Heavy packs, climbing and long-term injuries

5:20 p.m. on April 4, 2007 (EDT)
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On another forum, the question was raised about the long-term effects of carrying a heavy pack. The consensus among the lightweight advocates was that years of carrying a heavy pack will enventually cause various "wear and tear" injuries-bad knees, worn joints, bad back, etc.

However, someone responded with this- "Would you care to explain the 50 yr old mountaineers who routinely carry heavy weight packs for decades with no ill effects?"

True or not true? My guess is that's way too general a statement to be accurate.

9:36 p.m. on April 4, 2007 (EDT)
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Part of it is genetics. Brian in SLC has posted on Trailspace in the past that he is having some problems thanks to years of carrying heavy loads of climbing gear into the backcountry. Barb (my spouse)has some knee problems, partly from tearing her ACL while skiing, partly it runs in the family, partly from carrying heavy pack loads on our 40+ years of heading into the backcountry with climbing and ski gear. Sometimes I get sore knees from carrying a heavy load if I haven't been doing hill runs on a regular basis during the month before.

My PCP ("primary care physician" in health insurance parlance) has a specialty in geriatrics and says that part of it is the aging process (many people get osteoarthritis with age), part is genetics, and part is indeed overuse and repetitive injuries. Some can be avoided by frequent and regular exercise, some can be avoided by proper boots or other footwear, some can be avoided by being careful in your activities (he and his wife are avid backcountry skiers, who we meet from time to time when out there ourselves).

So, yeah, both sides are right. Some people are lucky, some are careful, and some have joint replacements (my father-in-law for one, who died from melanoma, probably triggered by decades of "healthy tans" from all the time spent in the outdoors hiking and backpacking)

Oh, and the remark about "50-year-olds". Hey, 50 years old is just a kid! I am not sure it even qualifies as "middle aged". It doesn't qualify for a Golden Age Pass from the National Park Service, you get a huge penalty for drawing from your IRA or 401k, and you can only draw from Social Security if you are disabled. I don't think you can even join AARP at 50. Heck, the government didn't even send me my official "elderly" card until they thought I was 65.

So you young pups better watch who you're calling "old", goldurnit! bunch of young whippersnappers! I suppose you would call Fred Beckey "old". He's still climbing strong at 85. And that gorgeous girlfriend of his (just a babe, couldn't be more than 40).

9:41 a.m. on April 5, 2007 (EDT)
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While a lot of it is undoubtedly individual, I suspect those who carry heavy loads on a regular, extended basis (more than just a trip or two a year) do better because they stay in better shape. Specifically, they're preventing injury by constantly conditioning the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that stabilize the most vulnerable joints.

I wonder, can doing a lot of miles with an ultralight pack build a sufficient strength base for safely hauling the occasional monster load without worry of injury?

11:49 a.m. on April 5, 2007 (EDT)
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Thanks for specifically pointing out the need for conditioning, Dave. I hinted at it in a couple of my comments, but it really warrants explicit comment.

One thing I have noticed as I add years and miles is the need to do more regular conditioning and training, added to the longer time required for recovery. If I haven't been hiking/climbing/cycling/skiing for more than a couple weeks, I tend to get stiff and stay sore longer than if I am doing a minimum of 3 days a week of, for example, 5 to 10 mile training hikes with at least 1000 feet of altitude gain. And for backpacking, I need to be carrying a load up the hill on each of these training hikes, or the long backpack or approach with the climbing gear leaves me stiff and sore (I load the pack with gallon jugs of water, which can be dumped at the top of the hill, so there is no load and less impact on the joints going downhill).

When I was young (that is, less than 50 y.o), I didn't have to do as much training and conditioning (except when I was racing bikes and wanted to be truly competitive rather than "dead last but finished").

As for Dave's question of putting in miles of ultralight conditioning for the occasional big load, I dunno. But my guess, thinking back on my own experience, is that it helps build and maintain a base. But the heavy load is gonna leave you sore. Depending on the load, it might produce some permanent damage. OTOH, most of my training hikes are carrying no more than a couple liters of water, which gets drunk by the end of 3 hours (2 hours in summer), and carrying that 25 pounds of climbing gear on top of the 20 pounds of camping gear and food the 10 miles into the Sierra doesn't seem to be that bad.

2:13 p.m. on April 5, 2007 (EDT)
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Thanks. What prompted this was a question about "how much is too much" to carry. The argument being that going lightweight is better in the long run, which I would tend to agree. But as you both mention, conditioning is everything. There are plenty of kids-something like 25 percent I heard yesterday on the news, who are obese and likely to develop all kinds of medical problems because of it. I think the guy who asked the question said he was 6'4 and weighs around 300, so he's packing a lot of weight to begin with.

8:18 p.m. on April 5, 2007 (EDT)
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Hmmm, I thought I heard a higher percentage of obese kids than that. There was an article not long ago in Consumer Reports Health newsletter that said that overweight people tend to have a higher rate of joint problems, along with the other better-known cardiac and diabetes problems. I don't recall whether it said it was because of carrying the extra weight or something else like the effect on the metabolism.

Main advantage to me of going light weight, as I do for simple backpacks, is that I can get there faster and with noticeably less effort, so more energy for setting up camp and exploring the area.

11:24 p.m. on April 5, 2007 (EDT)
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Saw another story on obese kids today. The percentage was 25% for kids 17 and under, but some people expect that number to keep going up. Still a lot. The worry is early onset of Type 2 Diabetes, kidney damage and the associated medical costs. The Robert Woods Johnson Foundation (the Johnson & Johnson fortune)is going to spend $500 Million dollars on education-the biggest private program of its type ever funded.

4:37 p.m. on April 10, 2007 (EDT)
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So my mountain mentors... what's say a 5'10' 185lb guy in his 40's packs 80lbs for 2+ hrs every 3rd day to compliment his biking and running?

My pack workout include 200 step-ups on a rather tall park bench. I've upped my daily sit-ups to 250 and I'm feeling better all the time.

I'd like to still be climbing at 80!

7:34 p.m. on April 10, 2007 (EDT)
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Well, Henry, at 40, you're still just a kid. At that age, I was still beating 20-somethings regularly in bike races (I mean USCF sanctioned races, not casual, informal ones). In my late 60's, as noted before, I still carry 60+ pound packs on expeditions at altitude (meaning up to over 20k feet) and often outhike the 40-yo crowd. As noted before, I have slowed down, and my joints creak, and I never was a jock (bike racing, like climbing, is more a head game than a physical one). Never had any serious injuries until the snowboarder dislocated my elbow (how many serious injuries have you had).

To get a bit serious (as folks here know, don't take my comments too seriously, even though the Old GreyBearded One grovels up hills sometimes faster than self-proclaimed young hotshots, but way slower than kids like Brian in SLC), a lot depends on genetics and avoiding injury. All too often, people who train as hard as you say you do burn out mentally and emotionally long before they start significantly declining physically, or suffer overtraining and stress injuries. You can keep going to 80 if you listen to your body, but you can force your way through pain to the point that you suffer real and permanent injury. Some take chemicals (sometimes claimed to be "natural" or "herbal") that mask the injuries or have long term side effects that shorten the high activity lifespan.

Sometimes it seems surprising that the old folks on the trails doing thruhikes and the ones doing the climbing look almost scrawny and not muscular at all. A lot of the hardmen among climbers, and especially alpinists, look like they could get blown away in a stiff wind (I recently finished Eiger Obsession by John Harlan III, which is largely about his father John Harlan II, who was very muscular, but climbed a lot with Gary Hemming, who looked more like a beanpole, and with a number of European climbers who also looked rather willowy). It's really hard to predict who will climb into their 80s and who will burn out or suffer exercise injuries and quit in their 50s or earlier. The number of situps done at age 40 doesn't seem to be a good predictor. Mental attitude seems to be the main thing that makes the difference.

7:44 a.m. on April 11, 2007 (EDT)
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Thnx Bill,

Funny - ha! My wife calls me her 'pole bean' - she stole it - kind of - from her girlfriend who calls her ex-pro football player husband her sweet little string bean ... brutal - I know.

I surely do listen to my bones and any squeaks here or there - again to hopefully reach the long term goal - so I likely train a bit more moderately than it sounds.

I do have a trip to the Caucasus coming up in June - so need to be on top of my game.

Anywho - time to strap on the pack!

Keep Well,

6:18 p.m. on April 17, 2007 (EDT)
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When I was younger I walked for a whole day with a very heavy back pack on and it was so bad. My back hurt for 2 weeks afterward. I told someone about it and they insisted I use their expensive back pack. And wow! Did it make a difference! I used it and no pain at all, it was very heavy but it was designed very nicely to fit my body and the weight was distributed evenly:)

3:59 a.m. on April 19, 2007 (EDT)
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Hi guys,
Good to hear from the elder statesmen of the bush. I am from Australia and last year completed the Kokoda Track with a group of over 50's. I was the youngest and 49.7 and they were terrific.The younger ones were in the tents at night crying( really it is that tough in the wet season.
You are right 90% of anything hard is mental.Good luck and genetics certainly helps but the will to do someething is all important.

All the best from Oz.

9:21 a.m. on April 19, 2007 (EDT)
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Another thing to keep in mind is that backpacking, climbing and mountioneering are sports. As in any sports, as Bill stated, conditioning is very important. To get the most out of your condtioning is to have a base line and to benchmark yourself from your base line. If you dont benchmark yourself, you could plateau with little gains or you could "over train" and open yourself to injuries that includes lost of sleep and depression. I find that the athelete that trains at altitudes perform somewhat better due to their VO2's. This is true in backpacking also. If you live in a mountainess area, walk those steps to prepare yourself for those inclines and downclimbs. There are some interesting studies that are being done about obeseity. Genetics does come into play, but the predepostions can add up also. If you smoke and drink, those vises comes into play on your conditioning levels and the amount of gains to be made. So if you are just a weekend backpacker and live a relative seditary life style through out the week, you could very well have some injuries.

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