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Saving your knees while hiking downhill

hiking downhill Knee problems are common because they are one of the most used and abused joints in the human body. If you frequently experience knee pain during descents or resulting soreness afterwards, chances are you need to improve your form or pack weight.

Excess weight adds more strain to the knees

Your knees and hips are vulnerable to injury because they bear the most weight of your body. A force of three to six times your body weight is exerted on your knee with each level step you take. So, if you weigh 150 pounds, a force of 450 – 900 pounds is applied to your knee each time your heel contacts the ground. If you increase your body weight (or carrying load) the force multiplies by this additional amount. For instance, if you are 20 pounds overweight or carrying 20 pounds in your backpack, the force exerted on the knee adds 60-120 pounds per step.

  • Maintain a normal body weight and reduce pack weight for optimum knee health.

Downhill adds even more strain to the knees

The force applied to your knees is further amplified on non-level surfaces. According to a study published on, the compressive forces endured by the knees during downhill walking were 3 to 4 times greater when compared to level walking. The compressive force is greater for women (who often have a shorter femur bone length) when compared to men. No doubt, sustained downhill trekking is a strenuous task for the knees – regardless of your weight or gender.

  • Never hike knee-locked down a steep decline! Walk at a steady, slow pace and keep the knees flexed. The faster you hike, the longer your stride tends to be, which intensifies the weight and impact to your knee.
  • Traverse zig-zag, sideways or s-shaped rather than going straight down hills whenever possible by making your own mini-switchbacks on wide trails.
  • If possible, plan hikes where the downhill is at the end of the journey rather than the beginning. This way you have consumed most of your food weight, cooking fuel, etc.
  • Dump unneeded water before heading downhill.

An engineering marvel

Knee AnatomyThe design of the knee is like no other joint in the body. Unlike a ball and socket, where bone meets bone and rotates, such as the shoulder and hip joints, the knee joint acts more as a pivotal hinge fastened in place by ligaments. In reality, the knee is much more complex than a pivotal hinge. The bone surfaces roll and glide as the knee bends, rather than simply bend and straighten like a hinged door. When descending, the top portion of your body moves you forward and the second half of the body glides the femur (thigh bone) forward. The knee is under constant compression as it twists and slides to keep your body steady while descending.

The knee is one of the most mobile joints in the body, but a gain in mobility means a loss in stability. Your knees work hard to bear and balance your weight with each activity you undertake. Activities that involve repetitive pounding, such as running, or a great deal of twisting, such as surfing or soccer, are the most difficult for knees, and thereby injury. Lower impact activities such as cycling or swimming are more gentle on the knees.

The most important thing you can do to is to take care and protect your knees over your lifetime so they serve you an entire life time.


A few more tips that may improve your downhill hiking experience –


Walking Surface

  • Walk on soft soil or dirt versus concrete or hard surfaces. The pounding of your feet against pavement means your knees absorb the maximum rebound.
Foot Gear
  • Wear well-cushioned shoes, so when the heel strikes the ground the shoe will absorb most of your body weight, rather than the knee joint.
  • Wear proper fitting shoes. If you are not careful about finding proper foot gear you will have as much or more damage to your feet than walking around barefoot. If shoes are too snug, you might lose toenails. Keep your toenails trimmed as short as possible to prevent them from banging into the front of the shoe. A last resort solution for toe relief is to cut off the top portion of your boots. Hope your experience doesn’t come to that!
  • If your shoes are a little roomy and you don’t want to purchase a new pair, try adding gel toe inserts (the ones that are marketed for ballerinas). Gel toe inserts may be useful for sustained steep descents, such as hiking in a gorge.

Lacing Technique

  • Your hiking shoes must be tied tightly so they fit snug around your feet. This will reduce the impact of your toes against the front of your shoes. Learn proper lacing techniques for various types of terrain.

Protecting Knees

  • A knee brace will offer additional support when hiking. Get a knee brace that has an open patella (knee cap) to prevent joint compression. Ace bandages offer minimal support and can actually result in more damage by putting pressure on the wrong areas resulting in fluid buildup or swelling.
  • Get a proper knee brace. There are braces designed for different needs. Some are for compression, stability, swelling, ligament support, tracking, etc. You may need to consult a physician to understand what type of brace you require.
  • A hiking pole or walking stick will help take some off the load off the knees by redistributing weight to the arms and shoulders. They also help with stability, but is no guarantee of a pain-free hike.

Lubricating Foods

  • Add Omega-3 foods, such as walnuts or olive oil, to your meals. Olive oil is a versatile oil to pack on the trail because it serves so many functions. Not only is it rich in omega-3’s which help lubricate the joints so you will experience less friction, grinding and pain, but it is also excellent for shaving, moisturizing skin, soothe burns…the many uses of olive oil 
  • Advanced sufferers can take a supplement containing glucosamine and chondroitin, substances that reduce pain and repair and rebuild cartilage.

Strength & Flexibility

  • Keep muscles engaged and stretched by practicing a lifetime of daily activity & stretching. Most injuries are caused by people who are inactive over long periods of time. A sudden urge to fulfill a “bucket list” or exercise deficit is a common cause of injury.
  • Knee problems are less prevalent if you maintain strong leg muscles that support the knee. If these muscles are weak, your knees are too. Strengthen the muscles that support the knee by performing weight bearing exercises that work out your hamstrings, inner thighs, quadriceps and calves. Keeping these muscles strong and balanced will help keep them in the correct proportions and reduce the stress endured by your knees while hiking.
    • Ankle weights will help strengthen your legs. Start off with a 5 lb. weight. To work the inner thighs: wear ankle weights, lie on your back with one leg bent and on the floor; slowly lift the other leg, keeping the knee slightly flexed; rotate your foot out and tighten your inner thigh; Repeat with the other leg. For the hamstrings: stand and lift one weighted foot behind you until the lower leg is at 90 degrees and hold 5-10 seconds; lower the foot slowly and repeat each exercise about 15 times.
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Outdoor Herbivore

Trail Blazer at Outdoor Herbivore
Creating trail-worthy foodstuff and playing outside.
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18 thoughts on “Saving your knees while hiking downhill”

  • Thanks for the advice. My Knees are always killing me when I am hiking. Safe travels.

  • Advanced sufferers can take a supplement containing glucosamine and chondroitin, substances that reduce pain and repair and rebuild cartilage.

    Where is the evidence for this statement? I understand that many studies have been run on this stuff and they’ve all shown that they are useless other than as placebos.

  • Glucosamine and Chondroitin as a treatment for osteoarthritis is controversial. I reference for any medical research, but you will find research that supports either side on this topic. You’ll have to determine for yourself if the supplements offer any benefit. Pain-wise, some people experience immediate pain relief and others notice no improvement (of course assessing and measuring pain itself is subjective). Even if it does not seem to offer pain relief, current research demonstrates that these supplements “may” delay the progression of osteoarthritis (joint space narrowing) when taken over a period of 2 – 3 years (pub med article #19544061).

  • Ive done a fair bit of hiking in my time which has damaged my knees. The best way i have found to keep hiking and keep my knees in good shape is to manage stride lengths.
    On steep descents with a full pack, i dont take strides longer than my foot length. The shallower the descent the longer the strides i can take.
    Its slow, but if it can keep me hiking till my golden years, all the better.

  • I realize this post is an older one, but I’d like to offer some advice to those looking for relief of pain and inflammation. The product is called CURAMIN, which contains a proprietary blend of Tumeric and boswellia. I am a hiker from way back, but I’ve taken many years off and have only started again. I’m finding my knees are so week due to lack of toned supporting muscles, but I’m working on that now with weight training and short hikes. After about 4 miles, my knees hurt so much (luckily without swelling), and the CURAMIN is a life saver. I’m looking forward to getting back to where I was.

  • Thanks for the article. Defiantly some good stuff to help out the ole knees. I found that trek poles help huge as well!

  • on a steep downhill esp.that requires long stride i turn around and go down backward. this way i gain more control of my body weight. use of trek poles is a huge help, definitely.

  • I’ve just turned 50 after a lifetime of walking hiking cycling. I have less problems than many friends with my knees. I think in addition to keeping the muscles around your knees engaged, try walking with a bend in the leg & not fully straightening, walking down hill with the legs wide & using a walking stick. I think too many people put too much shock on their knees, hence the pain.

  • Glucosamine and chondroitin has definitely helped my knee pain ,after only 3 months after taking them I can now manage a steep descent without the pain I experienced for years
    I also go to a spin class at least twice a week and this has also helped to strengthen my knee joints and definitely use poles and make sure you lengthen them going downhill
    Also try and relax your knees on the descent as tensing them especially if you have pain will make it worse
    Running is out as this tends to make it worse and any activities which you have to bend or twist your knees
    I can only speak for myself with these tips which have definitely worked for me and hopefully for you too as there is nothing worse than an agonising descent which the pain sometimes can last for two days

  • I started hiking again at age 69. After a month I can do 4-5 miles on a moderate trail using trekking poles, knee braces, ankle braces, and I replace hiking boots every month. I take 3-4 Ibuprophin before hiking. I’m hoping to eventually do much longer and also steeper hikes, but, don’t know how that will work out. i also do weight bearing leg routines at the gym. Hate to admit it but also sometimes take 5mg percosets before a hike. I can really perform after that!!

  • Very helpful. Thank you! Only wished I’d read this before I blew out my knee and bruised five out of ten toes!

  • My Vasques are 3 years old now, a few thousand miles, at least. I’m not sure why but they are kinda like new. They have always fit perfectly, I took a pair back, after getting close, and these are perfect.

    I just put the laces through the rings and tabs and tie them real lose. I never ever take them on tarmac or anything not wild.

    I duuno how you guys get so little mileage. I have 3000 ft of up right out back and love it.

  • Awesome advice! I have issues with my knees (who doesn’t?) and I’m always very careful about going downhill!

  • Thanks for the advice. I live in Japan and so far descending the mountains has been grueling. Almost every mountain I’ve hiked here is steep going up and steep going down. Very steep- some almost vertical. I have been taking glucosamine for almost a year and it has helped me very much. Actually lessened my joint pain considerably. I’m going to see if I can get knee supports. Today’s hike was terrible- the leader took us down a near vertical drop trail- wet leaves, rocks all the way down. My left knee is killing me.

  • Hi, I recently climbed and descended a pretty steep mountain side around 3 hour return. the last time I did the exact same climb about 5 years ago and suffered badly with my knees which took some time to recover. This time I believe a combination of lunges and other leg exercises leading up to it helped a lot. Perhaps more importantly though, I mostly used the heal of my foot to bare the weight (carefully as not to jar), a technique used when performing lunges. Sore bottom muscles, no knee pain. This worked for me.

  • I intuitively tried the mini-traverse and it harmed my knee and ended my planned backpacking trip early. It seemed like the tighter turns exacerbated tracking issues.

    Since then I’ve found hip-strengthening exercises are helping to keep my knees moving steady.

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