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Three bits of wisdom for camping with back pain

Most people in Colorado start to get a little excited when spring and summer start to roll around. An enjoyable ski/snowboard season is over and it’s time to start thinking about all the warmer weather activities that the Rocky Mountains provide. Maybe you’re whitewater rafting the Arkansas River. Maybe you’re hiking up a stunning trail in the San Juan Mountains, or you are heading down to Shelf Road to climb some of the many walls there. There’s so much enjoyment to be had with any of those activities.

Like most good Coloradans, if you are doing those, you probably also want to spend a night or two camping next to a fire to maximize your time in the outdoors. For some people, there may be a fear that’s holding you back from some of these adventures and your night spent in the tent. Lower back pain is a very common ailment in the United States. According to the American Physical Therapy Association, over 60% of Americans are affected by lower back pain. Today, I want to give you a few tips to help you feel more confident out in the woods.

The first thing I want to address is going through a basic stretching routine. In an oversimplification of concepts, relief of low back pain can be categorized into flexion bias or extension bias. Flexion bias is a relief of symptoms when you go into flexion, which is curving your spine forward as if you are moving your head toward your knees. Extension bias would be the opposite. You curve your spine backward. Place your hands on your hips while standing and try both positions.

If you have a flexion bias, try stretches in that direction. Lay on your back and bring your knees to your chest or try a child’s pose position. If you have an extension bias, lie on your stomach and prop yourself up on your elbows. If that feels alright, you can also prop yourself up on your hands if you have the flexibility. All of these stretches can easily be done on your sleeping pad. If you experience pain, stop the stretch.

Keeping flexibility in the leg muscles that attach to your pelvis is also very important. If these muscles get tight, they can pull on your pelvis and negatively affect the positioning and curvature of your spine. Stretch out your hip flexors on the front of your thigh by going onto one knee and having the other leg positioned in front of you with the foot on the ground.

If you don’t have a soft, grassy area at your campsite to cushion your knee that’s on the ground, put a sweatshirt or something else underneath your knee to protect it. Keep your torso upright and spine in a neutral alignment as you shift your weight onto your front foot. Let’s also think about your hamstrings, which start at your pelvis and attach just below the knee.

There are many, many ways to stretch your hamstrings, but this one will be the easiest at a campsite, I believe. Lay on your back on your sleeping pad and take something you can loop around the lower leg or the foot on the side that you want to stretch (think of a belt, a towel, a dog leash, etc). Bring the leg you want to stretch up into the air, while your opposite leg stays flat on the sleeping pad.

Keep your back in a neutral position as much as possible. This is important. With all stretches, be sure to hold it. Don’t just bounce in and out of that position. The recommended amount of time for stretches is 30 seconds, so aim for that amount of time if you can. Again, do not continue with these stretches if you experience increased pain.

a man standing on the side of a road with his back to the camera

The last thing I want to cover is your sleeping position. These tips take a little extra planning, but you want to find a position that is most comfortable for you to sleep through the night so you are rested for your adventure in the morning! Always make sure you have a pillow that is the right thickness to keep your neck in a neutral position. Your head shouldn’t be forced drastically in any direction by the pillow. For side sleepers, bring a couple of extra pillows to place one between your knees and one to support your top arm.

This supports those extremities to avoid excessive rotation in your spine while you sleep. For those who sleep on their backs. I recommend some pillows or a foam roll or some other support to be placed under your knees to keep them bent. Having your knees in that position takes the pressure off of the low back.

These are just a few things you can do to help yourself avoid low back troubles at your campsite. There are many other options as well. If you are unsure about anything you read in this post and want more info, email me at or reach out on Backcountry Physical Therapy’s social media pages. Be sure to check back on the website for more blog posts and follow us on social media for helpful tips to keep yourself pain-free!

a man standing with his arms crossed in front of him.

Dr. Scott Runyon

Backcountry Physical Therapy

We Help Mountain Athletes Not Only Recover From Injuries, But Build Them Back Stronger Than They Were Before, So That Injuries Are Less Likely To Happen Again!