Updated April 19, 2021
Knee health is a topic near and dear to my heart as I’ve had surgery in both of my knees – and I love to hike, especially with my camera. So, how do you keep your knees in shape so you can enjoy outdoor photography pain free? Here are some ways you can keep your knees happy while exploring nature with your camera.
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Common Reasons Why Hiking Can Cause Knee Pain
Hiking can be a fairly strenuous activity, especially on the knees. Although many people find the uphill direction to be more challenging from a cardiovascular standpoint, it is the descent that has the most negative impact on our knees and leads to more wear and tear if done improperly.
The main reason hiking downhill causes knee pain is because we are using our muscles and joints essentially as brakes to slow our momentum going down.
During a descent, our bodies move with the pull of gravity, and so the job of our legs is to slow us down so that we don’t stumble and fall.
On the way up, our legs propel us; on the way down, our legs are our shocks and brakes.
When working as brakes, our knees withstand a joint compressive force 7-8 times greater on the descent than on the ascent.
No wonder it hurts!
Another reason hiking downhill causes knee pain is that we typically don’t train the muscles we need for going downhill specifically for this activity. To understand this better, we need to talk briefly about two different types of muscle contractions, and then we will go over exercises to help reduce knee pain on the trail.
While hiking, our legs use concentric muscle contraction on the way up and eccentric muscle contraction on the way down. Muscle contraction in this context is defined as a muscle under tension rather than as a muscle being flexed or contracted.
Many workouts tend to focus on concentric contractions, which are exercises in which the muscle shortens in length (think of bicep curls) and generates force.
On the other hand, an eccentric contraction is when the muscle elongates while opposing another force (like gravity or weight).
An example of an eccentric contraction of the bicep is slowly lowering a barbell after doing a bicep curl and resisting the weight of the barbell as you straighten your arm.
The benefit of doing leg eccentric exercises for hiking is that they train your muscles to work like brakes, and the more effective your muscles are at doing this, the less strain you will put on your knee joints.
Although a good exercise program would ideally incorporate both concentric and eccentric exercises, many of us tend to only do the former.
Below are 10 exercises that focus specifically on building strength and stability needed to keep your knees comfortable while hiking with camera gear. These exercises can easily be added to any exercise program you already have and can be performed at home or outdoors. No gym required.
10 Off-Trail Exercises to Build Knee Strength and Stability
Note: the exercises below are meant to supplement (not replace) an exercise program already consisting of cardio exercises. These are designed to specifically address issues with knee pain while hiking with a loaded backpack and do not replace the importance of maintaining good cardiovascular health also needed for hiking.
One of the most important muscles for hiking downhill is the smallest of our four quadriceps muscles in the front of our leg called the Vastus Medialis Obliquus (VMO). It is located in the inner thigh and helps the kneecap track properly and also extend the leg. People who experience weak or painful knees (like myself) often have underdeveloped VMOs. The first three exercises target the VMO.
The other exercises are designed to condition the major muscles groups of the legs in ways that mimic hiking. They challenge legs using a balance of concentric and eccentric contractions.
The key to engaging your muscles in eccentric contraction is to go slowly through each movement and resist gravity. Try counting to 5 for each direction of a repetition.
Because the exercises below are performed without the assistance of a machine, they have the added benefit of also fine-tuning the stability muscles, tendons, and ligaments necessary to help further secure the knee joint. Do as many repetitions and sets of repetitions to challenge your level, comfort, and ability.
1. Walk Backward Uphill
This may seem counterintuitive, but walking backward uphill targets the VMO and other muscles controlling the knee in a safe way. In fact, it is often recommended as an exercise for those in knee rehabilitation. There’s the added benefit of challenging our balance and cognitive awareness too.
Just be careful when you try it so that you don’t inadvertently trip over something! Maybe bring a friend along as an extra set of eyes.
2. Take the Stairs Down
If you experience knee pain going downhill on a hike, chances are, you might also experience it going down a flight of stairs. That’s because it’s essentially the same motion.
Taking the stairs rather than an elevator is something that many of us can incorporate into daily life without needing to specifically set time aside to workout.
Step-ups are a concentric exercise, but unlike using a Stairmaster, stability muscles are challenged as well.
Step onto a stable platform or bench with one leg at a time. The ideal height of the platform should be so that your knee is at 90 degrees with one foot flat on the floor and one foot flat on the platform. Use your gluteus maximus (butt muscle) to power your body up, drive through the heel, and lock your knee at the top of the movement, bringing your legs together and keeping your back straight.
It can be easy to bend or hunch over at the top, so try to avoid this. Also, avoid the temptation to push your hand against your planted knee to get up. Pause briefly at the top and step back down. Keep stepping up with the same leg for one set of repetitions and then switch sides.
4. Reverse Step-ups
Reverse step-ups are a great eccentric exercise for the knee. Stand at the bottom of a staircase facing away from the stairs. Keep your left foot on the ground and put your right foot on the step behind you. Step up onto the step using just your right leg (don’t push off with your left).
The key to this exercise is going slowly so that you really work the muscle resistance of the right leg. Step back down and then repeat with the other leg.
If this exercise is difficult, choose a lower surface that is 1-2 inches thick to step up onto instead. If this is easy, then try reverse stepping up onto a higher platform or bench and be sure it is stable before use.
5. Static Wall Squats
There are many different ways to do squats, but I find this method to be helpful for zeroing in on the muscles that help stabilize the knee for hiking. This method was recommended to me after my knee surgeries, and I continue to use them.
Stand with your back against a wall and your feet shoulder-width apart about a foot or two away from the wall. Keeping your back against the wall, bend both knees to 90 degrees and hold for 30 seconds. Be sure to engage your glutes, hamstrings, and quads, and keep both feet flat on the ground.
It is important to keep your knees directly above your ankles so that your calf is perpendicular to the ground. You should be able to see your toes. If you are bending your knee over your toes, then step a little farther away from the wall. To get the most out of this exercise, be sure to use proper form (use a mirror if needed).
To add a challenge, try doing single-leg wall squats by getting into the squat position and then raising one foot off of the floor and holding. You can also try angles greater than 90 degrees to target different regions of the same muscles.
It is easy to change the angles by placing an exercise ball between your back and the wall and using that to push against as you go up and down through the squat motion.
6. Use Bosu Ball for Stability Challenges
After my most recent knee surgery, I invested in a Bosu Ball to work on balance and knee stability. If you want to take your exercises up a notch, try doing reverse step-ups and single and double-leg squats while standing and balancing on the Bosu Ball.
Also, try balancing on one foot with your knee bent at 90-120 degrees and holding for a period of time. For even more challenge, try flipping the Bosu over so that the flat surface is face-up and try the same exercises.
7. Forward and Backward Lunges
Lunges are another type of concentric exercise that also works stability muscles. Start with your legs together. Take a big step forward with one leg, plant the heel and bend both knees to 90 degrees. The back leg knee should touch the ground.
The key to lunges is right angles. Both knees and hips should form right angles at the end of a lunge. Push with both legs to get back up and bring the legs back together for the next rep. Lunges can also be performed by taking a step backward for some variation.
8. Hamstring Curls With Exercise Ball
This is a great exercise for not only strengthening your hamstrings and glutes but also fine-tuning knee stabilizing muscles.
Lying on your back on the floor with straight legs, put one heel on an exercise ball. Push your heel into the ball and raise your butt off of the floor while pulling the ball towards your butt with your heel. To reverse, straighten your leg and roll the ball back out while continually applying pressure with your heel. You can do this exercise with one or both legs on the ball.
9. Calf Raises
Let’s not forget that our ankles also play an important role in knee health. Our calves help stabilize the ankle and foot and also help propel us uphill. Stand with both feet flat on the ground about shoulder-width apart. Slowly go up onto your toes and slowly release back down trying to not roll your foot to one side or the other.
To make it more challenging, try standing on the edge of the step so that your heels are off the step, or try doing the raises with just one leg at a time.
10. Stretching or Foam Rolling
After working your muscles, it’s always a good idea to stretch the major muscle groups you worked to promote recovery. For an added benefit, try foam rolling. Foam rolling helps prevent muscle soreness, inflammation, and tightness by increasing blood flow and breaking up cell adhesions.
If you’ve never tried foam rolling before or are unsure how to do it properly, check out this helpful guide to get started.
All of the exercises above (except for stretching, of course) can be made more challenging by adding weight. Once you are comfortable with these exercises, try doing them while wearing your camera backpack to continue challenging and strengthening your hiking muscles.
Now let’s talk about how to take care of your knees while on the trail.
10 Ways To Protect Your Knees While Hiking With Camera Gear
1. Use Trekking or Hiking Poles
Proper use of trekking poles can reduce loads on knee joints by up to 20% on a descent. Lengthen the poles a little bit so that your elbows are at ≥90 degrees when going downhill. This helps keep your center of gravity over your hips and provides balance and support. You don’t want to lean forward or backward while going downhill.
2. Invest in Supportive Hiking Shoes or Boots
Knee pain can be caused by poor quality or worn-out footwear that does not properly support the foot and ankle.
Check the soles of your boots to be sure they are wearing evenly. Most of us naturally put more pressure on either the inside or outside of our feet during our stride, and this results in uneven wear of the soles over time. Hiking in old, worn-out boots put unnecessary stress on the stability muscles of the feet, ankles, and knees and can lead to fatigue and injury.
I recommend researching hiking boots that contain Gortex for waterproofing and breathability and have a Vibram sole for durability and comfort.
3. Use a Knee Brace, Compression Sleeve, or Kinesio Tape
The use of a knee brace, compression sleeve, or Kinesio tape can help stabilize the knee joint while hiking. These options are not for everyone, so be sure to research what sort of method would be most appropriate for your particular knee complaint.
4. Pack Wisely
The weight of your camera backpack will have a big impact on your knees on a hike. Only pack what is absolutely necessary for your shoot and time in the outdoors. If you want to see my recommendations, check out my Gear You Need for Outdoor Photography article.
Chose a pack with a waist belt and chest strap. When you pack your bag, put the heaviest items closest to your back and the bottom of the pack. Loosen all of the straps before putting on the pack. After putting the pack on, clip and tighten the waist belt first, and then adjust the shoulder straps and chest strap. This will put the bulk of the weight on your hips and rather than on your shoulders.
If you haven’t been on a trail for a while, start off with a light amount of gear and gradually increase weight throughout the season as your body adjusts.
5. Never Lock Your Knees
Keep the descending knee and hip slightly bent to have muscles engaged in eccentric contraction upon impact. Try to stay relaxed but strong to allow the muscles (rather than the joint) to absorb the shock and put on the brakes.
Check out this video from Chase Tucker of Base Camp Training, who demonstrates how to hike downhill without locking knees:
6. Lead With Your Heel
The first point of contact of your foot with the ground should be with your heel. This will put your ankle in its most stable position (flexed) upon impact and so you are less likely to slip, which is very common on downhills.
7. Take Smaller Steps
Reduce the amount of elevation change between each step by using a shorter stride or use s-turns or mini-switchbacks within the boundaries of the trail.
8. Side or Backward Step
In steep sections, it is often easier to step down sideways (especially with trekking poles) or even turn around completely and step down backward as if on a ladder.
I often do this towards the end of a steep hike when my knees start to complain and I need to switch things up to prevent fatigue and poor form.
9. Take Your Time
It is important to take breaks and go slowly if you are feeling unsure of the terrain or if you are already experiencing some pain. There’s no shame in this, in fact, you might even notice more compositions on the way down if you take your time.
10. Train When Not on the Trail
This is especially important for those of us who have “bad” knees and for those of us who are planning excursions sometime in the future and have time to prepare properly.
If you are looking to start an easy-to-follow exercise routine aimed at reducing knee pain, I highly recommend checking out Chase Tucker’s YouTube videos and programs. I’ve taken a couple of his programs, and the exercises are very helpful. Here’s one to get you started:
I also recently interviewed Chase on Episode 3 of the Outdoor Photography Podcast, so be sure to check it out!
Also try cross-training with other low impact activities, such as biking, swimming, or yoga. Your body will thank you for putting in the effort!
I hope these tips help you hit the trail more often with your camera! Let’s hear it for less pain, more photos!
What do you do to help prevent knee injury or to reduce knee pain while hiking? Let us know in the comments below. Thanks for sharing!
Disclaimer: The information in this article is based on my own personal experience and is not medical advice. Always consult with a health provider before starting a new exercise program.