- With chronic back pain, successfully navigating the outdoors is all about knowing your body, listening to your body, and knowing the environment that you are in.
- I can stay out longer and do what I love to do while getting more power out of my back if I take short little preventative stretch breaks along the way.
- If you want to keep your back pain-free outdoors, you (not somebody else) have to be in absolute control of the Duration, Intensity, Frequency, and Type of activity.
- Half the battle of living with chronic back pain is adapting, learning, and being smart. We can’t just show up to activities or events without a plan and hope for the best.
MANAGING YOUR BACK PAIN BEFORE YOU GO OUTDOORS
Once, I got out of a kayak to stretch without touching land. Needing a preventative stretch break, I “hopped” onto a large rock in the river the size of a car and then got back onto my kayak to continue down the river with my back feeling limber and ready for another hour of fun. Whatever it takes right?
Much like you, I don’t want to let back pain get in the way of all the joy, peace, and awesome memories that my outdoor activities provide for me and my family.
It is well documented that physical activity is good for chronic lower back pain with the approval of your physician, and if care is taken to protect your back from further injury.
Conversely, sitting around doing nothing is one of the worst things you can do according to leading physicians. Being consistently sedentary can actually make acute back pain worse.
I’ve lived with chronic low back pain for over twenty years due to weight lifting injuries and playing professional ice hockey. My family lives in the mountains of Colorado and we are very active outdoors in every season.
I would like to share what has worked and not worked for me over the years. In addition, I have curated some relevant supportive information from sources listed below that I hope will help you enjoy outdoor activities more comfortably and confidently.
STUFF TO BRING:
The type of gear and equipment that you bring can make or break your back when recreating outdoors. You know as well as I do that if you have back pain, you cannot get by with cheap or overused, worn-out gear.
Unfortunately, we have to pay for the good stuff or find it creatively; but it’s non-negotiable unless you would rather risk back pain flare-ups and injury.
In general, you want to have gear that is comfortable, lightweight, packable/easy to carry, well made, sport-specific, and back-friendly.
I’m a plein-air mountain landscape oil painter and for years I sat on a cheap uncomfortable stool while I painted, either because I was too cheap or too lazy to find out what else was out there. Not wise.
A typical outdoor painting can take anywhere from one hour to four hours depending on the size. Sitting or standing for that long is miserable on the backside. I’ve learned that good footwear and ergonomic, comfortable equipment bring me home with a happier lower back and a willingness to go out again next time.
Here is a suggestive list to get you started. Add or subtract to it depending on if it’s a day trip with only a backpack or an extended trip with vehicles and campers etc. Make your own list and then print it out and put it with your gear!
CHRONIC BACK PAIN OUTDOOR SURVIVAL LIST EXAMPLES:
- Topical pain relief such as Icy Hot patch or Biofreeze roll-on, relief gel.
- Back support brace of your choice.
- Theracane or back self-massaging tool.
- TriggerPoint foam roller. (13” x 5.5”)
- An Acupressure mat. (0.41 lbs, 26×16” laid out flat) (Spoonk acupressure mat is top rated)
- Lightweight backpack- Consider how backpacks are rated and shop yours accordingly: weight to volume ratio measured in g/L, comfort to carry, thoughtful feature set, total weight empty, adaptability, and durability. (Check out the Osprey Exos 58)
Osprey backpacks are made in Colorado (a couple of hours from us). They continually win industry awards. It is very important that the backpack you choose is adjusted correctly to your body size. I bought a new pack this year and went into an outdoor gear store and had them adjust it for me. I was surprised at how much they adjusted it and how much better the backpack felt on my back afterward.
- Trekking poles- can help distribute some of the weight and load to your arms and away from your hip and back joints thus reducing back pain.
- Advil, Tylenol, or other medicine in case you hurt yourself or start feeling severe back pain.
- Heat or ice pack products, TENS unit.
- Cell phone- especially if you adventure alone. (I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”) Two-way radios.
- Water bottles.
- Portable stool or chair- to sit and rest. (Helinox Beach Chair was Outdoor Gear Lab’s 2019 Top Pick)
- Portable pad, blanket or mat- to lay down and stretch or sit and rest.
- Comfortable lightweight sleeping pads (Nemo Switchback or the Thermarest NeoAir Xtherm was Outdoor Gear Lab’s 2019 Editors Choice).
- Field Repair kits- Examples include kits to fix your gear such as patch repair kits for inflatable sleeping pads or water equipment, Pro Bike Tool Mini Bike Pump is rated the best mini bike pump by The Geeky Cyclist, extra parts or tools to fix your equipment and keep you comfortably in the game, knife for multi-purpose and repair.
- Signaling whistle -if you get lost or need help.
- Proper footwear- appropriate for the activity and terrain but also provide stability, non-slip with excellent tread/grip and comfort.
- Multi-tool-most sports have a “multi-tool” for quick fixes on the go. For example, essential cycling tools usually include Basic hex keys, Torx keys, a chain tool, screwdrivers, and spoke wrench.
- Appropriate Clothing- You need to be able to stretch so don’t wear restrictive clothing. Moisture-wicking clothing and layers of clothing will keep your back muscles warm and dry in cold damp weather. Also, remember cotton kills in cold weather.
- First Aid Kit- Matches/firestarter, emergency blanket/shelter etc.
- ID and cash.
- Lip balm-(just cause it sucks to have dry lips).
- Appropriate shoes- heavy hiking boots are generally a ‘no no’- choose supportive and comfortable. (Future blog post on great shoes for different activities)
Listen to what Adventure Sports Network says about water footwear and gear selection:
“Kayakers, whether touring or whitewater, need to consider seated comfort, how well their shoes brace against bulkheads and footpegs, and how their heels will rest. Canoeists need to consider kneeling comfort and make sure that the shoe they choose has plenty of flex.”
You get the point. Gear and preparation can make a huge difference in your quality of enjoyment and back pain maintenance in the great outdoors.
BRING THE RIGHT FRIENDS
Try not to get pushed outside of your comfort zone by other people’s plans. Go outdoors with people who fully understand your back pain limitations and unique needs. They need to be understanding of the fact that you will need breaks and that your intensity and duration will not be record-setting or meant to keep them in top shape for their sport.
They have their agenda, you keep yours: to have fun, go at your own pace and come home without a back spasm or sciatica so you can go to work on Monday and do it all again next week.
Some activities require everybody in the group to keep up and stay together for safety or other reasons such as whitewater rafting, cross country/downhill skiing, or a timed event. However, if you want to keep your back pain-free outdoors, you have to be in absolute control of the Duration, Intensity, Frequency, and Type of activity. Not somebody else.
These group paced activities can sometimes be a little riskier for your back. Be careful. Just be aware and think it through before you go.
Some activities are more self-paced and have built-in flexibility concerning intensity and duration such as wildlife photography, fishing, hunting, and plein-air painting.
Consider the value of taking a lesson if you have never tried the activity before. It might cost more upfront, but you will get a very good idea as to whether it will work for your back or not. Plus, being a little more skillful should help you enjoy the activity more and possibly see the physical therapist or chiropractor less.
If possible, get somebody else to drive to your activity location while you lay down in the car or recline in the front passenger seat. Taking the weight off of your spine and abdominal muscles will ensure that you are a little less stiff when you arrive at the location, allow you to warm up quicker, and “save your back” for your upcoming activity.
Make sure the night before the activity, that you get plenty of good sleep not only to help with the upcoming physical exertion and wear and tear on the back, but for mental clarity and good decision making.
Many times our back pain recurrences are due to less than stellar choices that we normally would not make. We just were not thinking clearly.
KNOW THE TERRAIN
Before you head out on a new trail or adventurous activity, know exactly what you are getting into regarding the difficulty level, duration of activity, equipment requirements, safety tips or rules, terrain, location, and any other intel that will help keep your back safe.
It takes 10 minutes to hop on a Facebook group like Back Pain Outdoors and gather up some quick info from the chats or start one of your own. Of course Google information that will educate you as to how to best enjoy the activity. Most outdoor destinations or nearby towns have informative websites, trial maps, reviews and other helpful information in an effort to attract more tourists.
Other ideas are to call the local tourism office or gear/equipment outfitter companies in the town that you are headed to. As locals and experts, they usually have the best tips and advice for activities in every season.
Are you guilty of this? Going outdoors with a group of people who want to take a certain hiking or biking trail for example because that’s what the group agreed on. They didn’t really take your back pain into consideration and or you didn’t speak up much or ask any questions.
This type of scenario may result in you coming home with a back spasm.
I hope you find an idea or two in here that you have not thought of, and please send me more of your great ideas and comments to share with this unique community.
Here is where you can catch us:
Please consult your doctor before making any changes or to your current back care regimen. The tips suggested are from the author’s own experience only and OCG is not responsible for any actions taken based on the advice contained within.
The Geeky Cyclist
Adventure Sports Network
Atlantic Brain and Spine
Outdoor Gear Lab
University of Otago New Zealand
Digital Photography School
Field & Stream