Gear Guy

What type of pack is best for a bad back?

My girlfriend is hoping to go on a ten-day wilderness orientation trip for UC Santa Cruz put on by Outward Bound. The problem is that she has a bulging disk in her lower back. The sports medicine doc she's seeing says that she should be OK, but I'm not so sure. What are your recommendations for a pack? External-fre packs put more of the load over your hips, right? (She's five feet, three inches and weighs about 100 pounds) Colin Wood Colfax, California

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For starters, don’t take my word for anything here. I’m not a sports-medicine specialist, so am not about to give out medical advice.

That said, it’s true that an external-frame pack in general transfers more weight to the hips than an internal-frame pack, although that’s a bit of a generalization and susceptible to counter-arguments. Internal-frame packs do tend to hug the back, using the back and shoulders more for load bearing. They’re also “softer” and more forgiving, so may have advantages here.

These days, it’s my generally accepted view that the best external-frame pack on the market is the Dana Design Longbed ($299). Really, it’s a fantastic pack-big (5,600 cubic inches), easy to pack, extremely comfortable, with all the load-carrying advantages of an external-frame pack without the excessive stiffness found in some models.

It is, alas, on the expensive side. For a good pack that costs quite a bit less, take a look at the Kelty Super Tioga SE ($185) or the Jansport Olympic ($150). Both are well-made packs that are more in the tradition of external-frame models. That is, a bit on the stiff side. But they’re excellent at transferring the load to the hips.

Otherwise, the big deal for your girlfriend will be to pack as lightly as humanly possible. That can be a bit of a challenge for someone who weighs 100 pounds, as she’ll need to carry her share of group supplies plus the full complement of clothing. But trimming ounces will do a lot for her lumbar health.