There are few things more relaxing than a peaceful hike. But a hike with back pain is the furthest thing from relaxing.
Back pain is something a lot of people will experience in their lifetime and it’s only gotten worse in recent years. In 2009, researchers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill found that “the prevalence of chronic, impairing low back pain in [North Carolina] increased from 3.9 percent in 1992 to 10.2 percent in 2006,” according to a press release.
Back pain can be separated into two categories: acute and chronic. Acute is pain that lasts less than six weeks and chronic is pain that lasts longer than three months; The Mayo Clinic says that acute pain is the more common ailment.
But for there are some considerations that hikers and backpackers can make before hitting the trails to make for a more enjoyable experience.
Hiking poles have been shown to reduce discomfort, according to the National Institute of Health. “Nordic pole use increases balance and stability, distributes weight through the arms and torso, and decreases loading of the spine and lower limbs,” the study says.
It’s important to find a pole with the right fit, though. When the pole hits the ground, there should be a 90-degree bend at your elbow. But the poles should be lengthened or shortened depending on whether you’re in a downhill or uphill section of trail, according to REI.
These poles can provide stability over river crossings and around rougher terrain like fallen debris.
There are different techniques for when the poles hit the ground, either at the same time or alternating (the latter is more usual), depending on what you are hiking over.
The height of poles can be adjusted. Some use a simple twist of the pole to lock and unlock while others have a more robust latching mechanism that some people say is easier to use with gloves and in a rush.
The first and most simple consideration for your footwear is whether it’s the right size. Ill-fitting shoes have been shown to cause both ankle pain and back pain. So, make sure you have a good fit and the laces are tight before hitting the switchbacks.
Just anecdotally, some hikers say that having boots that provide more support to their ankle can take some strain off of the back by helping to stabilize your feet.
Some people also suggest rocker shoes or unstable shoes, and there are some hiking varieties. But studies of whether these are more effective at reducing chronic pain than flat shoes haven’t been very promising.
Regardless of the type of shoe, though, one of the most important considerations for proper fit is the arch. Inserts can be used to get the right fit if modification is needed.
Unsurprisingly, carrying heavy objects on your back can hurt you. One study on back pain in adolescents found the “weights of students’ backpacks seem directly proportional to the likelihood of back pain.”
Luckily, good hiking backpacks are designed to shift weight off your back and onto your chest and hips. Backpacks, like trekking poles, need to fit properly. There are four different straps that should be spread the weight across the body. Hipbelts should be snug around the hip bones, “shoulder straps should wrap closely around your shoulders, but they should not be carrying significant weight,” load lifters should be “snug” but not too tight, and a sternum strap should be about an inch below the collarbone.
But if buying new gear isn’t in the budget there are other ways to strengthen your back that could make the trail enjoyable again.
Pain can be caused by something as benign as muscle strain from repeatedly lifting heavy objects. This muscle strain can also be caused by bad posture because your body has to work harder to keep you upright. When standing up your back should be straight, shoulders back, feet shoulder-width apart, knees unlocked and your weight on the balls of your feet. When sitting your feet should be on the floor, legs should remain uncrossed, your chair should ideally support the curve in your back, your back should remain straight and shoulders relaxed.
This bad posture can also cause more specific conditions like sciatica, which is caused by compression of the sciatic nerve. Pain travels from the lower back to the feet on both sides. A condition like sciatica can make hiking extremely difficult.
Doing normal body weight exercises like pushups and practicing walking with a backpack (if you’re planning on backpacking) can help get you ready. Moving more than usual is, after all, one of the best cures for acute back pain, according to NIH.