Right before our eyes, her knee swelled like a balloon. We were deep in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, 14 miles from the nearest trailhead, and a rapid, joint-pounding descent had taken its toll. My hiking partner’s right knee, the doctor said later, had with one awkward step exploded into a mass of strained ligaments. The reason: Her knee wasn’t strong enough to support
a heavy pack on a rugged hike.
Knees take a beating in every sport this side of billiards, but backpacking especially strains that all-important joint. Walking up a slope that has about the same incline as a stairway puts three to four times your body weight on your kneesand that’s without a pack. Hiking downhill places even more jarring strain on the knees.
The good news is that you can prevent chronic pain and injury with pretrip and on-the-trail maintenance. The following 12 tips will keep your knees trailworthy for years to come.
1. Schedule “break-in” time for your knees before each trip by taking short hikes with a loaded pack (read “Survival Of The Fittest,” April 2001). While the regimen for getting your knees trail tough will vary depending on your fitness level, a training rule of thumb is that you should work up to carrying 10 pounds more in your pack than you intend to carry on the trail. Add weight in 10-pound increments while dayhiking half the distance of the longest day of your upcoming trip.
2. Invest in a comfortable pair of hiking boots that provide good ankle support, which helps stabilize the knee. (Read “Buying Better Hiking Boots,”.)
3. Stretch your leg muscles before shouldering your pack. Once you’ve hiked for 10 minutes and your muscles are warmed up, stop and stretch again.
4. Practice proper pack shouldering. Brace the pack on your thigh, then slip one arm into its shoulder strap and gently slide the pack around and onto your back. Better yet, ask a partner to hoist your pack high.
5. Strengthen your leg muscles. Focus on the inner thighs and hamstrings, because if those muscles are weak, so are your knees. You don’t need a weight machine, but a set of ankle weights
(5-pounders are a good start) is helpful. To work the inner thighs: With ankle weights on, lie on your back, then lift your right leg while keeping your left leg bent and your left foot on the floor. With your right knee flexed slightly, rotate your foot out and tighten your inner thigh, flexing the muscle. Now do the left leg. For the hamstrings: Stand and lift one weighted foot behind you until the lower leg is at 90 degrees and hold for at least 5 seconds; then lower the foot slowly. Repeat each exercise a minimum of 10 to 15 times.
6. Lean your upper body slightly forward when you backpack, especially when going uphill. This slightly crouched posture keeps your hips and knees flexed, putting less stress on your ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and more evenly dispersing weight between your quads and hamstrings.
7. Consult with a foot specialist about custom-made orthotic devices. They can be expensive, but may help to alleviate joint pain caused by anatomical misalignments.
8. Avoid maneuvers on the trail that put extra stress on your knees, such as full squats and long-drop steps off ledges. Pick your footing carefully on rocky terrain.
9. Interrupt long downhill stretches with frequent rest breaks. Also, take shorter steps going downhill, make your own mini-switchbacks on wide trails, and dump unneeded water before heading downhill.
10. Use trekking poles to reduce impact on your knees (see “Pole Science” at right).
11. Pack a light load, leaving unnecessary gear and extras at the trailhead.
12. Plan knee-friendly hikes. If steep hills and big-mileage days leave you weak-kneed, find shorter hikes on flatter terrain, and take more frequent rest breaks.
Note: If problems persist after trying all of these preventive measures, ask a sports medicine physician about using a knee brace.