The middle-aged back is a peculiar thing. Those who have never had a back problem scorn those who have ... until the millisecond during which shooting pain is forever introduced into their lives. Not long before my own first Grand Canyon hike I spent six months on my back, unable to pick up so much as a pencil, after having unwisely and too long ignored occasional sharp twinges and increasing morning stiffness. David stepped over that special threshold to middle age only last year. Similarly, two athletic, professional dancers with whom we have worked now suffer from pain which threatens their careers. Whatever the medical world's logic, back pain seems to pay random visits to the middle-aged--weak and strong alike.
Which, then, brings up the question of the backpack, a fifty-plus–pound, tippy structure that is entirely balanced--along with, of course, the upper body itself--upon a tiny strip of muscles, tendons, cartilage and bone. You can't avoid carrying a pack, so you have to select one that hurts you (they all do) as little as possible. Chosen with care, your pack's form and straps can even strengthen your back on undemanding terrain, and with careful fitting and packing, some portion of its weight can also be borne by your butt.
David, Susan and I use soft, internal-frame packs; Stevie's has an external frame. Internal-frame units have back supports and straps, but little else to keep their shape. Goods are stuffed inside their many pouches, and the balance and tightness of that stuffing determine how even and stable the pack feels. Each manufacturer has a different specific organization of zippers and pockets, but my Camp Trails pack is fairly representative of an economical but still durable (certain straps excepted) and comfortable product. Two back supports--actually aluminum bars--can be raised or lowered against your back, and bent to fit its normal curvature. The rest of the fitting is accomplished by adjustable shoulder and waist straps, and other straps which pull together sections of the pack itself. Mine has a typical array of pouches: a main sack in the center with a zippered pouch on the rear; a smaller bag separated from the main sack by a false bottom; an upper, hinged head pouch; and a pair of long, tubular pouches attached on the left and right. Each pouch is separately zippered; various extra straps and pockets are also available both inside and outside the pouches.
Stevie, the stoic veteran hiker, still uses her 20-year-old Kelty pack. Again, external-frame packs vary with manufacturers, but her Kelty is a fixed aluminum ladder with an attached pouch, which is divided into three roomy pockets and capped with a tied-down cover. A smaller section is zippered below, and four small pockets are connected to the sides. Its balance is maintained by the frame, irrespective of how you stuff the pockets. You supply various ropes and bungee cords to hold larger items to crossbars in the aluminum frame.
I stuff my sleeping bag into the lower pack section so that it forms a firm but comfortable pillow on my butt, and also for leaning against during trail stops. The Kelty pack's external frame already has a canvas strap to firm up against the butt, and its frame ends in two legs for setting it down (and sometimes for catching on rocks and catapulting you into the chasm).
Filling the pack is a task of the imagination. The Lists-O-Stuff in the back of this book show the details of what we take, but there is a basic heap any desert hiker needs for a week in the wild: sleeping bag; tent, ground cloth and supplies; stove, fuel and cooking equipment; clothes and raingear; food and lots of water; purifier; medicine and emergency supplies.
The campsite stuff goes into my big pouch--tent, stove, plates, etc., with the purifier and medicines right on top; clothes cushion and firm up that main section. In the bottom pouch, as I mentioned, fits the sleeping bag (and a marvel of morning engineering it is to get it compressed into that mini-pouch). The head bag contains a large part of the food, except for some trail mix, which goes in the top of a side pocket for easy reach. Side pouches contain emergency supplies, rope, raingear, trashbags--anything that needs to be grabbed quickly in case of injury or bad weather. Knife, flashlight and compass sit in the protected zippered compartment in the back. My camera hangs from the front belt to keep it at hand, but its thigh-banging can be annoying; water bottles hang just about everywhere else.
Stevie's pack holds her sleeping bag strapped to the bottom, and some clothes and campsite stuff in the big pouch ... but since her pack cover unlashes so easily, four full water bottles (1½ gallons) are kept up there underneath a ground cloth to keep them cool and ready. Side pouches contain film, camera, nuts, raisins, trail mix, medicines, and other goods needed frequently. A map is tucked into an upper pouch, while another one is kept in a lower pocket in my pack, against my back (where it dissolves in sweat). Bungee cords hold dangly things to her frame, like the thermometer, other bottles and the trashbag (don't want that near the food or clothes).
Surrounding all of the large items in both packs are journal pads, candles, batteries, trowel, repair bits, and so on--each location selected and remembered, because these things have to be packed over again every day--sometimes more than once--for nearly two weeks. Her pack totals about 45 pounds, mine about 55; roughly 20 pounds of food is gone by the end of 10 days, making the hike out just a tad lighter.
There are tricks to hiking with heavy packs and a bad back.
While considering your back, also consider the fragile environment: Always use a designated campsite when there are any; set up on previously used terrain in at-large areas. Smooth the sand and clear away stones when there is no previous human evidence, but avoid all plantlife (look carefully for the tiny beginnings of plants such as desert buckwheat, ricegrass and fluffgrass) and make the area look as natural as possible when you leave.
Bad-back sufferers will sometimes find it trying when your hiking partner is in the same tent. Choosing left or right (front vs. back) is tricky; though I am mildly claustrophobic at times, I prefer to sleep in the back of the tent, the opening to my left, so I can get some support from the baglike effect of the tent bottom itself. (My knife, flashlight and (remember Piggy in Lord of the Flies?) my glasses are within reach in a little pocket in the tent wall.)
Hiking is strenuous, so here is a final comment: Do your exercises before you leave, and make sure your back is as strong as it can be. So what happens if your back does "go out" on the trail? Be prepared! Get some instruction from your osteopath or chiropractor before you get on your way. Some doctors may be reluctant to assist at first, so explain that you will be wilderness hiking many miles from help; a carefully phrased guilt-trip may produce results. They'll be happy to teach you when they're sufficiently far from liability lawsuits. (See Snow on the Trail, Day Two, for what happened to us on the Tanner Trail!)
If all else fails, flash your emergency mirror toward the rim ... and await scorn, embarrassment, and a $500 bill for services from the National Park Service.
The Middle-Aged Hiker is Copyright ©1993-97,2002 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn. All rights reserved.
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