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Hiking presents it’s own set of challenges, but backpacking is a different beast altogether.  Even if you’re just doing a day trip for a picnic with a view, hoisting around a backpack while you’re scaling a mountain requires more from your trunk than hiking.  Back pain is a common complaint from backpacking, and it’s not hard to imagine why.  Don’t worry, as there are steps that can be taken to keep you on the trails.  

Whether you’re a regular backpacker or you have your first trip next month, start working those legs.  Your legs are the back’s shock absorbers, so take care of them! Our previous article on hiking has a couple exercises for keeping your legs strong for the long haul.  You’ll also want to have hiking poles at the ready.  They are helpful for reducing some of the stress in the back, which can be a game changer for those multi-day trips.  If hiking poles don’t help enough and you already have Hafþór Björnsson’s legs, what do you do if your back is still cutting your trips short?  Strengthen your back of course!  The following exercises make a great circuit that can be done on their own or at the end of a regular workout.  

  • Backpack carries – Let’s build your tolerance to that backpack!  Instead of wearing it though, you’re going to hold it in front of you.  If your backpack is tall enough to ride roller coasters, simply hold it sideways.  Holding the backpack at your chest makes the muscles of the upper back work pretty hard.  The goal is to keep your trunk upright through the exercise.  Aim to carry the backpack for 1-2 minutes.  If you have access to stairs or a hill, that makes this even better!  
  • Pendlay Rows – Rows also target the muscles of the upper back, but doing them bent over (shown here) also challenges the muscles in the low back.  You’ll be using your backpack for weight, but you can use free weights if you have them.  You’ll want to hold the backpack vertically otherwise you’ll probably have an uneven spread of weight.  This means you’ll want to have a fairly wide stance to make room for the backpack as you lift it up between the knees.  The amount of repetitions you do depends on how heavy your pack is, but aim for 10-20 reps.  If you can’t do 10 or you can do way over 20 (40+), you might want to adjust the weight.  
  • Backpack Plank – Simple but effective.  Wear the backpack like you usually would and perform a plank (pictured here).  If you find your shoulders are your weak link here, you may want to try to place the backpack closer to yours hips to better target the abdominal muscles.  It’s hard to do this on your own, especially when your pack weighs over 10-20 lbs.  Aim for a 30-60 second hold.  

These exercises can be done 2-4 times a week for 3-6 rounds each session as a way to build your trunk’s endurance.  The longer the distance each day’s hike is, the more rounds you’ll want to consider doing.  An important consideration is that this circuit is designed to fatigue the postural muscles in your trunk.  When you can’t maintain good form anymore, you’ve reached your limit.  This might mean just taking a short break between rounds.  

Since your problem is lugging a backpack around, it makes sense to use that same backpack at approximately the same weight of what you’re normally packing.  If that seems too heavy, you can always start lighter but you’ll want to gradually work up to the weight you’d usually carry. 

Got questions?  Feel limited in what you’re able to do?  The staff at Limitless Physical Therapy in Eugene, OR and Albany, OR can show you how to discover your future without limits.  

***The above information, including text, images, and all other materials, is provided for educational purposes only, and not as a replacement or supplement to professional medical advice.  Please contact a certified healthcare professional or your primary physician for any personal concerns.