SLEEP SMART Look for ground that's relatively flat and soft. Try to emulate, as much as possible, your sleeping conditions at home. If you must sleep on the ground, experts recommend sleeping on your side. Dig a small trench under your hips and a larger one under your shoulders to keep the spine from bending laterally. Even better, bring an air mattress and a closed-cell-foam pad.
THINK SYMMETRY When climbing or descending a hill, it's best to go straight up or straight down, since this puts equal stress on feet, legs, and hips. Of course, if the hill is steep or the trail follows a slanted line, you'll have to traverse it. The problem with taking a diagonal route is that one foot will always be lower than the other, leading to unbalanced stress on the spine. Equalize the stress by doing frequent switchbacks, if possible.
FOCUS ON TRACTION When you're walking in the woods, specialized sensors called muscle spindles gauge each stride and prepare your legs for their next contact with the ground. When you slip or step in a hole, these spindles are subjected to a stretch reflex that triggers a sudden muscular contraction that helps brace you for impact. If the core muscles surrounding your spine are too weak to absorb the shock, the result can be a back strain. Try to avoid slips and falls, obviously. But more important, don't skimp on boots: A well-designed pair will give you better traction on slippery ground and provide more stability.
KEEP YOUR BURDEN CLOSE Whether you're carrying a deer rifle or a shotgun and an overloaded game vest, make sure to position the weight as close as possible to your center of mass. An 8-pound rifle moved a mere 4 inches away from your torso goes from exerting 8 inch-pounds of torque to 32 inch-pounds--a fourfold increase. Try to walk normally--don't overcompensate for heavy loads by leaning forward or backward.
KEEP MOVING The human body was not designed to remain stock-still hour after hour. Not only does this restrict circulation, but it can lead to muscle rigidity. When you're up in a deer stand for hours on end, periodically wiggle your spine and flex your leg muscles. If it's feasible, change your stance occasionally.
DRAG CAREFULLY Perhaps the single most common cause of back injuries in hunters comes from dragging deer. In the excitement of the hunt, you may feel gifted with temporary superhuman strength, but your back remains very human. Try to use a cart or some other device to reduce the burden. If you must drag the deer, frequently change your grip and body position so that you're not relying on only one set of muscles the whole time. Take frequent rest breaks--stop before you feel consciously fatigued. Beyond that point it might be too late to prevent injury.
ICE IT If you feel a telltale back twinge that portends pain, you can minimize discomfort by applying ice. It's important to do this within the one to three hours after the injury has taken place. The trick is to not overdo it. After 20 minutes, the body senses that it's becoming too cold and starts a renewed attack of nervous alarm signals. Wait an hour to 90 minutes, then ice your back again. You can do this for the first 48 hours. It may not save you entirely from back pain, but chances are you'll feel a lot better.