Imagine a spring hike with the morning sun peaking over the hills and the soft cool breeze beating on your back. Walking through the wilderness with nothing on your mind other than the chirping of the birds and the sound of the leaves in the wind.
Now imagine that same hike with lower back pain that slowly gets worse. The pain starts low and the pack weight doesn’t help, after an hour of hoping it will just go away you realize it’s not going anywhere.
Back pain is something that most people will deal with at some point in their life. Learning how to hike with back pain will teach you good habits that translate to other aspects of life.
10 Tips for Hiking with Back Pain
According to Dr. Ronald B. Tolchin, at some point in their lives, roughly 80% of Americans will be affected by back pain. That is a staggering number considering there are 325 million people in the United States (source).
While 4 out of 5 Americans will suffer from back pain, it’s safe to assume that a similar number of hikers will experience back pain as well. Knowing how to deal with the back pain when it hits and how to prevent it is your first line of defense.
47.2 million Americans went hiking in 2017 (source). There’s no magic trick to preventing back pain, however, there are some things you can do before and during your hike that will help. When dealing with back aches and pains there’s a good chance you want to lay in bed all day, don’t do that.
One of the most important parts of hiking is preparing your body for the hike. If you have never hiked and you don’t exercise, trying to complete a 2000 foot elevation gain on a 12-mile trail is going to end bad, really bad.
Here are 10 actionable tips on how to manage hiking with back pain.
According to Spine Health, exercise, when done in a controlled environment and with proper techniques has a number of benefits for relieving back pain, including…
- Relieving stiffness
- Releasing endorphins
- Strengthening muscles
- Improving circulation
- Minimizing injuries
Any workout program needs to be individually tailored to your unique capabilities. A good workout program should be safe, effective, balanced, and reduce your risk of back injuries (source).
Stretching is something you should be doing before every hike and before any physical activity. In fact, stretching is something that you should do every day regardless of your physical activity to loosen your muscles and joints.
The spinal cord is a complex structure of muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones. According to Gerard Malanga, MD regular stretching will keep the ligaments and muscles loose and can reduce stress on joints while improving the flow of blood. A stretching exercise is usually done just before and right after each and every hike.
In the past, Yoga was considered an esoteric activity that only hippies engaged in. That couldn’t be further from the truth, yoga is a practice in mindfulness, strength, and flexibility. If you haven’t tried it, stop right now, open Youtube, and start with a beginners class at home.
According to a recent study, Yoga can help ease lower back pain. Yoga is a great way to get exercise and stretch at the same time while strengthening your core. With it being available for free online, and yoga studios popping up on seemingly every street corner, it’s never been more available.
4. Pack a good sleeping pad
The only thing worse than waking up with a sore neck in the morning is waking up with a sore back. Sleeping on the ground is not the most comfortable place, and adding a good sleeping pad will help, at least a little.
If you do suffer from back pain these tricks help mitigate the pain, considering that you have room in your pack for an extra backpacking pillow.
- When sleeping on your back put a pillow under your knees
- If you sleep on your stomach put a pillow under your knees
- When sleeping on your side sleep with a pillow between your legs
You spend one-third of your life sleeping in a bed. Having a comfortable place to sleep on the ground is going to make those nights on the trail much more tolerable.
5. Spread the load evenly
This is something that you don’t think about until you’re out on the trail and your load shifts in an awkward fashion and you feel a sharp pain in your lower back. Load your pack so the weight is evenly dispersed throughout to avoid an unbalanced load.
You want to load the heaviest items closest to your back and work your way out from there. Placing the heaviest items closest to your back will lessen the load on your back and make the pack more stable. You want to bring the weight as close to your back as possible, it makes the load easier to manage.
6. Wear a backpack that fits
Your backpack is the first place to address if you are suffering from back pain on the trail. Your backpack is going to be the source of the load on your back and the best way to eliminate useless weight.
According to Dr. Jolie Bookspan, the shape of your backpack should not be overarched and you should not be leaning forward with your pack.
When looking at a backpack for hiking you want to consider a few important factors…
- Torso length
- Hip size
- Shoulder straps
- Sternum straps
A hiking backpack may feel perfect in mile 1, however, as you get into the meat and potatoes of the hike that may feel like a lifetime ago. Eliminate everything that you don’t need and make it as lightweight and form-fitting as possible.
7. Use trekking poles
Trekking poles are another way that you can reduce the impact on your back, hips, arms, and knees. Research has shown that trekking poles reduce the impact on your joints, back and limit wear and tear on the body.
It’s important to find trekking poles that fit your body and the reach the terrain beneath your feet. Your arms should be bent at 90 degrees while holding the poles and you need to periodically adjust them for incline and decline sections of the trail.
Trekking poles are also used for added stability when you’re crossing a river or when you come upon loose rocks and tricky terrain. They are a great way to reduce the impact on your body while adding stability to the trail.
8. Wear good shoes or boots
You always want to have a good pair of shoes or boots for hiking, that old worn out pair in your closet may very well be the source of your back pain.
The kinetic chain starts at your feet, and it is described as how your joints and muscles work together. In other words, how one part of your body movement affects other parts of your body.
Your shoes or boots are the first part of the kinetic chain, and having a pair of shoes that don’t protect your arches and add support may lead to back pain (source). Always use a good pair of shoes that support your feet and provide you with adequate arch support.
9. Pack anti-inflammatory medication
Pulling a muscle or spraining an ankle is a good way to ruin your day real quick. You should always bring a first-aid kit with you while you are on a hike and make sure it is fully stocked before each trip.
It should include some sort of anti-inflammatory medication, as well as, a topical treatment you can rub on sore muscles. While this won’t completely eliminate back pain on the trail, it will lessen the effects and make the hike more bearable.
10. Maintain good posture
Having good posture will prevent back pain, unfortunately, today the majority of our workforce is sedentary which is adding to the rise in back pain (source).
When you are standing or walking your back should be straight, shoulders back and knees slightly bent. Poor posture can lead to sciatica which is not something anyone wants to deal with.
A person with good posture will have an aligned and balanced spinal curve (source). Posture is something that you can work on throughout the day and having good posture is going to limit pain.
Back pain comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, and there is no one size fits all solution for avoiding it. Managing back pain starts with your daily activities and prevention is the first step.
A bad back is no reason to avoid hiking all together, it can be done. You just have to be mindful when you are on the trail. Hiking is a great way to escape and clear your mind.
Hopefully these tips on how to hike with back pain help a little, and remember, keep calm and hike on.
Great article. I learned few new things about back pain from this article. Thank you.
Thank you for the kind words!
The trekking pole use definitely helps reduce pain in the back as well. There are several studies, especially by American Journal of Exercise Science that demonstrate that redistributed weight to the upper body by the trekking poles while hiking lead to reduced low back pain. It makes sense.
I like the your blog. – Mike Cutler, EarthTrek Gear
I agree Mike! Trekking poles work wonders in terms of transferring impact from your legs and back to your arms and shoulders. Thanks for your input 🙂
Great post! I think most people I know have already embarked on a hike or trek in some of the highest mountains here in my country and here I am, still contemplating whether I would like to give it a try or not. Some factors that keep me from going is the fact that I have asthma, afraid of heights and my chronic back pain. I will take note of these tips in case I decided to give hiking a try. Thanks for sharing this!
You should go for it! As far as asthma be sure to bring an inhaler, for heights avoid steep edges, as far as back pain these tips will help but only you really know the limits of what you can responsibly handle. Have fun and thanks for the kind words!
Wonderful article about back pain. Thank you.
I’m going hiking with my boyfriend this coming Friday and I recently have experienced this awful backpain. I’m not going to cancel the hiking plan because we have planned this for 2 weeks already, and he already gave time for it, and that is the only time we can meet up again before his busy schedule starts again. Thanks so much for sharing this!
Glad we could help! Have fun on your upcoming hike and let us know how it goes 🙂