By Michael Lanza
You just finished a big dayhike, backpacking trip, mountain climb, or trail run convinced it was one of the best experiences of your life—and now your body seems to have mounted a loud protest of pain against it. And you wonder: Is this suffering necessary? The simple answer is no. Follow the tips in this article—or even just some of them—to greatly lessen the physical aches and pains that sometimes follow an outdoors adventure.
This article shares the methods I’ve learned over four decades of dayhiking, backpacking, climbing mountains, ultra-hiking, trail running, cycling, and backcountry and Nordic skiing, including three decades writing about such adventures as a past field editor for Backpacker magazine and running this blog.
Short of suffering an injury, much of the aches and pains that sometimes follow any taxing physical activity result from entirely normal processes taking place within our bodies as muscle cells go through their usual healing and strengthening processes. But there are many ways to counter and minimize that pain with little to no effort or cost.
Please share your tips or questions in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments. Click on any photo to read about that trip.
1. Use the Right Gear
Poorly fitted boots or a pack will virtually guarantee to magnify your post-hike soreness in large muscles, your back and shoulders and possibly result in blistered or injured feet. Get a daypack or backpack and footwear that fit your body and are suited to your style of hiking and the conditions you’ll encounter.
Avoid carrying more weight in your pack than feels comfortable to you: If it feels too heavy when you first put the pack on, it will probably only feel worse at the end of the hike.
See all reviews of lightweight hiking shoes and backpacking boots at The Big Outside, my picks for the best daypacks and backpacking packs and my “Expert Tips for Buying the Right Hiking Boots” and “5 Expert Tips For Buying the Right Backpacking Pack.”
Another gear tip: Use trekking poles. Backpackers, dayhikers, climbers, mountain runners, and others have figured out that, no matter how much weight you’re carrying, using poles reduces the strain, fatigue, and impact on your leg muscles and joints, feet, back—and lessens your chances of an accidental fall.
See “The Best Trekking Poles,” “How to Choose Trekking Poles,” and “10 Best Expert Tips for Hiking With Trekking Poles,” and The Big Outside’s Gear Reviews page for categorized menus of gear reviews and expert buying tips.
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2. Wear Compression Clothing
Compression socks, calf sleeves, shorts, and tights changed how I dress for dayhikes and trail runs, especially longer outings. I noticed the boost in my endurance and dramatic decrease in stiffness and soreness both during and after my first run wearing compression clothing. Now, I virtually never take a long run or hike today without wearing compression socks and shorts.
I’ll also often wear the socks and shorts for a few hours or more post-hike or run—or change into clean, dry compressions socks and shorts after a shower—for the noticeable, long-term recovery benefits that wearing them post-workout provides and how much better I feel the next day.
Compression clothing fits more tightly than standard socks or shorts, squeezing the legs (or arms) to improve blood and oxygen circulation—beneficial during and after exercise. In fact, compression socks and other clothing are so effective they are used to treat a variety of medical ailments related to blood circulation.
Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and other parks using my expert e-guides.
3. Take Care of Your Feet
Think about this: The average person takes over 2,000 steps per mile when walking. A 10-mile hike entails over 20,000 steps, a 20-mile hike, over 40,000. In rugged terrain, where your steps may be shorter, that number will be even higher. I still recall our amazement when two friends and I thru-hiked the John Muir Trail in seven days—averaging about 31 miles per day—in seeing the pedometer that one friend wore recording over 70,000 steps on some days.
It should come as no surprise that hiking rugged terrain, with significant elevation gain and loss, takes a toll on your feet. Besides the repeated impact of all those steps, particularly on rocky ground, there exists always the risk of injuries ranging from routine blisters to more serious problems. But even on a good day, feet can feel achy by the end of a hike.
Take care of your feet before, during, and after a hike. If you tend to blister, pre-emptively tape sensitive spots like heels or toes. Keep your feet dry during a hike with habits as easy as pulling your shoes and socks off during a break. Afterward, give your feet some TLC, including flexing and stretching them and massaging the balls, arches, heels, and Achilles, all of which improves blood flow and just feels really good—especially on tired feet.
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4. Cool Down
Many of us have had the unpleasant experience of ending a hike, run or mountain climb, immediately getting into a car for a long drive home—and emerging from the vehicle feeling like your body has skipped death and gone straight to rigor mortis. That results from small muscle tears, a normal physiological process that leads to the muscles healing and making themselves stronger.
While that phenomenon, known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), typically follows exercising at a greater intensity or duration than your muscles are accustomed to and can persist for 24 to 48 hours or longer, you can mitigate its severity with a practice that requires no additional effort or time.
Stopping abruptly at the end of a long hike, trail run, or mountain climb does not give muscles a chance to gradually adjust from an active to a resting state, causing them to stiffen up. Instead of walking or running at a hard pace all the way back to the trailhead, slow your pace to one where you’re breathing very easily for the last 20 minutes or more of your hike, giving muscles time to gradually cool down before you stop.
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5. Rehydrate and Fuel Up
We all know that our bodies require water and food to get through a physical activity as sustained and taxing as hiking. Still, it’s remarkably easy to underestimate our needs. Even when deliberately drinking fluids and eating throughout a moderate day of hiking, we often finish at least slightly dehydrated and certainly hungry; a strenuous hike only compounds that deficit. And our muscles require water and nutrients to repair themselves.
Besides drinking and eating plenty during a hike—gulping water every 15 to 20 minutes and snacking every hour is a good guideline—recovery begins with quickly feeding your body what it craves: fluids, electrolytes, fat, protein, salt, and to some extent even carbohydrates to help restore levels of glycogen, which provides your body with a reserve of long-term energy.
I like to have a big bottle of an electrolyte drink and salty/fatty snacks immediately after a hike to start the process of giving my body the nourishment it demands.
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips”
and “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”
Too many people shrug off this tip as something that doesn’t interest them or not worth the effort and time—mainly because they’re tired and don’t want to bother. But stretching doesn’t have to require much time or any real effort and it reaps a bounty of physical and mental rewards. Pick up the habit and you may discover you love it: I always give my body a good session of stretching and/or yoga post-hike and the next morning, to speed recovery and just feel better and happier. It’s part of my daily routine at home, even on full rest days.
At a minimum, spend 10 to 20 minutes at the trailhead or at home soon after finishing a hike stretching the major muscle groups you’ve worked hard: quads, hamstrings, calves, back, and neck. (You can even stretch while following step 5, drinking and snacking.) We all learned basic stretches in school P.E. classes, but you can find diagrams and videos online, too.
Stretching acts as a form of cooling down post-hike and active rest the next day, too.
7. Apply Heat, Get a Massage
There’s a physiological reason why a warm shower feels good after a hard workout: Applying heat to your skin improves blood circulation (the same effect as compression clothing, above), which boosts oxygen and nutrients to muscle cells starving for exactly that medicine. Go one better and take a long, warm bath to soak heat deeply into muscles and add Epsom salts to the bath water; the skin can absorb the magnesium into the salts and enhance healing.
Do you need to be convinced to get a massage or even just massage your own muscles after exercise? It reduces inflammation and stimulates mitochondria, which convert glucose into energy and facilitates cell function and repair. Massage your own large leg muscles (quads, hamstrings, calves) yourself and feel the difference.
Take your dream trip using my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
8. Eat a Meal
I’ve seen people, after a huge hike or run, make the mistake of deciding they’re too tired to bother eating, go to sleep for the night or even just a long nap, and wake up feeling worse than when they fell asleep—sometimes even shivering and nauseous. Don’t put yourself through that, it’s miserable.
Follow your hike with a nutritious and satisfying meal within an hour, if possible, because that’s when your body needs and will efficiently process that food. Your body does a pretty good job of making you crave what it needs: fat, protein, salt, and carbs. Listen to it and you probably won’t go wrong.
Planning a backpacking trip? See “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips”
and “10 Tips for Taking Kids on Their First Backpacking Trip.”
9. Take Pain Relief
If your soreness or stiffness inhibits normal walking and going up and down stairs, an over-the-counter pain relief medication like acetaminophen or ibuprofen (“Vitamin I,” as active people call it) can provide rapid relief to the worst post-hike symptoms. Make sure any medication you take does not react in a negative way with any prescription meds you take and avoid regular use of anti-inflammatories because they can produce long-term side effects.
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10. Sleep Enough and Take an Active Rest Day
Sleep cures many ailments, including sore muscles. Getting enough sleep is critical to helping your body recover from virtually everything, including a hard hike, run, or mountain climb. But what you do the next day matters, too.
When your fatigue is such that you need a day or two (or more) of rest to recover fully—assuming you don’t have an injury that requires complete rest—the worst approach is doing nothing: that will only cause your muscles to stiffen up even more than they felt after the hike. Do some stretching and, most importantly, take a short, easy walk or bike ride, even if just on an errand or going out for a meal.
Although sore muscles may protest painfully at first, they will soon warm up and this low-level activity will make you feel much better—and have you feeling ready for your next hike sooner.
See also “Training for a Big Hike or Mountain Climb,” “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and all stories offering expert hiking and backpacking tips at The Big Outside.