What Causes Body Aches After Hiking?

If you're experiencing body aches and muscle pain after hiking, it might be delayed onset muscle soreness, a typical reaction to any challenging new workout. But there are a few other possibilities that could lead to post-hike achiness and soreness too.

If your body aches after a long hike, rest until you've recovered.
Credit: Jekaterina Sahmanova/iStock/GettyImages

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Those post-hike aches you're feeling might be due to simple muscle soreness. But they could also signal an injury, or an illness such as the flu or a common cold. In a worst-case scenario, they might also signal the onset of a tick- or mosquito-borne illness.

Are You Sick?

Body aches are a very common symptom of influenza, aka the flu — and despite all the positive health benefits of time spent outside, you can catch the flu from your fellow hikers or backpackers just as readily as you'd catch it from a friend indoors.

You might also have gotten the flu before you set out on your hike. Although flu symptoms can come on very quickly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes, healthy adults with the flu can generally infect others a full day before their symptoms appear. You can help keep yourself and your fellow hikers healthy with diligent hand-washing at home. That can be hard to do on the trail, but an alcohol-based hand sanitizer makes a hike-friendly substitute.

Let's say you've packed biodegradable camp soap on your hike or for a longer backpacking trip. Does that mean it's okay to wash your hands right in a stream? No. As the experts at Leave No Trace point out, even biodegradable soaps can linger for a long time in streams and lakes.

Instead, do your hand washing at least 200 feet away from water sources and, if you're staying overnight, away from camp. You can also carry a container to collect the gray water produced from hand washing, then follow Leave No Trace guidelines to tote the container at least 200 feet away from water sources or camp and scatter it widely.

Even if you don't have the flu, body aches can also be a symptom of the common cold. In either case, getting plenty of rest and plenty of fluids can help you recover; if your symptoms don't ease quickly or if your health is compromised in any way, it's always safest to see a doctor for help.

What About Tick Bites?

Colds and flu aren't the only illnesses that can cause body aches — in fact there are quite a few. If you've been hiking, one of the most important ache-inducing illnesses to be aware of is Lyme disease. Unexplained aches are just one of many symptoms that Lyme disease can produce, and as Medline Plus notes, it can take days or weeks for the earliest symptoms to appear.

Happily, not all ticks can carry Lyme disease, and most people who get bitten by a tick don't get Lyme disease. Further, as Medline Plus goes on to explain, a tick must be attached to your body for 24 to 36 hours to spread the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. However, other diseases can be transmitted more quickly.

In the bad news department, Lyme is not as well understood as you might think. Case in point, although the well known bull's-eye rash can be a symptom of Lyme disease, not every Lyme-bearing tick bite will produce it — and not every doctor is fully trained to diagnose and treat Lyme or its possible co-infections.

To add insult to injury, Lyme isn't the only disease that can be caused by a tick or mosquito bite, and body aches are a common symptom in many of these illnesses. If you have unexplained aches and think you may have been bitten by a tick, it's always best to consult a doctor for early treatment and diagnosis.

You can also reduce your risk of contracting insect-borne illnesses by wearing light-colored clothing that is treated with an appropriate insect repellent. If you know you're in a tick-rich area, tucking your shirt into your pants and your pants into your socks can help keep ticks from crawling under your clothing; doing regular tick checks helps reduce the chances of them transmitting a disease to you, even if they do manage to bite you.

Read more: Best Hiking Snacks That Keep You Energized on the Trail

Sore Legs After Hill Walking

If your body is sore after hiking and you've ruled out medical causes for those aches, it might be a simple case of delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. This type of reaction is typical if you're not used to hiking, or if you did a significantly longer or harder hike than you're used to. DOMS typically peaks within one to two days of the workout in question, and happily fades within about four days after the workout.

If you've been doing a lot of uphill and downhill trekking, you might notice that you have particularly sore quads or sore calves after hiking. But ultimately, any part of your body from the hips down is fair game for soreness if you jump into harder hikes than you're used to. If you carry a heavy backpack you might even notice that your core muscles are sore from supporting it, and supporting a lot of your body weight with trekking poles can cause upper-body soreness.

The solution? First, hold off on doing any other strenuous exercise until the sore muscles have recovered. (Mild workouts may help ease that soreness; let your body be your guide.) Next, help prevent soreness by increasing the length and intensity of your hikes gradually instead of doing it all at once.

Read more: What to Do for Sore Feet After a Six-Mile Walk

Are You Injured?

If you're experiencing more than typical levels of soreness or muscle pain after hiking, it's possible that you've overdone things to the point of injury — or perhaps you can look back and remember when you twisted an ankle or wrenched your knee.

As the Mayo Clinic notes, mild muscle strains and joint sprains can be usually treated at home — but if your symptoms worsen or fail to improve with treatment, they recommend that you see a doctor. More severe injuries should be seen by a doctor right away.

Unfortunately, strains, sprains and other injuries are at least a minor risk during any sort of physical activity. However, you can decrease the risk of such injuries by wearing appropriate footwear and tackling hikes that are suitable to your levels of fitness and agility. That doesn't mean you shouldn't challenge yourself; just amp up the difficulty levels gradually instead of making abrupt increases.

Does Your Backpack Fit?

Your backpack is the final piece of the hiking puzzle that might leave you feeling unexpectedly sore. A well-built backpack that fits properly can support heavy loads without hurting you — but if your backpack doesn't fit correctly, hauling even relatively light loads for miles at a time can still harm you.

Although ultralight hikers may prefer frameless packs, most hikers are best off with a pack that has either an internal or external frame to distribute and support the weight of your belongings; internal frames are much more common in modern-day packs. Look for a pack that has a hip belt, so that the bony structures of your pelvis support the pack's weight instead of your shoulders doing so.

The vertical length of the pack should also match the length of your torso. Although you can sort this out on your own with some trial and error, visiting an outdoor-equipment store for a professional pack fitting will save you a lot of time and money.

Read more: 21 Hiking Trails That Will Inspire Wanderlust

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