Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Choosing a Backpack

It’s holiday season, and many people purchase outdoor recreation supplies as gifts for family and friends. Flashlights, canteens, tents, sleeping bags – there is an endless assortment of cool gear to be found at favorite stores and websites. Most of these products can be chosen without an eye to medical considerations, but a few should be properly fitted to the recipient and require some knowledge about features and their implications for ease of use and safety.

Backpacks are the quintessential symbol of trekking and mountaineering. A well-fitted, sturdy and durable backpack gives the user the freedom of the hills. Along with hiking boots, a backpack is essential for any sort of expedition in which someone is responsible for carrying his or her supplies. What is less well known is that a poorly fitted backpack can contribute to significant back pain, inefficient travel, or even the ruin of a trip. A backpack that weighs on its carrier can cause muscle spasm, sore neck and shoulders, numbness and tingling in the hands and fingers, sore hips, and irritated skin.

What features are important in a backpack that fits properly, distributes weight evenly and across the correct body parts, and will withstand extremes of environment? They are, in no particular order:

  1. Proper size. It fits the torso closely, in particular the upper part of the body. When the padded waist strap is tightened, the weight of the pack should be distributed evenly across the hips.
  2. The shoulder straps should be wide and well padded, to avoid compressing the front of the shoulders and armpits. They should be easily loosened and tightened. There should be a connecting strap that can be opened, closed and adjusted traversing the front of the chest attached to and between the shoulder straps.
  3. Adjustable straps to fine-tune the tightness of the waist strap and the proximity of the pack to the back of the wearer are desirable.
  4. Multiple compartments allow rational storage, ease of finding carried items, and more even weight distribution than possible with a single-compartment pack. Side pockets, top pockets, tie-down loops, an adjustable top cover, and other features to partition objects into discrete locations while protecting them from the elements are all good to have.
  5. The pack should be designed so that it can be donned from a sitting or standing position, using the legs for stabilization. If it can only be put on by hoisting it and slinging it across the back, muscle strain is inevitable.
  6. For a child-carrier pack, be certain that it is designed so that an active child can't easily self-extricate and wind up dangling or on the ground.

It is tempting to pick out a backpack for someone, wrap it up, and share in the pleasure when they reveal the gift. But remember, many times you will have picked out the incorrect size, fit, color, or whatever. Always purchase from a seller that has a reasonable return policy, because a backpack is a very personal item. You want to allow the recipient of your thoughtfulness to be able to make a trade if that results in the best possible person-pack match.

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.