The popliteal artery branches off from the femoral artery. It is located in the knee and the back of the leg. Its courses near the adductor canal and the adductor hiatus, distinctive open areas inside the thigh.

At its far end, it splits into the anterior and posterior tibial arteries. During its course, the popliteal artery branches into other significant blood vessels. These include the sural artery and the various types of genicular arteries.

As the primary distributor of oxygenated blood to regions around the knee, the artery is not the same as the popliteal vein. The two blood vessels run a similar course in close proximity. Yet, the vein drains deoxygenated blood and moves it up the leg, to the femoral vein. Ultimately, all deoxygenated blood ends up at the lungs and the heart, before it is recirculated into the arterial system.

The popliteal artery is palpable (i.e. detectable by hand). People are able to find it and use it to count a pulse in the back of the knee. If the knees are slightly flexed — to about 45 degrees — the pulse will be easier to locate.