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Tips for Proper Pack Loading
By Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS
A common mistake we see clients make when packing a backpack for training hikes is randomly throwing a few dumbbells into their pack. Here we outline some strategies that will make your training much more comfortable, save wear and tear on your pack and body, and provide you with the right kind of training stimulus while helping you avoid injury.
If you're familiar with our training strategies, you know that we recommend gradually overloading the body. Rather than hefting last fall's heavy pack onto your back, you'll want to gradually increase pack weight by not more than 10% per week. Putting a few 10-15 pound dumbbells in your pack in early season, without working up to it, is inviting trouble. Similarly, start with a few shorter hikes to get your hiking legs, hips, and shoulders ready for heavier weight.
BODY FRIENDLY LOAD
The problem with carrying rocks or dumbbells or weight plates is that they are very dense, concentrated materials. Having such weight even slightly off center in your pack may not make much difference for twenty minutes, but for several hours, it will cause one side of your body to work harder than the other.
You may not even notice the difference until the next day when the muscles on one side of your body scream at you. If you find one hip, knee, foot, or shoulder aches more than the other, and you can't think of what you did to cause the discomfort, make sure your pack is as evenly distributed as possible. If you have a heavier item on one side, make sure you balance it out with a duplicate or similarly weighted item on the other.
When my husband and I were participating in the Basic Mountaineering class in Seattle in 1999, a woman in our class had a pack that was clearly too small for all the gear she had to carry. With the help of classmates, she strapped everything to the outside. We fondly referred to her thereafter as "the Prospector" and could tell exactly where she was by the clinking and clanking of gear swaying on the outside of her pack. What a core workout she got!
You may find yourself in a position where you assist a party member by taking extra weight. Just be sure that you can evenly distribute the load; if you take several pickets and tent poles and add them to your pack's side pocket, make sure you put similar weight in the opposing pocket to balance it out.
Whatever you carry for weight, be sure you can get uniform weight distribution, from items such as bags of rice or sand, kitty litter, or dog food. Carrying your actual gear, such as clothes, stove, tent, sleeping bag, or climbing ropes and protection pieces, is another functional way to add weight and get you familiar with where your center of gravity will be on a climb when you're carrying your actual gear.
Our best recommendation, however, is to carry extra water bottles, not only to insure adequate hydration, but also for body-friendly loading. While it may be tempting to throw in several gallon jugs (7.5 pounds each) it may be harder to get two gallons evenly distributed and centralized in your pack. If you carry multiple 1- or 2-liter bottles, you can more easily shift weight around.
By carrying extra water, if you run into issues with the weight and have to lighten your load, you can drink or dump some without leaving a trace. Just be sure when you get closer to your trip that you are carrying down whatever you carry up, so the quadriceps are conditioned for the descents with heavier loads come climbing day.
Another area of possible awkward load is camera gear. We like to strap our SLR's to the outside of our pack for easy use. However, if we're adding a long lens, that extra 1-2 pounds on one side needs to be balanced out on the other side. Likewise, on longer hikes, if you find yourself with a camera and long lens on one hip, be sure you balance out the body with counter weight on the other hip. I like to use a Cotton Carrier to strap my camera on the front of my body to allow me to keep my hands free.
This picture of me with my daughter in Yellowstone (June, 2015) shows my set-up for carrying two cameras using a shoulder strap for one and Cotton Carrier for the other; however, for any hikes longer than a mile, I'd typically stow the camera hanging from the shoulder strap for better ergonomics, more comfort and easier travel. For more on nature photography conditioning, have a look at Nature Photography Conditioning.
During the hike:
In the first 10-15 minutes of a hike, walk at a comfortable pace until you feel your hips and legs warm up. Pay attention to how your hips, shoulders, and neck are feeling. If you feel one side of the body more than the other, and that's uncommon for you (i.e. normally you have no problems), check your pack for even load.
Try shifting weight, maybe moving one water bottle over to the other side and seeing if that's better. Try tightening or loosening shoulder straps to find a more comfortable position on your body. Have someone look at how you're standing with the pack cinched to you. Are you leaning forward? Does it look like you're standing straight or pulling to one side more than the other? Is the weight too heavy for you at this point in your training?
After the hike:
Pay close attention to how you feel during the next 24-48 hours. If you feel like one side of your body has been brutalized, review the load you carried. Were the contents secure inside or slipping all over the place? Did you use your hip belt or rely on shoulder straps? Were the shoulder straps even? Was the hip belt too tight? Evaluate what you will try next time to make it more comfortable.
For additional suggestions on how to pack for training and hiking, please visit Packing Your Pack. If you have questions about pack loading or weight distribution, please contact trainer at bodyresults.com. We'd love to try to help.