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3 of my lower vertebra have irreparable damage, so I have various workarounds to minimise pain and swelling at home and in the office, and even on short term hikes (ibuprofen FTW) but on a longer hike (eg 5 days or more) I don't want to consume that many painkillers, so am trying to learn techniques to minimise the pain.

So far I have:

  • found the types of boots which work best for me in terms of reducing jarring
  • worked out how to load my rucksack close and high to minimise stress on my spine
  • reduced my expected mileage to account for regular stops

I know a lot of peopple use poles and other equipment, but in a quick try with a pair of poles I couldn't see how they provided any value at all, so I'm guessing there is a knack.

How can I use them or other kit to avoid back pain?

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2 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I never understood the appeal of trekking poles until I started carrying 80+ lbs packs down into the bottom of the Grand Canyon for a living. Now, I wish I had started using them sooner. Perhaps my knees would be in better shape.

Trekking poles, used properly, can take countless TONS of cumulative weight off your knees and lower back by shifting that weight (and impact) to your arms. They excel at ascents and descents (and their benefits are more noticeable) but can also add some benefit on relatively level walking.

There are lots of guides to tell you the "proper" way to use them, but in my experience, every person uses them a little differently. But, in general: planting your right pole in front of you as you step your left leg forward while consciously engaging your arm to take some weight off your lower body as you step your right leg forward (while planting your left pole). Follow through with the stroke, and you can even push yourself forward a bit before bringing your pole back to the front.

It takes some getting used to, and to incorporate it into your stride.

As for other gear / techniques to help with back (and other) pain:

  • They say a properly fitted pack should put about 70% of the weight on a comfortable, well-fitted hip belt, with 30% on the shoulders. (I personally prefer about 95 - 100% on my hips, using my shoulder straps to just keep the pack balanced upright, with no downward weight.)

  • Think about your stride. Do you heel strike? Try landing more on the balls of your feet to reduce jarring impact with each step. (And to build some awesome calves like tree burls.) Good practice: walk barefoot on hard floors / cement (without weight -- or with, you choose) and see how quickly your heels start to complain.

  • Yoga -- both as a regular part of your life, and while on the trail. A few sun salutations in the morning goes a long way toward limbering up the spine for a day of hiking.

  • I'm a big fan of Superfeet(tm) insoles. A bit spendy - but make a considerable, long-lasting difference in foot comfort (and thus leg, knee, and back comfort). I treat myself to a new pair every season. Money well spent.**

**I am not in any way associated with, or compensated by Superfeet for saying this.

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Ah yeah, this. I used to loathe the idea of having my hands tied up with trekking poles while hiking, yet now I find them indispensable. I, like you, probably should've swallowed my pride and save my knees much sooner. –  manoftheson Mar 9 at 2:32
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I find that a pair of poles are very handy for climbing over stiles. We have a lot of stiles in the UK, I'm not sure if they are a feature in US trekking. They are also good for controlling the speed of your descent when coming downhill and they reduce the jarring on your knees. I'm told that you should always use a pair of poles so that you don't twist as you walk, the only exception is if you have one damaged knee then you would use one pole for support.

Wikipedia article about stiles

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Could you explain what "styles" are? –  LBell Oct 3 '12 at 12:34
    
Stiles are makeshift steps over fences –  Rory Alsop Oct 3 '12 at 18:52
    
I have edited my answer because I misspelled the word "stiles" and I have included a link to Wikipedia for further reading on stiles. –  Rusty Shackleford Oct 4 '12 at 8:08
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