Complete Guide to Lower Back Pain Outdoors in 2020

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  1. 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. 
  2. 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. 
  3. If you want to keep your back pain free outdoors, you (not somebody else) have to be in absolute control of the Duration, Intensity, Frequency, and Type of activity.
  4.  Half the battle of living with chronic back pain is adapting, learning and being smart. We can’t just show up to activities or events without a plan and hope for the best. 

 

Three sections:

A.) Before You Go

B.) On The Trail 

C.) When You Get Home

Once, I got out of a kayak to stretch without touching land. Needing a preventative stretch break, 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 with my back feeling limber and  ready for another hour of fun. Whatever it takes right? 

Much like you, I don’t want to let back pain get in the way of all the joy, peace and awesome memories that my outdoor activities provide for me and my family. 

It is well documented that physical activity can be good for chronic lower back pain with the approval of your physician, and if care is taken to protect your back from further injury. 

Conversely, sitting around doing nothing is one of the worst things you can do according to leading physicians. Being consistently sedentary can actually make acute back pain worse.

I’ve lived with chronic low back pain for over twenty years due to weight lifting injuries and playing professional ice hockey. Our family  lives in the mountains of Colorado and we are very active outdoors in every season. 

 

I would like to share what has worked and not worked for me over the years. In addition, I have curated some relevant supportive information from sources listed below that I hope will help you enjoy outdoor activities more comfortably and confidently.

(A) BEFORE YOU GO

STUFF TO BRING: 

The type of gear and equipment that you bring can make or break your back when recreating outdoors. You know as well as I do that if you have back pain you cannot get by on cheap or overused, worn-out gear. 

Unfortunately we have to pay for the good stuff or find it creatively, but it’s non negotiable unless you would rather risk back pain flare ups and injury. 

In general, you want to have gear that is comfortable, lightweight, packable/easy to carry, well made, sport specific and back friendly.

I’m a  plein air mountain landscape oil painter and for years I sat on a cheap uncomfortable stool while I painted either because I was too cheap or too lazy to find out what else was out there. Stupid. 

A typical outdoor painting can take anywhere from one hour to four hours depending on the size. Sitting or standing for that long is miserable on the backside. I’ve learned that good footwear and ergonomic, comfortable equipment bring me home with a happier lower back and a willingness to go out again next time.  

Here is a suggestive list to get you started. Add or subtract to it depending on if it’s a day trip with only a backpack, or an extended trip with vehicles and campers etc. Make your own list and then print it out and put it with your gear!

CHRONIC BACK PAIN OUTDOOR SURVIVAL LIST EXAMPLES:

  • Topical pain relief such as Icy Hot patch or Biofreeze roll-on, relief gel. 
  • Back support brace of your choice. 
  • Theracane or back self-massaging tool. 
  • TriggerPoint foam roller. (13” x 5.5”)  Made by TriggerPoint.
  • An Accupressure mat. (0.41 lbs, 26×16” laid out flat) (Spoonk acupressure mat is top rated)
  • Lightweight backpack- Consider how backpacks are rated and shop yours accordingly: weight to volume ratio measured in g/L, comfort to carry, thoughtful feature set, total weight empty, adaptability and durability. (Check out the Osprey Exos 58)

Osprey backpacks are made in Colorado (a couple hours from us). They  continually win industry awards every year. It is very important that the backpack you choose is adjusted correctly to your body size. I bought a new pack this year and went in to an outdoor gear store and had them adjust it for me. I was surprised at how much they adjusted it and how much better the backpack felt on my back afterwards.

  • Trekking poles- can help distribute some of the weight and load to your arms and away from your hip and back joints thus reducing back pain. 
  • Advil, Tylenol or other medicine in case you hurt yourself or start feeling severe back pain. 
  • Heat or ice pack products, TENS unit. 
  • Cell phone- especially if you adventure alone. (I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”) Two way radios. 
  • Water bottles. 
  • Portable stool or chair- to sit and rest. (Helinox Beach Chair was Outdoor Gear Lab’s 2019 Top Pick) 
  • Portable pad, blanket or mat- to lay down and stretch or sit and rest. 
  • Comfortable lightweight sleeping pads (Nemo Switchback or the  Thermarest NeoAir Xtherm was Outdoor Gear Lab’s 2019 Editors Choice).
  • Field Repair kits- Examples include kits to fix your gear such as patch repair kits for inflatable sleeping pads or water equipment, Pro Bike Tool Mini Bike Pump is rated the best mini bike pump by The Geeky Cyclist,  extra parts or tools to fix your equipment and keep you comfortably in the game, knife for multi purpose and repair. 
  • Signaling whistle -if you get lost or need help. 
  • Proper footwear- appropriate for the activity and terrain but also  provide stability, non-slip with excellent tread/grip and comfort.
  •  Multi-tool-most sports have a “multi tool” for quick fixes on the go. For example, an essential cycling tools  usually includes Basic hex keys, Torx keys, a chain tool, screwdrivers and spoke wrench.
  • Appropriate Clothing- You need to be able to stretch so don’t wear restrictive clothing. Moisture wicking clothing and layers of clothing will keep your back muscles warm and dry in cold damp weather. Also, remember cotton kills in cold weather.
  • First Aid Kit- Matches/firestarter, emergency blanket/shelter etc. 
  • ID and cash.
  • Lip balm-(just cause it sucks to have dry lips).
  • Appropriate shoes- heavy hiking boots are generally a ‘no no’- choose supportive and comfortable. (Future blog post on great shoes for different activities)

 

Listen to what Adventure Sports Network says about water footwear and gear selection:

“Kayakers, whether touring or whitewater, need to consider seated comfort, how well their shoes brace against bulkheads and foot pegs, and how their heels will rest. Canoeists need to consider kneeling comfort and make sure that the shoe they choose has plenty of flex.” 

You get the point. Gear and preparation can make a huge difference to your quality of enjoyment and back pain maintenance in the great outdoors. 

BRING THE RIGHT FRIENDS 

Try not to get pushed outside of your comfort zone by other people’s plans. Go outdoors with people who fully understand your back pain limitations and unique needs. They need to be understanding of the fact that you will need breaks and that your intensity and duration will not be record setting or meant to keep them in top shape for their sport. 

They have their agenda, you keep yours: to have fun, go at your own pace and come home without a back spasm or sciatica so you can go to work on Monday and do it all again next week. 

Some activities require everybody in the group to keep up and stay together for safety or other reasons such as whitewater rafting, cross country/downhill skiing or a timed event. However, if you want to keep your back pain free outdoors, you have to be in absolute control of the Duration, Intensity, Frequency, and Type of activity. Not somebody else. 

These group paced activities can sometimes be a little more risky for your back. Be careful. Just be aware and think it through before you go.

Some activities are more self paced and have built in flexibility concerning intensity and duration such as wildlife photography, fishing, hunting and plein air painting.

Consider the value of taking a lesson if you have never tried the activity before. It might cost more up front, but you will get a very good idea as to  if it will work for your back or not.. Plus, knowing how to be a little more skillful should help you enjoy the activity more and possibly see the physical therapist or chiropractor less. 

 LAY DOWN 

 

If possible, get somebody else to drive as you head out to your activity location while you lay down in the car or recline in the front passenger seat. Taking the weight off of your spine and abdominal muscles will ensure that you are a little less stiff when you arrive at the location, allow you to warm up quicker,  and “save your back” for your upcoming activity.  

SLEEP

Make sure the night before you head out that you get plenty of good sleep not only to help with the upcoming physical exertion and wear and tear on back but for mental clarity and good decision making. 

Many times our back pain recurrences are due to less than stellar choices that we normally would not make. We just were not thinking clearly. 

KNOW THE TERRAIN

Before you head out on a new trail or adventurous activity,  know exactly what you are getting into regarding the difficulty level, duration of activity, equipment requirements,  safety tips or rules, terrain, location, and any other intel that will help keep your back safe.

 It takes 10 minutes to hop on a facebook group like Back Pain Outdoors and gather up some quick info from the chats or start one of your own.  Of course Google some information that will educate you as to how to best enjoy the activity. Most outdoor destinations or nearby towns have informative websites, trial maps, reviews and other helpful information in an effort to attract more tourists. 

 Other ideas are to call the local tourism office or gear/equipment outfitter companies in the town that you are headed to. As locals and experts, they usually have the best tips and advice for activities in every season.

Are you guilty of this? Going outdoors with a group of people who want to take a certain hiking or biking trail for example because that’s what the group agreed on. They didn’t really take your back pain into consideration and or you didn’t speak up much or ask any questions.  

This type of scenario may result in you coming home with a back spasm.

Case in Point: 

Wrong way to pre game plan by Outdoor Comfy Gear owner and 21 year chronic back pain veteran right here. 

This past summer in August I think it was, Chanda asked me if I wanted to go on a “float trip” down a well known local river 60 miles away with some other families. She said that she found a facebook post on it saying it was a blast and only about a 2-3 hour adventure. You park and put in here, then float down about 20 miles and somebody picks you up at the take out point. One of those deals. Ba ha ha ha ha hah, haahhh!  Bah! Ha.

This is what I was told we were doing:

To my credit,  I did ask her if she was sure if was 2-3 hours, because my decision to go or not and my degree of future back pain depended on it. “Oh yeah” she said, “I’m sure.” Well, not wanting to be a lame adventurer and anti social snob, I agreed to go. Plus it sounded fun, paddle boards, kayaks, float toys, summer, sun, relaxation, blue skies, bubbling rapids. What’s not to like?

Come to find out this facebook adventurer that my wife put her trust in did this trip in the spring when the mountain run off was powerful resulting in a high and fast river.  A small detail that was not discussed, not even sure if it was in the post or not but he or she had a  fun and adventurous 2-3 hour “float trip”.

This is what we actually did:

 I’m sure he or she barely had to put a paddle in the water and cruised along the river amidst high rapids and overflowing excitement with all that runoff. 

You can see where I’m going with this. We went in the summer when there was zero run off, 2-4 foot water depth and absolutely no high rapids or overflowing excitement. It was not a float trip, it was a paddle your aspen off for 9 hours trip. The water was so low at points we ran aground. I had to tie and tow a family of 5 with young kids to my boat so they could keep up with us. At one point, I had to lie down on our paddle board while my 11-year old daughter paddled me.

It was still fun, and an adventure.  Just definitely not as advertised and not for 9 hours. My back was stiff but thankfully no major damage was done except to my ego. 

HYDRATE : JUST DRINK MORE THAN YOU DO. 

Most people recognize the importance of staying hydrated, but studies have shown that up to 75% of Americans spend their lives in a chronic state of dehydration because they don’t know how much water they need.

The American Council on Exercise suggests the following basic guidelines for drinking water before, during, and after exercise:

  • Drink 17 to 20 ounces of water 2 to 3 hours before you start exercising.
  • Drink 8 ounces of water 20 to 30 minutes before you start exercising or during your warm-up.
  • Drink 7 to 10 ounces of water every 10 to 20 minutes during exercise.
  • Drink 8 ounces of water no more than 30 minutes after you exercise

Atlantic Brain and Spine explains the effects of dehydration on spinal disc material:

“But, when you’re not drinking enough, there’s not enough water in your body to rehydrate the discs and they begin to shrink.

Remember when we said that jelly-like substance in the middle of your discs acts as a shock absorber?

 Well, when a disc is dehydrated it puts almost all your weight on the outer ring of the disc, which isn’t designed to carry such a heavy load, and it can actually begin to collapse under the pressure. When a disc collapses, even at a minor level, it can start putting pressure on the sensitive nerves within the spinal column which can cause pain throughout the body.”

 

Keep an Eye on Your Urine — That’s right, your urine is one of the most accurate ways to tell if your body is hydrated. Creating urine is how the body naturally gets rid of waste products that can float around in the bloodstream and extracts toxins that build up in the kidneys. According to Harvard University, when your urine is dark yellow or amber, it means that there is less water and more waste than usual and a pretty strong indication that you’re not drinking enough.

If you’re healthy and hydrated, your urine should be pale yellow color.”

(B) OUT ON THE TRAIL

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 its game time. 

FREQUENCY/INTENSITY/TYPE/ DURATION   

I mentioned it earlier and it’s probably the most important thing, but here is one last reminder: You have to be aware of and in absolute control of the Intensity, Duration, Type of Activity and the Frequency with which it is performed. Just you, nobody else. Speak up, let your needs be known. 

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 in tact and willing to head out next time and do it again.   

FORM AND TECHNIQUE

  1. 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. 
  2. Bring your own personal “modifications” to gear that you have bought from big box stores. The big equipment companies  manufacture products for the masses and the “average person” without back pain. Depending on how much weight and room you have, some examples of  helpful items are lumbar support cushions or a rolled up towel for your lower back, heat or ice packs, seat cushions, dolly’s, wheels, sleds, or anything else that will make life easier on your back.

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. 

 

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:

1.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.”

2. “Try an outdoor portable dolly if it is convenient for your shooting location.”

3. “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.”

4. 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. 

5. 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. 

HUNTING

 Field & Stream has some good advice on hunting with back pain :

1.“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.”

2. “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.”

 

3. “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, arm rests, and lumbar support.”

 

4. 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. 

MOUNTAIN BIKING 

  • Stand up as much as possible even 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 have come out on the market that spread the load out more and ease back pain.
  • “Bikepacking” is now a thing. You can pack a tent between your handle bars. 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.

WATER SPORTS

  • Pull over to the bank, side shore or an island after an hour or two 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 stood up in the canoe just briefly to relieve the pressure on my back. Paddle boards are my favorite because you can sit, stand and lay down. 
  • When paddle boarding, 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. 

 

STANDING POSTURE

  • 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/kickboat?? 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. 

CAMPING 

  • 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 or on your side with your knees slightly bent). 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, find 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 a small packsize, it could be a back saver. Bring an inflatable air cushion to put between your legs if you are a side sleeper. 

HIKING

  • 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. 

 

SKIING

  • 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. 

 

Have a plan for transporting the heavy and awkward skis and boots which together weigh about 13-18 lbs. The Function Ultralight Ski Carry Strap is an example of 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. Last,  Buy or rent the shortest and lightest skis that you can comfortably ski in.

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.

 For a back break, kick your skis off and lay in the snow, or make sure you are skiing close to the hotels at the time you will be needing a break as opposed to being lost or 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.

 

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

Transverse 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. 

 

Multifidus

  • 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.

Pelvic Floor & Diaphragm

  • 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.

 

Rectus Abdominus

  • 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.

 

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.

PREVENTATIVE STRETCHING 

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? 

SWITCH POSITIONS

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. 

 

(C) WHEN YOU ARE DONE

 STRETCH

Do you stretch when you get back home, hotel or to camp?  You should. Your lower back and supportive muscles will likely be tight after working for several hours to protect your back from injury. Even if your activity was just a light walk to the river to fish, sitting or standing for any length of time will put strain on your back. 

Furthermore, if you  exerted yourself and raised your heart rate up a little bit with moderate to high intensity, you will have produced some lactic acid in your muscles, a natural byproduct in your body when oxygen is used  to break down glucose for energy so you can climb that mountain. Lactic acid can make your muscles feel sore and stiff. Stretching can help bring new fresh oxygenated blood to your muscles, while flushing out the lactic acid so you feel good and fresh again. 

When you get back to camp or your house, be sure to do some light stretching for 5 minutes minimum to get your muscles out of “protection mode” and into relaxation mode. 

HEAT OR ICE THERAPY

Take some time in the first 24 hours after your outdoor activity to give your back muscles some TLC whether you feel like it or not. This will help decrease soreness/stiffness/pain and speed up recovery time so you can get after it again the next day, or the next week without missing a beat. 

Speak to a medical professional about ice or heat and which one might suit you better. Personally I use them both. Ice in the first 24-48 hrs and heat afterwards when inflammation has gone down. 

  • Hot tub, bath or shower
  • Cold/Ice tub or bath
  • Massage or self back massaging tool like Theracane handheld massager.
  • Tens unit
  • Ice pack or Heat pack. ( I put rice in an old sock that I tie off and heat it up in the microwave for 1:30 seconds. Let it sit for 2 minutes, then place it on your sore back or neck spots-RELIEF!) 

 

HYDRATE 

As mentioned earlier, drink plenty of water after your activity and rehydrate your disc material and muscles. Drinking fluids is crucial to staying healthy and maintaining the function of every system in your body, including your heart, brain, and muscles. 

Remember, your body is mostly made up of water and depends on water to survive. Every cell, tissue, and organ in your body needs water to work properly. For example, your body uses water to maintain its temperature, remove waste, and lubricate your joints.

ACUPRESSURE MATS

What is it?  A Yoga mat with tiny plastic spikes on it. Yes, spikes.

Why use it ?  A Natural form of pain relief.

 Documented studies and user feedback include benefits such as pain relief, sports injury relief, produces endorphins, better sleep, improved circulation and muscle relaxation.

Does it Work?

Maybe, probably. It’s worth a try. I’m going to order one.  In 2014 The American Society of Pain Management Nursing conducted a systematic review of research surrounding the effectiveness of acupressure mats in pain relief.  “Fifteen studies were extracted for reducing dysmenorrhea (menstrual distress), labor pain, low back pain, chronic headache, and other traumatic pain. 

Here is the study takeaway:

“Acupressure has been shown to be effective for relieving a variety of pains in different populations. The implication for health care providers would be incorporating acupressure into their practice as an alternative therapy to facilitate patients who suffer from pain.”

I’ll let you know in a later post or in the ‘Back Pain Outdoors’ Facebook Group how I like mine after I use it a bit.

 

REST, BUT THEN GET BACK OUTDOORS.

Hopefully your back pain symptoms are under control but even if they are not, or if you flare them up after activity, it is actually beneficial to stay active and not lay around too much . 

Of course, rest and treat appropriately if there is acute pain, but seek to get back up on your feet and active as soon as you can at a slow pace at first.  

This is what WebMD says:

“Rest, but not too much. In most cases, it’s best to not stay in bed for more than a day or two after an acute injury. If you stay in bed longer than this, your muscles start to lose strength and their ability to support your back. Stay as active as you can, while continuing to listen to your body’s signals.”

BACK PAIN JOURNAL 

Get a back pain journal if you do not already have one. Most of us with chronic back pain have a back pain journal or diary to help us keep all the ridiculous medical information straight. (No offense if you are a doctor, it just gets confusing after 7 doctor visits, 4 procedures, 12 medications and still a little uncertain how our back will get fixed.)  

We can fly people to Mars over the weekend, or using artificial intelligence that I will never understand, speak with a plastic device like Google or Echo, but a bad disc or spinal stenosis is just way too difficult to fix at the moment. Sorry! The negative energy is making my L5 S1 a little tight as we speak. I will stop. 

Anyway, make mental notes at the least and preferably written notes on what worked for your back pain outdoors and what did not. Especially if you tried out a new activity or sport.  The notes may be somewhat technical on how to ice climb more safely or could be as simple as “Mental note to self, don’t take Dead Man’s Loop next time we visit these trails.” Share this information with your medical professionals to help them better treat your chronic back pain. 

 I would sincerely advise adopting a journal as part of a purposeful strategy of getting the most enjoyment possible out of your outdoor activities with the least amount of discomfort and back injury. This starts by using the 6 inches between our ears!  Our backs may not be as strong as they were, but we can make up some ground by playing it smart. 

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

Perhaps you would agree that half the battle of living with chronic back pain is adapting, learning and being smart. We can’t just show up to activities or events without a plan and hope for the best. 

Case in point, on our extremely memorable 9 hour river rafting “float trip,” you better believe I will not make the same mistake next time. The memory is permanently etched into my erector spinae muscles and my amygdala- part of my brain responsible for fearful memories. I don’t need to write anything down on that one really. 

However, I will take note that paddling on both sides distributes the exertion more evenly on my oblique muscles over an extended period of time (9hours) making my back muscles less stiff afterward. Also, after trying various watercrafts, it was evident the seat in the kayak-type boat we were in was not made for people with bad backs. It was an ergonomic nightmare equivalent to sleeping in a hot dog bed, only with a paddle. Next time I would need to bring something to help support my back or not use that boat. 

Last, If I get my information from  some random facebook post on how long or difficult the trip will be, I will dig deeper and direct message the person and ask them what time of year they did that 2 hour float trip and how high/fast was the water?  He had a 2 hour float trip, we were training for the U.S Olympic rowing trials.

I hope you find an idea or two in here that you have not thought of, and please send me more of your great ideas and comments to share with this unique community. 

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:

terry@outdoorcg.com 

www.outdoorcomfygear.com 

Instagram

Facebook facebook.com/groups/933119477045027/

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Youtube

 

 

Disclaimer:

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 OCG is not responsible for any actions taken based on the advice contained within.

 

References: 

Ace Fitness 

https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/lifestyle/blog

Yoga International

https://yogainternational.com/article/view/no-more-back-pain-tone-the-right-abs

The Geeky Cyclist 

https://www.thegeekycyclist.com/best-things/bike-pumps/

Adventure Sports Network

https://www.adventuresportsnetwork.com/sport/paddle-sports/canoe-kayak/what_to_wear/

Cleveland Clinic

https://health.clevelandclinic.org/do-you-have-sports-related-back-pain-know-when-to-call-a-doctor/

Atlantic Brain and Spine 

https://www.brainspinesurgery.com/dehydration-causing-back-pain/

Physio Works

https://physioworks.com.au/FAQRetrieve.aspx?ID=31027

Outdoor Gear Lab

https://www.outdoorgearlab.com/topics/camping-and-hiking/best-sleeping-pad

WebMD

https://www.webmd.com/back-pain/get-through-the-day#2

University of Otago New Zealand

https://ourarchive.otago.ac.nz/handle/10523/6010

IJMS

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4487458/

Digital Photography School 

https://digital-photography-school.com/10-tips-photographers-avoid-back-problems/

Field & Stream 

https://www.fieldandstream.com/articles/fishing/fly-fishing/how-fish/2005/01/seven-ways-save-your-back-during-hunting-season/