Many in the backpacking world run into the widespread issue of back and shoulder strain.
After carrying all your gear many miles, an acute pain rears its ugly head. It can feel like your backpack straps are carving into your flesh, or that your back and shoulders have been towing a truck.
If you have ever wondered how to fix the problem of an uncomfortable backpack, let us help you out. In this article, we are going to help you say goodbye to that pain.
We’ll cover the fundamentals of how to adjust your straps, spread the weight, and modify your backpack for pain-free hiking (at least from your backpack straps).
To follow along, make sure you have at least 20 pounds (9kg) of objects in your pack otherwise, you won't set it up correctly for when you use it in the wild.
Make Sure the Weight is Layered Evenly
Many times the problem causing pain or discomfort is not the backpack itself but how you’ve packed it.
The heaviest objects in your pack should be centered near the spine. If too much weight is against one side of the bag, i.e. your load is not balanced, then the muscles on one side of your body will need to work harder than those on the other. This causes back and shoulder pain, as well as having a negative impact on your walking efficiency.
To avoid this, keep the heaviest objects centered in the bag as much as possible, ideally up against your spine. Layer medium weight objects either side of the heaviest ones. Lighter objects should be reserved for the outer pockets, but still try to balance the weight on each side of your pack.
Loading up in this way leverages your body’s natural strength and keeps gravity from working against you. The useful video below demonstrates these concepts.
Checking the Bag is the Right Size
Another common problem causing backpack straps to be uncomfortable is that the bag is longer than your torso. This can lead to lower back pain, so your pack should ideally be about the same as your torso length, which is the distance between your 'C7 vertebrae' and 'iliac crest'.
Your C7 vertebrae is the central meeting point of your shoulder and back muscles and is easy to locate at the back of your neck. To find your C7 vertebrae, stand up straight and run your hand down the back of your neck, the first bump you feel is your C7!
It isn’t much higher than your shoulder blades, which makes it a good marker for how high your bag go; don't let your backpack rise too much higher than this point.
Finding your iliac crest is straightforward too because it is basically the top point of your hips. In the video below you can see this demonstrated at the 1:00 mark. Essentially, you just place your hands over the top of your hips and where your index fingers meet behind you is where the bottom of your backpack should be resting.
Now you know how to back your hiking pack and how big it should be to maximise your comfort, let's look at how to fit it correctly.
Wearing Your Backpack Correctly
As we said at the beginning of this page, it's important that you load up your backpack before making these adjustments. This is so you set it up as it would be when you are using it for real on the trail.
Part One - Putting the Backpack On Your Shoulders
Pull the shoulder straps on as snugly as possible. Do this by doing a small hop and pulling the shoulder adjustment straps down as shown in the above video. All the weight will be felt on your shoulders, but don't worry, this is only temporary.
This step sets you up for the most important part: adjusting the hip straps.
Part Two - Tighten the Hip Straps to Transfer the Weight
The hip strap of your bag is the most crucial strap for comfortable backpacking.
With all the pack's weight on your shoulders, fasten the hip strap and tighten it as much as possible. If you are not used to doing this, think of it like a belt for your trousers, you really will benefit from getting it nice and snug around your waist.
When that's done properly, the weight is entirely carried by your hips so you can now loosen your shoulder straps.
When it's correctly fitted, your hips do all of the carrying. The job of your shoulder straps is to stop your pack from falling off your back! When you've completed this step you correctly, you'll be able to easily insert your fingers between your shoulder and shoulder strap.
Your shoulders will feel very little (if any) strain now. The pressure points are concentrated at your hips - one of the strongest points on your body, which eliminates most of the back and shoulder pain caused by incorrect fitting.
Part Three - Adjust Your Shoulder and Side Load Straps
Although the shoulder straps won't carry any weight, they do need tightening to eliminate any looseness between the bag and your upper back.
After that, find the side load straps near the bag and by your buttocks region. Pull these straps tight too so that there is no excess space between the bag and your lower back.
Part Four - Sternum Straps
Once the shoulder straps are squared away, it is time to make sure the sternum strap is attached as well, this is the one that fastens across your chest. Clip it together and tighten it to make the bag as balanced as possible and to secure it from wobbling around as you walk.
Finally, now that all the straps are correctly fastened and adjusted, you may loosen your hip strap a little if it feels too tight.
Staying Comfortable Out on the Trail
It's one thing to have your backpack properly set up in the comfort of your home or garden, but add a few miles and a few hours with it on your back and weariness sets in. This causes weakened muscles, especially if you are unfit or inexperienced with distance hiking.
Don't Lean Too Far Forward When Hiking a Flat Trail
Our natural inclination when carrying a big weight - especially as we tire - is to lean forward, as if trying to carry the weight directly on our backs. Don't do this! A gentle lean forward is good for posture, but not so much that the wrong muscles take the strain of your pack.
Only lean further forward if you are climbing a hill. This will help with taking the most advantage of your gravity and keeping the strain off of your back and neck.
Take Regular Breaks
Take regular breaks as a matter of course - every hour or so should be fine. However, if at any time you feel the straps have become too loose or too tight, or your pack's weight has shifted, don't just keep walking. Take a few minutes to stop where you are and readjust straight away - your body will thank you in the long run!
No matter how fit and experienced you are, you should take the bag off completely every couple of hours to allow your muscles to recover.
Warm up and Cool Down
As with any repetitive exercise, warming up and cooling down properly will help to minimize soreness the next day. There are plenty of resources out there to guide you, like this one.
The simplest thing you can do is reach your hands to the sky and slowly rotate them in a circular motion with your pack off. This will restore your blood flow and reduce muscle tension.
The love of hiking doesn’t have to involve discomfort, especially if you follow the simple steps we set out above.
Make sure your pack is balanced for weight, with heavy kit in the middle. Ensure your shoulder, sternum, and hip straps are properly adjusted so that the bulk of the weight is carried by your hips.
Rest and take regular stretching breaks on the trail and always re-adjust as soon as you feel discomfort or pain (don't ignore it or let it get worse).
Follow these simple steps and you’ll be surprised at how much more comfortable your backpack straps will feel.