For the past couple of months, I’ve been seeing a chiropractor. I had pain and occasional skin numbness in my left shoulder starting about a month into my Appalachian Trail thru hike last year, and it never went away completely. I’m not one to go to the doctor quickly, always assuming whatever issue will just resolve itself with rest, and so it took me seven months after finishing my hike to finally see someone about it (and that’s not counting the six months of pain I had on trail). The pain has not been regular since my last update, but whenever I put any weight on my shoulder, whether it’s five pounds or fifty, it comes right back.
Thus the chiropractor. I’ve actually been going to a health and wellness center so they have a more holistic approach. First, I got x-rayed from my neck down to my pelvis, and man, am I messed up. But let’s focus on the shoulder issue: possible crushed subscapular / suprascapular nerves, hugely imbalanced back muscles, and rhomboid spasms. I’ve been receiving treatments of electro-acupuncture, massage therapy, chiropractic adjustments, and kinesiology taping to fix the underlying issues, and I’ve been going to TRX Suspension Training to strengthen my back in a more balanced manner to maintain the fix. It was also suggested to me that I not strap on a pack for extended periods of time again, but we all know that’s not going to happen.
Now let’s examine the root of the problem. Backpacks are sized according to torso length, not height. I mistakenly thought I knew how to measure myself correctly, and variously measured myself (or had others who didn’t know what they were doing either measure me) at 18 to 19 inches. That’s a solid Medium in most pack brands, and it makes sense with my height of 5’10”. I was on my third ever backpack when I started the AT, and I had never worn any pack more than three days at a time, so I never had an issue. Once the pain started with a month of constant pack wearing, I blamed it on the pack, although not on its size, and I have since tried six more packs. The shoulder never really had a chance to rest between packs so I continued to try new packs in the same size, not realizing that was the problem. I figured I needed some recovery time for the pain to go away and then one of the packs would work.
Right after I started seeing the chiropractor, I went to Trail Days and got measured by a professional. Why did I not do this before? I have no idea. But Aaron White of Gregory Mountain Products listened to my woes and showed me how to measure my torso correctly. Turns out I have a disproportionately short torso for my height at only 17.5″. That’s generally in the range of people 5’6″ or less. That puts me at a sold Small for most packs. Aaron went one step further though, and introduced me to a pack that has an adjustable torso. It’s actually a youth pack, the Wander 50. Featuring an adjustable hipbelt as well, he set it up for me, and I haven’t felt any weight on my shoulders while backpacking since.
I’d always heard that you’re not supposed to feel the weight on your shoulders, it should all be on your hips, but that didn’t seem quite realistic. Sure, most of the weight was on my hips, but I still had shoulder straps on, so it made sense to me that I still felt some weight there. Well the rumor was correct and you’re not supposed to feel weight on your shoulders. With a pack that fits me perfectly, I can finally experience it for myself, and it is glorious. No more constant pain while hiking, and no more having trouble using my left arm while setting up camp. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to not feel pain there while out in the backcountry.
I had heard of adjustable torso length packs before, but they are necessarily slightly heavier than a fixed length pack. I am a little obsessed with gear weight, so I thought an ultralight pack would help my shoulder out by saving some weight. The thing is, if it doesn’t fit correctly or have the support I need, I’m going to feel the weight of the whole pack more. If I’m wearing a pack fitted to me exactly, I’m not going to feel any of the weight as much, let alone the extra half pound of the pack itself.
There’s nothing like doing something wrong for so long, and then finally learning the right way, to become an expert on the topic. Do you need help finding a pack to fit you? I can help! I know all the bad fit indicators to look for now, and I can measure a torso like a champ. If you do this before committing to a pack for an extended trip, you can skip all kinds of pain and get right to enjoying nature.