9 Most Essential Stretches After a Long Day of Backpacking

“], “filter”: { “nextExceptions”: “img, blockquote, div”, “nextContainsExceptions”: “img, blockquote, a.btn, a.o-button”} }”>

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members!
>”,”name”:”in-content-cta”,”type”:”link”}}”>Download the app.

I know from firsthand experience the wear and tear that hiking can have on the human body. As a long-distance thru-hiker, I’ve covered hundreds of miles of mountain climbs, forest trails, and canyon rubble-hops in a single month, traversing anywhere from 20 to 36 miles a day. And at my former day job as a backcountry ranger at Grand Canyon National Park, I logged 10 to 20 miles each day for work while tending to remote backcountry stations and providing search-and-rescue emergency medical services to injured hikers, mostly those who pushed their bodies past their limits and endured intense physical pain as a result.

The body keeps the score. With the sheer physicality of navigating hard terrain with the weight of gear on my back, I have often found myself in a “check yo’self before you wreck yo’self” situation. The downhill knee-crunch, the backpack-lower back trainwreck, the wire cable that your neck becomes after carrying a load all day, are real, not to mention every flavor of sore and achy feet. If you go too far, too fast, you will know it.

When it comes to maintaining resilience for a thru-hike, every mile you hike strengthens your trail muscles. When it comes to yoga for backpackers, even though it can be tempting to skip straight to Savasana in your sleeping bag after a long hike, ending your day with a few critical poses designed for a “lengthen and strengthen” approach can be profoundly beneficial. This style of stretching can help release tension, increase your overall energy for hiking endurance, and prevent trail injuries.

The yin style of yoga is particularly helpful as it lengthens tight muscles, releases pressure points that form due to repeating movements on the trail, and reduces nervous system activation. Unlike restorative yoga, which is more focused on relaxation, yin poses aim to relax muscular tension through a comfortable but challenging stretch in which you allow gravity to release the deep tissues and increase circulation in that part of the body.

The following poses deeply release the hard-working hiker’s body. If the weather is cold or stormy, you can still practice these poses in your tent to unwind from all your trail miles.

9 Essential Yoga Poses for Backpackers

When you backpack, you carry everything you need to survive on your back. In this context, your backpacking equipment can become your traveling yoga studio. For instance, a sleeping pad is a yoga mat, a sleeping bag is a blanket or, when rolled, a block, and a stuffed backpack can be an excellent bolster for restorative yoga. You can also roll extra clothing layers for soft and supportive props underneath your knees, neck, or lower back.

(Photo: Allie Jorde Creative)

1. Toes Squat

How it helps backpackers build resilience: If you have time for only one pose at the end of the day, make it this stretch. One of the first lessons long-distance backpackers learn is that a happy foot makes for miles, and this toe squat helps loosen tendons that are wound tight from traversing uneven trails, hopping boulders, and breaking your previous record number of steps in a day. By releasing tension in the plantar fascia along the bottom of your feet, you decrease your risk of hike-ending plantar fasciitis.

How to: Mindfully extend up through the spine as you sit on your heels with your feet. Ground your weight through the balls of your feet, spreading the toes wide (the pinkie toe spread out like a kickstand) to feel a stretch down the foot’s arch.

Toe squats can be intense, so begin with shorter sits if your feet feel stiff. Slowly work toward longer holds of 1 to 3 minutes. If at any time the stretch feels painful, bring your hands to the ground and shift your weight forward to relieve pressure.

hiker performing yoga poses near their tent in the Arizona desert
(Photo: Allie Jorde Creative)

You can also combine this stretch with the arm stretch from Eagle Pose for a much-needed stretch in between your shoulder blades. Extend both of your arms forward and then wrap your left arm over the right arm, making sure that the left elbow is above the right upper arm. Slide your right hand towards your face, and then cross your forearms. Finally, press your palms together, and lift your elbows to shoulder height.Breathe awareness into your upper back. Slowly adjust the angle between your chin and chest to alter the sensations in your neck, and stay here for at least two minutes. When you switch sides, give your feet a break by coming onto hands and knees, gently tapping the tops of your feet on the ground to relieve tension.

backpacker practicing yoga on a trail in the Arizona desert
(Photo: Allie Jorde Creative)

2. Thread the Needle

How it helps backpackers build resilience: If you have ever heard stories about backpackers sitting around the campfire, you can imagine the slumped postures that result from hunching forward under a heavy pack while hiking up mountains and down canyons all day. Thread the Needle eases the tension in the muscles of the thoracic spine with a gentle twist that stretches the upper back and outer shoulders and helps relieve knots experienced between the shoulder blades.

How to: Come to your hands and knees with your shoulders over your wrists and your hips over your knees. Press your hands into the ground. Inhale as you lift your gaze and lift your right arm toward the sky, turning your upper body to the right and feeling expansiveness across your chest. Exhale and glide your right arm behind your left wrist until your right shoulder and side of your head rest on the ground, noticing yourself grounding into earth. Breathe here as long as you like.

backpacker engaged in yoga poses near their camping spot on a desert trail in Arizona
(Photo: Allie Jorde Creative)

You can also wrap your upper arm back to touch the hip, rotating your chest toward the sky for a chest opener. Then, come back to hands and knees and switch sides.

backpacker in the Arizona desert doing yoga poses near their tent
(Photo: Allie Jorde Creative)

3. Lizard Pose

How it helps backpackers build resilience: This stretch offers one of the most profound openings of the hip joint. Allowing yourself to use support in the form of your backpack or your sleeping back in a compression sack allows your overtaxed hip flexors to release some tension. In addition, your back leg benefits from a lengthening quadriceps stretch. Easing tension in the muscles along the front body can help long-distance hikers ease lower back pain.

How to: From hands and knees, step one foot forward in between the hands so your forward knee is bent 90 degrees and stacked above your heel in Low Lunge. Inch your back knee away from you a little and adjust the placement of your front foot and back knee to alter the stretch as desired. Bring your forearms to the ground or prop them on your backpack or compression sack in Lizard Pose. Draw your forward knee toward your shoulder and release the tension in your upper body. Breathe here for 3-5 minutes and switch sides.

Backpacker practicing a simple backbend known as Sphinx at Piestewa Peak in the Sonoran Desert
(Photo: Allie Jorde Creative)

4. Sphinx

How it helps backpackers build resilience: Poor posture is one of the most common contributors to aches and pains when backpacking. The gentle supported backbend known as Sphinx Pose releases the day’s forward hunching caused by carrying a heavy backpack. Sphynx invites slow, deep, grounded breathing which can help you expand through the chest and ease tension along the spine. It is a regal pose that can release the physical burden you carried for miles.

How to: Lie on your stomach and place your elbows under your shoulders, forearms and chin on the ground and legs together. Inhale and press into your arms to lift your head and chest, keeping your gaze forward and down to keep your neck in line with your spine. Engage your lower abs, draw your kneecaps toward your thighs, and Inwardly rotate your thighs to create more space in your lower back. Lastly, exhale and let the pubic bone press into the floor. Feel as though you’re drawing your chest forward.

Backpacker practicing supported Sphinx Pose with a backpack beneath his chest.
(Photo: Allie Jorde Creative)

If your shoulders are tired, place your backpack in beneath your front ribs and release yourself into it to relieve your arms from supporting you. Focus your awareness on expanding your chest as you inhale and settling your lower body into the ground as you exhale. Breathe here for 1 to 3 minutes. Come out of the pose by pushing back through your hands and come to kneeling.

Backpacker in a yoga pose in the vast Arizona desert
(Photo: Allie Jorde Creative)

5. Restorative Hero’s Pose

How it helps backpackers build resilience: Quadriceps are the hero of a hike, contracting each time you take a step along a steep incline. This “Arriba! Arriba!” muscle deserves a hero’s recline at the end of a long day, especially after hikes with lots of scrambling or elevation gain. Supta Virasana, or Reclined Hero, is one of the most effective quad stretches for high milers who want their legs to feel well-rested in the morning because it releases tensions in all of the essential areas at once—ankles, quads, hip flexors, and the sacral-lumbar arch of the low back. If the weather is cold or stormy, you can still practice it in your tent to unwind from all your trail miles.

How to: Come to kneeling with your knees together and your feet slightly wider than your hips. Lower yourself to sitting in between your heels. If you haven’t practiced this stretch before, place your backpack lengthwise behind you. Press the tops of your feet into the ground and exhale as you slowly walk your hands behind you. If it feels okay for your lower back and knees, keep walking your hands back and lower the trunk of your body to relax on your backpack. You should feel the stretch along your quadriceps.

If this is too intense, walk your hands forward slightly and remain sitting. Otherwise relax your arms at your sides or place them on your belly to feel the movement of your breath. This therapeutic version gently arches the lower back, and the knees can be together or slightly spread. Stay here for at least two minutes. The most essential part of the pose is to breathe comfortably for several minutes.

hiker using their backpack to do yoga poses in the Arizona desert
(Photo: Allie Jorde Creative)

If you feel tension in your lower back or knees, try the position with one leg bent and the other leg straight or with your knee bent and your foot on the ground in front of you. If you experience pain in your lower back or knees, come out of the pose and try the next one.

Come out of the pose by leaning onto one side and slowly straightening one bent leg, and the other.

Person practicing yoga for backpackers along the circumference trail of Piestewa Peak in Phoenix
(Photo: Allie Jorde Creative)

6. Supported Wide-Angle Forward Bend

How it helps backpackers build resilience: Hiking causes the hamstrings to repeatedly contract, or shorten. Long-held stretches that lengthen the hamstrings will bring you relief. This wide-legged forward bend creates space not just along the backs of your legs but in the adductors of the hips and inner thighs.

How to: Come to a seated position and spread your legs wide. Place your backpack lengthwise between your legs. Inhale as you lengthen through the spine and exhale as you tilt your hip bones slightly forward and drape yourself forward over the backpack. If your hamstrings feel tight, you can place a rolled jacket as a cushion under your glutes to help raise and rock your hips. If you are still feeling tightness in your hamstrings, you can place rolled clothes underneath each knee to ease the tension along the back of your legs. If you need the backpack lifted higher so you can rest against it, prop a rolled sleeping pad or stuff sack beneath the far end. Resting your front body onto the backpack and turn your head to one side. Try slowly inhaling for a count of 4 and exhaling for a count of 8, lengthening the exhale. Stay here for 3-5 minutes.

Slowly lift yourself out of the pose, lean back on the arms, and gently bring your legs together. Pause here to notice the sensations before moving into another pose.

hiker performing a restful yoga pose with their backpack in the Arizona desert
(Photo: Allie Jorde Creative)

7. Supported Spinal Twist

How it helps backpackers build resilience: Twists help keep the spine mobile. This twist, with the support of your backpack, encourages range of motion in the thoracic spine and helps offset the compression of carrying your home on your back all day. It’s also like a massage for your nervous system before bed.

How to: Position your backpack lengthwise in front of you. Sit with one hip at the short edge of the backpack closest to you and turn to bring your chest to face the backpack. Place one hand on either side of the backpack and take your time as you lower your chest onto the support.

Notice if turning your face in the same direction as your legs or away from it feels better on your neck. Relax there. Allow your arms to drape on either side and your entire body weight to sink into your backpack. Rest here for 3 to 5 minutes, lengthening your exhalations. Slowly sit up and twist toward the other side.

backpacking enthusiast doing yoga while laying on their backpack in the desert
(Photo: Allie Jorde Creative)

8. Reclined Bound Angle

How it helps backpackers build resilience: This pose offers complete relaxation. The opening of the hips is intended to be a stretch but not a painful strain. The support beneath your back encourages your abdominal muscles to relax and the chest to release. It’s an opportunity to observe the relaxation of tension in the body and mind.

How to: Sit facing away from your backpack. Bend your knees and bring the bottoms of your feet together. You can bring your heels closer to you to intensify the stretch or slide them away from you for a more relaxed stretch. Slowly walk your hands behind you on either side of the backpack as you recline onto it. If you feel tension in your hamstrings or your lower back, slide some rolled jackets beneath each knee. Release your weight into the backpack. Gently squeeze your shoulder blades toward one another before allowing them to release. Close your eyes and feel your breath.

Backpacker practicing yoga near his tent along a desert trail in Arizona
(Photo: Allie Jorde Creative)

9. Supported Savasana or Legs up a Tree

How it helps backpackers build resilience: Physically, this pose gently releases tension in the lumbar spine and eases lower back aches. Long-distance hikers can find relief after a day of strenuous walking because if you lie down with your legs straight,  there’s too much pressure on your lower back. To minimize pressure, you can either practice Legs Up a Tree or Savasana with your backpack beneath your knees.

How to: Place your sleeping pad or pack underneath your knees for supported Savasana. For Legs Up a Tree, place a rolled jacket against the tree’s base to prop your hips and gently stretch your lower back. Bring your legs hip distance apart or experiment with the distance between your legs that feels comfortable on your lower back. When your neck and lumbar spine feel fully supported, the rest of your body can relax easily. Place your arms alongside you, palms turned up, or place your hands on your lower belly to feel your breath. Feel your legs relax and your lower back spread wide on the ground. Let your back, shoulders, and neck release into the ground. Breathe here for at least 10 minutes before gently rolling out of the pose…or not.

Model: Ben Ko is a longtime student of yoga and all things outdoors. He’s also a hairstylist based in Scottsdale, Arizona. Photographed at the Freedom Trail along Piestewa Peak in Phoenix.

RELATED: For more backpacking advice, news, and gear reviews, check out Backpacker Magazine


We will be happy to hear your thoughts

Leave a reply

Shopping cart