I will never forget on a particular road trip to San Simeon and Hearst’s Castle. I was behind on my magazine reading so I packed an extra bag just filled with magazines. When we got ready to leave our hotel room I grabbed that bag and forgot to lift with my knees. The next thing I knew I could not stand up. Our trip was over. A walking tour of Hearst’s Castle was immediately off the table. The drive home was agony and I couldn’t even drive.
As someone who loves to travel but who has had back issues for his whole life here are some things that I have learned.
Now I am a believer in packing light anyway, but my back gives me extra incentive. No matter how careful you are you will inevitably have to lift up your suitcase into a trunk, an overhead bin, or carry it up a flight of stairs. If you are prone to back problems then forget about how much the airline says you can put in a bag, your goal is not to take as much as you can but as little. It will be far more fun to do laundry after a week than hurt yourself trying to avoid it.
Kindle or iPad
Books are surprisingly heavy (and magazines). I have pretty much stopped traveling with a book in my bag because a kindle, or in my case an iPad, can be a much more effective way to carry multiple books without the additional weight.
Suitcases with Wheels
The guy who invented suitcases with wheels must have had me in mind. Make sure that you can comfortably reach the handle of your suitcase without bending down. If you have a second bag like the day pack that I carry, you can throw that backpack on top of your suitcase and take even more stress off your back.
I am sure that the reason that I threw out my back on that trip to San Simeon was that I had just spent the night in a cheap hotel bed. Save too much on your hotel and you are more likely to get a bad mattress. I don’t know about you but when I lie down on a soft mattress or an old mattress I know that I will wake up with a sore back. I have learned that sometimes it pays to pay more. If I end up in a room with a bad mattress I am sometimes better off grabbing a spare blanket and sleeping on the floor.
One interesting thing I have learned is that some countries like China and Japan like a more firm mattress. Get a cheaper room in Japan and you are more likely to get a firm futon on a Tatami Mat on the floor, which I found to be great for my back.
Sitting in an airplane seat for hours is not the worst thing I can do for my back, but it isn’t good. Make sure you get up and stretch your legs when you can. I also do a few toe touching exercises to stretch out my back muscles once every hour or two. When I am sitting in my seat I take a pillow (if I have one) or a sweatshirt and put it behind my back to get back support.
In one of the best examples of bad timing, I threw out my back the week before I flew to Tanzania from California. I was dreading two-night flights in a row but was able to see a doctor who prescribed a muscle relaxant (Flexeril). This can be a great help but if you do take a muscle relaxant to make sure you understand the instructions. I missed that you should not combine Flexeril with alcohol and woke up nauseated as my blood pressure was so low I was about to pass out. Learn from my mistake.
If your doctor has not sent you to “back school” to learn exercises to strengthen your back (and all the other muscles that affect it like your abdominal muscles) then ask him or her about it. When you are on the road remember that your back can be more at risk so don’t neglect any exercises or stretching that you normally do. Of course, your doctor may probably also tell you that losing a few pounds couldn’t hurt either.
Ibuprofen and Capsaicin
Some days I wake up and my back is sore. On vacation, after I walked for miles the day before I can pretty much count on my back being sore so I always pack ibuprofen in my day bag. Unlike aspirin, ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory which I have found makes it more effective for my back pain. I also have a tube of capsaicin (pepper) creme in my liquids bag which I apply to my back after my shower in the morning when my back is hurting or when I will be making it hurt by walking around Disneyland all day.
I have had a bad back my entire life. I inherited the bad back from my father, but if he had not had a bad back I might not be around at all. My father was a farmer who quit farming because of back pain, went back to college and met my mother. I can stay home and have a bad back or I can explore the world and have a bad back. I choose the latter.