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Backpacks for Bad Backs
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Chris Jones
(NightMarcher) - F
Backpacks for Bad Backs on 02/06/2011 17:44:46 MST Print View

For those of you that have the curse of having a bad back, be it through injury, age, or otherwise, in the context of backpacking how have you adapted?

Obviously, going lightweight or ultralightweight is a logical and sensible approach (a bad back is probably why some of us have gone ultralight). However, personally I have found lightweight backpacks to be a pain... in the back. I do enjoy the fact that they are lightweight and streamlined, but when the backpack starts to fill up--even with lightweight gear--I find myself instinctively wanting a backpack with a more robust suspension for my back (like a Recaro car seat). Of course, this adds weight to the pack.

Anyway, I thought I would appeal to the collective wisdom of this forum to ask those of you with bad backs the following:

1. What is your bad back situation?(Hope that doesn't seem to personal)
2. Which backpack (make/model/volume/empty wt--if you know these) have you found works best for you?
3. What are your base and total weights?
4. Has backpacking ever aggravated your back issues (or was it the original cause)?


Edit: Added Question # 4.

Edited by NightMarcher on 02/06/2011 21:39:35 MST.

Tim Harney
(baldknobber) - F

Locale: Ozarks
Re: Backpacks for Bad Backs on 02/06/2011 17:54:12 MST Print View

1. What is your bad back situation?(Hope that doesn't seem to personal)
2. Which backpack (make/model/volume/empty wt--if you know these) have you found works best for you?
3. What are your base and total weights?

1. Auto accident in 2001, crushed discs;
2. ULA Circuit 4200 cu in 35.3 oz;
3. Base: 9 lbs. total 15-20.

Much trial and error has led to this choice. Good luck.

Ken Helwig
(kennyhel77) - MLife

Locale: Scotts Valley CA via San Jose, CA
Re: Backpacks for Bad Backs on 02/06/2011 17:57:15 MST Print View

I can sympathize I suffer from sciatica and it has made me miss trips etc.

I use a ULA CDT for low volume trips and for my bigger loads I have an REI Flash 65 (but that is more for winter trips). The ULA is 3200ci while the REI is nearly 4000ci.

My base weight without a bear can is 12 lbs and with one it can exceed 14 lbs depending on what can I bring.

Have you thought about a Granite Gear Vapor Trail? They carry very comfortably

Ed Engel
(Doorknob) - F

Locale: West of what you think is west
Re: Re: Backpacks for Bad Backs on 02/06/2011 17:59:00 MST Print View

I'm sure you will get a wide variety of options here.
1. Lower disk issues.
2. I carry a ULA Catalyst.
3. Base weight with BV 500 12.5lbs. With 9 days food, water and fuel about 30lbs.

Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
suspension, suspension, suspension on 02/06/2011 18:29:03 MST Print View

I have "moderately large herniated L-4 and L-5 discs" according to the radiologists assessment of my MRI in 1998.

I avoided the knife with great physical therapy and continuing exercise.
My solution is good suspension tuning so I can ALWAYS keep 80% or more of the pack weight on the hipbelt. Too much weight on the shoulders compresses your spine and causes disc/pinched nerve problems.

Summer bag> REI Cruise UL 60 W/ side pockets

Winter bag> Dana Designs (original) Terraplane

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Backpacks for Bad Backs on 02/06/2011 18:29:21 MST Print View

Bad neck disks, shoulder from a roof truss faling on me in 1987.
I use a variety of packs, From about 8.5oz to about 3.5 pounds. All have good waste belts.
Base weight? Well, for summer, about 7#. For general 3 season camping about 9-11# for late fall and early spring about 17#. I don't do any winter camping, anymore. A bear canister is not included, of course. I always carry shelter system for two.

Total weight is always less than 25#. The only exception to that is if I am canoing. Then I can let it go to about 30#. This really depends on how long I intend to be out and the distance between water. Usually a 1 liter bottle is good, camping near a water source. On occasion, I need to carry 3, 2-liter bottles, a BIG difference.

From Skin Out, about 30# is my usual load...too old to carry more.

wiiawiwb wiiawiwb
(wiiawiwb) - F
As light as possible on 02/06/2011 18:52:51 MST Print View

I've got a herniated disk and have had lower back problems for about 15-20 years.

For years, I carted a McHale pack and it performed like a champion. It could continue to perform forever. Now, with my back occasionally flaring up without warning, I've gone lighter and lighter. The best pack for my back was a simple rucksack from Alpine Lowe. No pockets, no nothing. The weight was almost entirely carried by my shoulders.

I'm opting to go the opposite route from that of the OP. I want the weight off my hips and on my shoulders as much as possible. A Zpacks Blast will be my next pack.

I don't know my weight but most of my hikes are day trips so I don't carry all the goodies that most of you do. Hopefully, I do a few overnights this year.

Edited by wiiawiwb on 02/06/2011 18:54:32 MST.

Daryl and Daryl
(lyrad1) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest, USA, Earth
My Answers on 02/06/2011 19:53:00 MST Print View

(1) Herniated disc in lower back. Three episodes over 10 years.

(2) Use home made frame pack.

(3) 15 pounds base, 30 pounds total

Sam Farrington
(scfhome) - M

Locale: Chocorua NH, USA
"Backpacks for Bad Backs" on 02/06/2011 20:19:31 MST Print View


1. Burst fracture of L-2, 1998
2. MYOG, with suspended mesh back panel, based on pattern taken from an Alpine Designs pack with an ABS hourglass frame marketed @ 30 yrs ago.
3. Weight with a week's food is about 30#. But that includes an aluminum camp chair to rest back before and after walking. Intend to go lighter.

From what's commercially available, suggest you try some of the lighter Osprey suspended mesh back panel packs.

Check out the suspended mesh backrests for carseats at the Subaru dealer. With a little modification, it would make a great back panel for a pack.

Even with heavier packs, I was more comfortable with an MYOG design that connected the waist belt to the pack at three points: the small of the back and just in front of the hip bones on both sides. This was similar to the Warmlite design no longer made, but with a turnbuckle design added to pull the side arms inward, to keep the waist belt snug around the hips without requiring a buckle.

My goal has been to use designs that most effectively put more of the weight on the hips, without pulling back on the shoulders, to take as much of the pressure as possible off my back. I also do back strengthening exercises and Yoga back stretching, which both help. Weight control, and very limited boozing to avoid inflammation, also help.

Edited by scfhome on 02/06/2011 20:20:41 MST.

Ken K
(TheFatBoy) - F

Locale: St. Louis
Following with great interest on 02/06/2011 20:44:18 MST Print View

Thanks for starting this thread, Chris! Thanks to years of "stupid" catching up with me, I had to take a break from backpacking the last couple years. I finally had a couple back surgeries last year... A laminotomy and discectomy of L3/4 in April which immediately reherniated. Then in November, a triple laminectomy and discectomy (L2/3, L3/4, and L4/5), combined with a cleaning out of disintegrated disc material in the spinal cord. This second surgery seems to have "taken", and after 5 months of rehab, I'm hoping to finally hit the trails again in April!

Like many, the bad back is making me take a closer look at what I was packing (though I think my injuries have a lot more to do with rugby, bull riding, and wrecking everything with a motor).

I was looking at the SMD Traveler... A 30 ounce 3800ci pack with a removable hoop frame that is said to transfer weight beautifully. On paper, it seems perfect for me. If anyone with a bad back has any direct experience with this pack, I'd love to hear about it.

One thing I've found in car camping during the last year (and a week in Boundary waters) is that a GOOD comfortable night's sleep makes a WORLD of difference with a bad back. It doesn't matter how good you feel at the end of the day packing if you wake up hurting anyway. As soon as you get your pack nailed down, I suggest you start looking at your sleep system. I'm leaning toward a Kooka Bay extra-thick down pad or ExPed Downmat 9 Deluxe.

Stephen Barber
(grampa) - MLife

Locale: SoCal
Still trying to figure it out on 02/06/2011 23:07:54 MST Print View

Back issue is herniated discs in the lower back, giving rise to sciatica, etc.

Base weight is from just under ten to about twelve pounds, depending on shelter.

I've tried at least nine different packs from truly ultralight to "normal" not-even-close-to-lightweight packs. Basically for me to carry comfortably, the pack must put the weight firmly on the pelvic girdle, with the shoulder straps merely stabilizing the load.

An Osprey Atmos 50 carries pretty well, as long as the entire load, including food, fuel and water (often an issue in SoCal) is at 23# or below. Oddly, the Osprey Exos does not co as well; and I'm not confident of the mesh back suspension panel on either - I keep seeing tears in these. A Gregory Z55 works as well at this weight, but adds a pound. Much over 24#, and I start leaning towards my Gregory Baltoro, which all by itself adds another 3#, but carries much better. Approach 30#, and I'm car camping.

Ultralight backpacks which depend on foam pads, etc, for weight transfer have my back screaming in a couple of miles with 15#. I can carry 10# in a frameless daypack for about a mile before the pain sets in.

Tony Wong
(Valshar) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Backpacks for Bad Backs on 02/07/2011 00:21:12 MST Print View


On a past BLP trips one of the guys who went was Denis.

He had back issues where he could not have any weight on his shoulders and therefore needed to have all the weight transferred to his hips.

Not sure if this is the case for you, but Denis was using the Luxurylite Modular, External frame pack.

Photos of it on that trip can be found about 1/3 of the way into this trip report:

Maybe this will help?


Dug Shelby
(Pittsburgh) - F

Locale: Bay Area
. on 02/07/2011 00:27:49 MST Print View


Case of Tortocollis, suffered when wrestling for fun. (I was on all fours, friend had me locked from the front, I lifted him with just my neck. Traumatized tissue/muscles in between neck vertebrae swell on one side, pushing neck over towards uninjured side. Flashbacks can come by sleeping on it funny, physical activity that mimics original way injury took place, etc, and stay from a couple days to a few weeks.)

Also lower back weakness that has, at times grounded me. Rare, but enough to keep me from going to work and staying at home on the floor. That injury thanks to trying to catch a medicine ball too far from my body while not in peak shape. Basically a freak accident, thankfully not disc-related.

My pack has gone from (recently) a Gregory Baltoro 70, to a McHale Windsauk. Both have ample stays that transfer much of the load from my shoulders/neck/trapezius to my hips.

I personally won't ever hike without a good pack that "shoulders" the pack weight to my hips. The super-duper-mega-ultralight can go hike it's own hike. I just know where I am and what my own back/neck needs.

I've found that if I have a well supported framed pack that gets ample hip support, the volume and weight is negotiable. Even though the Gregory Baltoro is in the 5 pound range, it rides like a cloud, and the McHale Windsauk is under 2.5 pounds.

Base weight: 11-15 pounds
Max weight: 35-40 pounds

Backpacking has not yet hurt or been the cause of my injuries or flare ups.

Edited by Pittsburgh on 02/07/2011 00:31:08 MST.

Ike Mouser
(isaac.mouser) - F
Aarn packs on 02/07/2011 05:46:15 MST Print View


You need to get an Aarn pack. I have spondylolisthesis, 2 pars defects and slippages in my neck. I am taking physical therapy right now for these issues. I quit backpacking because
of my constant pain when using traditional backpacks. After finding the Aarn pack, I am back on the trail. These packs are not backpacks at all, since the weight is evenly split between the front and back of the pack-they are better called
bodypacks. The load is almost ALL on your hips. Not just one area of your hips, but distributed across the whole cirumference of your hips. There is no weight on my shoulders. I can pickup the shoulder strap with my left pinky easily while carrying 40lbs. Its like its not there. The pack balances the weight between the front and back of your torso via detachable waterproof front pockets. They detach to form a daypack when at camp and going doing tasks like getting water, or simply going for a dayhike. I can carry all the gear i need immediate access to in the front 14-liter front pockets. They hang freely not touching my torso due to built in stays that load their weight onto the shoulder straps, lifting the weight off my shoulders creating that weightless shoulder feeling. I use the featherlite freedom. I would never suggesta frameless pack for someone with back problems. You need support.

I recently completed a 3.5 day 70 mile hike with it, no redness or soreness in the shoulders or anywhere else on the body. The key to these packsmare adjustments. You can get it to fit your body like a glove. The hip belt is 2 pieces that attach via velcro. This means you can alter the angle/fit ofthe belt to fit your hips perdectly. a stay runs down the middle of the back as well.

Its also important to try lots of shoes to find a pair that your doc will agree to and fits you properly. Adding ul hikin poles like ti goats or gg"s is essential as well. I cannot emphasize enough proper shoe selection and hiking poles. The way you walk should also be something you pay attention to. If you have back problems it may be affecting your gait. I suggest going to a physical therapist and getting therapy if your doctor recommends it, second, having them analyze your natural gait for problems. Third, analyze your posture all day when your sitting at work/home. Learn proper posture and do your best to remind yourself to maintain it. One of the things i did was place my desk top monitor on top of sevearl thick books. Raising it up high so im not looking down at it, instead looking straight ahead. This alleivated some neck pain.

The only downside to these packs are the fiddleness of them.

I've used them for years now and I have it down to a process though:

First before you order, watch the videos on the site to get your measurements via standing against the wall and using a book to make marks on the wall. This video is on the website. Basically you goto the website, watch the supplied videos and follow the directions. Get the shoulder straps at the appropriate width for you before heading out for a test run. Get hip where you think it should be, and head out with a heavier than normal load(35-40LBS or so, these packs can haul HEAVY loads and do better with heavier loads due to weight distribution). Plan on a few miles. After 20-30 minutes you will discover the places where the hip belt is out of angle. You will feel an uncomfortable pain on the top/bottom/side of your hip bone. Simply take off the pack, and alter the angle of the hip belt on the corresponding side to accomodate the pain at the part of the hip bone. Make small adjustments of a few degrees. If the pain is at the top of the hip bone, angle the belt down. After that, put it back on. If you got it in the right place, the pain will be gone. After making your fine adjustments via hiking, you should be set.

My base weight for summer is around 11lbs, total pack weight (full 2L h20+food)4-5 days = 21LBS.

My base weight for fall is around 13LBS, total pack weight (full 2L h20+food)4-5 days = 23lbs.

My base weight for winter is around 14LBS, total pack weight (full 2L h20+food)4-5 days = 28LBS.

Backpacking will still mildly aggravate my back issues if im on difficult terrain. This is to be expected since my issues are going to be aggravated anyway even by walking. However, I can say for sure that without the aarn pack i wouldn't be hiking. I have tried all the popular packs ULtrs use and all of them caused me problems that were untolerable due to loading the shoulders too much/not distributing weight to the hips. At the end of a trail day, im not aching to get in my hammock anymore, I actually enjoy the walking due mainly to the AARN pack but also to proper shoe selection and the use of ul hiking poles.

Edited by isaac.mouser on 02/07/2011 07:33:08 MST.

Daryl and Daryl
(lyrad1) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest, USA, Earth
Front Pack on 02/07/2011 09:46:46 MST Print View

I';ve used a front pack for about 10 years now and agree with the beneits of a balanced load. It eliminates the forward straining that often accompanies a backpack.

wiiawiwb wiiawiwb
(wiiawiwb) - F
Shoulder pouches on 02/07/2011 15:24:45 MST Print View

One of the things I plan on experimenting with are shoulder pouches. I like the idea of transferring some weight, albeit a small amount, to the front.

Sunny Waller
(dancer) - M

Locale: Southeast USA
Backpacks for Bad Backs on 02/08/2011 10:34:55 MST Print View

1: Bad Back caused by head on collision with drunk driver. Have 4 herniated discs
T11 T12 L1 L2.

2: I am unable to bear the load of any backpack with hipbelt with even 5 lbs in it.
I have tried them all.. note: I was an outdoor trip leader for 20 years and have
lots of experience with properly fitting and loading backpacks which was a great
gig for a gear nut (I still grieve for my Dana Terraplane) I thought I was off the
trail for good until I read Ray Jardine's book and decided to lightweight gear &
use a pack without a hipbelt & sternum strap. I purchased an original edition
Golite Breeze and a tarp and eventually found my way back to the trail (priceless)
Now I use a Granite Gear Vapor Ki because my back and shoulders really likes the
extra foam padding..I just remove the belt and sternum strap. My base weight which
is everything except for food & water is around 8 lbs. My weekend trip weight is
around 12lbs but I have carried more on short trips.

I give all that detail because it is a terrible thing to lose what you love the most.
Once I realized that I might could get it back I tried everything I could think of..
read everything I could find. I know from experience that everybodys back is different..keep trying until you find something that works for you :)

Edited by dancer on 02/08/2011 10:36:51 MST.

John G
(JohnG10) - F

Locale: Mid-Atlantic via Upstate NY
Bad back pack on 02/08/2011 18:25:45 MST Print View

Bad lower 2 disks (belt line & lower kidney area)
Also bad SI joint (where side of tailbone connects to pelvis)
Both due to auto accident.

I find the disks in my lower back start to swell after only 10-15 minutes of using a pack without a hipbelt. Even one with only 20 lbs.

However, I find the "psuedo frame" in the Vapor Trail (plastic sheet bonded to foam) that is often belittled in many posts, combined with the side compression straps is enough allow me to transfer all the weight of my 27-28 lb packs to the hipbelt and just use the shoulder straps to prevent sway. This is without using a foam pad (my SI requires an air pad), or carefully arranging things while packing. (My guess is that the great compression system eliminates the need to pack it a Tetris-like way).

In terms of my SI issue, I find that lighter weight (and not stepping up higher than mid-shin) makes all the difference, not the pack design.

Answer to question 4 in OP: I don't find that backpacking aggrevates either of my back issues any more than day hikes, or any other light, but prolonged exercise.

Caveat: I have not tried hauling water in the side pockets, or more than 2 liter of water (which I keep in a hydration bladder between the top of my kidneys & middel of my shoulder blades). So my very favorable evaluation of the VT may be based on an absence of heavy things that would cause bouncing. I suspect the VT would work fine with a 1 L water bottle in each side pocket, but haven't tried it. Nor have I tried strapping a heavy (5 lb) traditional tent to the pack.

Edited by JohnG10 on 02/08/2011 18:30:46 MST.