About the Author, Leah LaRocco: “Hi there, I’m a Long Islander who lives in Franklin, Tennessee. My first love was the ocean, but growing up camping and hiking around Vermont also contributed to a deep appreciation for the mountains. Public lands are some of my favorite places to hike and Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a regular weekend getaway. I work full time, but believe dreams and passions can and should be pursued outside of the everyday 9-5. As a naturalist, I hope to convey how incredibly healing the woods, water, and wildlife can be when we make the choice to step outside.” Find her via her Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Website.
At 12 years old, I learned I had scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. At 14, I started wearing a Boston brace, a modern day torture device similar to a straight jacket, made of hard plastic and foam, meant to force the growing spine back into proper alignment. At 16, I stopped wearing the brace because it had failed to do its job. A doctor told me that I needed spinal fusion surgery to correct the backwards “S” that snaked its way down the length of my torso. I said no and never looked back.
Today, I am still figuring out how to manage muscle pain. Of everything I tried through the years, physical therapy wins for being the most helpful with its gentle strengthening exercises. Also walking. Walking in my neighborhood. Walking all over the Great Smoky Mountains. Walking in any national park I can get to when I travel. Walking is healing in so many ways. If I stop walking, the pain knocks harder at my door.
As a hiker, there is no better escape from the stresses of life than a long walk in the woods. Hiking is incredibly beneficial for the body because it is a muscle strengthening endeavor. People with scoliosis need strong core muscles, hips, and glutes to assist with lifting, posture, and the way our bodies are carried. Even if I neglect my physical therapy exercises at home, my body always feels better when I am moving through the woods, using those muscles to climb a hill on my own steam.
Seeing questions from other women with scoliosis in online hiking groups is encouraging because it reminds me I’m not the only one out there with this condition. There are women like me, who maybe wore a back brace as a kid and are managing their life outdoors as an adult with all these extra aches and pains.
Finding Gear When Your Back Hurts
I absolutely love gear. If someone told me I could be a gear tester for an outdoor company and make a living at it, I would probably quit my job right now and never look back. As it stands, all the gear I’ve tested has been on my own dime. What I’ve noticed in experimenting with different types of shoes, backpacks, socks, tents, sleeping pads, stoves, pillows, and clothing is that gear is an intensely individual and personal decision. What works for some might not work for others, and that’s fine, because there is so much on the market now that offers a vast array of choices for anyone serious about getting outside. For women dealing with scoliosis, we have options!
Here are a few pieces of gear I’ve found that go a long way in helping me stay comfortable outdoors. With scoliosis, the items that have the highest ability to affect back pain positively or negatively are the backpack, footwear, sleeping pads, and hiking poles. Keeping in mind, that all bodies are different, and what works for me might not work for you. The point is to get out there and try!
Whether you’re a day hiker or a hardcore backpacker, one of the most important pieces of gear you will buy is your backpack. This thing holds your life. It rests against your body and either moves with you or against you every time you take a step. I have tried on a ridiculous amount of packs. Like, I was the woman in REI just browsing the sale rack for the eighth time looking like I’m about to climb Everest. Because obviously walking across a flat retail floor and knocking over a few puffy jackets is a great way to test a pack’s outdoor performance ability. I purchased, tested, and returned seven backpacks from various companies, which means my name has been circulated at Outdoor Retailer and I will never be able to buy gear in person at any outfitter ever again.
I can tell you that no perfect backpack exists. Some feel too heavy, too bulky, too unstable, some don’t have hip pockets, others have too many useless pockets, some weigh too much, others weigh too little, some straps dig into your shoulders, some hip pads chafe and cause pack sores…on and on. It wasn’t until I tried the Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 that I felt like the gear design gods had smiled on my retail-weary body. The reason it took me so long to try Gossamer Gear was that their packs are not available at typical retail outfitters, and all returns need to be in brand new condition with tags attached, which meant I couldn’t give the pack a thorough test on trail. But after so many failed attempts with heavier packs that had sturdier frames, I decided to give it a go. As soon as I put the pack on and loaded it with gear, I knew we were destined to be together forever. The difference between this pack and every other one I’d tried is that the Mariposa sat directly against my back. There is no vent space for airflow, but this also means the pack isn’t being pulled away from my back, causing my muscles to overcompensate for the tugging I constantly felt with other packs I’d tried.
The padding and cushioning are substantial. There is an internal, removable frame that does an excellent job carrying loads under 35 lbs. There were times I forgot I was wearing a pack while carrying 25 lbs.
Due to my scoliosis, the hip and shoulder on my right side are higher than my left. Most backpacks have rigid frames that can only be adjusted up and down, with shoulder straps that are already sewn at certain angles. With the Mariposa, you order your specific size based on their chart, along with a separate hip belt that can be a different size than the pack. This is genius because most companies offer one size for a pack and hip belt without taking into account that our bodies are not all shaped the same. The shoulder straps on the Mariposa are really wide, which keeps them from digging into your skin and helps support the weight of the pack. Adjusting the shoulder straps is easy if you have shoulders or hips that sit higher on one side. With my daypack, I’ve figured out that if I adjust the pack so the straps are uneven with one side slightly higher than the other, it helps with this issue as well.
Buying a backpack is such a personal decision, and some people might find that the load bearing ability of a heavier pack, such as the Osprey Aura, is more suited to them. Whatever you do, don’t let anyone else influence your decision on how a pack should feel. If it’s comfortable for you, that is what matters most. If it feels “off” and someone’s saying that’s how it should fit, keep trying until you find the right one. Brands to explore include Osprey, Gregory, Deuter, REI, ULA, Gossamer Gear, ZPacks, and Superior Wilderness Designs.
While we’re on the subject of packs I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that investing in lightweight gear will go a long way in lessening the burden placed on your back while hiking. My goal is not to exceed a total weight 25 lbs, which includes food and 1L of water.
I absolutely adore my Leki Legacy Ultralight trekking poles, and to this day they are one of my favorite pieces of gear. They have saved me from embarrassing spills and ankle twisting falls more times than I care to admit. The poles also provide extra leverage when walking uphill, and sturdy support when descending. Poles take a lot of pressure off the knees, softening the impact of your shoes on the ground, which means your back is jolted a whole lot less. I use these all the time and can’t imagine doing any kind of long distance trip without them. There are many options when it comes to trekking poles. Some vary in locking mechanisms, collapse in different ways, and have handles composed of cork or foam. A fancy name brand is not necessary, but if possible I would suggest finding a pair that weighs no more than a pound. Brands to explore include Leki, Black Diamond, REI, and Gossamer Gear. Amazon also has budget options available if you’re not sure about poles and want to try them out before committing to an ultralight pair.
Hiking Boots vs. Trail Runners
The argument of boots versus trail runners rages on in online forums where people feel very passionately about one or the other. I think it depends on the trail and I use both. The footwear you choose will go a long way in determining how your back feels at the end of a hike. This is another item that really comes down to personal preference, and thanks to REI’s understanding employees and generous return policy, I was finally able to find footwear that worked for me without causing blisters or killing my body on long descents, which are so much harder for me than ascents.
For winter hikes in the mountains, I usually wear hiking boots. These can handle rugged terrain and also keep my feet warm when walking in snow and ice. Due to the fact that they are waterproof, it’s worth noting that they take a considerably longer time to dry out when they become wet. For rainy summertime weather in the Smokies, I opt for trail runners, and I’ve used several different brands that all last around 300-400 miles before they fall apart. Trail runners drain well and dry quickly. In cooler temps, a waterproof sock with a merino wool liner can keep feet dry in wet conditions.
I find with the hiking boots, I have really good support, which in turn makes my knees and back ache less throughout the day. On the flip side, the trail runners are really cushioned and weigh less per foot, thereby putting less pressure on the back with each step. People with scoliosis are typically very in tune with their bodies and will know what you can and can’t handle. It’s important to figure out the support you need and know how the downhill slogs feel in a boot versus a trail runner. Boots give more stability, but trail runners enable you to go light and fast. There are so many options to choose from, and this is another case for spending some time at an outfitter so you can try ALL the shoes (be sure to wear the socks you plan on wearing while hiking and backpacking). Brands to explore include Vasque, Merrell, Danner, Ahnu, Salomon, Keen, Brooks, Altra, Hoka One One, Astral, Lowa, and La Sportiva.
This is maybe the toughest choice of gear for someone with scoliosis. What I sleep on directly affects how I feel in the morning, and spinal alignment at night can go a long way toward comfort the next day. I prefer a decent amount of cushion which makes inflatable pads a great option, especially for backpacking. I’m also a side sleeper and an inflatable pad is a lot easier on my hips than some of the thinner options out there like closed cell foam. The firmness can be adjusted with inflation or deflation, and there are many choices now that weigh less than a pound. I use the Klymit Ultralight V, which I purchased on Massdrop. The pad weighs 15.5 oz, has a 4.4 R rating, and provides a comfortable night’s sleep all year round. This is one of the least expensive sleeping pads at $59.99 that doesn’t weigh a ton while being insulated. What I like about the Klymit pads is that the baffles keep them from feeling “pool rafty.” This again, is personal preference and testing these on trail is a huge part of figuring out what will work best for your back. Brands to explore include Klymit, Big Agnes, Sea To Summit, and Thermarest.
Which sleep system to choose is a big decision. Some people prefer pillows for neck support, others decide the extra weight isn’t worth it and prefer to use a backpack or extra clothing as a pillow. Sleeping bags don’t help with spinal alignment, but the proper amount of warmth in cold weather keeps muscles from tensing all night which in turn allows for greater range of motion when getting up in the morning. For women who struggle with hip pain at night, a pillow in between the knees can really help with alignment and taking the pressure off sore hips. You can use a puffy that packs into its own pocket as a pillow, or the Klymit Pillow X, which weighs 2.5 oz. There is also the option of hammock camping. For some, this will be an ideal choice when it comes to back issues. For others, it could be a really uncomfortable situation, so make sure you test this thoroughly before deciding to commit to hammock on trail.
Get Out There and Hike!
There is rarely a time when purchasing a piece of gear that I don’t consider how it affects my back in some way. Every ounce adds up to a pound. Those pounds end up in a pack on my back. How far or how easily I’m able to travel depends on the weight I carry and how comfortable that weight is to handle. Scoliosis shouldn’t be a barrier to living a life outdoors. There are adjustments that need to be made, tweaks to gear, even exercises that need to be done for strengthening…but it is possible. The feeling that I have after accomplishing a tough trail and ending up at a spectacular view is pure exhilaration. It’s a reminder to me that many times if I think I can’t do something it’s because I’m standing in my own way. Sometimes, even through pain and struggle, our own abilities can surprise us.
Hi Leah, I’m a graduate student in the University of Oregon’s Sports Product Design Masters program. I’m doing research for designing a hiking backpack that can be customized specifically for people with scoliosis. I would love you input/feedback regarding some brief questions about how scoliosis affects your life and hiking backpacks. Please let me know if you’re able to help!