After a challenging day of backpacking, many people experience soreness around their hips. While sore hips are an extremely common problem for hikers and backpackers, the pain can put a damper on the rest of the trip. Thankfully, there are solutions! Let’s talk about what causes sore hips, then we’ll break down what you can do about it.
Our hips are key for powering the action of walking. They propel our legs forward and keep us stable and balanced. When you spend a long day out walking in the mountains, that adds up to a lot of hip exertion.
But it’s not just the long days. Backpacking adds another key ingredient: weight. Most of us don’t carry around 20-30 extra lbs for hours (or days!) at a time, but that’s exactly how we’re spending our days out on the trails. Our hips have to work much harder to power us with that much extra weight.
The position of the weight also matters. Backpacks are designed to distribute weight onto our hips through the hip belt. Our hips have a lot of capacity to carry weight, so this isn’t a bad thing, but with enough weight, time, and steps, our hips will still reach a limit.
Another specific impact of our hips carrying our pack weight shows up in our IT bands. The shape and position of the hip belt on your backpack can apply compression to your IT band from the weight, which can limit how much it moves versus normal walking. At the end of a long day, that pressure can add up and lead to soreness in some people.
Thankfully, you can alleviate IT band pain with mobility exercises. While you’re out on a trip, you can help minimize soreness by stretching before you go to sleep. Check out the video in this post for two stretches that can go a long way toward happier hips.
Well…yes and no.
In some ways, yes, the challenge of hiking will certainly build strength, including in your hips. That said, it’s important that you don’t rely on big adventures alone to build your strength. Doing too much too fast without a strong foundation can be a recipe for injury and misery.
One reason injury can happen is that if you tend to rely on one muscle group over others, a repetitive motion like hiking for long distances will reinforce existing muscle patterns. If those existing patterns aren’t well balanced, you can form bad movement habits. For instance, if you tend to rely too heavily on your quads rather than recruiting your glutes, you’ll get tired more easily and be more injury-prone since you’re not using all your major muscle groups.
With that in mind, it’s important to work intentionally to build healthy, functional movement patterns. If you want to strengthen your hips for stronger day hiking and backpacking trips, you’ll want to put in work off the trails, too. So yes, hiking and backpacking can strengthen your hips, but only with a good foundation of strength that has your body well-prepared for the challenges of load and duration. That brings us to the next section.
Backpacking strength development requires growth on multiple fronts. We break these areas down into three zones: 1) major muscle groups 2) stabilizer muscles & connective tissue, and 3) movement patterns.
The major muscle groups you need to strengthen to keep your hips strong and stable are your core, glutes, and quads. Exercises that strengthen these muscles will help create a strong system. Generally speaking, many women tend to be “quad-dominant,” relying more heavily on their quads and under-utilize the muscles on the back of the posterior chain, especially the glutes. Many of the exercises we use for lower body strength development, like squats and lunges, can be done with either a quad or a glute emphasis. If you’re looking for a balanced system you’ll need to make sure you know what you’re focusing on and why.
As your muscles fatigue, your body will rely more heavily on soft tissue to support the joints. That means it’s important to build stabilization resilience as well. To add more balance and stabilization to an exercise, try doing the exercise slowly. For example, try doing a lunge to a count of 3 or 5 on the way down, then another count on the way up. Balance exercises like pistol squats and single leg deadlifts are other great exercises for stabilizer muscle strength building.
In addition to front-to-back movements like squats and lunges, it’s important to work the other angles with lateral and twisting movements. These are especially important for tricky trails – building strength for non-linear responsiveness will help keep you upright when things are slippery or rocky. These types of movements help with stabilization and strengthen your ankles and knees as well, which will help your whole body work as a cooperative system. They’ll also strengthen the gluteus medius (think of this as the “side butt”), which is a key muscle for maintaining knee alignment and preventing knee injuries.
For example, for a lateral movement, try side lunges:
Make sure your knee is tracking over your foot as you complete the lunge and keep your chest in a nice proud position instead of collapsed forward.
Curtsy lunges are a little more advanced than a basic side lunge. They incorporate both lateral and twisting movement:
Again, be sure to keep your knee centered over your foot instead of letting it wobble–this might be tough! If the curtsy lunge is particularly challenging for you, don’t sink too deep into the lunge at first. Gradually build up to a deeper lunge as you gain strength.
If you’re currently enrolled in Summer Strong, the workouts you’re doing are designed to build these muscle groups specifically for powering big adventures.
Online workout programs are a great way to get specialized instruction specific to your favorite activities. Someone who wants to excel at long days outside has different needs and goals than someone training for general fitness. With that in mind, try to find a workout program that matches your goals!
Second, the best workout programs also consider fitness and wellness from a holistic perspective. The mind-body connection, mental wellness, and mindset are just as important as raw physical strength when it comes to accomplishing big days outside.
In our humble opinion, we think you’ll love Summer Strong for building both mental and physical strength for backpacking. We’ve worked hard to design a program specifically for backpacking and outdoor enthusiasts. You’ll learn and practice all the exercises you’ll need, no matter your experience level. And it’s not just a list of exercises! Instead, Summer Strong equips you with tools for mental wellness, fueling, and self-talk. We’ll also teach you how to build body awareness, which fosters muscle memory and confidence for moving through wild, rugged places.
We hope these tips help you tackle your next adventure with less soreness and happier hips! What tip will you try?
Add your email below to open up your access to the 20-Min Busy Day Workout.
You'll also be included on my email list, where I send out updates & resources on fitness, mental health, and adventure. It's low-pressure, lighthearted, & easy to unsubscribe at anytime should you wish to.