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Don’t Let Your Pack Hurt Your Back

There is nothing worse than being ten kilometers into a hike and starting to feel a jarring pain in your lower back or shoulders. Before you go hiking, you should make sure that you have a properly fitting backpack and that you have customized the different straps to fit you. Hopefully these tips will help you adjust your backpack accordingly, so that you can hike all day long in the backcountry without being dragged down by your backpack!

#1: Torso Length

Hiking backpacks come in different sizes. These sizes range between brands and models of bag so you should always check the size chart for that company when considering which backpack is right for you. The first thing you should measure when choosing a backpack is your torso length.

Instructions: Stand nice and tall, then measure from your C7 vertebrae (bony lump where your shoulders meet your neck), down to your iliac crest line (imaginary line across your back between the top of your hip bones). Some backpacks have adjustable spines that allow the pack to fit a wider range of torso lengths. So if you are having trouble adjusting any of the other straps, you should always double check that the torso length is adjusted first!

Troubleshooting:

  • If there is space between the tops of your shoulders and your shoulder straps, your pack’s torso length could be set too long.

If you are carrying all the weight of your pack on the top of your shoulders, your torso length could be too short.

#2: Hip Belt

 Your hip belt is the most important strap in regards to carrying the weight of the bag. It is meant to transfer the majority of weight from your shoulders onto your hips. This will help you avoid unnecessary stress to the shoulders and reduce the amount of stress on your back.

Instructions: The hip belt should sit above your hip bones. If you loosen your shoulder straps completely, the pack should be resting on top of your hips. Fasten the buckle so that the belt strap is snug, but not pinching anywhere.

Troubleshooting:

  • The padded sections should sit on top of your hips and if they aren't, then you may need to loosen/tighten your shoulder straps.
  • The padded section should also wrap around your waist just past the front of your hip bones and still have some space on either side of the buckle. If you have the belt pulled all the way tight you might need a smaller bag. If the padding stops too far back you may need a larger hip belt.

#3: Shoulder Straps

It is worth mentioning again that the shoulder straps should not carry any significant weight of your backpack. There are lots of different shoulder strap designs and materials. At the end of the day, they should be thick and comfortable for longer/multi day treks.

Instructions: The anchor point of the strap should be 1-2 inches below the top of your shoulder.

Troubleshooting:

  • If the front of your shoulders are sore, you should adjust your hip belt to carry more load.
  • If you are finding that the shoulder straps are rubbing your neck, you may need to loosen the sternum strap.

#4: Load Lifters

The load lifters bring the weight of the backpack forward, closer to your body. This will bring the backpack’s center of mass inward and relieve even more of the stress off your shoulders.

Instructions: When set properly, the load lifters should angle back towards your pack at approximately 45 degrees.

Troubleshooting:

  • If there is a gap between the tops of your shoulders and your load lifters, try loosening them.
  • If you can feel your backpack falling or pulling you backward, tighten them.
  • It might be tempting to pull them really snug. This will feel good at first but over time will pinch your shoulders and create more discomfort. Try to set them snug but not too stiff.

#5: Sternum Strap

The sternum strap will keep your shoulder straps from falling off your arms and allow your arms to have better range of motion while walking. It will also disperse some of the backpack’s weight, but not as much as the other straps, therefore it is the last strap to adjust.

Instructions: the sternum strap should cross your chest approximately 1 inch below your collarbone and be set at a width that allows you to move your arms freely.

Troubleshooting:

  • If you can feel the sternum strap rubbing against your neck, lower it down.
  • If tightening the strap doesn’t keep the shoulder pads on your shoulders, you might need a backpack with a narrower shoulder harness.
  • Avoid over tightening this strap. It will pull and misshape the rest of the bag, as well as constrict your breathing.

Other tips when getting your backpack ready for a hike:

  • Your total backpack weight should be no more than 20% of your body weight. Having light weight gear will make a huge difference!
  • How you pack your gear within the backpack will have a large impact on how the weight is distributed on your back. I always try to pack the lightest items (i.e. my sleeping bag and pillow) at the bottom of the bag. The heaviest items (i.e. water, food, climbing gear etc.) should be close to your back. Medium, bulky items and items that you want easy access to, should be down the front and in the top of your backpack (i.e. extra clothing layers, first aid kit, sunscreen and a water filter). If your backpack is too top heavy it is going to pull you down!
  • Always keep your bear spray in an easy to reach/grab location. Most packs have extra straps or buckles on the front of the shoulder straps that allow you to attach a canister.
  • Keep small snacks in your belt pockets for the extra boost you need on the go!

Nicole Smith - Kinesiologist, Momentum Health West Springs

Nicole grew up in North Vancouver and gained a passion for sports and fitness at a very young age. This led her to the University of Alberta, where she graduated in 2017 with a Bachelor of Kinesiology. She joined the Momentum Health team in 2019 as a kinesiologist where she enjoys treating a wide range of injuries.  Nicole has a good understanding on the importance of exercise and active rehabilitation from her experience as an athlete playing sports as well as her education and clinical experience. She has gained a special interest in ongoing injury prevention and concussion management. In her free time, Nicole loves to travel, ski/snowboard, golf, hike, and anything else that will get her outdoors.

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