Save Your Back on Your Next Hike

The right backpack could make your next trek much more enjoyable.

Hitting the trails for some hiking this summer? Good for you! Just make sure the load you carry doesn’t do bad things to your back. Knowing how to choose and use a backpack is the most important step.

“You’re looking to make the backpack one with your body, with the weight as close to your torso and center of gravity as possible,” says Mary Ann Wilmarth, spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. Here are a few more hints from her:

  • Choose wisely. Get a backpack that fits snugly and has padded straps. For longer trips or heavier loads, opt for a style with a frame and extra straps for your hips, waist and chest. Breathable padding where the pack rests on your back can increase comfort.
  • Pack properly. Put the heaviest items closest to your body and, in bigger packs, toward the bottom. Put lighter items on the top and toward the outside. If the backpack has toggles, use them for lightweight items like towels. Anything heavy swinging from a toggle, such as a water bottle, can hit you in the back or throw you off balance.
  • Gear up carefully. Loosen at least one strap before you put on the pack, so you don’t have to twist yourself into it. Keep your torso straight and tight while you slide one strap, then the other, over your shoulders. Then tighten the straps, including any waist, chest and hip straps. The backpack should fit snugly and sit as low on your hips as possible to reduce the risk of back injury. The hip strap is your primary way to spread the weight of the pack down through your body and prevent injuries.
  • Move freely. Before and after hiking, be sure to stretch your entire body, especially your shoulders, neck and low back. On the trail, stop every 30 minutes or so—even if you just stand still—for 30 seconds. Every hour, stop and take off the pack. Stretch, circle your shoulders and reach your arms up and out. This will help prevent soreness and tightness.
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