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Five trekking options for adventurers with bad backs
I suffered a moderately severe back injury in 1994, which has been exacerbated over the years by my recreational/occupational pursuits and being a general spaz (a fall on ice led to months of physical therapy). While I travel with a 35-pound backpack, it's always for relatively short distances. When it comes to trekking, I know my limit is about 10 pounds, in a daypack.
Yet I love few things more than backpacking and trekking. Over the years, I've found ways to circumvent my back issues, and in the process, have taken some truly mind-blowing trips (as well as excelled, physically). There are those who consider it cheating if you don't carry your own gear, but I'm willing to bet they haven't experienced the joys of a herniated disc, whiplash, or spinal stenosis. Ignore the naysayers, and look into these rewarding options. Happy trails!
Note: I don't want to underplay the importance of being physically fit and well-conditioned for a trek. You need to be able to walk long distances, on often steep, difficult terrain at very high altitude (depending upon itinerary). Any reputable company will provide you with an outline on conditioning for your adventure. Please be honest (with yourself, and them) about your abilities.
Use a porter
Outfitters in many locales, such as the Inca Trail, the Himalayas, or Kilimanjaro rely on porters to haul gear; you're responsible for your daypack (which may include weather-related gear). The altitude presents enough of a challenge for the average trekker, and porters are usually indigenous peoples who are genetically adapted to their harsh environment. There's a reason Sherpas always accompany climbers on Everest and why the Quechua porters of the Andes are capable of sprinting uphill for miles, barefoot, with 100-pound loads on their backs.
While long days in the saddle can wreak havoc on tenderfoot thighs and butts, pack trips are the ideal way for the physically-compromised or older folks to explore remote wilderness regions, often at high altitude (day hikes are usually included during downtime; be sure to ask). Alternatively, if your back (or you) demand a bit more comfort at night, you can descend on muleback into the depths of the Grand Canyon, and stay in one of the Phantom Ranch's rustic but comfy cabins; note that these trips book out at least a year in advance.
Bonus: Many outfitters now focus on food, so rest assured you won't be eating freeze-dried beef Stroganoff. Other outfitters will teach you packing skills, such as how to tie a diamond-hitch and load a pack mule, or focus on fly-fishing, photography, or personalized trips, so look for the company that best suits your needs and interests. Tip: There's no unified national packers association. Your best bet, says Dave Dohnel of California's (very excellent) Frontier Pack Train, is to "ask for references--I always tell potential clients to call the regional office of the Forest Service. They're the stewards of the land, so they'll give you an unbiased opinion." Also be sure to do some online research on the companies you're considering.
Having a furry friend haul your gear as you walk alongside is becoming more popular in the States. Llamas, of course, have been used as pack animals for hundreds of years in the Andes. They're tough, have excellent footing, and are cute as the dickens, but they're also tempermental. If you'd prefer to trek with an animal you can really bond with, goats are ideal, as they're more dog-like and enjoy interacting with people.
There are only a handful of goat packers in the U.S. at this time, but it's grown in popularity since it was pioneered in the 1980's by former Forest Service employee John Mionczynski. A large goat can carry up to a quarter of its body weight with a pack frame, and their small hooves and grazing habits make them a lower impact option than horses or mules. The North American Packgoat Association (NAPgA) is for those who want to start packing with their own goats, but it's still a great resource.
Destinations for both llama and goatpacking include the Rockies, Pacific Northwest, and Southwestern U.S.. There's also the Pack Llama Festival in Silverton, Colorado, held September 22-25.
Day treks from a base camp
Many outfitters offer combination trips that enable experienced trekkers or climbers and beginners to travel together. Seattle-based Mountain Madness, historically a "hardcore" mountaineering outfitter, now offers a "Trek or Climb Program" that allows partners or families to enjoy the same trip--each participant has the option to climb or trek only, or a combo of the two--and reunite at a new base camp each night. For those with no experience wanting to get a "taste of climbing but not commit to it 100%," this offers a great compromise. All trips include porters, so you only need to carry your daypack (they'll even hire a porter to do that, if you'd like). Other companies, like Seattle's Alpine Ascents, will hire porters to carry your gear on their international trips if you're unable (they suggest you be able to handle a 50-pound pack).
For my first mountaineering attempt, I did a Mountain Madness trip to Ecuador's Cotopaxi, the world's highest active volcano (19,347 feet). Because we had to spend the night at a refugio located just above 15,000 feet in the acclimatization zone, it meant I only required a day pack for the ascent (which was unfortunately thwarted at 17,000 feet due to avalanche danger). But the point is, you can have the best of both worlds, bad back or not. And I still had a great time and felt I'd made a massive achievement.
Mountain Madness also offers a Mt. Baker "Slow Boat" beginner summit climb in the Cascades (FYI, a lot of outfitters are based in Seattle, an outdoor industry Mecca). This is a four-day trek--usually, it's done in three--created specifically for those who need a little more time for whatever reason (you still need to be able to carry 35 pounds). Ask outfitters what options they offer if you have limitations; many companies will create personalized itineraries for two or more clients.
Have back problems and a trek or outfitter you want to rave about? Let us know!
[Photo credits: pack train, Flickr user Mouldy17; all other photos, Laurel Miller]