How to Find the Best Bag for Traveling That Won't Cause Back Pain
Turns out, there is a science to the way we carry our things.
Waking up sore after a hurts-so-good workout = fine. Waking up sore after a day of trudging through the airport? Something we'd like to avoid at all costs.
Often, the reason you hurt after a day of travel-or a day on the trails-has to do with what you're carrying. Some bags are friendlier to your body (your arms, your shoulders, your back) than others. So before you commit to another trip spent hauling luggage through airport terminals or lugging an ill-fitted pack up hills, consider splurging on a new bag-with these pieces of pro advice in mind. (Related: Gifts for the Adventure Traveler with Constant Wanderlust)
While they were dorky in middle school, spin bags are everywhere. But nowadays, just being on wheels isn't enough. "A four-wheeled roller bag tends to be easier on the spine than a two-wheeled bag," says Mike McMorris, P.T., D.P.T., O.C.S., an assistant professor of physical therapy at UNC-Chapel Hill. Think about it: When a bag's tilted down sideways, it can pull on your arm and back, which can equal wear and tear-not to mention pain. When it's standing on its own? You're just rolling it along with a minimal workload for your body, he says.
Just be careful about pushing a four-wheeler. Because this position doesn't allow for great grip strength, it's likely going to feel a heck of a lot harder than rolling it behind you would, says Gary Allread, Ph.D., C.P.E., the director of the Ergonomics Institute at The Ohio State University. Form matters when rolling a bag behind you, too. Bend your arm a little. "Every muscle in your body has an optimal length," explains McMorris. "The biceps muscle has optimal length-tension when it's at 60 degrees. You can put out maximum force output."
Other details to keep an eye out for: Choose a taller bag with a handle that comes up to about waist height, says McMorris. "The more that you're bending closer to the ground, the more load that's going to put on your back," says Allread. Then, consider the handle. An inverted "U" shape (instead of a "T" shape) likely lends itself to a stronger grip, notes Allread. Make sure your hand fits on the handle, otherwise you will be more likely to fatigue, he says.
One-shoulder bags aren't exactly great for your body. "Any time you're loading the body on just one side, that is going to cause your spine to compensate to keep your weight in the middle," says McMorris.
But if you're dead set on a cute carry-on (we get it), keep the bag small (to help ensure you don't overstuff it, adding weight). Then, seek out an adjustable strap that has a sliding pad to protect your shoulder. "You have a lot of nerves that are superficial to the skin. If you're carrying a heavy bag without much padding on the strap, it can press more into the skin and cause discomfort," says Allread. "A good pad is going to help distribute any force over a wider area so it won't be as uncomfortable."
Carry the bag cross-body style, too. Research published in the journal Ergonomics found that cross-shoulder styles were better (i.e., produced lower spine loads) than straight-shoulder styles, especially when the bags were heavier (in the 25-pound range). Switch sides from time to time to share the load, too.
Not surprisingly, that same Ergonomics study found loads on the spine were lowest when using a backpack compared to other styles of bags (including roller bags and one-shoulder totes).
The number one thing to keep in mind: weight. To keep the strain on the back low, your bag shouldn't exceed more than 15 percent of your body weight, says Allread (for a 150-pound person, that's 22.5 pounds).
In terms of design, look for something that's described as "lightweight" and a bag that has thicker, padded shoulder straps to better distribute forces.
How you pack matters, too. Place heavier items (like your laptop) as close to your back as possible. "When weight is close to the spine, it doesn't have as much of an impact," Allread says. (Think about holding your computer close to your body or straight in front of you. What's harder?)
Hiking Day Packs
When it comes to hiking packs, consider four things: your activity, the pack volume, the features of the pack, and the fit, suggests Mathew Henion, a sales specialist at REI in Boston.
Particularly, fit proves über important. While specifics vary for everyone, you want the bag to run from the base of your neck to the lowest part of your spine. Also: "Seventy to 80 percent of the weight should be supported by the hips-only 20 to 30 percent supported on the shoulders," Henion says. So if it feels like you're carrying the entire weight on your shoulders? Something's likely off. (Allread also says that there's some research to suggest that waist straps can be beneficial in keeping the weight of the pack closer to the spine.)
Depending on what your day in the mountains looks like, some brands have packs that are ergonomically shaped in the lumbar region, have heat molded padding, or that have load lifter straps on the top (for adjusting the weight on your spine, helping you tackle hills). It really depends on what you need and what works for you. (Related: 3 Easy Exercises Everyone Should Do to Prevent Back Pain)
That's why your best bet is to head to a local outdoor retailer and test out a pack (there are even women-specific packs) with weighted sandbags so that you can mimic the weight you'll be carrying day of.