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The Right Approach: Backcountry Preparation

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You learned to walk a long time ago. But add 60 pounds of rope, rack, food, and other gear, and you might feel like you need a refresher course. While the rewards of a long approach—soaring routes, solitude, and wildlife sightings—may offset the pain of a long slog, these posture, stretching, and packing guidelines will do more to limit your aches and fatigue. This may be just the preemptive strike you need to go a little farther.

Upper body

A heavy load can cause you to slump your shoulders and push your head and neck forward, which stretches upper back muscles and leads to fatigue over the long haul. Adjusting your pack to the proper fit will allow you to straighten your spine and keep its natural curves (cervical, thoracic, and lumbar). This posture will help prevent both back and neck pain. Pay attention to your center of gravity; it should be directly above your pelvis, and your spine should feel long and tall. Relax your shoulders and pull them back to avoid a hunchback. Loose shoulders will naturally push your chest out, and your head and neck will come back into proper alignment. Keep your neck straight and head held high, as if someone were pulling your hair upward. Maintain a forward gaze, scanning the trail for obstacles as needed, and try to keep your chin parallel to the ground. Avoid continually staring down at the trail, which stresses your upper back over time.


Allow your arms to swing naturally with your gait; don’t cross them in front of your chest, which will change your center of gravity and lead to lower back pain.


Contract your stomach slightly, and pull your belly button in toward your spine; this helps stabilize the weight on your back by supporting your lower back muscles.

Lower body

Trekking poles are helpful, especially on steep terrain, as they decrease some impact on the knees. Adjust the poles so your elbows are at a 90-degree angle, forearms parallel to the ground. Land on the middle of the heel and keep a slight bend in your knee, which will allow the leg and hip muscles to absorb impact and take it easy on the joints. Keep your toes pointed forward—not pigeon-toed or duck-footed—and avoid over-pronating, or rolling your foot inward to a greater degree, which flattens the arch and causes the knee and hip to come out of alignment. If you’re a chronic over-pronator, look for an approach shoe with stronger medial support or invest in an aftermarket footbed.

Fit your pack

You won’t reap the benefits of all these posture tips if your pack doesn’t fit right. First, measure your torso length to figure out what size you need. Grab a flexible measuring tape and a friend to help. Tilt your head forward, and have your friend start measuring by the bump at the base of your neck. Then place your hands on top of your hips. Your friend should run the tape down your spine to the imaginary line between your thumbs. This is your torso length. As a general rule: Extra small fits up to 15.5”; small fits 16” to 17.5”; medium/regular fits 18” to 19.5”; and large fits 20” and longer.

Load your pack

In addition to fitting, it’s important to know how to distribute the weight evenly on your back. When carrying both camping and climbing gear, most people stow their sleeping bag and items they won’t need until later (extra clothes, sleeping pads, etc.) at the bottom. Place the heaviest items (rope, rack, cooking gear) on top of the sleeping bag, close to your spine. This helps create a comfortable and balanced center of gravity. Stuff softer items around the periphery, like your rain shell, tent body, rain fly, and puffy, to keep the heavier items from shifting. They’ll also help fill empty space. Don’t forget to pack the essentials—water, headlamp, snacks—within easy reach.

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