Camping with a bad back: 14 tips for a successful trip

by | Sep 27, 2022 | Health & safety

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Camping almost always requires some degree of physical, manual work. If you’re camping with a bad back, you definitely have to be extra careful, but there are some things you can do to make the experience less physically taxing and more comfortable.

Is camping with a bad back safe?

Here’s the thing: We’re not chiropractors or medical professionals. Ross has certainly pulled some muscles in his back during our more strenuous trips, so we’re speaking from experience here, but this article is not meant to be a source of medical advice. If you have any doubts about camping with a bad back, please consult your doctor before heading out into the woods.

For non-severe muscle or ligament strains, camping can be safe as long as you take some precautions and listen to your body. Because it requires work and physical movement, a camping trip can even can be an opportunity to focus on strengthening your back and improving your posture.

However, if you’re dealing with severe or chronic, camping may not be the best idea. We recommend resting up at home first to see if your pain improves first, or visiting your doctor to see if they have any camping recommendations for you.

1. Avoid backpacking

A backpack on the grass in the mountains.

You might love backpacking and camping, but if you’ve got a bad back, it’s time to face the facts: Backpacking is not for you right now. At least, not until your back pain has subsided.

For camping trips that require carrying all of your gear on your back, it’s best to either leave your camping backpack at home or find a different camping activity altogether. There are plenty of different types of camping that don’t require backpacking, such as car camping, glamping, and dispersed camping.

If you’re dead set on backpacking and aren’t experiencing any severe pain, consider going “ultralight” backpacking with a friend (so you can split the load) and going easy on the distance to ensure that you don’t overdo it.

2. Choose a campsite wisely

Two 3-season tents set up on a waterfront campsite.

You want the ground of your campsite to be as flat and free of obstructions as possible. This is why car camping is a good choice, because most car camping sites have been cleared and levelled for vehicles, large tents, and picnic tables.

If you’re camping in the wilderness, you’ll need a flat and level spot at the very least for your tent. Try lying down on the ground to test it before you set up your tent. If it feels flat and level, you’re good to go.

3. Go with someone who’s willing to do most of the heavy lifting

A man carrying firewood to the campfire.

The downside to solo camping is you have to do everything yourself. If you’re camping with a bad back, this includes all of the manual labour, such as setting up and taking down your tent, gathering firewood, and cooking meals.

Whenever possible, go camping with someone who’s willing to share the workload. This will help prevent you from overdoing it and straining your back even further. Not to mention, it’s just more fun camping with a friend!

4. Consider using a camping cot or camping hammock instead of a sleeping pad or mattress

A camping hammock under a tarp.

A camping cot or camping hammock can provide some much-needed support and elevation for your back while camping. By sleeping off the ground, you can avoid putting unnecessary strain on your back.

Some people claim that sleeping in a hammock helps them sleep better—however there’s no research to prove it. Mattresses can also place more pressure on your shoulders, back, and butt, making a hammock a more comfortable option.

Hammocks aren’t for everyone, though. If you toss and turn a lot in your sleep, you might find that a camping cot or a mattress is a better option, since it’s more stable.

5. If you prefer a mattress, get a high-quality one with as much thickness as you can get

A super thick camping air mattress inside a tent with two sleeping bags.

When we first got into camping, we really cheaped out on our air mattresses and learned the hard way that this is absolustely not the piece of gear to do that with. Not only are thin air mattresses uncomfortable, but they don’t provide the support your back needs while camping.

Invest in a high-quality camping mattress that’s thick and firm enough to give your back the support it needs. If weight and bulk aren’t an issue, we recommend going for camping mattresses that are at least 8 inches thick, but 10 or more inches would be even better. Something like the Intex Dura-Beam air mattress, which is a whopping 16.5 inches thick, is a good consideration.

But if you need something lighter, we use and highly recommend the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite, which offers 2.5 inches of thickness and weighs just 8 ounces when it’s all packed up.

6. Test your air mattress at home to find the right inflation level

A person using an air pump to blow up an air mattress.

The great thing about using an air mattress is that you can adjust the inflation level to find a comfortable spot for your back. Too firm and it’ll feel like you’re sleeping on the ground; too soft and your back will sink down and put strain on your spine.

Before camping with a bad back, test out your air mattress at home to find the perfect inflation level for your needs. It might take some trial and error, but it’ll be worth it when you’re camping and can just adjust the air level instead of having to deal with a too-firm or too-soft mattress.

7. Find the right sleeping position

A couple sleeping in a tent.

The best sleeping position for a bad back is on your side with a pillow between your knees. This will take the pressure off of your spine and help keep your back in alignment.

If you prefer to sleep on your back, be sure to use a pillow or rolled up blanket or towel under your knees for support. Avoid sleeping on your stomach as much as possible, as this can put strain on your spine.

8. Bring a comfortable camp chair with back support

A folding camping chair in front of a fire pit.

Chairs are a luxury item in the world of camping, but if you have a bad back, it’s probably a necessity. A comfortable camping chair with good back support will allow you to sit around the campfire without pain, and it’ll make camping overall more enjoyable.

We recommend the FAIR WIND Oversized Fully Padded Camp Chair with Lumbar Support, which has an adjustable back support for customized comfort. It’s also extremely sturdy and comes with lots of handy storage pockets, which is always a nice bonus in a good camp chair.

Plan to sit in your chair always as a first choice as opposed to a log or a stool, which can be hard on your back due to the lack of support.

9. Pack some extra pain relievers in your first aid kit

first aid kit and hiking boots

It’s always a good idea to pack some over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol, Advil, or Aleve in your camping first aid kit—but it’s especially important if you have a bad back.

Even if you take all of the necessary precautions, there’s always a chance that you might end up feeling more pain and discomfort than you expected. It’s important to be prepared with the right medication so that you can manage any discomfort and get back to enjoying your camping trip.

10. Do some gentle stretching throughout the day

A woman doing cow pose on a yoga mat outside.

If you’ve ever had a bad back, you know that sitting or standing for long periods of time can make the pain worse. To help combat this, try doing a few yoga-inspired stretches like:

Cat/cow: Start on all fours with your spine in a neutral position. As you inhale, arch your back and look up to the sky; as you exhale, round your spine and tuck your chin to your chest.

Puppy pose: Start on all fours with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. As you exhale, slowly lower your forehead to the ground and reach your arms out in front of you.

Child’s pose: Start on all fours and then sit back on your heels. As you exhale, reach your arms out in front of you and lay your forehead on the ground.

Side stretch: Start standing with your feet hip-width apart. Reach your arms up overhead and then lean to the right, stretching your left side. Repeat on the other side.

Remember to breathe deeply as you do these stretches—it’ll help you relax and ease any tension in your back. Do them first thing in the morning, before bed, and throughout the day as needed.

11. Go for a short walk or hike to get some light exercise

A man wearing hiking shoes on a trail.

One of the best things you can do for a bad back is to keep moving. A short walk or easy hike is a great way to get some gentle exercise while also enjoying the beauty of nature.

If your camping trip is in an area with lots of hills, be sure to choose a relatively flat route for your walk or hike. And if you start to feel any pain, take a break and rest for a bit before continuing on.

12. Go for a swim to help relax sore muscles

Swimming in the rain.

If you’re camping in the summer heat, there’s nothing quite like a refreshing dip in a cool lake or pool. Not only is swimming great exercise for your whole body, but the water can also help ease any pain and stiffness in your back.

Swimming is also a great low-impact activity, which is important if you’re trying to avoid putting too much strain on your back. You can tread water, doggy paddle, do some casual laps, or just float on your back and relax—whatever feels good for you.

13. Make sure to hydrate regularly

A person holding a water bottle.

Staying hydrated is important for overall health, but it’s especially important if you have a bad back. When your body is properly hydrated, the discs in your spine are better able to absorb shock and protect your vertebrae.

Likewise, muscle cramping can often be caused by dehydration, so making sure you’re drinking enough water will help prevent any unnecessary pain. Aim to drink about an ounce of water per pound of body weight per day, and more if you’re sweating a lot or spending time in the sun.

If you’re camping in a hot and/or dry climate, we also recommend adding some electrolytes to your water to help replace any that you might be losing through sweating.

14. Listen to your body, and don’t push yourself too hard

A man overlooking a view while rubbing his neck and back.

It’s important to listen to your body when you have a bad back. If something hurts, don’t try to ignore it and push through the pain. You could end up doing more damage than good.

In general, it’s best to avoid any activities that involve twisting or bending at the waist, as these can put unnecessary strain on your back. Processing wood, tending to the campfire, and cooking often require a lot of bending over, so be sure to take frequent breaks if you’re doing any of these activities.

If you plan on lifting anything—like a cooler or heavy pack—make sure to use proper form. Bend at the knees, not at the waist, and keep your back straight as you lift. Avoid any sudden or jerky movements, and ask for help if something feels too heavy.

If you’re feeling fatigued, take a break and rest. And if you find that your back is bothering you more than usual, it might be time to call it quits and head back home.

It’s not worth risking further injury just for the sake of camping, after all. Better to be safe and take it easy than to push yourself too hard and end up in even more pain.

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About Us

Elise & Ross

We’re Elise and Ross, avid backcountry campers and outdoor adventurers! We started Gone Camping Again as a way to share our knowledge and experience about wilderness living and travel. Our hope is that we inspire you to get outside and enjoy all that nature has to offer!

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