hiking knee problems Pain in your knees makes for quite an unpleasant hike. Knee injuries can happen doing practically any activity, but the constant pounding of hiking for hours can really wear out your joints. You may get a serious injury such as a torn ligament if you twist wrong or take a fall while hiking, but chances are your knees will just get tired out and inflamed from too much work. Just like a mechanical device, the joints in your body can wear out if they are overworked and not allowed to be repaired.

Cause of Knee Problems

knee pain Downhill hiking is the major cause of knee problems. When hiking uphill, the muscles work hard to lift your weight, but when coming downhill, gravity is pulling your weight down so muscles don't work so hard. Unfortunately, your joints absorb the impact of your weight being pulled down the mountain and too much stress on ankles, knees, and hips can cause irritation and inflammation.

The faster you hike downhill, the higher you raise the risk of injury. You are in less control, have less reaction time, and have more inertia to arrest if a mis-step occurs. And, to top it off, the impact to your body is amplified as you hike faster. So, slow down! Taking your time going downhill is safer and less damaging to your knees and other joints.

Preventing Knee Problems

  • Condition your leg muscles. Making the muscles that support your knees stronger will help reduce the stress on the knee joints. Use weight exercises to strengthen your hamstrings, quads, and calves. Getting advice on exercises from a health trainer is a good idea.
  • Use a hiking stick or hiking poles for extra support. Besides providing extra stability against falls, the reduced weight on the knees is a big help. Two hiking poles are more appropriate for knee support since both legs need the help.
  • Hike fewer miles. If your knees or body are complaining, take it easier and don't push so hard.
  • For insurance, bring along one or two knee bandages. If your knees start aching, a knee brace might give you support to finish the hike or return to the trailhead. Don't rely on knee braces all the time, instead see a doctor about fixing the problem.
  • Hike slowly and carefully when going downhill. Don't jump or run downhill. Take smaller steps and place your foot rather than stomp it down.
  • Side-step down very steep grades instead of pounding straight down. This will bend your knees less and reduce the strain.
  • Turn around and go down drop-offs backwards so you can use your stronger climbing muscles to lower your body down without the jolt at the bottom.

Treating Knee Problems

knee brace
  • See a doctor about any knee problems.
  • Take ibuprofen to reduce inflammation and bring temporary relief.
  • Soak knees in cold water, like a stream for ten minutes.
  • Consider wearing more shock-absorbing shoes instead of sturdier boots. But, be careful of the lost ankle and foot support.

Hike On: Giardia

 Mar 29, 2012 - Doug
On the use of hiking poles/sticks--
I've found that hiking with one pole really makes no sense... it actually makes you walk in an unbalanced way.  Awhile back, I met an old guy who was thru-hiking the Superior Hiking Trail using two poles and I asked him why.  He explained that--with two poles--there are always three points on the ground (two poles, one leg or two legs and one pole) which, if you're a math geek, forms a "plane."  Think of it as a tripod or a three-legged cow milking stool--even if the surface is uneven, it will always be stable.  Doing so will actually take weight off your feet and allow you to walk over the tops of roots and rocks, rather than letting your feet take the brunt of every obstacle on the path.  You can hike farther and faster, and the problem of blisters is reduced.  And also, since 80% of injuries and accidents occur when going downhill (on the descent), two poles provides a great deal of stability and considerably reduces the strain on your knees.
Mar 30, 2012 - Mom
Since I am having a knee problem in one knee I have learned through therapy that a lot of knee problems are caused from weak hips.   Perhaps doing hip strengthening exercises before going on a long hike would be beneficial.
Apr 11, 2012 - wife
Thought you might want to read this article.
Jun 21, 2013 - Bob
Greetings from England:  I found that my knee problems occurred when I walked for ten miles or more; Always pain on descent and never uphill; I did a seventeen miler with a friend and was nearly in tears towards the end and had to do the last two miles downhill walking backwards (Next day however, the knee was fine).  I did some surfing and self-diagnosed I was 'overpronating'(Google over and under pronation) a pair of orthotics (Corrective cushioning insoles) in my walking boots enabled me, a week later, to do a 105 mile charity walk in five and a half days without a hint of knee pain. On the subject of walking poles; a friend who did the walk with me has bad hips, and reckoned he would never have done it without his poles. Hope this helps someone. Great site, keep up the good work.
Jun 27, 2013 - Lulu
Hi Bob -

I have the exact same issue - can you tell me a little bit more about the orthotics that you bought?

Jul 14, 2013 - Bob
Hi Lulu,

I don't know where you are, but mine were from a high street chemists in the UK called Boots, but Scholl also make them. There are two main types, one with just a heel pad with more padding on the outside edge of the heel to correct heelstrike, and another type which is a full insole with heel pad and padding under the arch. I went for the heel only. There are also some sports outfitters or therapists who custom mould them for you. I also got rid of the thin insoles in my boots and bought some 'Sorbothane double strike' insoles. The insoles reduce the shock and the orthotics help my feet stay straight which in turn takes the strain off my knees - No pain anymore. Hope this helps.

Aug 30, 2014 - Robin Hayr
Any advice for preventing/caring for black toe nails?  My boots were fit at REI, but the 3rd toe on both feet turned black.
Sep 04, 2014 - Hiking Dude
@Robin - Just start reading at this page for all the advice you could use.  I've been fortunate to not have the problem myself.

Sep 05, 2014 - doghiker
Have had problematic/painful knees(and feet) since high school sports ~30+ years ago.  The professional/competent help I've sought has been worth the money for continued hiking enjoyment. 1) Total body (not just knees) strengthening via weight training, 2) two trekking poles, 3) carefully-fitted quality boots, 3) orthotics custom-made by podiatrist, and 4) professional physical therapy (not in any particular order) have all helped me keep walking/jogging.  Also like to think that taking daily glucosamine for past 15 years has helped preserve my aging joints...
Sep 05, 2014 - doghiker
Forgot to include lose excess weight, both body and backpack!  My knees ALWAYS feel better when I've lost weight and am at/closer to my ideal weight--it's one of my main motivations for maintaining or resuming the caloric restriction...
Nov 26, 2014 - Steve
I am 56 and have been hiking on and off all of my life without ever using poles or even giving a thought to having an issue with knee pain ... until ... this fall when I hiked Louden Heights across the Shenandoah River from Harper's Ferry. I went up the 1880 foot elevation gain like a billy goat, hiked all over the top, and had a great time. About 2/3 of the way back down my knees were screaming at me. By the time I reached the foot of the hill I could hardly walk even after a fellow hiker was kind enough to loan me a set of poles. I want to hike Old Rag in the Spring but was about to write that off until I found this page, and the great advice here. I will take this information and do Louden Heights again. If I fair better there I will use that as a gauge to decide if I am up for Old Rag.

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