It seems like sore knees and hiking go hand in hand—or maybe I should say foot in foot. How many times have you gone hiking and afterwards your knees felt tired and swollen, or your quads were so sore you could barely get in and out of the car?

I remember one of my first hiking experiences in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We were headed up to one of the cabins run by the Appalachian Mountain Club. I had scored an overnight spot. We wanted to be there in time for the community dinner. It was a long, traffic-filled drive from Boston.

By the time we arrived, there were no parking spaces at the main trailhead. So, we headed off to a side trail. On the trailhead map, it looked short and direct. It turned out our ‘shortcut’ was a beautiful granite boulder field. The trail went straight up.


White Mountains
White Mountains steepness


At the time, I was running, biking, swimming, and, most importantly, in my twenties. I thought, “This is no big deal,” as I took giant hops up each boulder, making excellent time. It was such a fun-filled experience being at the cabin. There were tons of people who were interested in hiking and being outdoors, plus a staff that was funny and silly. They made us a wonderful dinner followed by a skit that had us all laughing.

The next morning, when I woke up, my knees and quads were toast. I was hobbling around, barely able to move; I was so sore and my knees hurt! What had happened? I was in good shape. I was an active person. I’d never had any problems before…

Forty years later, having gone to physical therapy school, taught biomechanics, and worked with tons of clients who had knee problems, I’ve thought back on that trip and realized I made some major mistakes. Fortunately, you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Since I took up hiking in the Wasatch, my knees have been doing just fine. If your knees hurt after hiking, try these 3 tips.


1. Start Off the Season Slowly

Staying healthy as you age

First, as hiking season ramps up, if I haven’t been doing a lot of hiking, I progress properly. If you want to get better at hiking, you have to go hiking. In the off-season, I go snowshoeing or uphill skiing. These aren’t exactly the same movement patterns; however, they do help me keep up my cardio fitness.

At the beginning of the hiking season, I make sure I’m not starting out too aggressively on distance or difficulty. I progress my distance over time, adding more every few days.

When it comes to increasing the difficulty of a hike or the steepness, I work up to these hikes gradually. I start with a shorter, steep hike and then progress to longer ones. If I haven’t been hiking during the winter months, this steady but controlled progression helps my tendons and muscles get back in shape for hiking.



2. Train in the Off-Season

Second, I do off-season workouts that strengthen my hips and ankles. You might ask, ‘If your knees were the issue, why not focus there?’ A quick biomechanics lesson: the knee joint is a hinge, and just like a door, it only opens and closes. There is no rotation. The knee joint can hold steady against rotation through an amazing group of ligaments, but for the most part, it’s designed to bend and straighten.


Hike smarter

The hip joint, on the other hand, is a ball-and-socket joint, much like the old joysticks on computer games. The socket, or cup, is deep, and the top of the thigh bone can rotate in multiple directions inside it. The hip also has powerful muscles that are made to keep us upright and stable. Additionally, the hamstrings, which cross the hip joint, wrap around the knee and help support the function of the ever-popular ACL ligament.

The ankle and foot are simply amazing. They have the ability to soften, absorb shock, and conform to any surface, yet as we step forward, the foot becomes stable and allows us to propel forward. Ankle and foot musculature are also responsible for helping us maintain our balance.


The calf muscles, like the hamstrings, wrap around the knee, providing control of the shin bone, which is the bottom bone of the knee joint. Having good strength at these joints keeps the knee in alignment; if the hips, ankles, and feet aren’t strong, the knee is exposed to rotational forces.


healthy in nature

If your knees hurt after hiking, you might have some weakness in the muscles around the joints. To keep the muscles surrounding these joints strong, I recommend a wide variety of exercises for the off-season.

For the hip muscles: hip thrusts, deadlifts, goblet squats, Romanian deadlifts, Nordic drops, and supine heel slides. The possibilities are endless. Not every exercise is for every body, but everybody can find some that work.

For the ankle muscles: standing heel raises on both or one leg and seated heel raises, as well as balance work. For instance, when you take your shoes and socks off, can you do it standing on one leg with no hand support? When brushing your teeth, can you stand on one leg? Can you do those with your eyes closed? Make it a game.

I’ve put some resources at the end of this post if you want more suggestions and visual examples of exercises.



3. Take Smaller Steps

Third, I thought about the way I was hiking that day and how the placement of my foot impacted the force the muscles, especially the quads, needed to generate.

When I was bounding up the gigantic boulders in New Hampshire, I was taking huge steps. The larger my step, the more force I had to generate through my knee musculature. Those huge steps also reduced the ability of my hip and ankle to take up any rotational forces, placing even more stress on my knee joints. This stress can make your knees hurt later.

Nowadays, I make sure my step length isn’t too large. I focus on keeping my foot relatively close to my center of mass. This allows my powerful hip muscles to do more of the work, extending my whole body up and over my foot.

It also allows the muscles in the front and back of my knee joint to contract together, providing support all around that joint. My ankle and foot can conform to surfaces and assist in maintaining my balance. Shortening your stride on steep and/or rocky sections will go a long way toward reducing the strain on your knees.


Train in the off-season


Using hiking poles is a great option for people who already have damage at the knee joint or are backpacking with a very heavy pack. Poles can take a tremendous amount of stress off the knees, and when backpacking, they are a good aid.


However, I would urge anyone who has pain-free knees to work hard on being able to hike without poles. When you’re on easier trails, let your balance be challenged and make your muscles do the work. You can always pull out the poles when you need them.


Hopefully, learning from my mistakes and hearing my solutions will help you stay on the trail for many years to come!! Below are some WONDERFUL FREE resources:



What questions do you have? Login and ask them below!