MTNTOUGH’s Comprehensive Guide to Handling Heavy Packs

You know the feeling: trudging through the backcountry or navigating the frontlines with a pack that feels like it's filled with bricks. Every step is a test of your grit, a challenge to your core, and a nod to your preparation - or lack thereof.

Welcome to MTNTOUGH’s comprehensive guide to handling heavy packs where we cover everything you need to know for lifting, loading and unloading, and carrying your ruck with Major Donny Bigham (coach) as the expert sharing all of his knowledge, wisdom, and experience. 

With 27 years of service in the Marine Corps and U.S. Army, plus multiple world records in powerlifting, you won’t find a more experienced instructor for this.

Whether you’re in the backcountry or on assignment, by the time you're done here, you won't just be carrying that pack - you'll be owning it. 

Meet Your Expert: Major Donny Bigham

Coach Bigham is the real deal. He isn't just another fitness guru; he's a seasoned expert in military training and fitness.

He's the first-ever strength and conditioning coach for the U.S. Army Conventional Forces and the co-author of the Occupational Performance Assessment Test.

So when Coach Bigham talks about proper form with weight, you'll want to listen. His top priority with heavy packs is safety, which means it should be everyone’s as well.

The Science Behind Heavy Pack Safety

Your risk of injury skyrockets the moment you lift the pack off the ground. So before you sling that pack over your shoulders, take a second to understand why knowing the biomechanics of your body is key to handling a ruck properly.

Lifting a pack that's pushing triple digits in weight isn't just a test of muscle, it’s a full-body stress test. 

Your muscles, joints, core, and spine have to work in unison or you're setting yourself up for a world of hurt. Let’s break this down further:

    • Muscles: Hoisting a pack throws your muscles into overdrive. The heavier the load, the more your muscles have to contract and release, throwing your center of balance into a tailspin. 
    • Core and Spinal Alignment: Your core and spine are constantly at work to keep you stable and upright. They’re the foundation to your entire effort, fighting for a neutral posture and good form under extreme stress.
    • Joints: As the unsung heroes, your joints take the brunt of the load and allow your muscles to engage. Stronger joints are key to improving your movement. Neglect them, and you're volunteering for an easy injury.

So how do you avoid becoming a cautionary tale? It starts with understanding that a pack weighing 80-120 pounds is a piece of equipment, not an accessory. It’s not a gym bag that you toss on the couch when you get home.

Every interaction should be strategic and on form. A lapse in judgment, and you're not just risking a sore back, you're playing with the potential for serious injury. 

The best way to remain injury-free is by following Major Bigham’s guidance below, in addition to specialized training that mimics the real-world conditions you'll face.

Terminology: Know Your Pack Terms

Before we go any further, let’s agree on the definitions of several words. They’re used throughout this guide, and in other circumstances mean completely different things.

  • Handling: Encompasses the overall techniques and precautions one should take when lifting, loading, unloading, and carrying a heavy backpack. In other words, any type of interaction with your pack could be considered handling.
  • Lifting: The initial action of picking up a heavy backpack from the ground or another surface. You might also hear the word ‘hoisting’ for this stage.
  • Loading: The entire process of lifting and then transferring the lifted backpack from a temporary position (like your quad) onto your back.
  • Unloading: The reverse process of loading, where the backpack is taken off the back and returned to the ground or another surface.

How To Handle Heavy Packs: Lifting, Loading, Unloading

Let’s start by looking at the entire loading movement: from positioning yourself to lifting your pack and securing it on your back.

How Do You Put on a Heavy Pack?

To put on a heavy pack, place one foot near its center mass. Tighten your dominant side strap and loosen the other strap. Engage your core and deadlift the pack onto your thigh. Insert your dominant arm through the tight strap, then hip thrust it onto your back. Secure hip and sternum straps. 

Pay close attention to how the process unfolds. There are several steps to prepare you for the physically demanding parts of the movement. All the steps are incredibly important for keeping you safe. 

They’ll ensure solid footing and prevent your pack from rotating out, both are concepts we’ll explore in the next section. But for now, simply take a mental note that the setup and approach are just as important as the strength required for putting a pack on properly.

Peeling this apart a bit, it breaks into four main stages:

Stage 1: Approach

Proper setup involves positioning yourself, adjusting straps, and ensuring stable footing. It's crucial for minimizing injury risk during lifting.

Stage 2: Lifting

Engage your core and use a hip-hinge deadlift technique to lift the pack onto your quad. This provides a stable and controlled lifting motion.

Stage 3: Transitioning

With your core still engaged, transition the pack from your quad to your back using a hip thrust. Proper technique ensures balanced weight and comfort.

Stage 4: Final Adjustments

After the pack is on your back, make final adjustments to the hip and sternum straps. This ensures long-term comfort and stability.

We’re sure you’ve got questions, so let’s dissect this even further, starting with the approach and lift. 

Note: We decided to isolate the setup and initial lift movement from the entire loading process because it’s such an easy way to hurt yourself if done incorrectly, which is part of the reason it’s so common.

You could also chalk it up to underestimating the difficulty of the first movement. Some see it as lifting a bag a few feet off the ground, overlooking the consequences of shifting an unwieldy weight from an unstable position. 

So to make sure you don’t end up an injury statistic while lifting your pack, we’re going to detail all the preparation and steps of lifting a heavy pack.

How to Approach and Lift Heavy Packs

A simple deadlift stance is the cheat code to lifting a heavy pack safely. It starts with finding stable footing and hinging at the hips to secure the weight.

The goal here is to lift the pack onto your quad without rotating your body. It’s not to lift the pack all the way up to your shoulders and onto your back in one go. This is how to safely lift your heavy pack:

  1. Stable Footing: Start with your feet hip-width apart or slightly wider standing on as stable of ground as possible.
  2. Positioning: Position your first foot close to the center mass of the rucksack.
  3. Hip Hinge: Engage and embrace your core, hinge at the hips, and come down to secure the weight.
  4. Strap Adjustment: Adjust the straps so that your dominant hand's strap is tighter and the other one is as loose as it will go.
  5. Lift to Quad: Focus on gripping the pack tightly and using your legs to lift the pack up onto your quad (thigh area).
  6. Insert Dominant Arm: Insert your dominant arm through the tighter strap.
  7. Stabilize: Stabilize the pack on your quad.

Bigham’s Watchout: Avoid Rotating Your Trunk the Entire Time

Generating any kind of rotational force (torque) with the trunk that is not stable is the highest risk for injury. Yes, even just the distance from the ground to your quad is enough distance to cause a big problem.

Twisting the body while lifting, loading, or unloading a heavy pack can cause uneven weight distribution. This puts stress on the joints, causes imbalances between the muscles, and negatively impacts your posture. It can even damage the spine. 

That’s where the core comes into play. When lifting heavy objects like a pack, core stability helps maintain a neutral spine, reducing the risk of injury. 

It also helps in controlling the pack as you transition it from your quad to your back, ensuring that you don't lose balance or strain your muscles.

Focus on engaging your core and follow the deadlift technique. Both will help you maintain stability, avoid rotational force, and accomplish the task more efficiently.

Keep this in mind as we look at the next section: moving the pack from the front of your body and onto your back.

How to Safely Transition a Heavy Pack from Quad to Back

Once the pack is stabilized on your quad, the next crucial step is to transition it onto your back without compromising your posture or balance. 

Focus on controlled, stable movements to minimize rotational force and the risk of injury. Here's how to do it:

    1. Brace and Lift: With the pack stabilized on your quad, brace your core and prepare for the lift. This is the moment where core engagement is crucial for maintaining stability.
    2. Punch Through: With your dominant arm already through the tighter strap, use your other hand to grip the looser strap. As you prepare to lift, ‘punch’ your dominant arm through the strap to help guide the pack upwards.
    3. Hip Thrust: Use a controlled hip thrust to assist in lifting the pack from your quad to your back. This utilizes the power of your lower body, reducing the strain on your back and shoulders.
    4. Stabilize the Load: Once the pack is on your back, take a moment to stabilize it. Make sure it sits comfortably and that the weight is evenly distributed.
    5. Secure the Straps: Now that the pack is in place, tighten the looser strap with your free hand. Make sure both straps are snug but not overly tight as this can cause discomfort during your journey.
    6. Fasten Hip and Sternum Straps: Most heavy packs come with additional hip and sternum straps for added stability. Fasten these last, making sure they are snug but not restrictive. These straps help distribute the pack's weight more evenly across your body.

Bigham’s Watchout: Maintain Core Stability

Again, the biggest risk during this phase is losing your core stability, which can lead to a rotational force that's dangerous for your back and spine. As Coach Bigham emphasizes, maintaining core stability is key to a safe and effective lift.

How to Adjust a Heavy Pack for Proper Fit

Now that you know how to put your pack on properly, it’s time to learn how to adjust it for a perfect fit. This is something you should do long before you step foot in the backcountry.

Aside from making your hike more comfortable, adjusting your pack the right way will also keep you safer.

The following best practices will get you started on fine-tuning your pack system:

  • Weight Calibration: Load your pack with a weight that closely resembles what you'll be carrying on your trek. This will give you a realistic feel for the pack and allow you to make accurate adjustments.
  • Strap Loosening: Loosen all the straps on your pack. This makes it easier to put on and ensures that you can adjust it to fit you perfectly. You'll appreciate this step later.
  • Pack Mounting: Utilize the deadlift technique discussed earlier to safely lift and position the pack onto your body. Remember, avoid any trunk rotation during this process.
  • Hip Belt Positioning: Secure the hip belt so that it sits snugly over the top of your hip bones. Think of it as a warm embrace rather than a tight squeeze. This is where most of the pack's weight should be distributed.
  • Shoulder Strap Adjustment: Tighten the shoulder straps to secure the pack against your back. However, avoid putting too much tension on them. The majority of the weight should still be supported by your hips.
  • Load Lifter Angling: Adjust the load lifters on your pack so that it leans back at approximately a 45-degree angle. This helps distribute the weight more evenly and reduces stress on your shoulders and back.
  • Sternum Strap Positioning: Place the sternum strap about an inch below your collarbones and tighten it just enough to allow free arm movement. This helps keep the shoulder straps in place without restricting your mobility.
  • Final Adjustments: Now is the time to make any last-minute tweaks to your setup. Ensure everything feels comfortable and secure before you start your journey.

Whether you're hiking, hunting, or hauling a heavy pack for any other reason, taking the time to adjust your pack is just as important as lacing up your boots before the hike. Done correctly, you’ll be far more comfortable and safe.

There you have it. You're not just carrying that pack, you're commanding it. Coach Bigham would approve.

Lifting + Loading a Heavy Pack with a Partner

The steps above will keep you safe even when you're solo. If a friend is braving the elements with you, work together to put your pack on. This will lower your risk of injury even further and save some of your energy as well. Here’s what both of you should do:

  1. Position Partner: Have your partner squat down next to the pack and find a solid grip - ideally handles toward the base of your pack to lift it.
  2. Brace and Lift: Both you and your partner should brace your cores and lift the pack in unison.
  3. Mount and Secure: Mount the pack on your back and secure the straps, with your partner helping to offset the load.

How to Unload a Heavy Pack Safely 

Unloading a heavy pack is just as crucial as loading it, especially when you're out in the backcountry where medical help is many miles away. The process is simple: reverse the steps you took to put the pack on.

It’s a common mistake to confuse simple for easy. Exercise the same level of caution and technique to avoid injury. Here are the steps:

  1. Disconnect Straps: Start by loosening and disconnecting the hip and sternum straps. This will make it easier to slide your arms out of the shoulder straps.
  2. Remove Non-Dominant Arm: Since you tightened the strap on your dominant side while putting the pack on, it's best to start by removing your non-dominant arm first. This allows for a smoother and more controlled movement.
  3. Step Out and Rotate: With one arm free, step out to the side to give yourself room to maneuver. This will allow you to rotate the pack onto your quad without generating unstable rotational force.
  4. Lower to Quad: Carefully lower the pack onto your quad, using the same deadlift technique you used to lift it. Engage your core and hinge at the hips as you bring the pack down.
  5. Controlled Release: Once the pack is stabilized on your quad, you can then proceed to set it down on the ground. Make sure to do this in a controlled manner to avoid any sudden movements that could cause injury.

Tackling Different Terrains: A Guide to Loading and Adjusting Your Pack

Whether you're hiking alone or with a group, the terrain you encounter can either be an obstacle or an asset. Here's how to make the most of your surroundings to lift and load your pack safely and efficiently.

Lifting + Loading a Heavy Pack Using Natural Features

Solo or not, use your surroundings to make putting your pack on as easy and safe as possible.

  • Leverage Available Objects: If you find yourself near a tailgate, rock, or log, seize the opportunity to use it as a lifting platform. Elevate the pack to hip height to minimize the strain of lifting it from the ground. Double check the stability of any natural feature you decide to use!
  • Prioritize Dominant Side: As with any lifting technique, always initiate the mounting process with your dominant side to maximize control and stability.
  • Strap Security: While the pack is elevated on your chosen object, this is the ideal time to secure all straps, ensuring a snug but comfortable fit.

Now let’s talk about lifting a heavy pack outdoors. Always evaluate the terrain you’re on before putting on and taking off your ruck. Look for an area with stable ground and no loose rocks or gravel. 

Adapting to Your Environment: Uphill, Downhill, and Challenging Conditions

Once the pack is on your back, adapt to your surroundings. You shouldn’t take an incline the same way you do a decline. Here are a few key adjustments to commit to memory:

Uphill Adjustment Strategy:

  • Pace Yourself: Slow, deliberate steps will get you to the top without compromising your balance.
  • Be Observant: Keep an eye out for uneven ground and potential obstacles.
  • Small Steps, Big Gains: Shorter steps allow for better balance and energy efficiency.
  • Lean In: A slight forward lean can help offset the weight of your pack.

Downhill Adjustment Strategy:

  • Slow is Smooth: Rushing is your enemy - maintain a controlled pace.
  • Plan Your Path: Always look ahead to navigate the terrain effectively.
  • Balance with Baby Steps: Smaller steps help maintain your center of gravity.
  • Lean Back: Keep your torso slightly upright to counterbalance the pack's weight.

Adjustments for Challenging Conditions

As always, conditions change in the backcountry. Your environment can become unsafe, uneven, or slippery in an instant.

  • Adapt Your Steps: In particularly tricky terrains, consider taking wide, flat steps or even stepping sideways to maintain balance.
  • Gear Up: Trekking poles and durable hiking boots can add an extra layer of stability and safety.
  • Practice Makes Perfect: The more you train and adapt your body to different terrains, the better you'll be at handling unexpected challenges.

How to Pick and Pack Your Heavy Pack

We won’t spend too much time on this next topic, but do your body a favor and invest in a quality pack. You need a sturdy piece of equipment that’s built to handle extremely heavy weight in some of the roughest conditions on the planet.

Choosing the Right Pack for the Job 

As your lifeline in the backcountry, your pack isn’t something you should compromise on. As pictured above, for serious gear that can handle the conditions of the wild, Stone Glacier's packs stand mountains above the rest.

When choosing a pack for the job, these factors are your top priorities:

  • Weight Capacity: Consider how heavy your gear will be (hunters: account for the weight of meat/cape).
  • Comfort Padding: This will make your experience more comfortable.
  • Strap Integrity: These will ensure the weight is properly distributed. 
  • Material Durability: Choose something durable, tear-resistant, and weather-proof.
  • Fit: Use your torso length to find the right backpack.

Got your pack? Good. Now comes the art of packing it - where how you pack it is as important as what you take.

How to Distribute Weight in a Heavy Pack 

Strategy is key here. It’s all about your approach to balance and biomechanics, especially when your pack could exceed 80 pounds. Here's how to do it right, step-by-step:

Pre-Packing Assessment

  • Lay It All Out: Before you even touch your pack, lay out all the gear you plan to carry. This gives you a visual inventory and allows you to assess the weight and importance of each item.
  • Weight Evaluation: Knowing the weight of each item is crucial for strategic packing. This will guide you in placing items in a way that minimizes risk and maximizes comfort.

Core Packing Principles

  • Centralize Heavy Items: The heaviest items should be placed in the center of your pack. This keeps your center of gravity stable, reducing the risk of tipping or falling.
  • Wrap and Pack: Use lighter items like clothing or tent material to wrap around heavy objects. This not only maximizes space but also adds an extra layer of protection against shifting weights.
  • Easy Access: Up top, stash the light quick-grab essentials. Easy access is a priority on the top of your bag. Use your pockets and loops well too - they’re not just for show.

On-the-Go Adjustments

  • Micro-Adjustments: If you start to feel discomfort, it's time to reassess how your pack is packed and sitting on your body. The weight should primarily rest on your hips. Make slight adjustments to the straps or redistribute items inside the pack if needed.
  • Balance Check: If your pack starts to feel uneven or if it's pulling you in one direction, it may be time to adjust the way your gear is packed. Take a moment to reorganize, keeping the heaviest items centralized.

Stick to these packing principles. You're not just organizing your gear, you're optimizing your physical performance and safety. It can be the difference between a grueling ordeal and an enjoyable adventure.

MTNTOUGH’s Path to Mastering Heavy Packs

Handling a heavy pack requires preparation and practice. Every phase of it. From setup to buckling your hip belt. Every interaction with it should be strategic and on form.

A lapse in judgment can lead to serious injuries. But through repetition and knowing the right techniques, you’re giving yourself a better chance of enjoying the experience of the backcountry, rather than the emergency room. 

For the best odds, build in functional training that incorporates heavy pack elements. We’ll make it easy for you to get started Dig into any of the pack training, backcountry hunter, and many other programs with a free 14-day trial to MTNTOUGH+.

When it comes to heavy pack training, two MTNTOUGH programs immediately come to mind: the HP20 and HP45-70. You should check out both within your free trial. Here's why:

  • MTNTOUGH HP20: The MTNTOUGH HP20 Heavy Pack Program is a revolutionary fitness regimen tailored for those who are determined to break free from the shackles of mediocrity. It's built on the belief that enduring challenges and pushing oneself to the brink is the pathway to true growth. The program emphasizes that the real adversaries in life are stagnation, complacency, and a life devoid of challenges. Rather than fearing external dangers, it encourages individuals to confront the internal fears of leading a life that's safe and unchallenging. MTNTOUGH's methodology is not just about enhancing physical prowess; it's a holistic approach that inspires individuals to overcome their limitations and pursue a life marked by resilience and purpose.
  • MTNTOUGH HP45-70: The MTNTOUGH HP45-70 Heavy Pack Program stands as a testament to rigorous training and resilience. Crafted by a team comprising former Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, and top-tier physical trainers, this program is tailored for those who aim to operate at the pinnacle of physical and mental endurance. It's no surprise that elite groups, including special operations forces, wildland firefighters, and backcountry hunters, rely on MTNTOUGH+ programs to prepare them for the challenges they face in their demanding professions. The HP45-70 program will build the muscle, endurance, and mindset to thrive in adversity, ensuring that individuals are ready for any challenge, whether in the wild or in life.

So, whether you're a seasoned adventurer or this is your first extended period with a heavy pack, you’re now equipped with the knowledge and techniques to not just carry, but command your heavy pack.