Hiking With Back Pain—Dealing With Back Pain When Hiking

10 min read

Hiking with back pain is one of those things a lot of hikers have to face at some point. Regardless of your age or physical condition, nobody is immune to dealing with back pain from hiking.

Whether it's that crippling ache in your lower back or that annoying tension in between your shoulder blades, it can turn a fun hiking trip into a regretful outing.

The seemingly-easy activity is deceptively demanding of your body. Spending long amounts of time walking uphill puts you in the underdog spot in a battle with gravity.

Even worse, using a heavy backpack or not paying attention to your backpack weight can put extra strain on your back. This is especially true when you're navigating uphill.

There are usually two types of back pain from hiking:

  1. Upper-Back Pain: Your upper-back spans from the base of your neck to the bottom of your ribcage. This pain is most commonly caused by heavy backpacks and poor posture. Upper-back pain from hiking rears its head when your shoulders are too high, tense, or too far back. Upper back pain during a hike is easier to deal with and pretty simple to fix as it usually comes down to adjusting your posture and backpack weight.
  2. Lower-Back Pain: Lower-back pain is far more difficult to handle because the pain is right at the epicenter of your core. Your lower back takes a lot of impact during a hike. Lower back pain while hiking isn't just a side-effect of impact, though; there are several ways you can develop lower back pain during a hike. Pain in your lower back is tougher to remedy and can be even more difficult to live with.

Luckily for you, tons of hikers, myself included, have dealt with this already and have discovered the remedies for hiking back pain.

NOTE: This article should NOT be viewed as medical advice — it's meant to be used as a guide to help fellow hikers. Always speak to a doctor if you are suffering from or worried about suffering from physical injuries.

Does Hiking Cause Back Pain?

does hiking cause back pain?

When you observe the physical movements of hiking, it appears to be a relatively simple activity.

It's essentially a more difficult form of walking, after all.

But, as with anything simple, many of us manage to still screw it up, somehow.

Now, before you jump the gun and finger our favorite outdoor sport as the cause of your pain, consider some factors, first:

What are the causes of back pain when hiking?

  • The Terrain: Just because you're moving slowly doesn't negate the possibility of suffering from back pain. Hiking generally involves varying degrees of inclined terrain. Marching uphill requires far more stability than a regular flat-surfaced walk does.  Increased stability demands increased engagement of your lower body and even your core. This added pressure on your lower body causes your muscles to tense up. Think of it like this: you're heading uphill, gravity is pulling you back/down, and your lower back is squished right in between, trying to keep you upright.
  • Your Backpack Weight: A very common cause of lower back pain when hiking uphill is a heavy backpack. Your pack can weigh up to an additional 20 lbs. Because backpacks are secured more on your upper body, it's additional gravity you have to deal with. Heavy backpacks cause upper body leaning, thus extra stress on your lower back.
  • Poor Posture: Probably the most common cause of hiking back pain. Your spine isn't meant to deal with certain stressors, like bending backward. Exhibiting poor posture goes hand-in-hand with a backpack that's too heavy and steep terrain.
  • Other Factors: Pinched nerves, pre-existing back issues, being out of shape—they can all be culprits of hiking back pain. Always make sure you're in the proper shape and health to hike steep terrain.

How To Deal With Back Pain When Hiking

That nasty ache won't keep you from getting in a good hike today.

You've just gotta go. I get it.

There have been several occasions when I was in pain and probably shouldn't have been ripping through trails.

It was miserable. Even at a young age, dealing with that abhorrent stabbing and tensing in my back was an absolute nightmare.

Some good came from that experience, though. I learned how to properly deal with my back pain while hiking. And, properly dealing with it, taught me how to prevent it in the future.

If you're suffering from pre-existing back pain, be sure to take the proper measures to improve your journey all while not contributing to additional pain.

How to alleviate back pain while hiking:

  • Practice Good Posture: It's important to use proper posture to prevent hiking back pain, especially if you're suffering from lower back pain when hiking uphill. If you're heading uphill, be sure to do your best to keep your spine in a neutral position. You should adjust the angle and position of your upper body to a point where it doesn't feel like stress is being isolated to one spot of your body.
  • Slow Down: Speed kills. Okay, that's a bit dramatic, but it can certainly wreak havoc on your lower back. Blazing through a challenging hill is a great way to toughen up, but it's also a great way to hurt your back. Going too fast uphill, whether it's to complete a hike faster or improve your uphill hiking speed, puts extra stress on your lower body and core. What's more, taking a speedy trek can also promote poor form if the foundation for proper form hasn't been built. Instead, slow down and gradually increase your speed whilst exhibiting good form.
  • Wear A Gym Belt: Gym belts, unlike regular back braces, are specifically designed to deal with weight-bearing stress. Naturally, hiking puts a lot of stress on your body, thus I highly recommend this gym belt. It will provide all the support you need and ensure you're getting stronger and hitting the trails without snapping yourself in two. Remember: suffering a back injury is brutal and incredibly difficult to deal with—always treat your back right.
  • Use Hiking Poles: Hiking poles help absorb impact on your lower back and spine. Think of them as an aide that helps you take just enough pressure off to prevent injury. Even better, you can snag a pair of great poles without draining your bank account. I've used these hiking poles the help me build up strength for intense hikes and the difference they made on my back seriously blew my mind. They're lightweight, easy to use, and expandable.
  • Take A Break And Stretch: Looking at the peak of a hill sets a goal in our minds. Sometimes, unfortunately, this puts people (*cough* me) in an all-or-nothing mindset. Remember: we want to reach the peak and continue on, not wait for an airlift to the ER. Always take the time to stop, remove your pack, and stretch. Take a swig of water, refuel with some of your favorite snacks for a day hike, and carry on. Here's a great way to look at it: repetition brings stress; rest brings growth.

How To Prevent Back Pain From Hiking

prevent back pain from hiking

Maybe you haven't been cursed with back problems just yet.

Or perhaps you got just enough of the sting in your sciatic nerve that you wanted to find out how to prevent back pain from a hike.

Taking the proper measures to prevent a problem before it starts is always the best option. Once you start to develop a back problem from hiking, it's extremely difficult to, if at all, reverse.

For that reason, it's wise to snuff out, or at least reduce your risk of back pain during a hike.

The best part about it? Preventing back pain is easy to do. Just like strengthening your knees, it doesn't require a ton of time, and you don't need to take up some extreme athletic training.

It can all be accomplished through simple home workouts and using the most optimal gear for your adventure.

Here are some of the best ways to prevent hiking back pain:

  • Reduce Backpack Weight: Stuffing your backpack to the brim adds unnecessary weight and drag on your back. If you're completing hikes and hardly using any of the gear, maybe it's time to reduce your hiking pack weight. Trimming some of the fat from your backpack leads to better posture and creates a more enjoyable experience. If you're taking a hike that isn't too great in distance or time, only pack your essentials and leave the excess gear at home. If you won't need it, you don't need it.
  • Do Stretches: As with taking stretching breaks during a hike, stretching before your hike is important, too. There are several stretches that help your lower back. Take some time before you head out to stretch your back muscles and spine to reduce stress during your hike.
  • Wear The Right Footwear: Believe it or not, wearing the wrong shoes or boots can contribute to your back pain. Poorly-fitting footwear causes all kinds of problems with your balance and posture, thus opening the doors to back pain during a hike. Always make sure your footwear is in good shape, and know when to replace your hiking boots or shoes. This should go without saying, but don't hike in cross-trainers or thin and flat-soled shoes. These types of shoes aren't equipped with enough shock absorption to deal with long hikes.
  • Pick an Easier Trail: With all things considered, your back pain may also be the result of a challenging trail. If the trail is far more challenging than any you've experienced thus far, build up your strength and stamina by picking a trail that's slightly more challenging until you've got the proper form down. Take the time to practice your form on the easy trails until you nail it.
  • Practice Good Posture: Good posture shouldn't be ignored. That's why it keeps popping up in this guide. Poor posture doesn't just cause back problems on a hike, it can cause serious problems on a daily basis, too. Whether you're out on a hike or not, set aside some time to practice good form There are some great yoga poses that nurture good hiking form. Remember to always keep your posture in mind. Make adjustments as you go. You will feel your weight shift and relief come when you get into that "magic spot" (neutral spine position).

When All Else Fails

So you've gone through this entire guide.

You practiced every stretch, bought some new gear, and even went through some yoga sessions, yet you're still dealing with that nuisance in your back.

When all else fails, go see a doctor.

Back pain isn't a joke and it can lead to irreversible damage.

Many hikers will agree, one of the most unpleasant feelings is having back pain during a hike. To me, however, one of the worst things in the world is not being able to enjoy the things you love.

If you snap your back up bad enough, you might not be able to enjoy your outings much longer.

Play it smart. Never risk your future health.