As I near the ripe old age of 30, I’ve noticed more aches and pains while out on the trail. This year especially, that pain revolves around my knees, even with no serious injuries. So, I found some tried and true solutions for hiking with bad knees and how to protect them for adventures to come!
To hike with bad knees, you need to minimize your pack weight and invest in a good set of hiking poles. Then, learn the right form for hiking, and work on strengthening your lower body. Finally, make sure you choose a trail with minimal or gradual elevation change.
Knee pain is a difficult ailment to treat because the cause is unique to each person. To find the right solution for yourbody, you need to bear all of the above things in mind. Below, we go into more detail about each one, so you can hike without pain in your knees.
This solution is pretty straightforward, but I highly recommend it to everyone. Heavy packs not only make a long uphill hike so much harder, but the weight also compresses your spine and puts additional stress on your knees. Dropping some of that weight could be the solution your knees are looking for.
For years I was one of those hikers that had to carry every bit of gear I owned, because I always professed that you never know when you’re going to need something. While it’s true – anything can happen out on the trail and it’s good to be prepared – you shouldn’t have to carry that literal burden around just because you may or may not encounter XYZ.
Whether you’re on a casual hike or doing some serious mountaineering, carrying a smaller pack will lighten the load on your knees.
Here are the essential items I keep in my day pack that are worth the weight:
- Plenty of water (I love a hydration pack for this)
- Trail snacks
- Basic first aid kit – including painkillers, KT tape/knee brace and soothing ointment
- A jacket or long sleeve t-shirt
- An extra pair of socks (for preventing blisters)
Too many novice hikers are quick to write off using hiking poles completely, but even for the young ones out on the trail, a good set of hiking poles is essential to preserve and protect your knees.
Hiking poles, also called trekking poles, help save your knees by calling on your upper body strength to assist you. This way, instead of deadlifting yourself and your pack up and over rocky trails with just your legs (and therefore your knees), your arms and core strength help hoist you up as well.
Poles also help when trekking back down the mountain by absorbing some of the shockwave that occurs when hiking down a steep incline. It’s highly important, however, to learn the right techniques for using trekking poles both heading up to the summit and coming down.
The right trekking pole technique is all about the grip. While heading up the mountain, you’ll want to use your pole straps like a sling for each hand. Do this by putting your hand through the strap from the bottom of the loop, then resting your hand on the grip as if you were using ski poles.
Having your wrist against the strap this way will increase stability while allowing your hand to maneuver better as you climb, aiding your balance. In case you do slip, you can drop your poles to catch yourself and they’ll remain around your wrist rather than tumbling down the side of the mountain.
The Right Grip
When you’re making your way down the trail, use the straps the same way as above, but grip the very top of the pole’s handle in the palm of your hand (like you would hold the handle on a walking cane).
Ok, but what if you don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on aluminum sticks? In a pinch, try finding yourself a sturdy walking stick along the trail. Combine it with our next tip and your knees will surely thank you!
Most knee pain comes from hiking downhill. These heavy steps cause shockwaves up your leg and into your knee joints, inducing pain even if you’ve had no serious injuries. By bending your knees slightly and taking smaller, more controlled steps, you’ll reduce the impact on your knees.
Additionally, try to roll step down – think heel-to-toe. This smooths out the impact while moving downward, taking that shockwave out of the equation and dispersing your weight among the muscles in your legs, such as your calves and quads.
If you’re descending on a trail that’s particularly steep, try to angle your body so one side is facing downhill. Take small side-steps and work your way down, following the smoothest part of the trail you can find. While this isn’t ideal for every trail – bouldering in the Sierra’s comes to mind – practicing this technique where possible can increase the longevity of your knees for hikes to come.
This solution is more of a long-term care plan, but it has probably the biggest pay off of all of our tips. The most common reason people experience knee pain – both when hiking and not – is from poor lower body and core strength.
Weakened muscles, such as your hip flexors, cause your body to overcompensate in whatever way it can. When it comes to walking/hiking, that means your knees see the brunt of the damage. Doing simple, daily low-impact stretches and exercises will help to correct this “form failure” both on and off the trail!
The best way to improve this is to focus on strengthening your hips and lower back. Because most humans spend the majority of their day sitting at a desk, these spots are often the first to go soft from underuse. Strong calves and quads will also help control your downward momentum,so be sure to work on those as well.
Side-Lying Hip Abductions
Lay on your side, legs straight out with knees locked, and point the toe of your top leg down slightly and lift the leg, hinging from your hip. Make sure your body is straight. Don’t let your legs swing out in front of you too much or you may experience lower back pain.
You should feel a burn in your glutes and hips, but not to the point where it is painful. Start off by doing 1-2 sets of 10 lifts each side and work your way up from there.
Marching In Place
Stand with your shoulders and hips square, with your feet about 6 inches apart. Bring one knee up toward your chest, keeping your knee at a 90-degree angle. Hold the position for a couple of seconds, then gently lower your foot to the ground.
Repeat this motion, alternating legs as you go. If this is too strenuous, try sitting in a chair and lifting your foot only six inches off the ground. Aim for about 15 lifts per leg to start.
Stand with your shoulders and hips square, with your feet about 6 inches apart. Raise yourself all the way up onto the ball of both feet, then lower yourself down gently. For an added challenge, don’t let your heels touch the ground. Try to do 30 calf raises and then see how you feel. Once again, work your way up from there.
Mini squats are done the same way as regular ones, but without bending your knees as much. Stand with your shoulders and hips square, with your feet about 6 inches apart. Bend both knees about 10 inches (or less) until you feel it in your quads and glutes. When you straighten your legs again, push your heel to the ground for better form. About 10 of these mini squats make a beginner’s set.
Laying on your front, stretch your arms out above your head. Gently lift your arms and legs off the ground as far as you can, then lower yourself back to the ground after a few seconds. You should feel this in your lower back and glutes. Try about 10 of these if you’re just starting out.
Choose Your Trail Accordingly
Picking the right trail can be half the battle when it comes to combating knee pain in the backcountry. Obviously, a trail that changes very little in elevation is ideal for those with truly bad knees, but flat trails don’t provide the fun of mountaineering, and nor do they provide the views at the top of a steep hill climb.
By looking for trails that utilize switchbacks for the majority of their elevation gain, you’ll be able to climb a mountain gradually with minimal knee pain. Keep in mind that trails with more subtle elevation change are usually a bit longer than ones straight to the top, so be sure to allot extra time for this.
There are several online and app-based resources for finding the perfect trail for you. My personal favorite trail-finding website is AllTrails. This site is great for finding trails with gradual elevation change because it will show you not only the total elevation change, but how steep of an incline there is at any given point of the trail based on other users’ GPS data.
You can also save trails in your favorites, as well as write reviews about your experience. This is an especially helpful tool because many hikers will comment on any added obstacles (such as fallen trees, rockslides, river crossings, etc.) that may make an “easy” rated trail more difficult.
Whether you’re suffering from knee pain currently, or just looking to prevent it in the future, there are a few precautions you can take. If you’re a true adventurer, it can be hard to say no to a hike just because your knees are sore. By practicing a combination of these knee-saving solutions, you’ll be able to continue enjoying the trail for years to come!