Keeping a Bad Back Safe On the Road
by Molly Bradley, Guest Blogger There was a time when no one who could afford to do otherwise dreamed of carrying his own luggage. That was what porters were for. As you might have noticed, if you’re a fan of PBS’ Downton Abbey, even a couple of weeks in the country (attire for formal balls; mandatory tails for dinner) required such items as a campaign bag, a carpet bag, a dressing case, a hat box, and a steamer trunk. The last item was impossible for a single person to carry – even empty.
Times have certainly changed. “Redcaps” and “skycaps,” as railway station and airport porters respectively used to be called, still exist, but they’re scarce. If you have so much luggage that you need someone else to carry it, it suggests that you either drastically over-packed, or that you’re getting out of Dodge – permanently. The assumptions today are that you’ll tote your own luggage, and that you’ll have little enough of it to be able to. If you got carried away packing, it’s your burden to bear, both physically and financially: some airlines will let you check one bag for free and only charge for bags beyond that first, but most will make you pay for all checked baggage. And the deal’s a bust if any bag is over fifty pounds: any more weight than that, and the airline gets to go to town with your credit card.
The “carry-on” bag used to be an inconsequential item – it was at most a handheld “vanity kit” or an attaché. Now, it’s a key element of the traveler’s armamentarium. And for those of us any with physical ailments, particularly back pain, choosing the right bag is essential. And that bag – on almost every occasion – is a four-wheeled “trolley,” or “spinner,” suitcase. Before we examine the options, let’s look at how, as travelers, we made the transition from stuffing a steamer trunk to cramming the necessities in a suitcase more or less the size of a large shoebox.
If you’re old enough, you may remember what luggage was like in the 1960s and well into the 70s. A top quality piece of luggage, from T. Anthony or Louis Vuitton, was hard-sided, made of wood and leather and steel, and difficult to lift before you’d even begun to pack. But weight was not a consideration, because anyone who could afford a bag like that could definitely afford to tip a porter.
In the late 50s, Dudley Bloom, an inventive businessman working for a luggage manufacturer called Atlantic Products Corporation, came up with the idea of wheels on bags – a notion that was quickly shot down on the premise that no red-blooded man would be willing to wheel his own luggage in public. This would suggest that he was either not strong enough to carry it, too cheap to pay a redcap, or both.
In the early 1970s, flight attendants began stacking their luggage temporarily on wheeled dollies, which could then be folded and stowed with the baggage on the plane. Skycaps and redcaps, dependent mostly on tips for their wages, were not pleased to see the luggage dolly begin to catch on with the general population of travelers. For the travelers’ part, the dollies wereultimately a hassle – difficult to set up and inclined to fall apart at the most inconvenient times. The New Yorker, in an illustrated history of wheeled luggage published in their December 2010 issue, reported that some male travelers were harassed in Grand Central Station when they rolled their luggage in and declined the services of a redcap.
In 1970, Bernard Sadow, president of the United States Luggage Corporation (which would eventually become the luggage manufacturer Briggs and Riley) recognized that the dolly itself was extraneous. After a particularly tiresome family trip to Aruba, Sadow realized it made more sense to attach the wheels – permanently – to the suitcase itself.
In 1972, he received a patent for the first official version of rolling luggage. Macy’s ordered Sadow’s rolling bag, marketing it as “the luggage that glides.” With wheels and a leash attached to the longbase of the era’s traditional suitcase, it could be pulled through the airport. But such a bag was unwieldy. Going around corners guaranteed the bag would fall onto its side, and even when it was rolling more or less successfully, it was at risk of tangling or toppling other passengers themselves, who did not expect something to be trailing three feet behind its traveler.
Wheeled luggage wouldn’t really catch on until the 1980s, when Robert Plath, a Northwest Airlines pilot, took his suitcase down to the workshop in his garage, stood it vertically, and attached two wheels to the back edge of the short end. He made the same alterations on his flight crew’s bags, and soon people were stopping them as they rolled through the airport, asking where they might buy such a hybrid. Within a year, Plath founded a company called TravelPro International, and began to produce bags under the Rollaboard trademark, never suspecting that the term would eventually replace the archaic label of “carry-on” in the same way that Kleenex has become the go-to word for facial tissue. Two-wheeled bags are still in existence and are still enormously convenient, since airports have grow in size and the trip from the curb to the gate seems interminable. But from a physiological perspective, particularly for the back pain sufferer, such bags are far from perfect. Yes, you can grab the telescoping handle and pull the bag along behind you, but depending on yourheight, that handle might be too short for comfort. Towing the bag means twisting your spine, with one shoulder thrust forward and the other dragged back by the bag, and putting a lot of stress on the sacroiliac joint (where your pelvis, the base of your spine, and hip girdle come together). Do it long enough – especially with a heavy bag – and you might develop “suitcase elbow,” a condition called epicondylitis, characterized by pain from the elbow to the wrist on the palm side of the forearm due to tendon damage.
That jutting shoulder often “balances” the load with the help of an often equally heavy briefcase or tote, making the position even more ungainly. Between these imprudent ergonomics and the discomfort of the airplane seat, anyone with a bad back runs the risk of developing pain that could potentially ruin a holiday or a business trip. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were just shy of 60,000 luggage-related injuries dire enough to necessitate medical assistance in 2011 alone.
Around a decade ago, Hideo Wakamatsu, a Japanese luggage company, began equipping its bags with four wheels, each of which could spin 360 degrees, rather than the traditional two wheels with limited swiveling capacity. Two-wheeled rollingbags, pulled several feet behind their owners, occupied far too much space in crowded Japanese cities. The four-wheelers weren’t perfect either: at first, their wheels were too small and fragile to tackle rough sidewalks, gravel, or cobblestones. And though they were far nimbler than their two-wheeled cousins, they had no brakes and tended to roll away when nudged, leaned on, or unwisely parked on an incline.
Until 2011, four-wheeled bags remained rare enough that someone who was wheeling one through the airport got curious glances and often questions. But in the past few years, such bags have become de rigueur in Europe. Nearly all of these bags are hard-sided, yet made of very lightweight plastic. A rollaboard of this construction might weigh, empty, as little as five pounds. (A older soft-sided, two wheel rollaboard, with a steel interior frame, can weigh up to nine pounds before you pack a thing.) Their telescoping handles, of lightweight aluminum, are sturdy and plenty tall. Many manufacturers
are making smaller “ride-on-top” laptop bags, equipped with sleeves that slip over the telescoping handle of the rollaboard. Best of all, a four-wheeled bag rolls right alongside its owner like an obedient heeling dog. The bag can be pushed or pulled with ease, and even rolls sideways, which makes it a breeze to move along narrow airplane aisles. And while it remains challenging to roll two two-wheelers at once – there’s no safe or comfortable way to do it – you can place two four-wheelers back-to-back, grip both handles, and move along with relative ease.
In the U.S., although they are by no means the norm, sleek, hard-sided, four-wheeled bags are becoming more common. It’s likely that within the next couple of years, the two-wheeler will look as archaic as 1940s model. The four-wheelers aren’t perfect – they can still take off without you, and it remains unclear what kind of brake system might resolve that problem. They’re also near-impossible on inclines: when it comes to hills, most owners of four-wheeled bags report that they tilt them onto two wheels, like the old days. But in every other way, they are superior to their predecessors.
If you suffer from back pain, four-wheeled luggage is an investment worth making. There are very high-end bags with remarkably smooth and durable wheels, such as those made by Rimowa and Tumi, guaranteed to last for years. But there are also much cheaper versions by manufacturers such as Samsonite, Traveler’s Choice, and Lipault (in some great colors, too). Costco has a Kirkland four-wheeler for $150. No matter what the costs, it’s the suitcase of the future – at least, until a better version comes along.
It’s great to be able to roll your luggage through the airport – and four wheels make this so simple that you may be inclined to throw in a couple of dance steps on the way. But remember that you’ll be lifting almost as frequently as you’ll be rolling.
To learn more about what people need to know – particularly with bad backs – about maneuvering luggage, we talked to Alan Hedge, PhD, a certified professional ergonomist and fellow of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors, and the International Ergonomics Association. Although it ought to go without saying, he reminds us to pack as lightly as possible and to recall that, unless you’re young and very cute or extremely, obviously old, you’re going to be the one to lift that heavy rollaboard stuffed with shoes or files into the overhead compartment. You should opt for a suitcase with a sleek silhouette, too, because as convenient as it is to be able to stuff one more sweater (or your bike helmet or hiking boots) into a bulging, ungainly, soft-sided bag, it’s much harder to lift an awkwardly shaped bag than a balanced, aerodynamic one. Before buying new luggage, Hedge notes, it’s also important to scrutinize the telescoping handle. Will it stand up to wear and tear? Can it support the “ride-on-top” laptop bag that you’ll want to accompany it? (The handle is the part that breaks first on most luggage, and can be expensive to repair. On high-end bags, it’s usually under warranty.)
At home, practice lifting your fully loaded rollaboard bag over your head, just as you will when the time arrives to do it on the plane. Doing strength training and resistance training exercise will also keep you safer in your travel endeavors – a bag weighing 15 pounds should pose no challenge if you’re relatively in shape. If you’re out of shape, however, you’re asking for trouble. If you have to transport more than you can safely lift, and you’re planning to remain at a single destination, consider shipping it by FedEx or UPS ahead of time. It may seem costly, but it’s cheaper than a single physical therapy appointment.
We all know the advice about bending your knees to lift, but we also know that this is usually impossible in a crowded airplane aisle where there’s barely room to breathe, let alone squat. When overhead space is at a premium, getting to your seat and stowing your bag can be a challenge.
Here’s how to make it easier: First, push your four-wheel bag ahead of you down the aisle, as you would push a shopping cart. This technique avoids the “catch-and-yank” problem, as the bag you pull blindly behind you gets stuck on seats and feet. Then, lift your bag onto to your seat, and put your coat in the overhead as a sort of placeholder, until the aisle clears enough for a safe lift.
When it’s time to lift, avoid twisting your torso. Instead, pivot your feet. “Overhead lifts are always more risky because it is harder to stabilize the load that is being lifted,” says Dr. Hedge. “Lifting something from the floor is less risky if you squat down and use the powerful leg muscles to help with the lift like a weight-lifter rather than bending over and trying to use arm and back muscles for the lift."
For an interesting read, check out some of the other innovations luggage has seen over time, in an article by NBC News. Note in particular the final item, Scott Jordan’s SeV Carry-on Coat (see video below). I invite you to try this “luggage” and see which you get more of out of curious, envious, or scornful looks (who’s to say “coat-cases” won’t be the new luggage on wheels?).