Background Assessments of stair climbing in real-life situations using an optical tracking system are lacking, as it is difficult to adapt the system for use in and around full flights of stairs. Alternatively, a portable system that consists of inertial measurement units (IMUs) can be used to collect anatomical joint angles during stair ascent. The purpose of this study was to compare the anatomical joint angles obtained by IMUs to those calculated from position data of an optical tracking device. Methods Anatomical joint angles of the thigh, knee and ankle, obtained using IMUs and an optical tracking device, were compared for fourteen healthy subjects. Joint kinematics obtained with the two measurement devices were evaluated by calculating the root mean square error (RMSE) and by calculating a two-tailed Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient (r) between the two signals. Results Strong mean correlations (range 0.93 to 0.99) were found for the angles between the two measurement devices, as well as an average root mean square error (RMSE) of 4 degrees over all the joint angles, showing that the IMUs are a satisfactory system for measuring anatomical joint angles. Conclusion These highly portable body-worn inertial sensors can be used by clinicians and researchers alike, to accurately collect data during stair climbing in complex real-life situations.