Perfectly Fitting Your Back Pack – Four Pines Physical Therapy
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Perfectly Fitting Your Back Pack

Back Packing

The snow is finally receding and dry weather appears to be here, maybe

…….but backpacking season has certainly arrived.

Here are some hints on properly fitting your pack for a great season of getting into the backcountry that is not followed by a visit to the MD or Physical Therapy secondary to neck pain from the straps digging in and LBP from a poorly fitting backpack.

The first step is having a backpack that fits your body in the first place.

It is one thing to borrow a backpack for an hour-long hike and not have a pack that fits just quite right, but if you’re heading into the backcountry for a 7 day epic, having the right pack is a bit(read; a lot) more important. Purchasing a pack from a local shop where they can properly size and adjust the pack would be a great initial step. Local outdoor shops know what they are doing when it comes to fitting backpacks, they do it all the time.

Now that you have purchased a proper pack or have one that is ready to go there is a proper sequence to fitting the pack to the body, and really should be followed every time you go to put the pack on. This includes when your on the trail and have stopped for a rest.

When you’re ready to shoulder up that pack and leave open/loosen the straps and then put it on.


First step is tightening the waist belt.

The padding should rest on top of the waist/hip bones. It should be snug and does not pinch and be comfortable. This is important as a great amount of the weight of the pack should be transferred though the waist belt to your body. If your waist belt ends are touching, then the pack is much too large for you as there should be a few inches of strap left over for adjusting as you go.


Second step is tightening the shoulder straps.

These should be tightened such that they wrap around the top of the shoulders and kind of ‘hug’ the shoulder itself, but do not pinch the top of the shoulders or the arm pits. There should not be a feeling of the weight of the pack going through the shoulder straps onto your body, which is the purpose of the waist belt. The shoulder straps should attach to the pack a few inches below the top of the shoulders. This is an important step. If the weight of the pack is being put on the shoulders the fit is wrong, and this is a great way to cause neck and shoulder pain, which is miserable over long distances.


The third step is to adjust the load lifter straps.

These important straps bring the load of the pack forward and closer to your back and snug up the whole fit of the pack. Guidelines would say that the straps should form a 45 degree angle from the pack towards your shoulders.


The final step is adjusting the chest strap. 

It should be about an inch or two below your collarbones and pulls the shoulder straps together, or maybe a better way to state it is: stabilizing the shoulder straps so they don’t fall off the shoulders. This is an easy strap to over tighten and, in the end, actually restrict your breathing/chest expansion.

Once you get moving there are the inevitable micro adjustments that are needed, which is fine and expected. A common adjustment is the waist belt as the weight of the pack will force downward and the waist belt slips off the waist. Just shrug the shoulders a bit to lift the pack and then tighten the waist belt. When you release your shoulders the weight of the pack should now be more on the waist.

Hopefully this helps for proper adjustment of your pack and a more enjoyable backpack trip. I think all of us would rather focus on the scenery rather than pain in the shoulders or hips. Enjoy your time in the backcountry…….

Mark Schultheis

Mark Schultheis

Mark was born, raised, and educated in Wisconsin over the course of 26 years and moved to Jackson, Wyoming in 1995 for his first Physical Therapy job at St. John’s Hospital. He worked In Patient, Living Center, Home Health, and Out Patient during his time at St. Johns. After a two-year stint at St. Johns he then joined Norene at her quickly expanding practice at Four Pines Physical Therapy. During this time he co-authored a mountain biking guide to the Jackson Hole area entitled “The Book”.
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