Friday, December 14, 2007

Back Care Tips for Trippers

While surfing for info about the advantages of using a barrel to carry food, I found this great article on Paddling Canada. As you many of you already know, I have problems with my lower back and it's got all kinds of helpful hints. Check it out!

Bower’s Barrel Baskets Beat Backache!

A couple of hours at your sewing machine can
save miserable back strain on the portage.

By Carol Bower

The members of our annual canoe-camping expedition are all over 55 years old, and all of us have suffered back problems. To lessen chances of delay due to back spasms on our expeditions, we’ve developed some guidelines – and a handy method of carrying those awkward barrel packs so necessary to keep food secure.

#1 Use a pack board.
Nothing is harder on a delicate back than carrying heavy items in your arms. We organize our portage loads so that almost everything is carried in backpacks or strapped to a pack board. We have an old aluminum army surplus pack board with its own straps, and with it anyone can carry two barrels in great comfort high on the back. Paddles, a fishing rod and a net are the only items we can’t carry on our backs, so we tape them together in a bundle which can then be carried over one shoulder.

#2 Carry a sail bag.
Balers, lines, maps, wet shoes and jackets, and other miscellaneous items are tied separately to the thwarts during paddling. They considerably increase the weight of a canoe and make it much more difficult to portage, often flopping around and snagging on trees. Instead of securing all these small items separately onto packs (time-consuming and awkward) or carrying them by hand (uncomfortable and dangerous on a rough trail), we toss them all into a tough nylon drawstring sail bag, then lash the bag to a pack board, along with a day barrel. This is a quick, simple, and convenient solution, as long as you don’t buy a sailboat in order to obtain a sail bag.

#3 Portage the canoe half way... and switch.
It goes without saying that if you have back trouble, a Kevlar canoe is a good choice. After stripping our Kevlar canoes, their empty weights are 30 kg (66 lb.) and 25 kg (55 lb.).
On long portages, there are many advantages to taking the canoes one at a time. Instead of lifting the canoe alone, avoid that dangerous manoeuvre by having a partner hold it up while you get underneath. Then your partner, perhaps carrying a backpack or the paddles, can lead the way over difficult terrain, lending a hand over deadfalls and pointing out obstacles in advance. Every 400 metres (440 yd.) switch loads. In two trips, just as in the normal method, both canoes and two packs are still carried across, but with less strain on either back.

#4 Weigh those packs.
We use one waterproof pack each loaded with personal and camping gear. Each weighs 20 to 22 kg (44 - 49 lb.). On our latest trip, we also had two large and a small food barrel, for a total weight of 22 kg plus two day barrels, one for each canoe, weighing a few kg each. We also carry the pack board and that sail bag of miscellaneous items, adding up to another 10 kg (22 lb.). Aside from that we had a taped bundle of 5 paddles, a fishing rod, and net.

This gear was enough for 3 people for 17 days in the wilderness, and could be portaged in three trips. To keep light we replaced books with crossword puzzles, ground beans with instant coffee, wine with rum, and wore the same clothes the whole trip (laundered daily by immersion for hours in flowing water).

#5 Make Barrel Webbing.
We use plastic barrels in two sizes: 19-litres (5 gal.) for day barrels and 29-litres (8 gal.) (which have a wider mouth) for food. (See Edward T. Neal, “Get Tanked”, in KANAWA ‘s Summer 2000 issue) Both are awkward to lift and carry. The smaller ones have no handles at all, and lifting and carrying the loaded food barrels by one or even both side-mounted handles can easily lead to back strain.

Therefore, I made “baskets” with handles at the top for each barrel (see photo). The black plastic webbing I used is inexpensive and sews easily by machine using a normal needle and thread. A basket for a 19-litre
(5 gal.) barrel requires less than 6 metres (7 yd.) of webbing, costs under ten dollars, and takes less than an hour to make.

The handles on top make it easy to pass the barrels from one person to another during loading, unloading or on a short “bucket brigade” portage. Loops on the sides make it easy to attach the barrels to a pack board in any combination, and also to a canoe.

Buying a ready-made backpack harness is another possibility, but then the barrels can only be carried one at a time. Also, the straps of the harness are inconvenient around the campsite if left attached, whereas the baskets become a permanent and unobtrusive part of the barrel.

#6 Bring medicine.
Sometimes back problems are inevitable. On our last trip, we had a lot of upstream work to do, which required pulling the loaded canoe from a stooped position through shallow water almost all day long. The constant bending and straining was tough on bad backs, and we had problems. Obviously more rest periods and muscle stretches would have helped, as well as warm ups before beginning the upstream work.
For those times when all else fails, your medical kit should include several types of medication for pain and spasms, as well as stomach settlers, since anti-spasm medication often causes indigestion. Also of great use is a good heat rub, which acts immediately to relax muscles and prevent further spasms. Massage the area lightly every ten minutes after application, and the heat returns. Adhesive patches impregnated with the same active ingredients as rubs can be applied and left on for a day or more; again, when rubbed they reactivate. Be sure to try them first if you have sensitive skin.

#7 Set back-saving rules for the trip.
Make a very conservative estimate of trip duration so you don’t have to rush. This means including one or two days off in the estimate of trip length, and planning for short work days. We generally leave camp at 8:30 a.m. and stop no later than 3:30 p.m.

We also promise each other to avoid hasty decisions during adrenalin surges, and to monitor each other for signs of these adrenalin surges or exhaustion. It’s up to everyone to do some back-strengthening exercises for several weeks before the trip, but en route we continue these exercises every morning or evening. We also take frequent breaks, do a few stretches and warm up our muscles before lifting.

Carol Bower’s back survived a gruelling 160-km (100 mi.) trip which began on the stunning West Magpie River, sometimes called one of America’s “ultimate” rivers. After paddling the Magpie, the travellers spent days hauling loaded canoes through almost continuous rapids, to cross to the Moisie River watershed beyond Lac Vital, Quebec.

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