- Successfully navigating the outdoors with chronic back pain is all about knowing your body, listening to your body, and knowing the environment that you are in.
- The major equipment companies manufacture outdoor gear products for the masses and the “average person” without back pain.
- “Stretch before you feel like you need to, for by then it will have been too late”- Terry Ouimet
MANAGING YOUR BACK PAIN DURING OUTDOOR ACTIVITY
WARM-UP AND STRETCH
Warm-up a little once you get to the trailhead, especially if you have been sitting in the car for an hour or two. The worst thing for back muscles is to need to perform on-demand when they are cold and stiff and have been inactive.
It doesn’t take long for a quick warm-up, while everybody is gearing up or getting ready, do some side bends or twists (whatever your back will allow), go for a brisk 2-minute walk, or get out your trail mat/pad and do a few stretches. Just get some blood pumping and signal your back and ab muscles that it’s game time.
I mentioned it earlier and it’s probably the most important thing, but here is one last reminder: You have to be aware, and in absolute control of the Intensity, Duration, Type of Activity, and the Frequency with which the activity is performed. Just you, nobody else. Speak up, let your needs be known. If they care about you in the least, they will honor your requests. If not, maybe find some new people.
Now is the time to implement this important game plan. Go at your own pace, take plenty of breaks to relax and stretch, stop when you have had enough and call it a day. Enjoy yourself, and come home with your back intact and then you’ll want to head out next time and do it again.
FORM AND TECHNIQUE
- Try to keep your spine in neutral posture as much as possible. If you have to bend or twist outside of neutral, use proper form and technique specific to your sport or activity.
- Bring your own “modified” gear. Sometimes we have to modify our gear because the big equipment companies manufacture products for the masses and for the “average person” who has no back pain. For example, I use a sled to get my easel and painting equipment to my location. Here is a photo of me with a stool modification which helped decrease my back pain and increase my sitting ability. I bought a $7 cushion from Walmart and packed it full with some nice high-density foam I had in the garage.
3. Traversing uneven terrain. When walking down a steep hill that has loose dirt or gravel use the sideways stair-step method. Turn your body sideways, place your feet parallel, bend your knees, and get as low as possible. If you fall, the impact will not be as severe. Walking straight up and down steep hills may allow for even distribution of force and weight on your joints but is the riskiest method. Use the switchback technique (walking in a zig-zag pattern) when the terrain is less steep but slipping is still a concern. The primary goal is to avoid a fall leading to injury.
- When standing keep your head up, shoulders straight, chest forward, weight balanced evenly on both feet, and your hips tucked in.
- When stooping down to lift something, face the object, keep your feet apart, tighten your stomach muscles, and lower yourself using your legs. Never lift something heavy like a cooler and twist to place it somewhere. This is a common way to herniate a disc.
- When standing, as in fishing, try to elevate one foot by resting it on a stool, log, or rock. After several minutes, switch your foot position. Alternate between sitting, standing, and sport dinghy/belly float tube/kick boat fishing (watercraft/flotation fishing).
- When standing up from a sitting position, as in photography, fishing, hunting, or sitting around the campfire, scoot to the front of the seat first. Then stand up by using your leg muscles mainly. Avoid bending forward at your waist to get up. Many of the newer lightweight camping chairs are still uncomfortable sling back chairs that keep you in an awkward back-leaning position and you almost need two people to pull you out.
USE YOUR ABS
Successfully navigating the outdoors with chronic back pain is all about knowing your body, listening to your body, and knowing the environment that you are in.
Use your ab muscles that you have worked so hard to strengthen (hopefully:-) when you find yourself entering into a load-bearing or awkward back position. These are not necessarily your “6 pack muscles” but muscles known as your postural integrity and injury-prevention muscles.
You cannot keep them flexed and in protection mode the whole time, unfortunately, but train yourself to be aware and turn them on in situations such as uneven ground, slippery ground, low visibility/daylight, intense exertion or any other movement that may put your back in a risky or vulnerable position.
Just tighten the lower ab muscles below your belly button and do a little pelvic tilt to put your pelvis in a neutral position and voila, you just tightened up your built-in human-back-support brace and lessened your chance of injury.
Let’s take a quick and simple look at these muscles now, they are so important to the health of your back and avoiding back spasms and pain.
If you have chronic back pain you may have heard of them. If not, ask your medical professional how you can strengthen these muscles below to reduce your back pain and risk of injury while outdoors.
Physio Works explains the Core Stability Muscles that protect your back very clearly below:
“The Deep Core Stability Muscles of the Lower Spine have been identified as:
- Transversus Abdominis (TA)
- Multifidus (MF)
- Pelvic Floor (PF)
- Transversus Abdominis
- The deepest abdominal muscle.
- The “corset muscle” of the spine and pelvis.
- Contracts in anticipation of body motion to guard the spinal joints, ligaments, discs, and nerves.
- Very short muscles
- Their main function is back stability.
- They do not produce a large range of movement, but work to produce small, “fine-tuning” postural movements, all day long.
- Makes a flexible but stable region around your lumbar spine.
- Stabilizes your lumbar spine in its many positions.
- Enables you to overcome back problems and reduce your chances of a recurrence.”
Other postural integrity and injury prevention muscles:
External & Internal Obliques
- Help you bend from side to side and twist your torso providing stability to your hips and back.
- Help control the pelvic tilt. By tilting the pelvis back (posteriorly), they can reverse an overly arched lower back.
Quadratus Lumborum (QL muscle)
- The deepest abdominal muscle, commonly referred to as a “back muscle.”
- Side bending and back bending.
- Stabilization of the spine while seated.
- Forced Exhalation
- Problems with back spasms that are very painful can stem from the QL muscle.
- Most recognized as the “ab muscles” or “6 pack muscles”
- Helps flex your trunk and do a sit up.
- Can also tense to contract the abdomen without moving the torso, such as sucking in your gut, when you pull your navel back toward the spine or when you cough.
PREVENTATIVE STRETCH BREAKS
I’ve found that “preventative stretching” keeps my back fresh and limber so that I am able to enjoy my outdoor activity for a longer duration. Can you tell I’m big into stretching? I even have a world-famous quote: “Stretch before you feel like you need to, for by then it will have been too late”- Terry Ouimet
I can stay out longer and do what I love to do while getting more power out of my back if I take short little preventative stretch breaks along the way.
Once, I got out of a kayak to stretch without touching land. I “hopped” onto a large rock in the river the size of a car and then got back onto my kayak to continue down the river. Whatever it takes right?
For more on post-activity back care when you get home, read this post; https://learningpleinair.com/2020/04/07/guide-to-managing-back-pain-after-outdoor-activity/
DON’T OVERLOAD YOUR BACK WITH GEAR
Ask your medical professionals how many lbs you should lift in general. Most of us have weight-carrying limitations and we should know what they are. Furthermore, ask how many pounds you can carry for an extended outdoor activity (backpacking for example) based on your unique chronic back pain symptoms and diagnosis.
Since back pain is so complex and dependant upon our individual situation, we need this information from the people who oversee our back care. And remember, if you have artificial discs or spinal fusion surgery for example, there are some high impact outdoor activities that are prohibited or at least strongly not recommended by spine surgeons.
You may already know the weight answer just from personal experience or trial and error. I have learned the hard way over the years what my limit is because as an ex-pro athlete I was never quick to ask people to help me lift something or admit that I should back off a bit and play it safe.
Now, my wife and kids are very good about helping me adhere to this strategy when it comes to getting the paddleboard or coolers in the truck before we head out. And although a bit humbling, I am happy to have the help.
Buy and pack the lightest gear possible for your chosen activity. Only take essentials and learn how to pack efficiently down to the smallest size possible. Reach out to other adventurers with back pain in that sport and ask for ideas.
At the risk of stating the obvious, when you select gear at the store, think about your back first as opposed to what somebody recommended, price only, or what might be the latest and greatest product. Salespeople in large outdoor gear chain stores are trained to be highly educated now. While they may not be back experts, they will know about technical product aspects such as size, material type, and weight. So ask them what products may be better suited for back pain.
Similarly, on Amazon.com go into the ‘customer reviews’ section and type the keywords “back pain” or “light” in the search box and you will be able to see if the manufacturer has any information on these topics, or if customers have inquired previously. Based on personal experience with a portable stool, for example, chances are good that somebody with back pain has commented on the product if it has to do with outdoor activity.
It’s not healthy or comfortable for people with chronic back pain to sit too long or stand too long in any one position.
Plein air landscape painting, photography, canoeing/kayaking, fishing, and hunting are just a few activities that can keep you in the same position for extended periods of time and make your back scream for mercy.
Again, be aware of your body and your environment. You should force yourself to switch positions, stretch, or lay down about every 30-45 minutes. Do what is appropriate for your unique back condition but train yourself to think about it and do it whether you feel like it or not. Once you get into your activity it’s hard to stop but your back will thank you later.
Try These Back Friendly “Field Tactics”:
PHOTOGRAPHY, BIRD WATCHING, PLEIN AIR PAINTING
- When seated, keep your legs and hips at right angles. Make sure your feet are touching the ground and don’t cross your legs. Chin down and in, sit up tall, don’t slouch. Draw yourself up and accentuate the curve of your back as far as possible. Hold for a few seconds. Release the position slightly (about 10 degrees). This is a good sitting posture.
Check out these great Landscape photography tips from Digital Photography School:
- Get a backpack or chest strap carrying tote. “A shoulder bag is a signature style for most photojournalists, and it is indeed practical when you need to have easy access to your equipment while on the move. But it is also a big enemy of your posture, as it puts all the weight in one of your shoulders making your spine curved and unbalanced. Backpacks distribute the weight equally on both shoulders, making it a much better solution for carrying your equipment.
- “Try an outdoor portable dolly if it is convenient for your shooting location.”
- “Use a sling strap for your camera instead of a neck strap. Sling straps minimize the impact of the camera’s weight, hanging it from the shoulder and across the torso. This makes it easier for you to move around and reach the camera, reducing the impact on your neck.”
- Consider downgrading your camera and accessories kit to put less strain on your neck and back. This might mean a subsequent change in your artistic vision, style, or subject matter but may allow you to stay out there longer and come home in less pain.
- Make sure your lenses do not overlap in focal length ranges. Carry the fewest lenses possible to get you a full focal length. Pack efficiently and intelligently and perhaps you can walk a little further to get a better shot.
Field & Stream has some good advice on hunting with back pain:
- “KEEP YOUR BURDEN CLOSE. Whether you’re carrying a deer rifle or a shotgun and an overloaded game vest, make sure to position the weight as close as possible to your center of mass. An 8-pound rifle moved a mere 4 inches away from your torso goes from exerting 8 inch-pounds of torque to 32 inch-pounds–a fourfold increase. Try to walk normally–don’t overcompensate for heavy loads by leaning forward or backward.”
- “DRAG CAREFULLY. Perhaps the single most common cause of back injuries in hunters comes from dragging deer. In the excitement of the hunt, you may feel gifted with temporary superhuman strength, but your back remains very human. Try to use a cart or some other device to reduce the burden. If you must drag the deer, frequently change your grip and body position so that you’re not relying on only one set of muscles the whole time. Take frequent rest breaks–stop before you feel consciously fatigued. Beyond that point, it might be too late to prevent injury.”
- “ENSURE YOUR HUNTING ENVIRONMENT is as comfortable and ergonomic as possible. When picking out a treestand or a hunting seat, look for one with adjustable height, a suitable cushion, armrests, and lumbar support.”
- “DON’T SLOUCH. Poor sitting posture can overstretch your spinal ligaments and put added pressure on your discs. In a treestand, positioned on the ground, or in a blind, hunters often tend to slouch, which can overstretch the spinal ligaments and strain the discs and surrounding structures in the spine. Stand up, stretch when you can, and change positions every 30 minutes if possible.”
- Stand up as much as possible especially if you are climbing difficult hill terrain. This will put your back in a more neutral position and decrease the load on your lower back. Sitting down and straining to pedal uphill can increase the force on your spine and soft tissue.
- Check your bike position. Have an experienced biker or bike store help you with saddle height and bike frame size- two factors that can contribute to increased low back pain on the trail.
- Decrease your backpack weight. As you know, water is heavy so install a bottle cage (water bottle holder) if your bike did not come with one, or install a second one to hold even more water on the frame instead of your back.
- Backpacks are no longer the only way to carry stuff on your bike. New products have come out like waist packs and hydration belts to minimize the load on your back. Similarly, biking shirts and storage vests are on the market now. These spread the load out more and ease back pain.
- “Bikepacking” is now a thing. You can pack a tent between your handlebars. The Big Anges Copper Spur UL2 tent uses shorter tent poles in a compression sack designed to withstand trail wear and fit on your bike handlebars.
- Pull over to the bank, side shore, or an island after an hour or two on the water if possible. Get out and stretch or lay down on a lightweight mat that you packed in your backpack. If you cannot stop on land, do some seated stretches in the watercraft for your back and shoulders.
- Don’t try this at home but I sometimes stand up in the canoe just briefly to relieve the pressure on my back. Paddleboards are my favorite because you can sit, stand, and lay down.
- When paddleboarding, do not stand on the board in shallow water. It looks harder than it is and you can fall off easily. I have fallen off the board and hit the ground/rocks abruptly not realizing how shallow it was. Not good for my back.
- Sleep on your side with your knees bent. You can also put a pillow between your knees. Or try to sleep in a position that helps you maintain the curve in your back (such as on your back with a lumbar roll). Do not sleep on your side with your knees drawn up to your chest.
- Buy sports backpacks or bags with wheels. Although not widely available, put in the time and research to find the gear that is ergonomically designed and back-friendly.
- Try to replicate your home sleeping environment and positions as much as possible even though you are in the middle of nowhere. Seems impossible? Try the Helinox Cot Lite for a lightweight sturdy off-the-ground sleeping option. At 2 lbs 9oz, sturdy enough to hold 265 lbs, fairly comfortable, and small pack size, it could be a back saver. Bring an inflatable air cushion to put between your legs if you are a side sleeper.
- Bring a lightweight portable stool, chair, or mat to stop and rest your back. Logs, rocks, and the ground are a last resort, even for people with no back pain.
- Hiking poles can help distribute weight and assist with balance.
- See above ‘FORM AND TECHNIQUE,’ STANDING POSTURE,’ and ‘USE YOUR ABS’ sections.
- For those of you still able to ski, when riding the ski lift, if the resort does not have chairlifts with a footrest, your back will be sore the same day or the next day. The hanging weight of your boots and skis is too much for your low back to handle. Be aware.
- Know how to carry skis over your shoulder by facing the bottom of the skis together and linking the stoppers on the bindings together so they are harder to come apart.
- Have a plan for transporting as above or try a product like the Function Ultralight Ski Carry Strap, one of the handy new ski totes on the market. Or, the Sukoa Ski and Pole Carrier Strap/Sling is a similar product. This item will help you lug your skis around the resort and back to the parking lot with ease. I like that it’s “hands-free” and evenly distributes the weight of the skis across your back.
- Buy or rent the shortest and lightest skis that you can comfortably ski in.
- For a back break, kick your skis off and lay in the snow. Or if you’d prefer indoor stretching, make sure you are skiing close to the hotels at the time you will be needing a break as opposed to at the summit four mountains over from the nearest indoor place to stretch.
- Know how to fall correctly. Bend your arms and knees, and tuck your head in. This action will help to prevent back and neck strain, and also stops you from falling onto your wrists/hands when falling forward.
What other ideas have worked for you? We would love to compile a more exhaustive list and share them with our Facebook community called Backpain Outdoors: https://www.facebook.com/groups/933119477045027/
Here is where you can catch us:
Please consult your doctor before making any changes or to your current back care regimen. The tips suggested are from the author’s own experience only and Backpain Wise is not responsible for any actions taken based on the advice contained within.
The Geeky Cyclist
Adventure Sports Network
Atlantic Brain and Spine
Outdoor Gear Lab
University of Otago New Zealand
Digital Photography School
Field & Stream