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Backpack Dos & Don'ts for School, Work, & Hiking

No matter what our age or where we are going, everyone seems to have a lot of stuff to haul around. Whether you have a little one going off to school, are making your way to school or work, or are heading out on a single day or multi-day trek, a backpack is often the carrying mode of choice. The body’s strong back, abdominals, and legs take the load of transporting items when you use a good backpack rather than leaving that load up to the weaker arms and shoulders, such as when carrying a hand or shoulder bag.
 
Backpacks are one of the best ways to carry books, binders, lunch, running shoes and other items, whether for school or recreation. And today, there are many stylish options. However, carrying an overloaded backpack or wearing one improperly can lead to poor posture, stress on the soft tissue in your neck and back, and unnecessary strain on muscles and joints.
 
Over time, the physical strain of carrying heavy loads can result in:
 
• Fatigue and strain in the muscles and soft tissues of the neck, back and shoulders from overuse.  
• Spinal compression and/or improper alignment, leaving the back vulnerable to injury.
• Stress or compression of the shoulders and arms causing tingling, numbness and/or weakness in the
arms or hands.

We recommend a few general considerations for selecting your backpack in order to protect yourself and minimize injury while hiking, walking, or simply commuting to school or work. Other related equipment, such as proper shoes as well as walking/hiking poles should also be considered if you are using your backpack with a heavy load, very frequently, or for long distances.
 
Backpack

The best way to find a backpack that is best for you is to get to a store to check some out! The  best type to choose really depends exactly on what you will be using it for. A knowledgeable store expert is essential to have close-by.
 
By actually looking first-hand at a number of packs you can ensure that they have enough storage room and compartments for what you require, and you can also try them on for general comfort. Remember, however, that an empty backpack in the shop will feel a lot different on your back than one filled with heavy textbooks, a computer, hiking water bottles, or any other important goods you may be carrying. For this reason, it is wise to ask the store attendant for a few heavier items to be placed in the pack to simulate added weight for when trying the pack on.
 
The number of compartments  is also important. Not only do you need to ensure that there are enough speaces to fulfil your needs, but by ensuring your pack has several separate compartments the weight of the backpack can be more evenly distributed, which can help to prevent muscle strain.
 
For hiking any distance an internal backpack frame is essential, as it will bear some of the load of the pack. For some individuals an internal frame may also be useful even if you are just using the pack for daily work or school purposes. The internal frame should be well padded so the frame itself does not put pressure on any part of your back. Padding on the portion of the pack that rests on your back is also useful in order to avoid items within the pack from poking into you when being worn. In addition, well-padded and relatively thick shoulder straps can help distribute the weight of the pack.
 
Both chest and waist straps are essential components for hiking backpacks, and are also highly recommended on other packs for other uses.  A chest strap, in particular, is extremely beneficial to distribute the weight of the pack and keep the load close to the back.  Compression straps on the outside of the pack, which are used to tighten up the contents inside, are also essential on hiking packs and also very useful on any other type of pack. Not only can some items be strapped to the outside of the pack with the compression straps in order to help distribute weight (ie: sleeping bags, shoes, water bottles, etc) but tightening these straps once the pack is full helps to keep the contents close to your back, and therefore puts less leverage force on your back and body as a whole.
 
The weight of the empty pack will vary depending on what you need it for, but in all cases, you should be looking for a lightweight material so that the pack itself does not add significant weight to your load. Reflective tape or bands are useful as a pre-made element of the pack (for visibility purposes), but can be added later if they are not already part of the original manufacturing.
 
The width of the pack should be no wider than your body in order for you to be able to manage the load. This is particularly true in school-aged children whose torso width may be narrow; it is crucial to ensure the pack they carry is also narrow! The height of the backpack is also important. The length of your torso rather than your overall body height is the important component to consider here. Your torso length is measured from the base of your neck to an imaginary line across the top of your hip bones. Once you have measured your torso length, check the backpack manufacturer’s guide to determine which size pack is recommended for your torso.  Keep in mind that it is still best to try the pack on for comfort especially if your individual torso size is on the cusp of one of the recommended manufacturer’s sizes; in this case try on both sizes of packs to ensure you choose the best feel and fit for your body type.
 
Unfortunately, choosing the best backpack for your needs is only half the battle when it comes to backpacks and preventing injuries. The second half is packing the pack properly along with wearing it correctly. In order to prevent injury, backpacks should be no more than 10-15% of one’s body weight. This means that for a child who may only weigh 65 lbs, their backpack should only weigh at absolute maximum 10 lbs. That is only about the weight of two jugs of milk. Unfortunately many small children carry packs much heavier than this, which often leads to an acute or chronic injury, or can lead to poor prolonged posturing as they struggle to carry the overloaded pack.
 
In order to lighten the load in any pack, carry only essential items necessary for the day or the trip. Remember that water or other liquids are heavy so carry only what is necessary. In the case of school-aged children, it is wise for the parent to regularly sort the contents of the pack to ensure that only necessary items are being hauled to and from school. If possible, it is wise to purchase a second set of textbooks or supplies to leave at home in order to minimize the need to drag items to and fro. If heavy items do need to be carried regularly it may also be wise to purchase a day pack which has wheels to pull the pack as an added feature.
 
Packing the items into your pack properly can also make an enormous difference in regards to distributing the weight of the pack, taking the load off of the body, and preventing injury. As mentioned previously, the separated compartments should be used in order to evenly distribute the weight of the items. Pack the heavier items so that they will be sitting low in the pack and distribute them along the portion of the pack that will sit next to the spine.
 
When wearing the pack, do not use only one shoulder strap as this places all the weight of the back onto one side of the body and causes the body to rotate in order to accommodate the heavy load. It is best to use both shoulder straps and set them firmly over the flattest part of your shoulder. Also, ensure there are no twists in your shoulder straps when wearing them in order to allow the straps to properly distribute the weight. Always use the chest strap and waist/hip straps when available and tighten well enough such that the weight of the pack is pulled in close to your body.  The chest strap should sit on the flat part of your upper chest below the collar bone. The waist strap should sit above the hip bones but should not rub on them. If the pack has padded hip straps, they should rest on the top of the hips, not slide below them or sit up in the low back. If you loosen the shoulder straps, you should feel the weight of the pack rest on the hips via the hip straps.  If you don’t have hip straps, the weight of the pack should feel like it sits near the lower to mid back rather than the upper back.  
 
When putting on your loaded backpack, ensure that the pack is in front of you and that you bend your knees and waist to get down to the pack rather than bending forward from your waist. Once in this position, use your legs and buttocks to lift the pack up as you stand up. Keep the pack close to your body as you slide it around to your rear and up onto your shoulders. Try to avoid twisting when putting on the pack. Whenever possible it is useful to have someone else help you put your loaded backpack onto your back. In the case of hikers, a fellow hiker can hold your pack on a picnic table while you put it on. For school-aged children, a parent is wise to lift and hold the filled backpack up for their child and allow their child to back into the shoulder straps rather than the child lifting the pack themselves and swinging it around onto their back.
 
Remeber to use good posture with the added weight on your back in the form of a backpack. Stand and walk with good upright posture and adjust your pack so that you can do so. In addition, whenever possible take frequent breaks where you either take the pack off completely or rest with the pack on by supporting the weight of the pack from behind on something such as a table or the edge of a counter.
 
Lastly, as many backpack related injuries are not due to wearing a backpack but rather to tripping over one or being hit by one, be sure that once you take your pack off, that you place it down well out of the way of others. In addition, be conscious of the pack on your back when in crowded areas and leave ample room to move about.

Contact us today to learn how you can feel your best.

First picture source: Simona Sergi, Unsplash

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