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How's that ol' hiking backpack of yours?

No matter what our age or where we are going, everyone seems to have a lot of stuff to haul around. Whether you have a little one going off to school, are making your way to university or work yourself, or are heading out on a single day or multi-day trek, a backpack is often the carrying mode of choice. The body’s strong back, abdominals, and legs take the load of transporting items when you use a good backpack rather than leaving that load up to the weaker arms and shoulders, such as when carrying a hand or shoulder bag.

Whether heading off to school, hiking, or simply out strolling the city, by choosing the right backpack and following some simple packing advice you arrive at your destination without sore shoulders or a tired back. It might be true that many would rather be carrying a more fashionable bag instead of a ‘useful’ backpack, but your body will thank you for choosing function over fashion.


Don't let them be a pain in the back!

Carrying an overloaded backpack or wearing one improperly can lead to poor posture, stress on the soft tissue in your neck and back, and unnecessary strain on muscles and joints.

Over time, the physical strain of carrying heavy loads can result in:

  • Fatigue and strain in the muscles and soft tissues of the neck, back and shoulders from overuse.

  • Spinal compression and/or improper alignment, leaving the back vulnerable to injury.

  • Stress or compression of the shoulders and arms causing tingling, numbness and/or weakness in the arms or hands.

Backpack features to look for:

Reduce strain by using and fitting a backpack that works for you rather than against you. CPA recommends the selection and use of backpacks with the following features:

  • Padded back – to reduce pressure and prevent the pack’s contents

  • from digging into your back.

  • Padded, contoured, shoulder and chest straps – to help reduce pressure and balance the weight. Look for a backpack with thickly padded adjustable shoulder straps (2 inches wide) and an extra hip strap. Adjust the shoulder straps so the bottom of the pack sits two inches above your waist

  • Waist belt or hip strap – to distribute some of the load to the pelvis. The waist belt sends the weight of your pack down through your legs which are equipped to carry increased weight, preventing you from getting tired as quickly.

  • Compression straps – on the sides or bottom of the backpack to compress the contents of the backpack and stabilize the articles inside. Pack by weight, not size and always place the heaviest items closest to your back.

  • Reflective material – to increase your visibility to others at night.

Other equipment to keep in mind:

  • Supportive shoes with a thick sole to absorb the weight of the backpack and reduce your risk of injury

  • Lightweight and breathable socks, and possibly two pairs of socks if you are prone to blisters to reduce the friction on your skin

  • Walking/hiking poles if you are walking long distances, doing a lot of hiking or hill walking, or have existing knee or ankle injuries. They reduce the strain on your joints walking downhill, increase your overall stability, and help transfer some of your body weight to your upper limbs.

Backpacks are designed to distribute the load evenly. Worn correctly and not overloaded, a backpack is supported by some of the strongest muscles in the body: the back and abdominal muscles. These muscle groups work together to stabilize the trunk and hold the body in proper balance and postural alignment.

Backpack too heavy?

FIRST: check that your cat isn't hiding inside of it as per the image above ;)

When choosing a backpack, look for one made of lightweight materials to reduce the weight you will be carrying.

A full backpack should never weigh more than 15 per cent of your body weight. For example, if you weigh 52 kg (115 lbs.), the backpack should not weigh more than 7.8 kg (17 lbs.). If you can’t carry your backpack and talk without getting out of breath, you’re carrying too much.

When wearing a backpack, stand tall with your head and neck in line with your shoulders and use both shoulder straps to help evenly distribute the weight of the pack. Using only one strap loads the entire weight of the body over one shoulder, causing you to lean to one side. Over time, this abnormal posture can create lower and upper back pain as well as neck and shoulder strain.

Fit the backpack to the person

When buying a backpack, make sure it is not oversized ‘to carry more’. The shoulder straps should fit comfortably and not dig in to the shoulder or arm, allowing the arms to move freely. The bottom of the pack should rest in the contour of the lower back. The pack should “sit” evenly in the middle of the back, not “sag” toward the buttocks.

Backpacks for hiking and camping provide additional support through frames and special straps. Be sure to buy the right backpack for your body.


Stretching Guide for Hiking and Backpacking

Stretching is essential when backpacking, particularly if you are hiking or travelling with a heavy one. A good stretching routine can help to minimize muscle imbalances, prevent injury, and improve your ability to use your backpack for longer periods. The following stretching program is designed for backpack users who do not have any current injuries or individual stretching needs.

When is the Best Time to Stretch? When your muscles are warm and relaxed! For optimum performance you should stretch after you have done a general body warm up of about 5-10 minutes. If you are going out hiking, or travelling with a backpack this might mean stretching after a short 5 minute brisk, walk or jog. Dynamic stretches are used to prepare your muscles for donning the backpack and walking or hiking while carrying the weight of the pack. Static stretches, on the other hand, are more useful to improve your overall flexibility and are most effectively done after your hike or walk, once you take the backpack off and as part of your cool down. With backpacking or hiking, a good static stretch at the end of you hike or travels will help relieve any tension from carrying the weight and make sure you can carry on again tomorrow! Both the dynamic and static stretching routines below can also be useful if you have to carry a heavier backpack to school or work on occasion, but remember, there are weight guidelines for regular backpack use to prevent injury.

Rules for Dynamic Stretching: Warm up your body first, then stretch while your muscles are still warm.

  • Move through your range of movement, keeping control of the movement with your muscles. Do not allow momentum to control the movement by "flinging" or "throwing" your body parts around.

  • You may feel light resistance in your muscles, but you should never feel pain during a stretch.

  • Start with slow, low intensity movements, and gradually progress to full-speed movements through range of motion. Complete these motions for several repetitions (10-15 times.)

Rules for Static Stretching:

  • Be sure to stretch while the muscles are still warm from hiking or walking with your backpack.

  • Slowly take your muscles to the end of their range. You will feel slight resistance in the muscle, but you should never feel pain during a stretch.

  • Hold the stretch in a static position. Do not bounce.

  • Maintain each stretch for 20-30 seconds. Repeat each stretch 3-4 times.

Need a list of exercises? Click on the link below for a 10-15 stretching program that will stretch all of the key muscles used when carrying a backpack, donning it, and taking it off:

Happy trails!


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