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Beat Pack Strain

Hauling a heavy load can do a number on the neck, back, and hips. Stay pain-free with these tips.
june 2010 pack strain 445x260(Illustration by Supercorn)

Problem Neck pain
Leaning forward against a pack’s shoulder straps pulls your head into an abnormal forward posture (aka turtle necking), which can cause neck strain, headaches, and impaired balance.
>> Solution Keep your head back and lead with your chest to take pressure off the neck. Also, adjust the pack’s load-lifter straps (A) to 45 degrees. “At lower angles, the top of the pack pulls backward,” says Jason Klimpke, a pack-fitting expert at REI’s Denver, Colorado, store.

Problem
Tingling fingers
A 2007 University of California, San Diego, study found that packs weighing as little as 26 pounds can significantly reduce blood flow to your arms, which can be painful, impair fine motor skills, increase fatigue, and chill hands in the winter.
>> Solution Adjust the pack’s fit to place more weight on your hips. Also, raise your sternum strap (B) just above armpit height, and tighten it to pull the shoulder straps inward, relieving pressure on the shoulder’s axillary vein, says Klimpke. As you hike, pull the straps away from your shoulders with your thumbs for as long as necessary.

Problem
Lower back and hip pain
Loads weighing just 10 percent of your body weight can compress lumbar spinal discs, according to a 2008 study in which MRI scans were taken of people wearing a pack. That two-week hike you’ve planned may only cause some muscle soreness and nerve irritation, but decades of toting an ill-fitting pack can lead to disc compression, degenerative disease, and chronic pain.
>> Solution Make sure your hipbelt (C) sits right on your iliac crest (the top of your hip bone). The pack’s stays (the vertical bars of the internal frame) should curve with your spine without pressing into your sacrum, and the lumbar pad should rest gently against your lower back. A professional stay-bending, which many stores will do for free, can adjust for this. Pre- and posthike stretching also helps: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and fold forward, keeping your torso straight. Rest your palms on the ground beside your feet. Bend your knees if you feel any discomfort or hamstring strain.

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