by Bearfoot Theory contributor (and yoga instructor) Katherine Oakes
Yoga for hikers and backpackers doesn’t always mean doing things like sun salutations, headstands and chanting at the summit of a mountain during sunrise. In fact, it’s something much simpler, like a set of basic stretches that are easy to do on and off a mat. As a yoga teacher and avid hiker, I make it a point to include basic yoga stretches to help me stay injury-free when I’m out bagging peaks.
As much as I hate to admit it, the aches, pains, and injuries I’ve acquired over a lifetime of being outside don’t always get better when I’m hiking and sometimes they can even get worse. Maybe you can relate but this is a frustrating place to be and as much as I’d love to push through it, I know from both education and experience that isn’t the right way to deal with it. Committing to this simple yoga practice makes a big difference for me when I’m hurting on a hike or backpacking trip.
So, consider this your yoga for hiking and backpacking master class and try to do these simple poses before, during and after your hike to help you protect your body from the wear and tear of long days out on the trail.
Why is Stretching and Yoga Good for Hikers?
Yoga poses aren’t just stretches, they help build the strength and length in a muscle that’s critical for maintaining a healthy range of motion in your body. Like any activity, hiking can take a toll on your joints and muscles, so it’s important to give yourself a little TLC pre and post-hike to avoid getting injured. Plus, these poses are a great way to help increase strength and stability in your joints as well.
Don’t wait until there is a pain to start taking care of yourself, think of your yoga for hiking as injury-prevention in the same way you would bring along extra food, water, and other emergency supplies before heading outside.
In short, doing simple yoga stretches before, during and after a hike can help you maintain a healthy amount of flexibility that’s right for your body and the activities you do. Whether it’s backpacking, day hikes or you’re simply working on being more active, yoga for hikers really means yoga for everyone.
Can I Still do Yoga if I’m Not Flexible?
Yes! For some, the idea of doing yoga or even just stretching is somewhat intimidating if you have “tight” or stiff muscles and hey, I totally get that. One of the biggest arguments that I hear from people against stretching is, “I’m just not flexible!” and my answer to that is, forget about flexibility. Everybody is different and it isn’t always the flexibility part that matters. Some are born hyper-flexible, while others are not and many are right in the middle — the key is to find what works best for you.
It’s more important to have a healthy range of motion in your body that allows you to be outside and pain-free for the long-term. I don’t know about you, but I am aiming to be that 80-year-old out there crushing it and I’m relying on my yoga practice to help me make it happen. I assure you that the small things do make a difference and add up over time, so try to make these stretches and yoga poses as routine as brushing your teeth or tossing an extra granola bar in your bag. It can really be that easy.
Here’s how to improve your lung capacity for hiking
Pre-Hike: Yoga Poses for Hikers
Start on hands and knees in a tabletop position. Take a deep breath in and lift your chest and chin to look forward into cow pose. On the exhale, round your back up towards the sky and drop your chin in towards your chest into cat pose. These poses gently stretch your chest, back and bring more flexibility to the spine. This is a great energizing yoga stretch for early mornings as well.
Step one foot forward in between your hands and lower your back knee down to the floor. Bend the front knee more and bring your hands up on your hips or stretch your arms overhead if you feel steady. For a bigger stretch that helps to strengthen your ankles and knees, lift your back knee off the ground into a high lunge. Hold here for 3 breaths and repeat on the other side.
Standing Wide-Legged Forward Fold
From standing, step your feet out wide and stretch your arms out to the side. Line up your wrists over your ankles then turn your feet forward as you fold forward to touch the floor and grab your ankles or big toes. Firm the muscles of your quads to protect your hamstrings as you fold all the way forward and gently release your head down. Add a shoulder stretch by clasping your hands behind your back and reaching your arms overhead. Hold here for 3 breaths. This pose stretches your calves and ankles, hamstrings, inner thighs and chest, and shoulders.
Yoga Poses for Hikers DURING Your Hike
While you’re hiking, the calves, hamstrings and quadricep muscles are doing most of the work and tend to get really tight. For some people, this might cause some pain in the ankles, knees or lower back. If you’re carrying a heavy load, your shoulders are also going to feel tight or fatigued so use your break to find some relief with these simple stretches out on the trail. Also, consider using a pair of trekking poles to help take pressure off of your knee and ankle joints, combined with these yoga poses and you’ll have one seriously happy and healthy body!
Place the ball of your foot on a rock or anything slightly higher than ground level and draw your heel down toward the ground to stretch your calf muscle. To intensify this stretch, step the other foot forward and press your back heel down more, leaning forward slightly. Hold here for 3 breaths and switch sides.
Stand on one foot, using a tree for balance if you need, and grab the other foot in your hand behind you. Gently lengthen your knee down towards the ground for a simple quad stretch and stand up tall. Hold here for 3 breaths and switch sides.
Standing Wide-Legged Forward Fold
To stretch your hamstrings, repeat the same pose from before, standing wide-legged forward fold for 3 breaths. By clasping your hands behind your back you can stretch your shoulders and chest and give your head a gentle shake yes and no to release the muscles of your neck.
Post-Hike: Yoga Poses for Hikers
The best yoga poses for hiking to do after bagging a few peaks are gentle, restorative and relaxing. Give these easy yoga poses and stretches a try post-hike and see how you feel! This is also a great time to grab your foam roller, tennis ball or other self-massage tools to loosen up tight muscles.
Post-Hike Foot Stretches
Interlace your fingers in-between your toes and slowly rock your hand back and forth for a gentle stretch. Do this once or twice on each foot.
Then, sit on your shins and curl your toes underneath you for an even bigger stretch in your feet. Hold here for 3-5 breaths as long as there is no pain in your toes or feet. If you’ve got a tennis ball, roll it in the arch of your foot for a minute or two on each side.
After a hike, relieve your tight quads with an even deeper thigh stretch. Stand a few feet away from the wall and fold forward to touch your toes. Reach your left leg back behind you until it reaches the wall and slide your knee all the way down to the floor. Place both hands on either side of your right foot and either stay here or bring both hands up to the right knee. The closer your back knee gets to the wall, the deeper the stretch, so do what feels best. If you have sensitive knees, use a blanket or a thick yoga mat for padding. Stay here for 3-5 breaths and switch sides.
Legs Up the Wall or Couch
Turn yourself upside down after your hike to reverse the blood flow and increase circulation throughout your body — it’s also a really nice way to rest those hardworking legs and feet! In general, this pose is wonderfully effective in helping you relax and unwind before bed or after a long day. If you have open wall space, bring your legs up against the wall or stack a few pillows on the couch to lift your feet up overhead. Wherever you are, make sure your hips are all the way up against the wall or couch and allow your arms to relax to the side or grab opposite elbows overhead for a nice stretch in the chest, arms and shoulders. Hold here for at least one minute or longer if you like!
The Best Yoga Mats to Buy
If you’re just getting into yoga for hiking it’s important to get a good quality mat that is durable and feels good to practice on. A slippery mat that’s wearing away won’t help you get into the habit of stretching often, so it’s helpful to invest in one that you like. I love to practice on a Manduka Pro mat. It’s one of the best quality mats out there, is durable enough to handle a little bit of a beating from traveling and going to class, plus it even comes with a lifetime guarantee, so it’s worth the extra money!
Not ready to throw down a ton of money on a yoga mat? Here are some other great options that are perfect for the budding, budget-friendly yogi, plus a few more props and accessories you’ll need to feel completely at OM.
Are you an experienced yogi or are you just starting out? What are your favorite ways to practice yoga for hiking? Share with us in the comments below!
Written by Katherine Oakes
Katherine Oakes is an outdoor travel, sustainability writer and yoga teacher. As an avid hiker, skier, yogi (namaste) and aspiring environmentalist, her best days are spent getting a little dirt under her fingernails and fresh air in her lungs.