Few things are more satisfying than crawling into a cozy sleeping bag after a beautiful day on the trail, right? The weight off your feet, the soft puffy embrace of insulating material, the promise of a peaceful night’s sleep under the stars…
But also, few things are more frustrating than tossing and turning all night with sore, tight muscles. Or crawling out of that cozy sleeping bag the next morning to find your body stiff and achy, rebelling against another day of miles (or kilometers, if that’s your style).
I am not blessed with good flexibility or naturally sound biomechanics. My IT bands are as tight as tent guy lines in howling wind, my glutes as lazy as a thru-hiker after a couple of beers. This makes my knees hurt. Sometimes I think my love for outdoor endurance activities is the universe’s idea of a cruel joke.
The solution? It’s taken a lot of miles to learn, but for me stretching before bed is a miracle cure. My muscles relax, I sleep better, and I wake up feeling stronger in the morning.
Since evenings are often chilly I’ve developed a post-hike stretching routine I can do in my tent, mostly sitting or lying down. This keeps my muscles warm enough to actually relax, and helps me transition to sleep. It’s basically my backcountry evening ritual.
If you’ve ever felt tight or achy on a multi-day backpacking trip (or bikepacking trip – another fun way to explore), I hope this stretching routine will help you as much as it’s helped me. Use it to sleep better, move better, and give your body the love it deserves after it’s transported you somewhere wonderful and wild.
First a few general tips to help you get the most out of this backpacking stretching routine.
Start with a warm and relaxed body. Put on your sleeping clothes, crawl into your tent or tarp or bivvy, and if it’s cold, get cozy in your sleeping bag or quilt. If you’ve gotten a bit chilled eating dinner, wait until you’re warm before you start stretching. Cold muscles aren’t receptive to stretching, and can even be injured if you try. These tips for staying warm might help.
Focus on your body. Stretching isn’t a purely mechanical process. There’s an intricate brain-body system controlling your muscle tension, and simply pulling on the muscle fibers isn’t going to cut it. Put your attention into your body, feel what’s going on there, try to actively think about relaxing the muscles you’re stretching.
Use breathing to help relax. Many of these stretches are borrowed from yoga, which is all about using the breath in connection with movement. As you inhale deeply into your belly, picture directing your breath into the tight muscle, and as you exhale, try to release as much tension as possible. This kind of breathing is really relaxing and will get you ready for sleep.
Stabilize your spine. A lot of these postures involve folding at the hips, and it’s easy (especially if your hamstrings are tight) to get all the range of motion from your spine. Not only is this not the healthiest for your spine, it doesn’t actually stretch the muscles that are tight. Instead picture drawing your bellybutton inward, lengthening up through your spine, and hinging from the hips instead of rounding through the spine. It’s not about how far you can reach in a stretch; it’s about how effective it is for your body.
How long should you hold each stretch for? Everyone wants a definitive answer for this, but it’s not that straightforward. One answer is “a few deep breaths,” as in yoga, which can be enough to relax muscles if you’re really focused. Another answer is “a few minutes” which is enough to loosen tight connective tissue and fascia; try a longer stretching session every few days to target these deeper tissues. My favorite answer is “until you feel it’s working,” which means tuning into your body and noticing when it feels like the muscles have released and lengthened a bit.
I’ve included some pictures, where possible, to help you understand the postures. They were taken during my Colorado Trail thru hike. We arrived at camp a bit early, no one else was around, and it was a warm afternoon. I set up a sleeping pad on my bivvy, handed my husband the camera, and went through my stretching routine.
I apologize if the picture quality isn’t as good as it could be. I am no fitness model, and my husband is no photographer (no offense Dear!), but I hope they still help you understand how to do these stretches. There are a few missing, which I’ll be sure to capture the next time I have a chance out on the trail.
Here are the stretches in roughly the order I would go through them. I like to start with sitting stretches, then work my way to lying down, and eventually transitioning into a nice, comfy sleep.
Many of these can be done inside your sleeping bag, especially the ones toward the end. I’ve also included a few that I typically do in my tent or on top of my bivvy before getting into the sleeping bag. If it’s too cold, I suggest skipping these and going straight to whatever you can do from the cozy warmth of your sleeping bag.
Don’t ask me how I know this, but be mindful of inflatable sleeping pads! 🙂 Try not to set up camp on sharp rocks or sticks, and avoid putting too much pressure on any one area of pad as you’re moving through these stretches.
Targets: hip flexors of back leg, glutes and adductors of front leg
If it’s not too cold, I love doing this yoga pose before settling into my sleeping bag. From your hands and knees, extend one leg back behind you and the other leg in front, to the outside of your hands, with front knee at ninety degree angle. You can stay up on your hands or drop down to forearms for more stretch. Try to let your hips feel heavy and drop downward as your muscles relax.
Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of this one yet (and my lizard is awkwardly inflexible anyway), so here’s an illustration to help you picture it.
If you’re stretching on an inflatable sleeping pad, try not to dig your back knee into the ground. Keep pressure distributed throughout your shin to minimize risk of a puncture!
Lizard Quad Stretch
This is the perfect followup to lizard. After your hip flexors are nice and relaxed, bend the back leg and grab your foot, pulling your heel toward your butt. You should feel this throughout the front of your thigh on the back leg. Here’s a quick guide to help you understand the details.
Targets: adductors (inner thighs), medial hamstrings
If you’re sharing a cramped tent you may need to ask your tentmate for extra space for this one! Sit facing the side of your sleeping pad and spread your legs outward in a seated straddle position, then gently hinge forward. Next, hinge toward one foot, and then the other.
Seated Forward Fold
Target: hamstrings, lower back, calves if you flex your feet back toward you
With your legs out in front, sit up tall with a straight spine and then hinge forward at your hips until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings (the muscles at the back of your thighs). No need to round your spine too much in order to reach your feet; just go as far as feels good.
Single Leg Hamstring / IT Band
Target: hamstrings, IT band
If your hips and IT bands (tough bands of fascia running down the outside of each thigh) tend to be tight (most hikers’ are!), this is a good variation on the forward fold. Bend one leg at the knee and cross it over the opposite leg, then hinge forward. You should feel this a bit more on the outside of the straight leg, and maybe the glute of the bent leg. Repeat on the other side.
Cross Legged Forward Fold
Sit cross-legged and gently hinge forward until you feel a stretch in your glutes (back and outer hip area). Repeat with the opposite leg crossed in front.
If you’d like even more of a stretch, cross the outward leg’s ankle on top of the opposite knee. Be sure to keep both feet flexed (90 degree angle between foot and lower leg) to keep things aligned safely at the knee joint.
Elbow Quad Massage
Not really a stretch, but this feels amazing for tight quads. Sit with both legs out in front, and use one elbow to gently massage your quad muscle (the front of your thighs) the whole length and width of your upper leg. Use the other hand on the ground behind you to prop yourself, so the muscles can fully relax instead of trying to hold you in a seated position.
Target: adductors, groin
Lying on your back, pull the soles of your feet together and let your knees fall open to the sides. This can be cramped in a narrow sleeping bag, but a tip is to pull the bag higher on one side so your knees are oriented diagonally relative to the width of the bag, giving you more space.
Lying Hip Flexor Stretch
Targets: hip flexors
Pull one knee to your chest (this keeps your spine in a neutral position) while extending the other leg straight. Try to imagine your straight leg getting very heavy and being supported by the ground, while relaxing the area at the front of your hip and lower abdomen. Repeat on the other side.
Figure 4 Hip Stretch
Place your left foot on the ground with knee bent. Then bend your right leg and place your right ankle on your left knee. Your right knee should be pointing out to the side and you might feel a stretch in your right glute / hip area. If not, use your hands to pull your left shin toward your chest while trying to keep your right knee pushed down away from your chest. As always, repeat on the opposite side.
Lying Glute Stretch
The glutes are actually a group of several muscles, and they respond differently to slightly different angles of stretching. This variation is similar to the figure 4 stretch above, but instead of resting ankle on opposite knee, cross your legs at the thighs and pull knees toward your chest.
You might feel this more in your glute max – your butt cheek, for lack of a more gentile term – whereas the figure 4 stretch tends to be felt more in the glute medius / outer hip.
Lying Quad and IT Band
Target: quads, IT band, glute medius
Place both feet on the ground with knees bent, then rotate your hips to let your knees fall to one side. Place the ankle of the bottom leg on top of the knee of the top leg, using it to push gently downward toward the ground.
This position is variable in terms of what it stretches, so play around with it. Extending the hip (like you’re standing up) and pulling your heel (the heel of the left leg in the picture below) closer to your butt can be a nice quad stretch. Flexing the hip (more like you’re sitting in a chair) and focusing on hip rotation can bring it into the glute medius and hip area. Do whatever feels best!
If you’ve made it through all these stretches, congratulations, you are probably relaxed and ready for a good night’s sleep! Give it a try, and see if you notice any difference in how you feel and move the next morning.
On-Trail Stretch Breaks
I absolutely love the above post-hike stretching routine for backpacking, but evening isn’t the only time stretching can be helpful. If you tend to get tight during the day, try incorporating some of the above stretches into a lunch or snack break. My personal favorites are those that target glutes and quads.
Off-Trail Strength and Mobility
If you find yourself needing a lot of stretch breaks while hiking, it may be that your biomechanics need some attention off the trail too. Especially for those of us who do a lot of sitting in daily life, it’s easy for muscles that should be strong and powerful (like our glutes) to get lazy, weak, and/or tight.
I’m still on this journey myself, but so far the most effective recommendations I can make are:
Do regular strength training, especially for core, glutes, and hamstrings. If you have access to a gym and barbell setup, learning to lift heavy (have a trainer teach you safe form) is the best method I’ve found for improving comfort and injury-resistance on the trail. If you’re working out at home, a few dumbbells, resistance bands, or even bodyweight exercises are effective too.
Start a regular yoga practice. My impression of yoga has changed over the years. The “westernized” yoga I do is geared toward athletes and is a wonderfully thorough system of moving all my joints through their full healthy ranges of motion, developing strength in a wide range of positions, and focusing attention to make all this more effective. It’s like strength training and stretching all rolled into one, with some relaxing breathing thrown in for good measure.
For both strength training and yoga, I’m currently a big fan of the on-demand fitness classes from Peloton. (They don’t pay me to say that, and I pay my own money for a membership.) Yes, there’s a small monthly fee, but the endless catalog of high quality videos is absolutely worth it in my opinion.
I hope these backpacking stretches and tips help you enjoy the outdoors more comfortably!
More Backpacking Resources
If you’re into backpacking, you might find these helpful too:
- How to Use Hiking Poles More Effectively
- Tips for Lighter-Weight Backpacking
- Water Purification for Hikers: Tips, Tricks, and Best Products
Or, visit the full list of Hiking and Backpacking resources!
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