Tips for Camping When You Have Back Pain

It’s the time of the year to hit the trail and the campsite. If you have back pain, you might experience equal parts excitement and dread, but following our expert’s tips will get you back to nature in no time.

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For some, the idea of camping sends a cringe and a shiver through the body, even without the issue of pain or chronic conditions. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea to rough it in nature, go without showers, cook outdoors, and sleep on rocks with noises on all sides. Also, the bugs.

Friends going camping without back pain.If camping's your thing, don't let back pain keep you from it this summer.

But for plenty of others, that sounds like heaven, and it’s something they anticipate all year. And while camping can be a year-round pastime, depending on your area or how good your survival skills are, summer definitely means camping trips for many, whether that looks like packing up some tents with the family or hitting the backpacking trails with friends.

What’s almost indisputable is that if you love to camp but struggle with back and neck pain, or conditions that cause pain, you may have a certain sense of trepidation when you’re off to the wilderness for your adventure. Sure, you’re excited to enjoy some games, hikes, and classic camping activities, but all of that comes with an undercurrent of “Will I wake up in too much pain to move?”

If that’s you, your camping dreams don’t have to be dashed. There are plenty of modifications to keep in mind, as well as tools to help make the experience pain-free and fully fun.

Who Struggles with Camping?

First, not all people with back pain or conditions will struggle with camping and sleeping on the ground. In fact, there’s a subset of that group who may actually find that an ultra-firm sleeping surface gives them one of their better nights of sleep in a while.

Campers sleeping without back painAlthough sleeping is probably the trickiest issue when it comes to camping with back pain, your back might actually feel better after a night on the ultrafirm ground.

While a 2015 article from the journal Sleep Health determined that medium-firm mattresses and surfaces are least likely to cause back pain, lots of people feel that going mattress-free, even just sometimes, actually helps reduce their pain more than anything. And there is something to be said for the fact that overly soft mattresses can worsen back pain, as they let you sink in too much, providing no support to the spine and leading to soreness and problems.

Suzanne Manzi, MD, partner at Performance Pain & Sports Medicine, concurs, noting, “Sometimes when a mattress or air mattress is too soft, and has no support, you can find yourself with more aches and pains in the low back. Support is key.” And what’s more supportive than the flat ground? However, it is still only a small percentage of people with back pain who feel this way and have this result.

When it comes to floor sleeping, sciatica from pinched nerves can become irritated or flare up, and Dr. Manzi also adds “patients with arthritis in the joints of the spine can wake up stiff and in more pain.”

Other camping tasks can cause pain too, so don’t think you’re cleared after you wake up or until you hit the hay. If carrying around and moving heavy equipment, hiking, backpacking with heavy bags, setting up tents, or bending over repeatedly is part of the camping agenda, “patients who have a pinched nerve, called radiculopathy or sciatica, may have a hard time,” says Dr. Manzi. She also cautions that traditional camping chairs can position the spine at unnatural angles, so prolonged lounges in these chairs can aggravate some spinal conditions.

Camping chairs that cause back painChairs like these aren't supportive enough for campers with back pain.

How to Modify and Adjust to Improve Your Camping Experience

Don’t cancel that beloved camping trip yet. If it’s something that you love to do, it’s something you can still manage. As is true with most activities when you have back pain, it’s all about modification.

Here are a few of the simplest ways Dr. Manzi recommends to start adjusting your camping trip to lead to less back pain:

  • Hang out in a firm, supportive chair, not a soft canvas one.
  • Ask someone else to move heavy equipment, or if you absolutely need to, bend at the knees not the waist, so there’s no extra strain on the back.
  • If hiking, use poles for support, and try not to carry bags on your back, as they add extra strain to the spine. Have someone else with you carry the bag, or use the pockets in cargo pants or a jacket to put items you can’t go without.
  • Opt against long backpacking trips that will require you to hike with large, heavy bags on your back every day. While this is a favorite camping style for some, it will be unmanageable to many with spinal conditions and back pain, and choosing to do a more relaxed car camping trip will be worth it for you in the end.
  • Move around throughout the day rather than sitting for too long.
  • If ground sleeping just isn’t for you, there’s no shame in renting a camper with a bed, getting a cabin, or hitting a glamp-ground. Do what you need to.

When it comes to your camping supplies, those with spine conditions and pain may be in the market for some upgrades. As Dr. Manzi notes, “Packing the correct gear can provide a world of difference in the comfort of being away from home. Over the past 20 years, there have been many technological advances in the field of foam and air mattresses.”

That’s an important place to start, since the largest number of pain issues arise during the sleeping portion of the trip. There are a huge range of air mattresses and sleeping pads out there, many designed for people with pain, so do your research and seek out options designed for your particular sensitivities. This self-inflating mattress is highly recommended, as is this REI mat, and this similar option that fits two people. Overall, aim for something sturdy and supportive, with a bit of softness on the top.

Next up, upgrade your camping chair to something more ergonomic and back-supportive. You could opt for a classic-style chair with a lumbar support upgrade like this one, or go for a fully deluxe, very multi-use chair like this.

Ultimately, you absolutely can still go camping despite your back pain. Be smart, listen to your body, follow our tips, and get back to nature for a little while. 

Updated on: 07/26/21
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Suzanne Manzi, MD
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