Why Hiking Is Causing You Pain and How to Fix It

When soreness crosses over into genuine pain, it can turn the most pleasant hikes into teeth-gritting tests of endurance. Fight back with expert advice and exercises for tackling 8 different types of ache.

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Sometimes, aches and pains are just part of hiking. Tackling a big climb, toting several days of food and water, or hustling to finish a high-mileage day can tax your muscles, and it’s normal for them to feel well-used afterward. But when those aches stick around for more than a day or two, or they’re so intense that they interfere with your ability to enjoy your hike, you might have a problem. Consistent pain in the same joints may be a sign of anything from weakness in a specific group of muscles to a problem with how your pack or shoes are set up. Tackling them quickly can help save you a lot of hurt down the line.

Luckily, you don’t need to wait for your pain to make you tear up—with the right adjustments and exercises, you can head them off before they trash your trip. We’ve collected some of our best advice on dealing with on-trail pain from your head to your toes. (Experiencing sharp or persistent pains, extremities going numb, can’t weight a joint, or heard a “crack” after a stumble? You need prompt medical attention.)

Neck Pain

If you find yourself grimacing every time you move your head or turning your whole body to look around you, the first thing you should do is check your pack fit. A pack that’s too big or too small can put extra stress on your shoulders and neck, leading to sore, tight muscles. Poor posture can be a culprit as well: Are you finding yourself slouching or leaning forward while you hike? If so, it’s worth a try to rearrange your gear to get heavier items closer to your spine, or, failing that, start going over your gear to see where you can lighten your load. (Note: This is helpful advice for pretty much any pain on this list.) Once you’ve done that, work this six-stretch routine from physical therapist Hilary Granat into your breaks.

Shoulder stretch
(Photo: Meeko Media / iStock via Getty)

Shoulder Pain

Shoulders straining under the weight of your pack? First, check your hip belt: A common mistake, especially among new backpackers, is to let your shoulders take most of the weight instead of your hips. Rearranging or cutting your gear to improve your posture can also help here. If you’ve tried both of those steps and your shoulders are still hurting, you may benefit from training your core. Try working this four-exercise free weight routine from trainer Kaelyn Silva into your workout schedule.

Back Pain

A nuisance on and off the trail, a bout of back pain can make even the flattest, easiest miles intolerable. If you’ve adjusted your pack and you’re still dealing with a twinge, hitting the gym can help you build up your load-bearing muscles to make your next trip easier. These three low- or no-weight exercises from mountain guide and personal trainer Jason Antin are a great place to start.

Hip Pain

Your hips are the unsung heroes of your hiking body. Besides carrying the weight of your pack and helping stabilize you with every step you take on the trail, they keep the rest of your musculature in balance; weakness in your hips can cause pain throughout your legs or back, so don’t neglect them when you’re prepping for a trip. Personal trainer Lee Welton assembled this list of beginner-friendly hip exercises you can do with just a resistance band and a weighted pack, and physical therapist Alex Lanton adds on three more no-weight options you can do anywhere from your gym to your campsite.

Knee Pain

For many hikers, this is the big one: Aching knees are the tradeoff we suffered when we evolved our bipedal gait, and over time, wear and tear can make them a chronic issue. One quick and easy way to give your knees a break is to use trekking poles, which can reduce the amount of force you put on your knees during the downhill by up to 25 percent. Switching up your shoes can also help: Packed-out midsoles, inadequate insoles, and ill-fitting footwear can all cause or exacerbate knee pain. Try a few different pairs and see if one gives your knees some relief. While you’re at it, knee-strengthening exercises can help bombproof your joints against the forces they experience on the trail—try this three-exercise spread from Welton.

Calf Pain

You ask a lot of your calves on the trail. These essential muscles flex your feet and ankles with every step you take, propelling you up and down hills and across uneven terrain. Massaging out sore calves with a trekking pole can help you find muscle relief at camp, as can stretching them at breaks, but taking time to prep them with calf raises (as Welton suggests) can help head off pain before it develops. (The usual tips about making sure your footwear fits and isn’t too worn out apply as well.)

Ankle Pain

Twisted ankles are a common injury on the trail and can range in severity from painful inconveniences to trip-ending disasters. Strengthening your ankles and making sure you have the right footwear for the trail you’re tackling can both help alleviate both accidents and run-of-the-mill soreness. First, check your shoes: If the trail is unusually rough or uneven, or if you’re planning on toting a heavier-than-usual pack, you might benefit from a mid-cut boot instead of a lightweight trail runner or shoe to brace your joints and keep them within their comfortable range of motion. Strengthening the muscles that support your ankle can help too—try this four-exercise routine.

Foot Pain

It may sound like a no-brainer: Obviously, your feet hurt after a hike. After all, you’ve been walking on them for hours. But when you find yourself hobbling or experiencing numbness throughout the day, even hours after setting up camp, there might be a bigger issue going on. If your heels are in pain, especially in the morning, you could be dealing with plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the tissue that connects your heel to your toes. Another common issue is posterior tibalis tendonitis, which can cause pain at the bottom of your arches that can linger for weeks. Besides replacing your shoes, massaging your feet, or springing for custom arch supports or insoles, taking off your footwear during snack and sunscreen breaks can provide some relief. And while you may not think of working out your barking dogs, these three exercises from Welton can help strengthen the muscles that support your arches.

From 2023