Enjoy Happy Trails, the free monthly newsletter from Hiking For Her

Arm Injury Prevention
On A Hiking Trail

By Diane Spicer

A discussion of arm injury prevention while hiking might not make any sense to you at first glance:

How would a hiker injure an arm?

  • The answer depends upon the terrain, the weather, and lots of other factors.

Sure, on a well maintained, wide and flat trail, chances of arm injuries for hikers are slim.

Cherry picking your trails keeps you safe while hiking.

But does everyone stick to well groomed, wide-enough-to-drive-on hiking trails?

I sincerely hope not!

Otherwise, you are missing a lot of fun.

So let's get down to business.

Singing the praises
of a hiker's arms

Arm injury prevention for hikers involves a dose of common sense AND an understanding of the way your arm is connected to your trunk.

Can you think of a better appendage for a hiker? A freely movable limb that is anchored securely at one end, and is able to grasp objects* at the other end!

Woohoo - what a deal!

And you have 2 of them for grasping objects* such as

Ah, but I digress. (It must be near lunch time!)

So where is your arm,

That's not a trick question!

Technically, your arm is just the portion of your upper limb from your shoulder joint to your elbow joint. The rest is the forearm, joined at the wrist to the hand.

So there must be a bunch of bones in there, right?

Oddly enough, it doesn't take many bones to do the job:

  • the long arm bone (humerus),
  • two shorter forearm bones (radius and ulna),
  • and that's pretty much it. (Your wrist and hand bones become more plentiful, and somewhat complicated, in comparison).

The upper end of your arm bone rests in the shallow shoulder socket provided by your shoulder blade bone (scapula).

Your arm sacrifices stability for mobility: you can swing your arm wildly in comparison with your stable, relatively immobile hip joint.

So what does that mean for hikers? An opportunity to overdo it with the shoulder and elbow joints, if you aren't careful.


Asking the arm and shoulder to do too much work, especially if you haven't warmed up properly, for starters.

  • Think about jumping out of the car after a long ride to the trail head, lacing up your boots quickly, and hoisting up your pack. Off you go!

Arm muscles

But you may be asking a lot from your shoulder and arm muscles, of which there are plenty.

Major arm muscles include some you have probably noticed on athletes and celebrities:

  • biceps and triceps, for instance.

There are other smaller muscles hidden beneath these, which connect the upper body with the elbow area.

Soft tissues in your arm

These muscles cling to the bone via tendons, and the bones join together to form joints partly due to ligaments (tough ropey connections).

It's possible to ask these soft tissues to do too much work if you:

  • Pick up a heavy pack without using your back muscles or knees to help.
  • Pull yourself up on a rocky ledge when the muscles are not trained to doing that type of work.
  • Lift heavy loads like children or backpacks without a warm up.

The result?

Sore arms, at the very least.

Or an arm soft tissue injury that takes months to heal.

Female hiker wearing a green backpack,kneeling in an alpine flower meadow while taking photographsArm injury prevention makes you ready to do other things with your arms!

Arm injury prevention tips
begin at home

So what would arm injury prevention for hikers look like?

You probably already know the answer: get strong, and stay strong.


Do some weight lifting at home.

It doesn't take much: even 3 pound weights used for 10 minutes each day can show you a big difference in arm strength.

And you don't even need to buy weights: make your own!

  • Fill 2 of your hiking water bottles, and use those.
  • Then drink the water when you're finished, to keep hydrated.

When three pounds feels too easy, you're ready for heavier weights.

Here's another approach:

  • bring your own bags with strong handles to the library or grocery store and give your arms a workout toting home the goodies.

Carrying babies and toddlers counts, too!

Swimming is another great way to give your arms some work without straining the joints.

If you'd prefer to tone up and strengthen your arms without weight bearing, yoga may be the way to go.

Arm injury prevention
on the trail

On the trail, arm injury prevention requires a bit of mental discipline.

I myself have been guilty of doing stupid things with my arms:

  • waving them wildly in front of me to clear prickly brush, spider webs, and dangerously sharp blow downs.

But wait, there's more to share...

  • sticking them into murky water with no idea of what was beneath me (think jagged rocks or sharp sticks),
  • falling on my arm instead of rolling to my back as I slid down a talus slope,
  • pushing heavy objects out of the way using my arms rather than the strength of my back or thighs,
  • and the "don't do this" list goes on.

So let's get to the point here:

Don't use your arms as levers to pick up too much weight unless you are confident that you are strong enough to pull it off safely.

And don't sacrifice the safety of your arms when you have other tools to use: your strong legs, your hiking poles, a long stick, etc.

Tips to try
to save your arms

Need a few tips on how to safely hoist your backpack? Here they are!

More tips:

  • Wear long sleeves during off trail navigation.
  • Use your hiking poles/sticks to help you clear a route or probe murky or fast moving water.
  • Don't max out your joints by overexertion or weird arm positions as you navigate brushy blow downs on the trail.
  • If you trip over something and are falling, avoid using your arm as a brace against your fall. (Although in the heat of the moment, a natural instinct is to do just that.)
  • Know what to do when you get a cut or scrape.

Reasonable reasons

Of course, there are some very good reasons for hikers to rely upon the strength of your arms while hiking, and that's why you want to have strong ones regardless of how many birthday candles are on your cake.

Reasons such as:

  • doing a bit of rock scrambling (Class 2 and above by definition require the use of arms),
  • getting up and over trail obstacles such as blow downs and wash outs,
  • scoping out a "secret" waterfall or viewpoint off trail that requires some bush whacking,
  • setting up a bear bag,
  • carrying filled water bottles back to base camp for an evening meal,
  • using fixed rope belays over short sections of trail.

And then there's the most excellent reason of all: doing the Y-M-C-A song before turning into your tent after a long, happy day on the trail.

Email me if you don't know what I'm referring to ;)

Home page > Injury Prevention >

Arm Injury Prevention Tips