Travel with Scoliosis – Backpacking with Scoliosis

When I started my blog, I soon found out I was not the only one traveling with a Chronic Illness. But I did not find that many people actually talking about travel with chronic illness. You can read my tips for taking a road trip with Crohn’s disease and How to pack your meds when flying. I would like to use this space and share more inspiring stories from other travel bloggers who travel with chronic illnesses. The first in this series is Laia who talks about travel with Scoliosis and her trip backpacking with Scoliosis.

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Traveling can be challenging. Travel with Chronic Illness can be even more challenging. Read the story of Laia who talks about travel with Scoliosis.

Travel with Chronic Illness: featuring Laia from DreamTravelGirl.

Meet Laia, she is the girl behind DreamTravelGirl and she shares her story about travel with Scoliosis.

When the doctor told me I had scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine, I immediately thought about the dream I still hadn’t fulfilled.

“Can I travel with a backpack?”

“Yes”, he answered. Good news! “Maximum 10% of your weight”. Bad news.

“But… “ I said hesitantly, “5 kg is not much”.

My dream was to do a round the world trip for one year. How could I possibly travel for a year with only 5 kg? My heart sank.

“I don’t mean carrying it the whole day, just to go from one place to the other”, I specified.

“In that case, you could take up to 10kg. Find a backpack that adjusts to your body and has a belt, so the weight falls on the hips, not the spine”.

There was hope. I could travel with scoliosis and go backpacking around the world.

Traveling can be challenging. Travel with Chronic Illness can be even more challenging. Read the story of Laia who talks about travel with Scoliosis.
Me and my backpack

Living with scoliosis

Scoliosis is a lateral deviation of the spine, towards the side. It means that, from the front, the spine is not straight but it looks like a C or an S. Doctors consider over 40º of curvature severe and scoliosis patients might consider surgery.

Fortunately, I have a mild case.

However, even if it’s a small deviation, I often feel discomfort and soreness on the lower part of my back. If I stand up, it starts to ache after 10 or 15 minutes. If I walk, after one hour or two. Even taking breaks, walking 5 hours a day tends to be my limit (I love exploring new places on foot).

In addition, I cannot carry weight. As my doctor said, I can travel with scoliosis and with a backpack but only to move from one destination to the other, not the whole day (as in multi-day treks or long-distance hiking).

It’s a lifelong condition, and the only thing that can be done is exercise. I have to exercise for around 30 minutes every morning to stretch the spine and strengthen the muscles. In the beginning, I wasn’t very constant at this, but as the back pain got worse I started doing them every day. And yes, it helps!

One year and a half after that visit to the doctor, I decided to follow my dream of making a round-the-world solo trip. It wouldn’t be easy, but I was determined to find a way to travel with scoliosis and backpacking regardless of my back pain.

Traveling can be challenging. Travel with Chronic Illness can be even more challenging. Read the story of Laia who talks about travel with Scoliosis.
I would find a way to travel with back pain (Isla del Sol, Bolivia)

Preparing the trip: the luggage

Of course, the first thing I had to consider was if a backpack was, in fact, the best option for me.

The doctor said it was fine to travel with a backpack as long as it had a belt so most of the weight fell on my hips instead of my back.

I had traveled with wheel bags, and I must say that they’re practical only on paved roads, escalators, and elevators. Dragging a wheel bag on an unpaved road is hard, and carrying it up and down the stairs is really bad for the spine.

The best backpack for scoliosis (for me)

Considering the places I wanted to visit and the way I’d be traveling (alone, on a low budget), I thought that a backpack would be better.

Side note: I don’t mean to say that this is the right solution for people with back pain, every situation is different. I have a friend with a more severe problem who cannot travel with a backpack anymore. In my case, so far, I feel that a backpack is better.

However, it was out of the question to use the 65L backpack I had. If I was limited to 10kg, I didn’t need such a huge bag, not to mention that it weighted 3kg all by itself.

The first thing I did was to sell it and buy a light 35L backpack instead.

Travel light when you’re backpacking with scoliosis

The second step was to research a bit to make my luggage as light as possible. I have to say that travel blogs helped me a lot! I changed my laptop for a lighter one, decided to keep my compact camera instead of upgrading to a reflex, discovered lush shampoo bars and learned to minimize my clothes.

Last but not least, I bought comfortable hiking sandals and hiking shoes. They’re not stylish, but much better for the back.

The result: I managed to squeeze everything I needed in that 35L backpack plus a small handbag. In total, 11 kg.

The feedback: it was great. I could take it as carry-on luggage and I could easily move around. I had to be creative to adapt the clothes to the changing weather conditions, but it was fine.

Traveling can be challenging. Travel with Chronic Illness can be even more challenging. Read the story of Laia who talks about travel with Scoliosis.
The backpack and handbag I used to travel around the world

Travel with Scoliosis

The biggest limitation while traveling with back pain was that I couldn’t walk all day without taking many breaks and that I couldn’t do multi-day treks or go backpacking with my scoliosis.

Travel in Asia

That wasn’t a big problem in Asia, though. I was interested in people and culture, and I could do many other things.

In India, I did boat tours in the backwaters of Kerala.

In Laos, I discovered the relaxed atmosphere of Buddhist temples.

And in Cambodia, I rented a bicycle to explore the Angkor temples.

In Malaysia, I snorkeled around tropical islands. I met travelers and locals, made new friends, experienced new things, learned, laughed, enjoyed.

Travel to New Zealand

New Zealand, however, was a different story. I went there for the landscapes. It’s a gorgeous country, one of the most beautiful I’ve seen. I couldn’t leave without doing at least one trek. So there I did my first (and my second) treks with back pain. I’ll talk more about my experience hiking below.

Travel in South America

After New Zealand, I went to South America for five months. I did one more trekking there and had amazing experiences as well.

I visited friends in Santiago de Chile and Patagonia. In the north of Chile and Bolivia, I saw the most unreal landscapes. I made local friends in Argentina and visited a couple from Uruguay that I had met in New Zealand.

I challenged my limits on a recent trip to Thailand. I made a motorbike road trip with a friend: 1.000 km in 9 days. Although I didn’t drive, I was the passenger sitting behind, and believe me, it was hard for my back.

We had to take breaks every hour or so, more often by the end of the day. We stopped and I stretched my back or lied down for a while. It was difficult, but I did it.

Traveling can be challenging. Travel with Chronic Illness can be even more challenging. Read the story of Laia who talks about travel with Scoliosis.
No problems to do snorkeling (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Hiking with scoliosis

Hiking is the most challenging activity I do while traveling with back pain.

It all started in New Zealand because there was a trek I really wanted to do.

Hiking in New Zealand

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the most popular day treks in New Zealand (and the whole world). Thousands of people do it every year, but it’s not an easy trek. It’s 19 km long (11 miles) with a considerable slope and the weather conditions might change at any moment.

Since I hadn’t done any trekking before, I decided to start with an easy one in the Abel Tasman National Park to test my physical condition. It was fine so I decided to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

I’ll be honest: I was scared to go hiking with scoliosis. Once you start, you have to get to the end, and you have to make it back in time to get the bus to the hostel.

It was a single-day trek so I could leave my luggage at the hostel, but I still had to carry food and water for the day, some clothes in case the weather changed, and a first aid kit.

Fortunately, I was traveling alone. And I say fortunately because being on my own allowed me to walk at my own speed and stop to sit down when needed (at least 10 minutes every hour). It kept me motivated and confident, and I never thought I wouldn’t manage. It took me a bit longer than the average (7.5 hours instead of 6-7), but I did it.

I challenged my limits and it was a very rewarding experience. I was so happy! I rested for one day and then I was fine to continue my trip.

Traveling can be challenging. Travel with Chronic Illness can be even more challenging. Read the story of Laia who talks about travel with Scoliosis.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand

Hiking in Bolivia

I had a similar experience in Bolivia a few months later, slightly more challenging. At Lake Titicaca, I wanted to visit the island, Isla del Sol.

A popular way to do it is to go by boat from Copacabana to the north of the island and walk to the south (10 km/ 6 miles). Then, you can take the boat back to the mainland or spend the night on the island and go back the day after.

I wasn’t sure if I could get to the south part of the island in time to get the boat back. Therefore I decided to spend the night there.

However, I couldn’t carry all my luggage! So I left my luggage in the guesthouse in Copacabana and only took a small daypack with food, water, and warm clothes for the night.

In addition to scoliosis, I had to face another challenge that day: the altitude (around 4.000 meters / 14.123 ft. above sea level). Again, I went at my own speed and took my time. When I reached the southern part of the island, all the boats were gone. So it was a good idea to plan a night’s stay.

Continue reading below this image.

Traveling can be challenging. Travel with Chronic Illness can be even more challenging. Read the story of Laia who talks about travel with Scoliosis.
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Hiking with a group in Thailand

I had a more difficult experience in a recent trip to Thailand. I was traveling with a friend and we had to hire a guide to do a trek in the jungle.

My friend was carrying all our stuff but there were two more people in the group, and it was hard to follow them.

I was too shy to tell them from the beginning that I had a problem, and by the time we stopped for the first time, we already walked 2 hours non stop and my back was in pain.

After that, I had to ask them regularly to stop, and I felt bad. Sad. Miserable. “Why did I come?” I wondered and told myself I’d never do a guided group trekking again. Never. Again.

We finished the trekking in about 9 hours. The guide told us the average time was about 7-8 hours. I felt bad because I had slowed down the group, but at the same time it was rewarding that I had managed to do it. It was 18 km/ 11 miles with a lot of slope.

The day after I rested the whole day, and my back was fine again.

And now, a few months later, I think that maybe I would go hiking with scoliosis like this again. Maybe.

Traveling can be challenging. Travel with Chronic Illness can be even more challenging. Read the story of Laia who talks about travel with Scoliosis.
Trekking in the jungle, Northern Thailand

The feedback of my experience is that it’s possible to travel with scoliosis and back pain (at least, with a mild scoliosis). There are limitations, but traveling offers many possibilities and there are many ways to travel with scoliosis.

If you want to know more about Laia, please visit her blog at DreamTravelGirl, or follow her on her social media like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram.

If you like to know more about Scoliosis or travel with Scoliosis, click here.


Do you travel with a Chronic Illness or a Chronic condition? And would you like to be featured on this blog in the Travel with Chronic Illness Chronicles? Please contact me with your details at naomi@probearoundtheglobe.com and you get a chance to share your story!

Traveling can be challenging. Travel with Chronic Illness can be even more challenging. Read the story of Laia who talks about travel with Scoliosis.
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46 Comments

  1. Hi Laia, this is a very moving story you tell. It shows your courage and persistence, two very important qualities. Many people, even if they do not have a chronic disease, would have complained about a walk of 19 kilometers. Whenever I feel down or tired, I will remember your example, and not complain; and your story has also made me more attentive when other people cannot follow my rhythm, it may be because they need a break. Thanks a lot!

  2. carolina

    Laia !! Wow de verdad como decimos en mi país, me quito el sombrero ante ti.

    Eres un ser maravilloso, fantástico y con una mente de hierro.

    Es increíble que te hayas decidido por hacer ese viaje tan monumental, como lo es darle la vuelta al mundo “Sola” que para mi ya es un gran logro, un merito enorme; ahora hacerlo con tu condición física es definitivamente eres una mujer fuera de este mundo.

    Siempre te lo he dicho,valiente muy valiente y una gran guerrera de la vida.

    Felicidades y toda mi admiración.

    P.D podía haber comentado en inglés, pero no creo haya podido expresar toda mi emoción en mi inglés básico

    Saludos !!!

  3. Thanks to you Laia for sharing your inspiring story and not letting anything stop you from seeing the world! The posts in this series are a good reminder that we all need to be more patient with each other – there are many people facing challenges that might not be obvious to the outside world.

    1. Thanks Brianne! You made a good point. There are a lot of people facing challenges which we might not know. We shouldn’t judge without knowledge and we should be more patient to each other.
      Naomi had a good idea creating this series 🙂

  4. Well done you! I know how hard it is traveling with a chronic illness. My partner in crime has Crohns and we did a HUGE roadtrip last summer (10,000 miles from London to Mongolia), how she powered through it I’ll never know. She was a trooper, as are you! I don’t know you, but I’m proud of you!

    1. I read about that epic journey to Mongolia Kristina! I’m not sure if I could do it now again, but back then I didn’t think and just went. My crohn’s wasn’t as severe back then as it is now, but must be really hard to travel with a partner and see them suffer.

  5. Nice read! I also travel the world with a dubble scoliosis, diagnosed when I was only 1 year old! I picked my backpack together with me therapist so that it was perfectly for my back. But still, it stays a barrier and I accepted that not everything is possible. But so many things still are! In addition, I have IBS and my boyfriend got diagnosed Crohns two years ago. (What a coincidence!) but we keep on travelling and will never stop doing what we love doing.
    Great to read that there are others out there.
    Kind regards,
    thetrippingbowel

    1. Yes that’s true that not everything is possible, but it’s good that you look at the things that you can do and keep traveling in spite of the double scoliosis and having IBS 🙂
      Kind regards

  6. I think it’s fantastic that you didn’t let scoliosis stop you from traveling. And now you’ve had all these amazing adventures! Thank you for sharing these detailed tips so that other people with scoliosis who are considering traveling will be inspired and know what to do.

    1. Thanks Tara!
      Getting down to a carry on only is not easy, but can be done step by step. For example starting with a short trip, or reducing your luggage a bit in each trip. Once you realize you don’t need that much it gets easier 🙂

  7. Very inspiring! It’s so interesting to see how each traveller has her own hurdles that she is dealing with, often without the knowledge of other travellers in the group, like your experience in Thailand.

    1. Very interesting point Ivana. Probably a lot of travelers are dealing with one problem or another but we just don’t know about them.
      I think Naomi’s series will be very helpful to create awareness that it’s possible to travel while having some medical problem.

  8. Monica Montoya

    This post is such an inspiration. My best friend has scoliosis and its really hard on her, I really enjoyed reading that nothing stops you from following your dreams! Awesome!

  9. I got diagnosed with scoliosis when I was 14, it sucks and I have lower back pain quite frequently. Has never stopped my from traveling though! It certainly helps to stay active and exercise everyday! Great to hear you are still traveling and living your dream regardless of the disease!

    1. Hi Marteen!
      It depends on the day and how much I walk. When it pains I have to slow down the trip and take more rest. It took some learning but now I know what I can do and what I can’t, and so far it won’t stop me from traveling 🙂

  10. I’ve got scoliosis and it’s never stopped me travelling. I can never wear a backpack though – I’d be in backpain faster than I could take it off. The big issue for me lately was when I started taking photography seriously. The big lenses and the heavy DSLR are a pain (literally) as a shoulder bag. Luckily, my husband carries it when he is with me, or I take the lightest lens I can get away with.

    1. I did not know that Shobha. A DSLR can be so heavy! Mine is 2.5 kg and after a few hours I’m done carrying it around, let alone if you’d have a condition like yourself and Laia! Happy that your hubby helps you out and together you can still make things work!

    2. Yes, DLSR are so heavy 🙁 I cannot carry it either, so I take photos with a compact camera. Not the same quality as the DLSR but it’s better for the back pain.
      So good that your husband is helping with the camera and you find a way to travel 🙂

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