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Tips to Reduce Back Pain for Backpacking Back Injury !

This page is for all of us who currently have or who will have, an injured back side. My back pain resulted from an auto accident, Oct 15, 1996, in which I was rear-ended by another vehicle. Subsequently, I have exercised almost daily, to get back to where I should be.

Back injuries take a long time to heal and even longer if you continue to do the things that you like to do which put pressure on the back (like backpacking).

In this section, I'll share my experience - the things that have helped reduce back pain and the things that have not - and you can do the same - the techniques, exercises, etc. that you have employed to cope with and/or heal your back pain. Hopefully, this information will help someone else.

Campsaver Outdoor Gear

Pack Light !

Got a bad back ? I can't think of a better incentive to strive for a lightened backpack load. Spend some time at this website, beginning with these two links:


Back Exercises that Helped Strengthen My Back

There are a number of excellent, proven back exercises. My intention is not to play the role of physical therapist but merely to share with you some of the exercises that that have been monumentally helpful to me.

Keep in mind, I am not a therapist, nor do I profess to know anything beyond my own experience. The exercises that I'm defining below may not even be good for you because of the nature of your injury. Always be careful. It's best to be under the care of a professional. Having offered that disclaimer, here are some of the exercises that I do - try them if you feel they might help.

  • Sit Ups ! Good old-fashioned ab-tightening exercises are very helpful. I prefer "half" situps. I sit up to almost a vertical position. Experiment. All that is really necessary is to lift high enough to tighten the abdominal muscles. I've noticed that as my stomach muscles have become tighter and stronger, my lower back muscles have strengthened, as well. Repeat this 10 to 20 times, based on your comfort level and hold for a second or two each time you lift.

  • Stretching is important ! These are among the stretches that I do, at least, twice daily:

    • Back Stretch - lie on your back, bring knees to chest & grasp legs with interlocked fingers, across your thighs (under the knees). This method is better than holding the knees because you get more weight-driven momentum as you rock back and forth when the area from your knees to your feet are free to "flail" a little. You want to rock back and forth with your spine as the rocker, all the way from buttocks to the top of you neck. This stretches and strengthens the muscles along the entire back. Feels good too! This is one of my favorites (and the easiest).

    • Low-Back Stretch - lie on your back, put your hands at your side, turn your head to the right, then with knees bent and feet on the floor, slowly rotate your knees all the way to the left and hold for several seconds. Return knees to starting position, turn your head to the left and repeat the exercise to the right side. Do 10 to 20 repetitions - whatever is comfortable.

    • Side Stretch - There are two versions of this. Because my back was so sore and tight, I did the limited side stretch for quite a few months before resuming my regular side stretch routine.

      • Limited Side Stretch - Standing with feet apart (in line with shoulders) and with hands at your sides, slowly bend to the side as far as you can and hold for several seconds. Slowly lift up and slowly bend to the other side and hold. Repeat 10 to 20 times or whatever is within your comfort zone.

      • My Regular Side Stretch - basically the same as above except that I put my hands over my head. The Limited Stretch focuses more on the lower side/hip area (and is more gentle) whereas the Regular Stretch also works on the upper side - to the armpit - and the mid back area.

    • Neck (and torso) Stretches -

      • While sitting, slowly bend head all the way forward and hold. Slowly bend it back and hold. Repeat.

      • While sitting, with elbows extended outward and hands interlocked in front of your face, first, slowly turn your head all the way to the left, hold for a second, then slowly turn your torso as far as you can to the left and hold. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat to the right side.

  • Stay tuned, more exercises to follow, as I get the time.


Benefit of Using Poles

I have found that the use of hiking poles takes stress off the back and hips and transfers it to the upper body. When I really get into a good rhythm, I get the sense that I am a four legged creature trucking down the trail.

Poles, if used correctly (see Walking Stick page, Accessories, ..Straps) will allow you to walk more forward with weight distributed to shoulders, arms (not hands), as well as legs, hips, and back. This is especially helpful going uphill. It is up hills that kill my lumbar and hips. With poles, I find it much easier and less painful.

To learn more about hiking poles and sticks, goto the Walking Stick page.


Hiking Techniques that Take Pressure off the Backside

One of the techniques that I learned thru The Mountaineers is called the "Rest Step" or "Lock Step". The Rest Step takes pressure and strain off muscles and transfers it to the bone structure. It is a mainly useful on uphill slopes--especially on snow--where endurance is important. Guides on Mt. Rainier teach it, as well.

Put simply, the technique is as follows:

Take a step. Straighten that leg and lock the knee. As you move to take the next step, place the weight of your entire body on the locked bone structure of your back leg. As you swing your leg forward to take the next step relax the muscles in that leg. Also, at the same time, stand more erect and relax your back and neck. You need to get into a steady rhythm of doing that for each step you take. You may feel like a robot walking slowly up the mountain, but you'll feel much better when you get there.

Continuous movement is a great strain on your muscles. Each rest step gives a fraction of a second of rest to your leg, hip, and back muscles as weight and stress is transferred to the locked bone structure of the rear leg. I have found this to be very effective for relieving pain in my lumbar and hip area (as well as adding endurance to my legs).


Miscellaneous Tips for Bad Back Improvement

I'm not an authority, by any means, but here's some practical advice that I've accumulated for my own use:

1.  Begin an exercise program as soon as possible after your injury, for several reasons:

  • Muscles get weak quickly, if not used, especially so, if you're middle aged or older.

  • Weakened muscles make bad backs worse

  • Over time, most bad backs will get better, thru proper nutritional habits, rest when under stress, and plenty of exercises.

2.  When exercising:

  • Avoid drugs, if at all possible. Drugs mask symptoms and encourage you to do further damage by exercising when you shouldn't.

  • Exercise during the time of day that is most convenient for you, when you can concentrate, enjoy it, and relax afterwards.

    Exercising in the latter part of the day gives your muscles a chance to stretch out naturally during the day. Although you will still need to do some stretching before your more aggressive exercise routines, the muscles will not be as taut as they would be if you exercised first thing in the morning.

    If you exercise in the morning, start out gently with 5 or 10 minutes, at least, of moderate stretching. This is a big help and goes a long way towards avoidance of "pulled" muscles.

  • During the day, whenever you think of it, STRETCH IT OUT.

    • Torso stretch -- slowly, from side to side, with your hands over your head.
    • Lower back -- slowly, bend & touch your toes.
    • Neck stretch -- slowly, turn head as far as you can to one side, look behind you and hold it for a few seconds. Do the same the other direction.

  • Stop the exercise when you feel pain. Don't do anything while you're in pain. It only complicates the situation and makes it worse.

3.  If your pain is intense:

  • USE ICE !  Ice takes down inflammation and allows for a more accurate and natural feel for how your back is doing - drugs mask symptoms, ice does not.

  • Take aspirin, if you can, it's both a painkiller and an anti-inflammatory. Buffered aspirin may be easier on the tummy. Another modern anti-inflammatory is Ibuprofen. Ibuprofen requires that you consume lots of liquids and also don't take it for prolonged periods of time.

  • If you must consume stronger drugs, be very careful -- remember the problem has only been masked, not by any means eliminated or healed. Don't do anything foolish to make it worse.

4.  Avoid sitting for long periods, plays havoc on a bad back. Get plenty of rest, lay on your back as much as possible on floor or bed, with rolled-up towel under small of back.

5.  Avoid picking up heavy objects, especially from the floor. If you must pick up a heavy object:

  • Ask for help - that's what other people are for.
  • Move closer to the object.
  • Remember to squat and use your legs NOT YOUR BACK !
  • Keep your back straight and vertical.
  • Move slowly - NO JERKING !
  • Divide large loads into smaller loads.
  • Use a device like a hand truck or luggage carrier.

6.  Get plenty of rest. Avoid stressful situations. Stress goes straight to the weakest link. In this case, it would be your back. A brief nap at home or work will help. Sometimes, at work, I'll walk out to my truck, put the seat back, and take a 10-15 minute nap. I also take short walks about the company compound - relieves stress from my back.

7.  Don't sit for prolonged periods of time - sitting is hard on the back. Get up occasionally, especially at work, roam around, get a drink of water. Look out the window. Especially if you sit all day at work or at home (in front of the computer ?) get a chair with excellent back support !

8.  Nutrition and habits. Smoking, drinking alcohol, inadequate and improper nutrition, general physical condition all play a key role in the future of your back - whether it heals or not. If you smoke, drink alcohol, are overweight, don't eat balanced, nutritional foods on a daily basis, and don't exercise - don't complain, you've chosen to probably have a bad back for a long time. Learn to live with it. On the other hand, take care of the things you intuitively know and your chances of regaining a fully-functioning back are great  ! Take lots of vitamin C  !

9.  There's nothing magic about healing your back. Stay away from chemical doctors they only make it much worse. Chiropractors and Physical Therapists can help, but be wary. No matter where you turn, no matter how much you spend, most of the time, the finger will be pointing at you. Only you can help you. We typically shy away from healing ourselves because it requires changing habits - we don't like that. In the corporate world, dramatic change of cultural habits, almost always, does not happen until a company exceeds their economic pain threshold. Likewise, with us, especially the older we get, habits don't change easily. How great is your PAIN  ?


My Personal Experiences


As mentioned earlier, I was involved in a traffic accident on October 15th, 1996, in which my vehicle was rear-ended. It was a four-car collision and the two vehicles behind me were totaled - that gives you some idea of the impact. I had never been involved in an accident before, nor had I been to a doctor concerning my back.

Almost immediately following the collision, I felt stiffness in my neck, shoulders, and mid-back region and told the officer at the scene as much. My wife and daughter had recently gone thru hard times (and still are) after similar accidents, so I was aware that problems could occur.

I didn't go to the doctor, right away, because I thought the discomfort might go away in a couple of days. Within a week, however, I was having some serious problems. I had trouble sitting in meetings at work, trouble concentrating, got irritable, headaches, back hurt when sitting in the car, couldn't sleep, and so on. I relented and went to the local chiropractor who had treated my wife and daughter. I found it interesting ... a sign on his wall that read, " The six words we hear the most .. ' I thought it would go away ' ". Hmmm, that's exactly what I thought !

The Treatment & Process of Getting Back on The Trail:

I began the healing process by going to the doctor every day, for awhile. The frequency of visits was slowly reduced over 15 months to the current level of once every two weeks - more, if needed. Looking back, I was pretty much in and out of pain on a daily basis for the first year. Even so, I diligently exercised, including periodically carrying a 30 pound pack as part of my routine. Ability to carry a backpack is, literally, the benchmark for measuring my progress.

Before the accident, I was able to carry a large-sized backpack (Dana Terraplane), with 70 pounds of weight, with no pain in my back. I routinely carried 45 to 55 pounds as part of my daily workout, now, 15 months later, I canít even carry a smaller pack with 35 pounds, without discomfort. My workout pack is now 25 to 30 pounds.

I may never again be capable of carrying a 45 to 50 pound pack into the backcountry, but then again, the effort and money that I've put into building up a lightweight gear inventory should allow me to resume my backpacking and climbing activity while carrying only 20 to 35 pounds of gear.

A phenomenon that I encountered is that the backpacks which once had a perfect fit and feel, no longer do. As many of you know, I used to be a fanatic about Dana Design packs. Now, virtually all my Dana packs hurt my back. I've been going thru a long, frustrating process of finding a pack or two that I can live with - that provides superior support with a 35 pound load and, most importantly, does not hurt my back. I have recently purchased a couple of packs but am still not satisfied. I continue to search.

Update !  My Condition, after 15 Months:

I still have relapses, periodically, but due to a rigorous, ongoing, daily exercise routine, my back has been strengthened, considerably, and now I recover much more quickly.

I am now able to carry a 30lb training pack several times a week, and as long as I keep up the stretching routines, the ensuing stiffness is significantly mitigated.

Keep in mind, my life style is, basically, eat, sleep, work, family, and spending time in the mountains hiking, long-distance backpacking, snowshoeing, and non-technical mountain climbing, all year long.

Whereas, last year, I pretty much stayed out of the backcountry for the entire year, to allow my back to heal, not so this year. My confidence is growing and I'm sure that I'll be back out this year on a consistent basis.


2014 Update - Using BEMER Technology

In the summer of 2014, I began using BEMER technology, with much success, to mitigate the impact of Degenerative Spondylolistheses of the Lumbar Spine and increasingly problematic arthritis. BEMER has helped me to continue a pain-free normal health routine - i.e., hiking, biking, gardening, playing with grandchildren, etc.

I try to daily lay on the full body mat (B:BODY) for various lengths of time - 8, 16, 20 minutes - and at various signal strengths depending on my needs. In addition, I use the smaller wrap (B:PAD) and small area applicator (B:SPOT) for specific areas of discomfort.

What is BEMER Physical Vascular Therapy ?

BEMER is an FDA Registered Medical device which improves circulation in your small blood vessels called the micro circulation. BEMER can improve restricted circulation in the smallest blood vessels and thus support the body's own self-healing and regeneration processes.

BEMER Technology is being used, worldwide, including many international and olympic sports entities (as well as endorsed by SF 49ers, Marc Girardelli, Boris Becker, and others.)

In addition, "NASA and BEMER have signed a cooperation agreement that governs the joint development of a prototype of a space suit, which improves microcirculation while preventing bone and muscle atrophy during space missions. It should also assist recuperation after space travel."

How Does BEMER Work ?

How Does BEMER Work: Please visit for a very extensive and easy to read writeup.


In late June early July 2014, my wife and I were experiencing significant discomfort. My wife didn't have enough energy to complete a days work, coming home exhausted, her chronic lower back always a problem, and pain from varicose veins very much an annoyance. I had lower back pain (diagnosed around 2007 as "Degenerative Spondylolisthesis of the Lumbar Spine") that made it uncomfortable especially attempting to sleep while experiencing lower back and buttocks pain and severe restless left leg. In addition, about end of June, I began experiencing arthritic pain (according to doctor opinion) in my left hand which quickly spread to both hands, left big toe and left knee, making it uncomfortable to grip and to walk.

Our Introduction to BEMER Technology:

We were looking for a solution to our increasingly disruptive health problems and mentioned such to our friend Fred, here in Pullman. We discovered that Fred had cataracts and drove 75 miles to Spokane several times a week to get the BEMER treatment from an eye doctor there - Todd Wylie. Within three months Fred's cataracts had disappeared. He was so impressed that he purchased a BEMER for he and his wife, as well as one for his daughter. (By the way, Dr Wylie has significant experience and success using BEMER for eye treatment and has posted videos on YouTube).

We asked Fred if we could try his BEMER. My wife and I both noticed relief within several days of laying on the body mat - 8 or 16 minutes at each daily session. We continued to do this for a couple of weeks.

Since we were getting some relief from the BEMER sessions, we decided to purchase a BEMER Pro set of our own. After a couple months of usage and getting good results, we also purchased a distributorship so we could share with others (and hopefully make a few dollars extra to supplement our retirement income).

We now use the BEMER almost every day and, for us, the $6,000. was well spent. We were willing to mortgage the home if need be, but the power of VISA made that unnecessary. We can both function normally and that is priceless. Underlying, structural conditions may still be there, but have not worsened and pain significantly reduced to soreness at worst.


Even though I'm now 70 years old, I have no problem hiking with a lightweight pack, especially one with a supportive belt, without restriction. The BEMER technology may not be a cure-all, but it is a very special tool that has enabled us to continue living productive lives without being hobbled by health concerns.

If you would like to know more about our experience with the BEMER Technology, please contact me at

My BEMER Distributor Web Page:

BEMER Product Descriptions, Information & Web Store


Wisdom from other Backcountry Folk

From: Bill Hobson,

Subject: Bad Backs

Bad backs - I injured my back at work in '89 and took a year and a half to rehab. I have a congenital condition, but with the proper care it is manageable. I found that the best things for me were to do my own research - some doctors don't know how to communicate! The other thing was to experiment - I found the best exercise for me is bicycling. I have a condition where the vertebrae don't meet right and the nerves at that joint can get pinched and become inflamed. The constant bending over the handle bars was my salvation!


From: Thomas Thorsen,
Subject: Back Rehab

I herniated L4-5. Prior to surgery, I started a rehab program called the San Francisco Spine Institute rehab program for people with injured spines. I started about 2 months before surgery and came out of surgery in great shape. Any PT can teach it to you and I strongly recommend it for people recovering from and to prevent back problems. I will be working with this program for the rest of my life.

I am a 25 yr veteran of solo backpacking. Great page. Keep up the good work.


From: John Barry,
Subject: Front Pack in Combo w/ your Back Pack

You might want to try a front pack in combo w/ your backpack. I've had back pains for 15 years & I just rigged up a front pack this year. It's awesome! I sewed 1" strapping (2 straps w/ female clip attached) to my regular 3800cc backpack (hanging from atop the shoulder strap), then did the same on a small daypack (attached to top of pack w/ male clips). I also sewed a short length of strapping down low on the day pack, which attaches to my hip belt and keeps the front pack from bouncing. This arrangement balances the load and keeps me from having to lean over to compensate for the backpack weight (the major cause of my back pain).

I keep my water bottle & food in the front pack - the key is getting the correct weight balance & I'm still experimenting. It's great, though - I can walk upright w/o any pain. I know they have a ready-made design like this, but you can rig it up easy enough, & you can use your favorite pack(s) as well. Give it a shot.


From: James Adams,
Subject: Lumbering With Bad Lumbar

I suffered a herniated disk in the lumbar region as a result of heavy weightlifting. Now, paradoxically, I must exercise to keep the lower back strong and limber as you have suggested. I find wide-grip chin-ups on an overhead bar to be beneficial in strengthening the back, working the lat muscles down to the waistline.

I, too, have backpacked for years and am working towards recovery.

The strength of the abdominal and back muscles must be balanced, like the muscles affecting the knee joint. Even though cold works good to relieve pain, in some people the surface temperature of the back area is somewhat cooler than the rest of the body, slowing healing. Try something warm on the back after a long massage, covering up the back to retain it's heat. Repeated daily for a long period of time, it can get you back to a more active lifestyle.


From: Neil Klagge,
Subject: Knee Braces Work!!

I had been suffering from down hill decents with pain on both sides of the knees for the past 9 years or longer. Somewhere I read, on email or a web site such as this, that wrapping a brace around the knees eliminated this problem, which seems to occur on hikers around 50 years of age and up.

I am now 58, and yesterday I did a steep hike near Ogden, UT and had no pain on the way down, nor still today. I feel like a new man!

Neil Klagge,
Near the Wasatch Mountains of Utah


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