In the time I’ve known my husband, he’s only ever gone backpacking, reluctantly, with our oldest son or myself. When I plan a trip, he rolls his eyes at my love of walking for miles with a heavy load on my back. He asks what the point is of sleeping on the ground when he could mountain bike for a few hours and still sleep in his cozy bed at night. He’s only instigated a backpacking trip once; after I left for a four-day hike from Hannegan Pass to Ross Lake, our oldest son was so excited about my trip that he too wanted to go backpacking, and so off they went.
When they arrived at camp, my husband told my son, “If mom was here she would make sure that we hang the food bag, but it’s really no big deal so let’s just stick our food in the tent.” Five minutes later a bear strolled through their campsite. They immediately changed their minds and hung the bag and we all laughed for years about that bear.
So I was surprised when he told me he was considering a five-day trip with some college buddies along the Washington coast. Three things came to mind: first, he has got to get in backpacking shape for a trip that long. Second, he hasn’t backpacked in years and he needs to do some gentle stretching after each day or he will be a mess. Third, I immediately started a mental list of all the things he needed to bring. Then he astonished me by beginning his own list, but the first three items on it were a Bota bag, a bottle of bourbon and a bear canister.
For me, backpacking has always been about simplicity, perseverance and enjoying the beauty of nature. For my husband, backpacking was obviously about connecting with his college buddies by drinking and playing his ukulele. I learned two things: one, liquor has to be at the top of my list if I want him to go backpacking without rolling his eyes at me; and two, my husband would plan for bears even without my suggestion.
When we mess with this beautiful walking motion, we can develop pain.
My husband is right – backpacking is hard work, especially on the knees, back, shoulders and neck. Cross-country mountain biking for a few hours a day puts way less impact on the lower body (unless you fall). The thing about backpacks is, not only are they heavy, but they inhibit torso rotation and achieving full leg swing can be difficult depending on the fit and position of the hip/waist belt. In normal walking, when our left leg comes forward, our lumbar spine (the section between our hips and our ribs) bends left and rotates right while the thoracic spine (torso area from the bottom of the ribs to the top of the ribs) rotates left. The right arm comes forward and we push off of our toes on the right leg, creating rotation that twists and untwists the torso with each step.
This rotation is called contralateral rotation. I have come to think that this rotation helps keep the spine and rib cage flexible. When we mess with this beautiful walking motion, we can develop pain. Many daily activities such as driving and working on a computer inhibit this motion. The walking or moving that we do in between activities is like a reset button. Swinging your arms, dancing and turning your head from side to side also increases torso rotation.
To demonstrate how important this rotation is hold your arms by your sides and don’t allow them to move or swing. Now go for a little walk. Notice how rigidly your torso moves when you don’t swing your arms. With a heavy pack on that winding and unwinding motion of the spine and arm movement are somewhat compromised.
In order to maintain flexibility while backpacking, on your breaks or after your hike you can try this simple movement to improve and exaggerate contralateral rotation. It is not intended to be a stretch, but I find that it does stretch my arms and torso. When you step forward with your left leg, push off your right toes and stretch your right arm up to the sky. Then do the opposite; step your right leg forward, push off with your left foot’s toes and stretch your left arm in the air.
Take about 10 steps exaggerating this motion. Now go for a walk and compare how much better your arms swing. At the same time pay attention to how your hips move from side to side. That is contralateral rotation. Imagine doing this motion after carrying 45 pounds on your back.
I know that this time my husband is taking precautions for traveling in bear territory. But my real question is, will he try this movement at the end of the day?
Luca Williams is a certified rolfer in Glacier. She helps snowboarders, skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts get aligned and out of pain. Website: lucasrolfing.com