Hiking Soreness And Pain:
What's That Ouch About?

Hiking soreness and pain: the price you pay, right?

Hey! You don't have to be fatalistic about how much pain and stiffness you have to endure the day after a hike.

And you shouldn't be fearful about whether or not you can get through a multi-day trip in one piece.

There are ways to stack the deck in your favor, and against muscle soreness.

By paying attention to every factor you can manipulate to avoid that hiking soreness:

  • properly fitted gear;
  • correct weight distribution in your pack and through your spinal column, hips, and knees;
  • adequately conditioned and warmed up muscles;
  • correct hiking techniques for terrain and distance;
  • ergonomic hiking aids;
  • and anti-inflammatory actions.

I forgot two even more important factors:

optimal hydration and proper nutrition.

Still with me?
You didn't expect an easy fix like "pop an aspirin", did you?

Let's get started on a close look at this touchy subject of muscle soreness.

If the pack fits, wear it!

First, the prevention of hiking soreness! (We'll deal with the reality later.)

Consider this: Are you asking your back and legs to lug around a poorly fitted, badly packed, top heavy backpack?

If your pack doesn't fit, don't wear it!

If it's old, or a hand-me-down or second hand store purchase - not of high enough quality to transfer weight properly -


Or maybe hiking soreness prevention is as simple as adjusting the straps on your favorite pack.

  • You've taken the time to play with all the "bells and whistles" on your pack, haven't you?
  • And you've stood in front of a full length mirror, with a hand mirror so you can see your back side, to scope out whether the pack sits too high, is fitted too tightly, is too wide... haven't you?
  • And you've asked your trail buddy to yank or release the straps you can't reach, until the pack fits just right on you... right?

(Nobody is keeping score except your sore, sore muscles.)

A pack can't do its important job of transferring weight to your spine and pelvis if the straps aren't adjusted properly for your body.

So fiddle around with all of those straps until there's no stress or tension in your neck, your shoulders, your lower back, or your knees.

Chronic hiking soreness in the same places indicates potential pack problems (or posture problems - a separate topic).

So before throwing away your favorite pack, play around with it to customize it for your body.

Try packing it differently.

If that doesn't work, pass it along to some other hiker and really pay attention to your next pack purchase.

Warm up those muscles -
and then GO

Another thing to consider: have you stretched before charging up the trail?

How about specific back stretches?

I know, I know, it's a pain (pun intended). Who wants to burn daylight standing around stretching?

And the danger of being mistaken for a yoga instructor is very real.

  • If you are one, hand out your business cards to passing hikers.

I firmly believe in stretching. Here's why:

My muscles need a clue that I'm about to use them to get to the top of that pile of rocks.

It's simple courtesy: I deliver more blood to them, I lengthen their fibers, I tell them to loosen up a little - here we go!

Stretching weak muscles probably doesn't do much good, in terms of preventing muscle soreness.

I'm assuming you're kind enough to give your muscles daily short romps:

  • Take the stairs and shun the elevator.
  • Enjoy a brisk 15 minute walk at lunch time.
  • Plan some sort of aerobic exercise (dance, brisk walk, run, bike, swim) of at least 30 minutes duration several times per week.

Just a note: Not everyone recommends stretching before a hike.

If you're a limber twenty something who really is into yoga, you can probably get away with skipping it.

Older hikers would do well to pay attention to warming up before tackling the trail. It's a simple way to avoid, and relieve, back pain.

Improve your muscle strength

It's a biological fact that strong muscles recover more quickly from exercise, burn fuel more efficiently during a hike, and make you feel more balanced and thus safer on tricky footing.

What do I recommend?

  • Weight training,
  • resistance exercises,
  • walking,
  • swimming (especially in warm salt water)
  • biking

...all ways to prevent hiking soreness.

Join a spin class, find a dance class at a local YMCA, commit to a daily brisk walk, get a stretchy band and do a bit of muscle building.

Start somewhere, and (ok, you knew this was coming)... Just Do It!

I follow this policy like an ant on a sugar trail, because I know it pays off year after year on the trail.

Here's my routine:

  • Every morning before breakfast I lift 10 pound weights (I started with 3 pounds and gradually worked my way up) for 10 minutes.  Nothing fancy, just a brief work out for all major muscles on my upper body.
  • Every afternoon I walk several miles (5+ miles if I have time), breathing deeply and swinging my arms vigorously, to keep my legs strong.
  • I don't like to swim or bike, dancing is beyond my coordination abilities, and yes, once in awhile I drag out the resistance bands, but weights and walking do it for me.

Put together your own personal program, and start small or the muscle soreness will defeat you!

You'll know you're making progress when you push yourself a bit on the trail and you feel fine the next day. No back pain or sore feet for you!

Hydration - ignore at your own risk!

Water is a requirement for your cellular biochemistry.

It's tagged the universal solvent because it

  • flushes away toxins,
  • contributes to the building of energy molecules,
  • keeps muscle fibers and soft tissue compartments from sticking together while contracting.

I don't think I'm overstating it when I call water a miracle substance, so give your body plenty of it.

Now doesn't it make sense when your thirst drive kicks into high gear on a hiking trail? Drink early and often on the trail.

There's a good deal of debate about how much water is the RIGHT amount. I've heard people spout "facts" advocating liters of water a day.

Be realistic.

  • If you're not much of a water drinker, try to double the amount you drink over the next few months.
  • Coffee, tea, sweet carbonated drinks, alcohol - these don't count, and can even work against you, as they pull water out of your blood and into your urine.

Sip water, just plain water, at every opportunity. After awhile, you won't want anything else (or maybe just a cup of herbal tea once in awhile).

Your kidneys will breathe a sigh of relief (your chance of kidney stones has decreased), your heart will zing with joy (normal blood volume = less work for it), and your muscles will perform with less soreness the next day.

And here's a thought for preventing hiking soreness: electrolytes.

You could add some to your hiking water bottle and see how you feel the next day. I tried these a few years back and was truly amazed at how my endurance improved and my soreness diminished.

I'm partial to the lemon flavor, but they're all tasty.

I carry the small packets in my lunch sack as a precaution on really hot or vigorous hikes, but I use the less expensive bulk jar to load up my water bottles prior to each hike.

Ultima Replenisher Lemonade 90 - Servings , 13.65 ounces Jars
Female hiker in flower meadow on trailHydration is a key element in avoiding hiking soreness.

As you eat, so goes the hike

Muscles need building blocks to continue to perform their contractions and relaxations. 

If you've been skimping on protein, your muscles can't perform optimally.

So you have to go beyond staying hydrated, and look at your nutrient intake prior to, and during, each hike if you really want to avoid hiking soreness.

Carbohydrates (carbs) will give you fast fuel. "Eat whole grains before your hike, and again at lunchtime." is a wise hiking mantra.


Carbs are the key to sustained energy on the hiking trail!

But you'll need protein, protein, protein after a hike.

Why? To rebuild your muscles (they undergo micro-tears as you hike).

Which type of protein, and how much, depends upon you as an individual.

If you really want to get into the nitty gritty calculations, I've written some Fast Fact booklets based on the type of hiking you do.  Get them here!

Ergonomic hiking approaches to avoid hiking soreness

Knowing your body's limitations and honoring them will keep you out of trouble.

I know that if I jump into full blown hikes after the usual winter break during our long, wet winters here in the Pacific Northwest, I'm gonna be sore. But it will pass, when I do all of the things I'm advising you to do!

However, I also know that brutally steep down hill trail work is NOT good for my knees, and I consult topographical maps before I take on a new hike.

Armed with the facts, I avoid the terrain which I know is bad for my aging, but oh-so-important knees.

But I go one better: I use hiking/trekking poles on every hike.

You will run into hikers (just don't run over them) who scoff at using poles. Usually, those hikers have fairly young cartilage and are lean.

But time has a way of erasing everyone's cartilage eventually.

Why take a pounding on your precious joints?

  • Test it for yourself. Rent a pair of poles and hike downhill for at least half a mile.
  • How do you feel the next day?

An added benefit I like about using trekking poles is the additional upper body workout they force me into getting.

I've tried several pairs of poles, but these are the ones that come along on every hike because they've proven themselves to be tough, easy to collapse or extend, and lightweight:

Black Diamond Trail Pro Shock Trekking Pole, 68-140cm

Another area of debate is one pole, or two?

I've used just one, and my rhythm and balance feels "off" and the side of my body using the pole (usually my dominant right side) seems more tired after the hike.

Thus, I believe in using both poles.

But again, experiment and see what feels best for you.

Inflammation - friend or foe?

Finally, work WITH your body's natural defense mechanisms.

The media has trained us to fear inflammation and immediately reach for pain relief.

Using a medical definition, inflammation is a non-specific response your body uses to address trauma, injury, or over-use syndromes.

Have you ever noticed its cardinal signs after a hike?

  • Pain,
  • heat,
  • redness,
  • stiffness 
  • swelling?

If you experience any of these in addition to the expected minimal soreness after hiking, you're not going to ignore them, right?

Inflammation is a message from your body, asking for corrective measures.

Think through your hiking routine, and consider what needs to change.

  • Maybe you need to change your boots or try different combinations of socks.
  • Maybe you should remove your boots and socks at your lunch spot, to allow circulation to return to your feet.
  • What about soaking in a cold stream, or soaking your bandanna in it and applying it to your neck or legs? Hydrotherapy is effective for encouraging blood exchange between your core and your limbs.
  • Re-read the pack and hiking poles information above, and experiment with some changes.
  • Maybe you really do need to warm up more with stretches before you tackle steep slopes. Try  it!
  • If you don't like the way you feel post-hike, your hiking technique needs to change.

Whatever the root cause of the hiking soreness problem, invest time into identifying and fixing it before it goes chronic on you.

Chronic means you are risking permanent injury if you keep ignoring the messages your body is sending to your brain in the form of hiking soreness.

That's why I advocate prevention, and listening keenly to the feedback my body gives me about hiking soreness after a hike.

Gnarled weathered tree stump on a mountain ridge overlooking a mountain riverYou don't want a hard, brittle, battered body like this tree stump, do you?

Tips for dealing with
hiking soreness

So much for prevention.

Now let's tackle what to do if you've got major muscle soreness during a multi-day trip, or even after a day hike, and you have to keep going.

Here's where I might lose you because I'm still not advising you to reach for the pain relief pills.

Instead, I'm going to recommend self massage for your major muscle groups (the ones you can reach).

Depending on your familiarity with massage, I'm expecting one of two reactions: a groan ("Isn't that vaguely inappropriate?") or an enthusiastic nod of agreement followed by "But I don't have time for that".

Some Americans can't see the value of therapeutic massage. If you're from a culture that realizes the value of soft tissue manipulation, bravo!

I'm a licensed medical massage therapist, and I've seen the quick glances exchanged between people when they hear "massage" mentioned.

  • So for the record, I'm talking about Swedish massage and sports massage with a trained therapist, ok?

Here's the beauty of self massage for hiking soreness: you have everything you need without opening your pack. Two hands, sore muscles.... that's it!

Start with your feet, even if they aren't sore.

Examine the skin and nails, looking for blistered hot spots, long or torn nails, broken skin, calluses, fungal infections --- rule those out as sources of hiking soreness.

Now, sitting comfortably, cup one foot between your two clean hands and probe gently for sore spots.

Self massage is the most effective for foot soreness, because you can give yourself immediate feed back on where and how much it hurts. Let your intuition guide how much pressure to use, how long to work on each sore spot.

If you have access to warm water, soak your feet before and after the massage (extra points for aromatherapy such as lavender or rosemary added to the water.)

While you're at it, sip some cool water to hydrate those loosening muscle fibers.

Some hikers find it soothing to alternate warm with cool water foot soaks, ending with cool.

And if you have a favorite foot lotion, apply it while your skin is soft and supple.

  • My favorite: Aveda, a minty tingle experience. But avoid this in bear country, due to its strong herbal odor.
  • Aveeno makes nice fragrance free skin products.
Try this one.

If you've never given your feet this much attention, please try it! You count on your feet to carry you on your hiking journeys, so pay them back with some love.

And if you're open to different ways of thinking about hiking soreness, explore Reflexology.

  • The link between sore spots on your feet, and trouble spots elsewhere in the body, may be an eye opener for you.
  • At the very least, the reflexologist will work out all of the sore spots on your feet.

Now for the leg and thigh muscle groups that power you up the trail.

Use the same basic approach to deal with hiking soreness that worked so well with your feet:

  • Cup the calves or thigh muscles with both hands.
  • Probe gently for the sore spots.
  • Press them gently for as long as feels right. You are compressing the tissues, including the lymph channels, and helping clear out any congestion back to the heart.
  • If you find exquisitely painful spots, use one thumb or knuckle to put direct pressure there.
  • Let your pressure "sink in" as you breathe deeply, and don't be surprised as the pain diminishes.

There's not much you alone can do about your hiking soreness in your upper back, but you can certainly cup your shoulder in one hand and work out the sore spots, or rub your neck and lower back using slow circling motions.

Another trick: Lean back or lie down on a bumpy surface and use your force to press against the sore spots.

  • Use old tennis balls or dog toys at home, or a handy rock on the trail.

It's amazing how much better sore muscles feel after such gentle but sustained treatment.

And directing your breath to the sore areas seems to help, too.

If hiking soreness is a routine problem for you, go to a professional licensed massage therapist and request the Hiker's Special: extra attention focused on the large working muscle groups that get you up and down the trail!

Hiking soreness:
make it a thing of the past

As you can see, it's going to take some dedication to your own well being to bail yourself out of hiking soreness.

There are no easy fixes, but the ones I suggest will keep you gliding along the trail without an excess of hiking soreness.

What are you waiting for?

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