How to Wear Your Backpack for Back Pain Prevention

Paying attention to how you wear a backpack can help you prevent back and shoulder pain. It's easy to grab your backpack as you head out the door, even simply slinging it on one shoulder. But wearing a backpack wrong can lead to more pressure on the neck, shoulders, and back.

It's never too early for kids or too late for adults to start developing good backpack habits. Learn how to fit your backpack correctly for school, work, day hiking, and backpacking.

1

Proper Backpack Fit

Wearing Backpacks on Walk
Dougal Waters/Getty Images

Use these tips to get the right backpack positioning each time you put on your backpack. You may need to practice these mindfully for a couple of weeks to make them a habit.

  • Always wear both shoulder straps rather than slinging your backpack with one strap on one shoulder. It takes a moment longer but this simple habit can help prevent problems.
  • If the backpack has a waist strap or chest strap, you should use it. Waist straps help to distribute the weight load to the hips, relieving shoulder pressure. A chest strap helps keep the shoulder straps in place and reduces swaying of the pack.
  • Make adjustments to the shoulder straps so the backpack is high on your back and the shoulder straps are comfortable on your shoulders. The pack should not extend past your waist—it should ride an inch or more above your hips.
  • Readjust the straps when you are wearing different thicknesses of clothing so they are not too tight nor too loose.
  • Your backpack should not sway from side to side as you walk. That can lead to chafing from the shoulder straps and from rubbing against your back. A stable load is better.

With your pack fitted and positioned properly, you should be able to wear it even for running without it swaying.

2

Improper Backpack Fit

There are several popular ways to wear a backpack that may cause back or shoulder pain. Try to avoid these backpack positions.

One Strap Sling Method

It is easy and stylish to carry your backpack slung over one shoulder, using only one strap. However, this position puts all of the pressure on one shoulder. You cannot walk with good posture with a load of several pounds on one shoulder only.

Researchers in 2013 reported that wearing a backpack slung over one shoulder could lead to poor posture and pain in the neck, shoulders, and back. Even if you switch it back and forth between shoulders, you are walking off-balance. This puts an uneven strain on all of the bones and muscles of your upper body, not to mention your hips and core.

Take the time to use both straps and position the backpack high on the back, where it won't sway with each step.

Low on the Back

Wearing a backpack low on your back increases the pressure on the shoulders. This position may lead to shoulder and lower back strain. You may find that you are doing this because you have been loosening the straps to make it easier to put the backpack on and to take it off.

This low back position may lead to a forward lean, which places pressure on the lower back. Loose straps also allow the pack to sway back and forth when you walk, which can be uncomfortable and may result in the straps chafing your shoulders.

Take the time to adjust the straps immediately when you put on your backpack, so it rides high on your back. Your shoulders and back will thank you.

If you have difficulty adjusting the straps, they may not be laced correctly, or the mechanism may be broken. You may be able to find instructions on the manufacturer's website on how to adjust them and ensure they are properly threading through the mechanism. If that doesn't work, it's probably worthwhile to get a new backpack that has easily adjustable straps.

3

Backpack Weight

Walkers With Packs on the Camino de Santiago
Louise Morgan/Moment Open/Getty Images

The weight of your backpack can make a big difference in comfort. Guidelines vary based on your activity.

A daypack for school, work, or day hiking should weigh no more than 10% of your body weight when fully loaded. That includes the weight of water in a bottle or hydration bladder.

For a 150-pound person that is 15 pounds. At this weight, you should even be able to wear it while running without it causing a problem, as long as it is positioned properly.

If you are backpacking for an overnight or multi-day hike, your pack should weigh no more than 20% of your body weight when fully loaded. For a 150-pound person, that is 30 pounds. At this higher pack weight, hiking boots are often worn to provide extra support and stability, and you may use trekking poles as well.

If you are not used to carrying a heavier pack, it is wise to gradually increase the load weight and train your muscles for your backpacking trip. If you are training for a trek such as walking the Camino de Santiago or hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, you should wear your backpack during your training hikes. Get used to putting it on, adjusting the fit, and taking it off.

4

Guidelines for Children

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Kids need to follow the same tips as adults for fitting and wearing a backpack. A backpack with two shoulder straps is recommended rather than wearing a cross-body sling pack, which wouldn't distribute weight evenly.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children should carry no more than 10% to 20% of their body weight in their backpack. That means that it should probably weigh 4 to 15 pounds at most.

You may have to help lighten your child's backpack. If you can't lighten the load enough, consider a rolling backpack for your child. It is also good to get a pack that has a waist strap, especially if the load is typically more than 10% of your child's weight. This will help distribute the load and take the weight off of the shoulders.

The shoulder straps should be wide and padded. Adjust the straps so the pack sits 2 inches above the waist and the pack is held close to your child's body. If you can't adjust the straps to achieve this, the pack is too long and you need to look for a pack made for a shorter torso. The back of the pack should also be padded so sharp objects, such as the edges of books, don't poke into the back.

Help your child organize the contents of the backpack so the heaviest items are closest to the center of the pack. That will help reduce sway when wearing the pack.

5

Buying Tips for Everyday Packs

School Backpacks
Design Pics/Dean Muz/Getty

For a daypack for both children and adults, take these factors into consideration when buying a backpack to get a good fit.

Backpack Width

The width should be no wider than the wearer's torso. It should fit comfortably on the back and not extend to the sides. It is acceptable to wear a pack that is much narrower than your torso.

Straps

It's best to buy a pack with adjustable straps so you can get a good fit whether you're just wearing a T-shirt or you're wearing a winter coat. The straps should be wide and padded so they don't bite into your shoulders.

Hip belts can help take the strain off the shoulders. While typical for packs meant for hiking, many daypacks meant for school or urban use do not have them. If you have any shoulder or back pain when wearing your daypack, look for a pack that has a hip belt.

A sternum (chest) strap connects the shoulder straps across your chest to improve the stability of the load. If you find your pack often sways or the straps slide off your shoulders, look for a pack with a chest strap.

Torso Length

The length of a backpack is also important, especially for children and women with a shorter torso, since many adult packs are designed for men with longer torsos.

When on your back, adjust the straps so that it sits two inches below the shoulder. The pack should end at your waist and not extend past two inches above your hips. Another way to check the length of the pack that has a hip belt is to attach the hip belt and see how the shoulder straps fit. If there is a gap at the shoulders, the pack is too long for you. If the straps extend more than a few inches down your back when you are using the hip belt, it is too short for your torso.

Women- and Child-Specific Packs

Women-specific backpacks are a good solution for many women. Not only do they have a shorter torso length, but these packs also have shoulder straps that are shaped for women (with consideration for having breasts).

Child-specific packs are best for children as they have a shorter torso length and are narrower to fit a child's frame. Women with a shorter torso may also find these fit them best.

6

Buying Tips for Hiking Packs

Backpackers
moodboard/Cultura/Getty Images

Backpacks for overnight hiking trips and multi-day treks are generally larger and sturdier than those for day hiking or wearing around town. The pack may have an internal frame or an external frame. You would usually get one with an internal frame unless you are going to be carrying a load that is heavy or irregular in shape.

Measure Your Torso Length

To measure your torso length, get a friend and tape measure. Stand up straight and tilt your head forward. Place your hands on the top of your hip bones with your thumbs pointing backward. Measure from the bony knob (vertebra) where the slope of your shoulders meets your neck to the imaginary lines across the small of your back between your thumbs.

Your torso length is the most important measurement for getting the right hiking backpack. Hiking backpacks will have their range of torso lengths. Some hiking backpacks have adjustable suspension systems so you can match it precisely to your torso length.

Check the Hip Belt

When you put on your backpack, adjust the hip belt. It should fit snugly at the top of your hip bones. In front, the padding of the hip belt should extend beyond your hip points.

Check Shoulder Straps

Once the hip belt is tightened, tighten the shoulder straps so they are hugging your shoulders but aren't carrying any of the load. The load should be on the hip belt. The anchor points on the shoulder straps (webbing loops where you can attach items) should be 1 to 2 inches below the top of your shoulders.

If your pack has load-lifter straps attached from the shoulders to the back of the pack, adjust them so there is a 45-degree angle.

Final Adjustments

Once you get your pack home, adjust the chest strap so it will sit about an inch below your collarbone. Tighten it so your arms can move freely but it isn't overly tight. While you are hiking, if you feel any discomfort, make some small adjustments. Be sure to take your pack off whenever you make a stop.

A Word From Verywell

You can reduce your risk (or your child's risk) of back, shoulder, and neck pain by wearing a backpack correctly. Take the time to shop for the proper size and design of the backpack. Then be sure you only carry what is necessary and you don't overload it. Your pack should lighten your load, not add to it.

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Article Sources
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  2. Hyung EJ, Lee HO, Kwon YJ. Influence of load and carrying method on gait, specifically pelvic movementJ Phys Ther Sci. 2016;28(7):2059–2062. doi:10.1589/jpts.28.2059

  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. Backpack Safety.