Choosing a Backpack for Hiking


Hiking has become increasingly popular. Taking a hike can be as simple as walking a short distance through the park or a recreational area. However, the purpose of this article is to help prepare the distance hiker in choosing and fitting a backpack to minimize the potential of back injury. Improper fit or improper size of a backpack may produce injury to the neck, middle back or lower back. Whatever can be done to prevent injuries during the course of your hike will help assure an enjoyable time for you and your friends or family. An injury from an improperly fitting backpack may spoil the adventure for everyone on the hike.


Getting Prepared


Choosing the right backpack is easy, right? Not exactly. A number of factors have to be taken into consideration to make sure you have a proper fit. Your body size and type will determine the backpack that’s best for you. Hiking, like any other sport, needs preparation. The obvious training necessary prior to hiking includes general conditioning and stretching exercises for your back and extremity muscles.


Backpack Frame


One of the nemeses of hikers carrying backpacks is the weight of the empty backpack. Like most things, you get what you pay for with backpacks. Titanium offers light weight and stability. Fortunately, most backpacks today have internal frames versus the older external frames. For the health and safety of your back, it is suggested that you have an internal frame backpack. This backpack design is lighter than the external frame and is far more comfortable. Internal frame backpacks are able to be fit to different body types more comfortably and also help with balance and stability while hiking.


Measuring to Fit Your Backpack


Purchasing a backpack without knowing your torso length can result in increasing problems for you on the trail. Fitting a backpack is easier than it sounds. Some steps for measuring for a proper backpack fit are listed below.


  • The first step is to find the length of your torso. You will have to have help from someone else to complete this task. To choose a proper fit locate the spinous process of the 7th cervical vertebra by finding the bump that you feel at the base of the neck where the shoulders and upper back come together.



  • The second step is to find the tops of the Ilium or hip bones. The easiest way to do this is to place your palms on the top of the hip bones and draw an imaginary line between the two bones. Measure the distance between the C7 vertebrae spinous and this imaginary line. This number will give you your torso length.



  • The hip belt is the third step in measuring for your backpack. Take the measurement just above your hip bones.



At the conclusion of these measurements, you will have the necessary information to begin selecting your backpack. Catalogs and sporting goods stores will have a scale available to determine which backpack will be best for your torso length. Some backpacks are made specifically for women. There may be a narrower portion by the shoulders with these backpacks.


Additional Recommendations


  • Lumbar Support Pad – Finding a backpack with a lumbar support pad can also add to your comfort. This is a pad designed to fit into the small of your back. The pad helps maintain the lumbar lordosis or sway in the lower back. The pad should be centered right in the middle of the small of the back. The better you can keep good posture the less strain will be placed on your spine. The lower back is well-suited to carry more of the load of your pack.

  • Shoulder Straps – Obtaining a proper fit of the shoulder straps is necessary. The straps should be placed so they hold the backpack tight against your body. This provides for a slightly forward position of the upper pack. Straps are not designed to carry the load but to stabilize the upper portion of the backpack. The anchor points of the straps should not be more than 2 inches below the top of the shoulders. Correct shoulder placement of the straps will minimize any injury or strain to the neck. An improperly fitting backpack may cause hikers to jut or stick their neck out forward to maintain balance. Over a short period of time the strain on the neck muscles can create neck and upper back pain. Make sure when looking upwards your head doesn’t hit the top of the frame or top of the backpack as this may also produce injury to the neck.

  • Chest Straps – The chest straps, which are sometimes called sternum straps, will help stabilize the shoulder straps and allow the arms to move freely about. Allowing your arms to move freely is helpful if you are using a walking stick.

  • Load Leveling Straps – Load leveling straps are helpful with backpack comfort.


Click image for proper fitting of your backpack.


The opportunity to try a backpack on in a retail store can be very beneficial. Some suggestions to determine that you have found the right pack are:


  • Weight Test – Add weight that you would normally carry on a hike. Place it in the pack so it is equally distributed. Weight should not feel uneven in the backpack.

  • Activity Test – Move about the store for a period of time. Bend over and touch your toes and move back-and-forth from side to side. Even jump up and down a few times during the course of wearing the backpack. If you have the opportunity, walk up and down some stairs a few times. While performing these activities the backpack should stick to you and not move or shift about. If it does, either try adjusting it or look for another fit.

  • Refit – Remove the backpack and then refit it and go through the same activities. If you encounter a problem after the refitting, this backpack may not be for you. Continue looking for a better fitting backpack.


Hiking Tips


If you are not already in good physical condition, work on a conditioning program prior to your extended hike. Some suggestions to prevent injury to yourself before you begin your hiking experience include:


  • Stretching Exercises – Stretching exercises for the neck and shoulders and the lower back should be done prior to fitting your backpack. These basic stretches also should be done prior to hitting the trail each day.

  • Lifting the Backpack – With your knees bent swing the pack carefully around your body placing the opposite arm in the strap. A sudden jerking motion could injure your lower back muscles. Take your time. Better yet, have your hiking partner help lift the pack.

  • Adjusting the Backpack – Fasten the hip belt straps followed by adjusting the straps for your shoulders and sternum. Continue adjusting the pack so it is centered along the spine with the weight being carried in the small of the back. Having your hiking partner assist you will help assure a better fit. Any improper fit can lead to a back injury.


The proper fit of your backpack as well as good conditioning will lessen your chance of injury and make the experience more enjoyable.


For the care and treatment of any hiking injuries the doctors at Coon Rapids Chiropractic Office have experience in the care and treatment of back and extremity injuries. Call today for an appointment (763) 755-4300


The International Academy of Neuromusculoskeletal Medicine