What’s on your back?
For those of us fortunate enough to live in the West, or ride here, our riding terrain varies drastically from that Midwest and East. Over the past five years, the snowmobile and aftermarket companies have developed snowmobiles that take us into places and situations that we never dreamt of years ago. With drastically easier access to big terrain, avalanche awareness has been brought to the forefront of western riding via seminars, clinics, videos and websites. However, just having the equipment is not quite enough. You need to have the right equipment for you, and know how to use it properly given a life threatening situation. The same is true of you and your riding gear. We spend countless hours and dollars making our sleds as fast, smooth and light as possible. But how often do we put the same effort into ourselves and our riding gear? This topic is not only important for your pure enjoyment in riding, it also plays a role in safety while riding. In this two-part series I will cover riding equipment and then in the second part, how to prepare yourself physically from a musculoskeletal stand point.
Thirty years ago when I started snowmobiling as a kid, my riding attire included Wranglers, long-johns, Sorel boots, a hunting jacket and a pair of goggles. Today thankfully there are companies like Klim who build snowmobile specific riding gear. Having clothes that allow for a complete, unhindered range of motion is imperative. Backcountry, technical riding and boondocking is physically demanding. If your jacket, helmet, gloves, or backpack hinder your movement in any way, shape or form, not only does it rob energy and make your riding more demanding, but it could possibly be dangerous. Have you ever watched a video of Dan Gardiner, Chris Burandt or Matt Entz jump all over and around their sled? I assure you, it would be hard to do in those old wranglers and big heavy Sorel boots, and it wouldn’t be doing your back or spine any good either. It is extra stress and strain on joints and muscles and causes premature fatigue when riding, and this can lead to mistakes which can lead to accidents and injuries. I doubt most people look at it this way, but as the sport evolves and more people push their riding potential to the limits, these little things add up. Boots that provide good ankle support, gloves that fit right and have good grip, a helmet that allows full unhindered neck movement, and a coat that allows your arms and shoulders unrestricted movement are essential in your riding and safety. If you can’t reach over and touch your toes, or do a push up with your gear on, you are potentially putting yourself at risk and are limiting your riding experience.
Once you have the proper riding gear, there is one last essential piece that is often overlooked. Every person that I ride with carries some type of backpack, generally avalanche airbags, and as a matter of avalanche safety, you should always carry your avalanche equipment on your back, not on your sled. There are many different styles and options available to choose from and some very important ergonomic principles need to be kept in mind when picking the right pack for you. I am going to get a little technical and anatomical here so bear with me. The spine is very simple when you think about it and works much like a machine or piece of equipment. Things are supposed to work a certain way and be in a certain position, and if they do this, the spine lasts a long time. It’s really that simple, no snake oil or voodoo about it!
When analyzing the spine from the side, your lower back has what is called a “lordotic curve”. This curve is designed to help bear and distribute the weight of your spine properly from right to left and front to back. If you lose this curve, joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons get overworked and wear out prematurely. This is never a good thing and slows you down on the mountain.
When choosing a backpack, it is important that you chose a pack that keeps these principles in mind. Some of the new packs have additional support in the back piece, which helps support this lordotic curve and fits better against your spine. A perfect example are the packs that I use, the Highmark by Snowpulse Ridge and the Klim Nac Pack. I also like to keep the pack higher up on my shoulders, rather than sitting down low. When the pack is too far down it adds additional weight to your lower back, causes you to compensate by leaning forward, and negatively alters the biomechanics of your spine; keep the weight on your shoulders and snug up those straps.
Additionally, how you load your pack affects the way the pack sits on your back. Having a bunch of hard, rigid items like a shovel, saw or handle in the main compartment makes the pack less flexible. It would basically be like strapping a board to your back; it limits your flexibility and unhindered movement. I keep my shovel and handle on the outside of my pack and only keep my probe and first aid kit in my pack. All other things go in my tunnel bag or under-hood bag. Try to keep the least amount of things possible on you back and stay as freely moving as possible. This is even more important if you like to jump or drop cornices as this additional weight further compounds your spine upon landing and can lead to damage in your back or hips.
Next time you suit up in the morning, or purchase new gear, remember to ask yourself, What’s On Your Back?
Anthony Oberti, D.C., owns and operates Whole Health Chiropractic in Nampa, ID. He lives in Eagle, ID with his wife Melissa and their 3 young boys. Anthony has been in practice for 12 years and was voted Top 5 Chiropractors by Sacramento Magazine last 2 years in a row before moving to Idaho. Anthony began riding snowmobiles at the age of 9, raced RMSHA in college, and for the last 7 years has starred in the Boondockers Movie.