Hiking Soreness

Hiking soreness: the price you pay, right?

But 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 of 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 hiking soreness.


By paying attention to every factor you can manipulate to avoid that muscle 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; and anti-inflammatory actions.


I forgot an even more important factor:

optimal hydration and proper nutrition.

Let's get started on this touchy subject of muscle soreness.

First, the prevention of hiking soreness!

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

If your pack doesn't fit, and is not of high enough quality to transfer weight properly, DON'T WEAR IT!!!

If you're not guilty of that particular hiking sin, maybe hiking soreness prevention is as simple as adjusting the straps on your pack.

You have 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?

A pack can't do its important job of transferring weight through your hips 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. Before throwing away your favorite pack, play around with it!

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

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

I do, for one.

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: taking the stairs rather than using the elevator, a brisk 10 minute walk at lunch time, and some sort of daily exercise of at least 30 minutes duration.

Strong muscles recover more quickly from exercise, burn fuel more efficiently, and make you feel more balanced. Weight training, resistance exercises, walking, swimming.....all ways to prevent muscle soreness after a hike.

Take the time to drink water while you hike.

Water is a requirement for your cellular biochemistry. It's the universal solvent - it flushes away toxins, it contributes to the building of energy molecules, it keeps muscle fibers and compartments from sticking together - it's a miracle substance, so give your body plenty of it.

Muscles need building blocks to continue to perform their contractions and relaxations. What you eat before, during, and after a hike directly translates into muscle power.

Carbohydrates (carbs) will give you fast fuel. Eat whole grains before your hike, and again at lunchtime.

Protein, protein, protein! Why? To rebuild your muscles after your hike. Which type of protein, and how much, depends upon you as an individual.

Need some specific guidance?

Here it is!

If you're experiencing muscle soreness after a hike, it might be because you pushed too fast, waited too long to take a break, or planned too long or strenuous of a trip.

On the way up to Surprise Gap

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, if 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. I avoid the terrain which I know is bad for my aging, but oh-so-important knees. And I use hiking


Finally, work WITH your body's natural mechanisms.

Inflammation is a nonspecific action to correct trauma, injury, or over-use syndromes.

Have you ever noticed its cardinal signs: pain, heat, redness, swelling?

If you experience any of these along with the expected minimal soreness after a hike, you're not going to ignore them, right?

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

Maybe you need to change your boots or pack.

Maybe you need to start using hiking poles to transfer some of the weight off your knees.

Maybe you need to warm up more before you tackle steep slopes.

Maybe you should remove your boots and socks at your lunch spot, to allow circulation to return to your feet.

Whatever the problem is, invest time into identifying and fixing it before it goes chronic on you.

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.

Here's where I might lose you.

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 "I don't have time for that".

Some Americans have a hard time with seeing the value of massage.

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, ok?

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

Start with your feet. Examine the skin and nails, looking for blistered hot spots, long or torn nails, broken skin, 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.

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

And if you have a favorite foot lotion, that's great too. (My favorite: Aveda, a minty tingle experience. But avoid this in bear country, due to its strong herbal odor.)

If you've never given your feet this much attention, please try it!

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.

Now for the leg and thigh muscle groups.

Use the same approach: cup the calves or thigh muscles with both hands, probe gently for the sore spots, and press them gently for as long as feels right. You are compressing the tissues, including the lymph channels, and helping clear out any congestion.

If you find exquisitely painful spots, use one thumb to put direct pressure there. Let your thumb "sink in" as you breathe deeply, and 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. It's amazing how much better sore muscles feel after gentle kneading.

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

Hiking soreness: no fun. Don't let it build up into chronic trouble - check out other preventive strategies here.