5 yoga stretches to help your shoulders recover from backpacking

trekker with tousled brown hair stretching while looking away
These five yoga stretches are designed to restore mobility to your shoulders and help you to relax your neck and jaw (Image credit: Westend61)

When it comes to yoga for hiking and backpacking, we often focus on the lower body, whether that means stretching out tired calves, quads and hamstrings after all that trekking or strengthening your legs to prepare you for long days on the trail. But whenever you’re carrying a heavy backpack loaded up with your tent, sleeping pad and sleeping bag, there’s a good chance that your shoulders are going to be in need of some TLC at the end of the day, too. These five yoga stretches for shoulders are my favorite to teach my students who need a little relief from shoulder tightness and tension – and let’s face it, that’s most of us these days.

It’s well known that sitting at a computer all day leads to shoulder and neck tension, so you head off on an adventure into the wild to unwind, only to find yourself with stiff shoulders and neck from carrying your backpack. First, you want to make sure that you know how to adjust a backpack properly to minimize the weight on your shoulders, but even then, it’s virtually impossible not to round your shoulders a little to counter the weight of your pack, and if you’re using trekking poles then your arms and shoulders will be working hard all day long. 

Hiker with view to Lake Königssee and St Bartholoma church

It’s virtually impossible not to round your shoulders a little to counter the weight of your pack (Image credit: DieterMeyrl)

Some of the muscles that may feel tense at the end of the day include your rhomboids and trapezius, both muscles in your upper back, as well as your pectoralis (pecs) muscles in your chest and even your latissimus dorsi (lats), which wrap from under your arm around your sides to your mid and lower back. These five poses are designed to gently traction all of those muscles and restore mobility to your shoulder joints, thereby helping you to relax your neck and jaw. 

You can do these postures as part of a regular yoga routine, but you can also do them on their own when you arrive at your campsite for the night, whenever you set your backpack down for a break or even when you’re taking a stand-up break from sitting at your computer. Hold each pose for roughly 30-60 seconds and remember to breathe to help your nervous system relax. 

1. Thread the needle 

Young woman doing thread the needle exercise

Thread the needle is a great posture to target those difficult-to-reach rhomboids, traps and upper lats (Image credit: fizkes)

Thread the needle is a great posture to target those difficult-to-reach rhomboids, traps, and upper lats around your shoulder blades that get really tense carrying a backpack. 

Come onto your hands and knees  with your toes tucked under, and reach your left arm out to the side. Then, like you’re threading a needle, slide your left arm underneath you, behind your behind wrist, and keep reaching it across to the right, bending your right elbow until your left shoulder and ear are resting on the floor. Once you’re here, the back of your left hand will be resting on the floor with your palm turned up. Focus on keeping your hips in line over your knees (you may need to draw your left hip back a bit), and either keep your right hand in front of your face or slide it forward. After 30-60 seconds, come back to hands and knees and change sides.

2. Puppy stretch 

A woman doing puppy stretch pose in yoga

Puppy stretch feels fantastic to stretch out your pecs and traction your upper spine (Image credit: Getty)

After hunching over while scrambling up steep slopes or typing, puppy stretch feels fantastic to stretch out your pecs and traction your upper spine. 

From your hands and knees, come up on to your fingertips and stack your hips over your knees. Keep them there as you start to walk your hands forward. Keep your arms straight and at a certain point you can’t go any further without shifting your hips forward. Here, start to sink your chest down towards the ground and rest your forehead or chin on the ground, trying to stay on your fingertips if you can. Your spine will feel a bit like a hammock slung between two trees. To come out of this posture, you can sit back on your heels and steal a few moments in a Child’s pose to stretch out your quads, or slide forward onto your belly for the next posture.

3. Starfish

A woman doing a shoulder stretch in yoga

Pectoral muscles draw your arms close to your body and are often working more than you realize when you’re carrying a backpack (Image credit: Getty)

Pectoral muscles draw your arms close to your body and are often working more than you realize when you’re carrying a backpack, especially if you hook your thumbs into the shoulder straps. They’re also hard to stretch, which is why I like to throw in a second pec stretch with Starfish.

Lie on your belly and stretch your left arm straight out to the side, palm facing down, so your hand is more or less in line with your shoulder. Keep your arm there, place your left cheek on the floor, then press into your right hand to roll gently onto your right side. Don't worry if you won’t get very far. Try to relax your jaw here and don’t hold your breath. Rest on your abdomen again for a couple of breaths before changing sides.

4. Modified cow face

A tall woman standing stretching her left arm with her elbow towards her head

This version targets your pecs and lats where they insert under your arm. (Image credit: Anuat Morales)

This is a more accessible modification of a classical yoga pose called Gomukhasana that is described in the ancient text the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This version targets your pecs and lats where they insert under your arm. You can do this pose while seated or standing, or even while doing a lunge position. 

Reach your arms up overhead and bend your left elbow, aiming to place your left palm either on the back of your neck, close to your right shoulder blade or in between your shoulder blades – where it lands will depend on your shoulder mobility. Next, place your right hand on your right elbow to gently draw your elbow more towards the center. Press your head back into your arm, and arch slightly over to the right to bring in a slight side bend to your spine. After 30 - 60 seconds, release and change sides.

5. Chest expander 

A woman doing chest expander pose in yoga

This simple posture breathes space back into your chest after all those hours of rounding forward to climb (Image credit: Getty)

Just as the name implies, this simple posture breathes space back into your chest after all those hours of rounding forward to climb uphill while carrying your pack. There are two ways to do it, so if forward bending isn’t a good idea for your back, you can still get the benefits.

Come to standing and reach your hands behind your back, interlacing your fingers and keeping your palms facing each other (they don’t have to touch). Gently stretch your hands away from your hips and reach your knuckles down toward the ground, lifting your chest towards your chin. You can remain in this position, or so long as it’s OK on your back you can bend your knees and bow forward, reaching your hands up behind you and circling your head to unwind your neck.

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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.