Hiking is an excellent way of getting exercise, spending more time with friends and family, and reaping the benefits of being out in nature. For some hiking is a casual activity and something they do on the weekends. For others, hiking is a very serious venture and a real passion that takes up quite a lot of their time. Whichever camp you happen to fall into, there is one particular issue that can happen to any hiker, regardless of experience – knee pain.
Nothing ruins a hike quite like that moment you’re walking along and begin to start feeling a little tenderness in your knee. At best a sore knee will just put a damper on the mood, at worst it can leave you in serious pain and unable to continue on with your hike, perhaps even having your partner have to carry your pack. Sore knees are common enough that many simply refer to it as “hiker’s knee”.
Hiker’s Knee can occur even if you don’t already have a pre-existing knee issue. Naturally, if you already have experienced knee pain during your everyday life, it goes without saying that you’ll probably have issues on a hike. However, many otherwise healthy hikers that begin to have knee problems during a hike often are overstraining their knees or overusing them (i.e. taking on an advanced hike). Typically Hiker’s Knee is felt around the kneecap and usually begins to set in after a few hours of hiking.
There are three common factors that contribute to overstrained, painful knees – improper footwear, too heavy of a pack, and hiking downhill. More often than not improper footwear will cause not just knee pain, but foot and general leg pain as well. It is important to invest in high-quality footwear designed for the type of hiking you will be doing. Don’t assume your comfy sneakers will offer you any support. Boots and shoes specifically designed for hiking will keep your legs, ankle, and feet properly supported.
An overloaded backpack, or simply one too heavy for you to carry comfortably, is another common problem. It’s fairly easy for beginner hikers to load up their backpack, walk a bit, and assume that it’s light enough. However, walking around on flat ground for a little bit is far from the same circumstance as hiking up and down hills on a possibly loose terrain. Try to keep your backpack as light as you possibly can.
Last, but not least, is the essentially unavoidable issue of hiking downhill. Chances are high that if you’re doing any type of hiking, whether on groomed trails or out in the backcountry, you’ll be hiking up and down hills. Although hiking uphill might seem more tiring, hiking downhill is often what causes knee pain. Shockingly enough, when hiking downhill the force on your knees can be as great as 3x to 6x as heavy as your body weight (plus pack weight).
Putting this into realistic terms, if you’re an average 150lbs man you can expect each step downhill to put anywhere from 450lbs to 900lbs of force on each knee. Add in the backpack load you’re carrying and you quickly pack on the weight. You should also consider those overweight individuals will put more strain on their knees with each step than someone that is fit.
As mentioned, first things first is to ensure you’re wearing the right footwear and that you’re using a quality backpack that isn’t overloaded. Also be sure your backpack or daypack is designed for hiking/backpacking. These will have a suspension support system that is not found in typical travel or school backpacks.
If you’re experiencing knee pain while hiking downhill then it’s important to check your posture and gait. When traversing down a slope you’ll want to keep a rhythmic motion in your stride, taking even steps that aren’t too long or too short. It’s better to traverse down a hill at a steady pace rather than constantly breaking or stopping. Be very careful of going downhill when the terrain is rocky. Loose rocks can obviously be a hazard, but stepping on uneven, rocky terrain can also cause overpronation of your feet. This, in turn, causes knee pain.
Always be aware of your knee position when hiking, especially down a steep decline. It’s all too easy to lock your knees and lean too far back, especially if you have a fear of falling. Be confident in your steps. Also, whenever possible, go in a zig-zag or serpentine pattern when hiking downhill rather than going straight to further reduce pressure on your knees.
If you’re still experiencing knee pain or if you have a pre-existing condition cause sore knees, there are two excellent tools to take with you on a hike – trekking poles and knee braces. Trekking poles help with maintaining a confident, even stride and also aid in safely going downhill. Knee braces offer direct support to the knee and are highly recommended for anyone with Hiker’s Knee.
Not everyone needs a knee brace, but for those that do, they can be a real godsend. Knee braces aren’t a fix for a serious knee injury, however, they are great for hikes where you need a little extra support. Knee braces should only be worn when they are actually needed rather than as a preventative measure.
There are a lot of knee braces on the market, but not all should be used for hiking. Your average knee brace designed for casual use can do more harm than good in a trail setting. If you’ve determined you need a knee brace, here are the top three models to choose from that are ideal for hikers.
A favored knee brace among hikers is the Cho-Pat Dual Action Knee Strap. This knee strap design is much more minimalistic that typical knee braces, leaving you feeling much cooler and comfortable on warmer days. This knee straps surround the knee and add compression to the thigh muscle immediately surround the kneecap.
The Cho-Pat Dual Action Knee Strap is made of Neoprene with a velcro fastener so you can get the perfect amount of compression. Many hikers agree that after an hour or so they completely forget they even have it on as the Neoprene warms and molds to the knee. You can find the Cho-Pat Knee Strap online and in some stores (i.e. Walmart). Expect a price of anywhere from $22 to $28.
If you’re looking for a budget-friendly knee brace that focuses on stabilizing the patella, consider the IPOW Knee Pain Relief Brace Support. This is another brace with a super minimalistic design, even more than the above Cho-Pat.
The IPOW focuses on just kneecap or patella support. It is placed right below the knee and is hardly noticeable while hiking. Better yet, it can be found on Amazon for $12.55 for a pair. If you have very mild knee soreness this is a great brace to try out first.
Finally, there is the Pro-Tec Athletics Gel Force Knee Sleeve, a highly rated knee brace available on REI’s website. This knee sleeve very much has the traditional knee brace design and is designed to give moderate support for those with muscle tears or patellofemoral pain and to overall add stability to the knee joint.
Although a full knee sleeve, the Pro-Tec is designed with breathable, soft fabric and smooth stitching. For those that really need as much support as possible, this model is the one to go with. It retails from REI for $29.95.
Before you buy a knee brace, be sure you first ensure that you have the right shoes, the right backpack, and have learned to safely take on declines out on the trail. If you’re still experiencing sore knees, consider buying a pair of trekking poles and one of the knee braces featured above. You might just find this combination to take you from irritable and sore to being able to take on those hikes you’ve always wanted to.
Sam Hardy is an outdoor enthusiast with a penchant for survival prepping. He writes about the great outdoors and his favorite equipment here.