretch before hitting the trails: Start your hike with a stretch to warm up your muscles. Focus on letting your legs relax with long, slow stretches that promote flexibility.

  • Reduce the weight of your gear: A heavy backpack puts unnecessary strain on your knees. Before each hike, think about what you need. While basics like sunscreen and water are important, find ways to lighten up. Instead of water bottles, try a lightweight water bag.

  • Invest in supportive clothing: Get extra knee support in the form of a brace. This will limit or stabilize joint movement to give you stability. Some hiking enthusiasts also find relief from kinesiology tape.

  • Get hiking poles: There is research that suggests hiking poles are effective in redistributing some of the pressure you feel in your knees. Especially when walking downhill, hiking poles can allow your arms and shoulders to absorb some of the impacts. It also serves as an added layer of protection against falls that could cause serious injury.

  • Take your time: Hit the trails with a slow and steady approach. Driving too fast will only put additional strain and pressure on the knees. When trying to negotiate steep slopes, try to carefully back off to the side. This will help shorten and smooth your steps.

Treating knee pain after hiking: 5 approaches

If you’re already suffering from knee pain when hiking or knee pain after hiking, several options can provide relief. Some are simple home remedies for pain behind knee, while others will require advice from your doctor.

1. Domestic remedies

You should usually start with simple home remedies before moving on to more invasive treatment options, especially if your pain is mild. Home care includes:

Applying ice or cold compresses to the knee. This will help reduce swelling and restore range of motion. Repeat three times a day for 10-20 minutes.

If your knee responds positively to heat and moderate activity, alternate the application of heated and cold packs. Try to keep the affected knees elevated while resting. You can do this with several pillows, but remember that it is important to lift the whole leg up to the ankle.

2. Physical therapy

In some cases, a special conditioning and stretching routine are needed to maintain or regain flexibility. Physical therapy can help you heal the pain you’re experiencing right now while rehabilitating your knees to prevent further injury. An experienced physical therapist will develop a plan that is specific to your goals and comfort level.

3. Medicines

For many patients, conventional over-the-counter medications provide significant relief from the pain associated with a hiker’s knee, especially during the acute phase of healing after an injury. These include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, naproxen, and ibuprofen.

These drugs work by inhibiting the body’s production of inflammatory molecules, thereby reducing the associated pain. However, in severe cases, these drugs may not provide sufficient relief. If you have stopped participating in a rigorous activity but still experience significant knee pain, your doctor may recommend more advanced treatment.

4. Knee injection

If your knee pain has not improved with conventional therapies, your doctor may suggest interventional pain management. Steroid injections into the knee can help reduce pain and inflammation in a specific area. While some patients respond to a single injection, others may need several injections over time. Most people experience pain relief and a reduction in inflammation for about six months.

5. Surgery

The last option in cases of severe knee pain is surgery. However, your doctor will generally recommend this only after trying a number of other non-invasive options. Generally, the need for surgery will be due to severe damage from aging, injury, or excessive overuse. Your doctor will either repair and replace the torn ligaments or replace the entire knee (arthroplasty).