Camping With a Bad Back

back pain shadow
back pain can wreck a great camping trip

A bad back can ruin an otherwise great camping trip. I’m not sure why I haven’t written about it before, as I have on-and-off back problems. Usually it’s because I’ve strained my back doing heavy lifting, but sometimes I can just bend over to pick something up and my back is out for several days. Does that happen to you? Drives me crazy.

The other day a Twitter peep (one of those super-nice people you just like instantly) asked me a question about sleeping when camping if you have a bad back. She wondered if I had any ideas about sleeping options while camping, as two people she was going with had severe back problems.

The Problem.

I have to say, her question stopped me cold.  I have always told people not to let problems get in the way of camping, because the natural world is so good for you, mentally and physically.  But I have never thought of what, exactly, you can do if you have a bad back. So I decided to look into it and tell you all about my research and what I’ve found out. I have a bad back too, so this is something I don’t mind doing a little work on.

The problem with back trouble and camping is that the variety of problems, and the sheer number of camping options, precludes any one-size-fits-all solution. Also, it seems different solutions work on different people. But I figure if you have enough solutions, you can adapt one or two or combine them in a way that works for you. So here is what I discovered:

Cots.

One of the biggest set-backs when sleeping with a bad back during camping is getting up and laying down.  Most of us don’t even think about it, but a person with a back problem (like my sister) cannot rise from a lying position on the ground to a standing position without bearing a strong resemblance to Frankenstein attempting the same thing. Nothing bends. And everything is agony. My sister’s solution was a cot that sits as high off the ground as a standard bed.  The brand that she bought is no longer available, but  this Coleman airbed cot comes close, and is cheaper as well. It sits 22″ high when the mattress is inflated and is queen sized, and right now it’s a pretty good price. There are other options out there that are more expensive, but quite frankly I don’t think that necessarily means better quality.

Air Mattresses–The Most Popular Solution.

Another option for a queen-sized bed that sits high off the ground is a queen-sized double air mattress. That’s the option I went with, and bought the Intex queen-sized double high air mattress with built-in electric pump. It’s the best bang for your buck; I’ve been using it for a couple of years now no real problems.  It also stands at 22″ high, so that you can just swing your legs out and over like it’s your bed at home. Another great air mattress is the SoundAsleep Air Mattress. It has vertical air chambers, which allows for a more comfortable sleep when you have back problems.  I will probably buy one if my Intex ever gives up the ghost. If you follow the link above it will take you to Amazon and you can read all the reviews about the SoundAsleep Dream Series. People with bad backs are swearing by it! They also have an option especially for camping that you can buy, but it’s not the double height that is so handy when you are getting out of bed.

Word of warning, though, for this mattress and others that you buy: make sure you have the right plug-in for inflating.  When I got it to the  campsite the first time I used it, I discovered you  needed a wall plug-type plug to inflate it.  Fortunately, my brother had a converter kit that he carries with him everywhere.  It’s a mobile power inverter that connects to a car’s battery and converts to the type of plug-in that I needed. We’ve been using it ever since. Canadians can get it at Canadian Tire–MotoMaster carries several kinds. A good U.S. option can be found here.

Another word of advice regarding air mattresses–blow them up at home first, to stretch the material, so that there is no sagging the first night you sleep on them camping.  If you have back problems you don’t want a sagging mattress to cause you discomfort. Check them again each morning and re-inflate for ten seconds or so if there seems to be a little sagging.  Most campers are fine with that, but a bad back means you have to be a little more careful about your sleeping surfaces.

Hiking Options.

Of course, double-high air mattresses and folding beds are no good if your camping on an overnight hike.  For this option you have to go low, and you really, really need support and comfort.  I went to my favorite camping store (A big shout-out to the extremely helpful folks at Skyview Outdoors for their input and advice) and they recommended a spectacular little cot and mattress that they made me try out because, they assured me, I wouldn’t believe it until I tried it. And they were right!

The cot they recommended was the Helinox cot. It weighs 2.6 pounds, is easy to set up, and has great support. In conjunction with the cot, they also recommended the Thermarest Neo Air Dream, a mattress pad that is unbelievably comfortable.  It does NOT feel like you are sleeping on a mattress pad. In conjunction with the Helinox cot, it felt as if I had all the support and comfort I could possibly need anywhere, camping, hiking, crashing at a friend’s house–anywhere. Pricey but well worth it, especially if you have back problems.

A…Hammock?

Yes indeed. It caught me by surprise, too.  But check out these comments by hammock users in the “Back Pain” thread of Hammock Forums.net.

There seems to be growing evidence to support those claims that hammocks can help with some kinds of back pain, because it minimizes or eliminates pressure points.  This hammock stands by those claims, made by bad back sufferers who have found relief. Those who get back relief by sleeping in hammocks are quick to point out that if you have had previous terrible experiences with back-yard hammocks (you know, the ones with the bar at either end), sleeping in a real hammock is an entirely different experience.

After doing considerable research on the subject, I have to say I’m considering getting one to try. Do your research, though–hammocks are really coming into their own and new innovations are available every day.

Other Things You Can Do.

Here’s some tips for reducing back pain when camping:

  • Begin before you get there! If the drive is long, take frequent breaks to get out of the car and do a little stretching.
  • Avoid bending whenever possible. Try to hold items as close to your body when lifting. Straighten up before turning one way or the other.
  • Wear shoes with good shock absorbers to decrease the strain on your back, especially if you’re doing any hiking.
  • Stay hydrated!  Dehydration can cause muscles to stiffen up, and that includes your back.
  • Use a pillow that’s tried and tested. Take your own pillow from home if you need to. Untested pillows can bend the neck into an unaccustomed position, leading to back pain.
  • Take along some pain-relieving patches. These Ben Gay patches are ultra-strength, and can make the difference between moving and not moving around.
  • If you’re the person that gets the wood, pack an industrial back brace and use it!  These braces are tremendously helpful when a lot of bending and lifting is necessary.
  • Take along a good old-fashioned hot water bottle. They take up very little room in your gear, and they do the double duty of supplying heat to your bad back and warming up your sleeping bag. The simplest solutions are often best.
  • Make sure you have pain medication in your first-aid kit, such as ibuprofen. I’m a fan of the liqui-gels, because they seem to work faster, but get the ones you like to use. Take only the ones you know are safe for your personal use, and don’t take more than you need to. It’s better to get a stronger pain-reliever prescribed by your own doctor and keep it in your own personal kit bag than to over-medicate on over-the-counter pain medication.

Follow these tips and ideas, and you’ll find you’re camping with far less pain.  What do you do to ease back pain when camping? Have we forgotten anything? Let us know in the comments section!