6 Tips for Hiking with—and without—Back Pain

Don’t let back pain stop you from enjoying nature and getting away from it all.

Peer Reviewed

Hiking is an activity that can benefit the mind, body, and soul. Time spent in nature as you traverse hills and trails through quiet wooded areas can feel good from head to toe—that is, until it doesn’t.

Hiking and back painTell back pain to take a hike!

If you suffer from back pain, you know that certain activities can quickly ramp up your pain. If hiking was previously a pastime you loved only to be halted by back pain, or, if you want to start hiking for the first time, you’ll be happy to know that there are things you can do to alleviate back pain during and after a hike.

Hike Right

Eric Freeman, DO, is an interventional spine and pain specialist at Redefine Healthcare. He believes that at its core, hiking can be quite beneficial to those who deal with back pain.

He says, “Hiking is a good activity for those who suffer from back pain because it helps increase muscular circulation, which improves soft tissue flexibility in the spine as well as other large muscle groups. Hiking also helps strengthen the muscles that support your spine and improves flexibility and posture, resulting in minimized osteoarthritis pain.”

In addition, walking on different terrains often uneven will contribute to improved balance and synergistic muscle activity of the back, legs and core, as well as the smaller muscles of the feet.

But there is a less-than-optimal way to hike with back pain.

Dr. Freeman adds, “Hiking with incorrect technique and form can have a negative impact on the body. Using a backpack that is not properly worn or sized for your body may lead to altered balance, resulting in improper form and unwanted injuries. Also, bad posture while you’re hiking can put pressure on your joints, spine, ligaments, and tendons, which can result in muscle/tendon injuries as well.”

If you do some prep work and keep things in mind while hiking, you’ll be an outdoor superstar in no time, with decreased back pain to boot.

Here are Dr. Freeman’s top words of wisdom when it comes to hiking and back pain.

1. Purchase the Right Backpack

As Dr. Freeman mentioned, a poorly-fitting backpack can easily lead to increased back pain. He advises, “Use a properly-fitted backpack that straps around your waist and across your back to help evenly distribute the weight on your back.” You can visit an outdoors store like REI to get properly fitted for a backpack.

2. Stretching Is Key

“Stretch before and after your hike,” Dr. Freeman says. “Stretching before your hike helps to improve circulation and loosen the muscles, which reduces stress on joints. Stretching after your hike helps to reduce muscle fatigue and soreness that could amplify your back pain.”

3. Consider Trekking Poles

Dr. Freeman asserts that using trekking poles can be very helpful to those with back pain. He says, “Trekking poles can help you avoid bad posture while hiking by keeping your body upright. This can help reduce the back pain you might experience during and after your hike.”

Hiking polesTrekking poles, or hiking poles, can make your hike more manageable.


4. Take Care of Your Body

To succeed at hiking, you can do things to benefit your body before you even step on the trail. Dr. Freeman recommends fueling your body by staying hydrated and eating nutritious snacks such as bananas, dried fruit, and trail mix. It’s also important to focus your workouts on developing upper body and core strength to help prevent injury.

You can also care for yourself by tuning in to what your body is telling you.

“People with back pain should listen to their bodies and limit hiking, as well as any type of exercise, to their pain tolerance,” Dr. Freeman notes. “If you are not able to limit your distance or time spent hiking, then take frequent breaks to avoid putting unneeded strain on your back.” 

5. Build In Recovery Time

“Give your body an appropriate amount of time in between each hike to recover,” Dr. Freeman says. “If you are still sore and in pain, wait until your body is no longer sore before going on your next hike. How many times per week a person can hike really depends on the person, their overall strength, and how fast their body recovers in between hikes.”

6. Seek Further Assistance If Needed

As you carry out your journey toward pain-free or less-painful hiking, it can help to rely on others to get you there.

For instance, Dr. Freeman says that hiking with a veteran hiker can give you a guide for proper form and posture. He elaborates, saying, “Hiking with an experienced partner may help you avoid poor hiking techniques that could worsen your back pain.”  

And remember, if all else fails, you can always visit a doctor for further advice.

Dr. Freeman says, “Always consult your local spine and pain specialist if you are experiencing ongoing lower back pain. He or she will help you develop an appropriate treatment plan with the emphasis on decreasing and controlling your pain, improving your overall function so you are able to participate in recreational activities.”

Want to run your plans to hike the Appalachian Trail—or maybe just your local park—by a spine specialist? Find one today.


Updated on: 06/01/20
Continue Reading
6 Ways Regular Exercise Affects Chronic Pain
Christopher P. Silveri, MD, FAAOS
Continue Reading:

6 Ways Regular Exercise Affects Chronic Pain

An analysis of 33 different studies concluded that exercise reduces pain and improves physical functionality related to osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia.
Read More