Why It’s Better to Carry Weight on Your Head

People have done it for centuries. Maybe everyone still should. An Object Lesson.

A woman carries firewood using a tumpline.
A woman carries firewood using a tumpline. (Sergey Pashko)

A young girl stands alongside a wood-canvas canoe. She wraps the tails of a long, leather strap around one of the canoe’s horizontal struts in preparation for a two-mile portage to the next lake. She swings the 100-pound, waterlogged canoe up over her head in a single fluid motion, resting it upside down on her shoulders, one end pointed toward the sky. Then she pulls the leather strap behind her hairline like a bandanna, adjusts her stance so the weight of the canoe is channeled smoothly down her neck and spine, and starts walking the rocky trail.

Methods of “head carry,” or weighting a load on top of the head, are standard across the developing world. The best-known images of the technique show African women trekking miles to and from water sources. Despite 10-gallon buckets balanced precariously above them, their backs are straight as a rod and their chins lifted. Often, heavy loads aren’t only carried on the heads, but suspended from it by a strap, called a tumpline. Light, internal-frame backpacks have largely replaced tumplines among modern folk who carry loads outdoors. But when done properly, head carry can be safer, more efficient, and more functional than supposedly better, newer technologies.

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Looking for the inventor of head-carry devices and techniques is like asking who invented shoes. No single origin story exists for a piece of leather, fabric, or rope that is knotted, looped, or buckled around a load and worn across the top of the head. The tumpline precedes even the backpack. It has been used across every populated continent. Congolese women use tumplines to carry charcoal and firewood. Sherpas, perhaps the most famous tumpline users today, have been known to eschew modern packs even when they are offered, preferring the simple strap when carrying gear in the Himalayas. They call tumplines namlo and carry up to their own body weight in baskets called doko.

The English word “tumpline” is thought to be a shortening of the Algonquian words mattump or metump, and it entered the Western lexicon alongside trade. Fur-trapping voyageurs and coureurs de bois learned the method from their Native allies in the 17th and early 18th centuries. It was the only feasible way to carry large bundles of furs and gear through the dense forests between navigable bodies of water in what is now Canada and the northernmost United States.

In 1882, the French Canadian shoemaker Camille Poirier brought the tumpline to the North American masses when he created the Duluth pack. This pack kept the familiar shape of the backpack, with shoulder straps and a fixed-volume storage compartment, but added a tumpline attachment that allowed for the pack to be weighted on the shoulders, the neck, or both. The Duluth pack quickly became a classic; it is still manufactured in Duluth, Minnesota, and imitated by outdoor outfitters around the world.

By the early 20th century, the tumpline’s influence had spread from outfitters to the military. During World War I, in the trenches of the Somme, Staff Captain F.R. Phelan formed the 11th Canadian Brigade Tumpline Company after showing how much manpower and time could be saved if resupplies of the muddy trenches were conducted by tumpline. Phelan had learned the technique while hunting and fishing in the wilderness of Quebec, mirroring the journeys and challenges of the voyageurs.

Phelan’s men were issued an oiled leather tumpline with two long tails. The tails could be tied around larger loads than would fit in a backpack or in the hands. It also could be worn without interfering with their helmets. The men were trained in knots and proper posture, and they slowly increased the weight of their loads until they were carrying twice what had previously been possible, and with equal or greater efficiency. The tumpline made the dangerous process of resupplying the trenches faster and safer.

By 1944, tumpline companies had become standard across the Canadian ground forces. A Popular Mechanics article from that year shows Canadian soldiers using tumplines to carry medical supplies, machine guns, and even to pull sled-style stretchers designed for moving casualties while under fire during World War II.

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In the second half of the 20th century, the rise of performance outdoor gear threatened to extinguish the tumpline outside of traditional communities. Backpacks are not a modern creation, but the internal-frame pack, invented by Greg Lowe in 1967, was a watershed moment in modern outdoorsmanship. Tumplines had never been ubiquitous on packs, but the creation of a less bulky pack that comfortably loaded weight on the hips rather than the shoulders made it easy to justify removing tumpline attachments from backpack designs.

Advances in padding made packs more comfortable. Improved textiles increased waterproofness. And better design made them more space-efficient. In the process, backpacks became commodities—mass-produced, but also one-size-fits-most. By contrast, tumplines are precision tools that need to be adjusted carefully to fit each user. Wearers need to be trained in proper posture and technique. They must carefully ease into heavier loads as they build up muscles in their necks and backs. Backpacks can be treated as precision tools as well, but the barrier to entry is much lower. Shoulder straps are simple and intuitive; they slip right on. Hip belts are equally self-explanatory, and the flaws of the modern backpack have mostly been overlooked in favor of convenience and fashion.

This state of affairs makes Yvon Chouinard an outlier. He is the founder of Patagonia, a company that makes some of the fanciest gear in the outdoor sports world. And even though he built an empire on $900 parkas and $500 sleeping bags, Chouinard still swears by the tumpline. His company sells a simple nylon version of the product for under $20.

Chouinard took up the tumpline in 1968, after sustaining a neck injury in the jungles of Colombia that resulted in severe recurring back pain. A decade later, during an expedition to Nepal, he saw that the porters were carrying twice as much as the climbers with much simpler gear. Chouinard began training with the tumpline, and it proved an effective a solution. To this day, the founder of a company some critics have nicknamed “Patagucci” makes use of an ancient tool, claiming that he’d never go back to using a conventional pack without adding on a tumpline.

Despite the advocacy of industry leaders like Chouinard, the proven efficacy by some of the world’s strongest athletes and Sherpas, and hundreds of years of documented use, the most common argument against tumplines is that they aren’t safe. The claim is not without merit, but impatience is more to blame than intrinsic risk. If a runner were suddenly to run barefoot on a dirt trail, they’d likely get injured. Feet accustomed to structured cocoons of cushioned safety do not take well to the shock of having to work in new ways. Likewise, hoisting 50 pounds atop an unstrengthened spine without training guidance can also lead to harm.

Numerous studies show that tumplines and other head-carry techniques are more metabolically efficient and physically healthy than the supposedly high-tech successors that fill today’s gear shops. African women have been found to carry loads of up to 60 percent of their body weight on their heads more economically than army recruits with a backpack of an equivalent weight. Nepalese porters with a tumpline have been found to be 60 percent faster and 39 percent more powerful than their clients carrying modern packs.

In 2007, the Outside magazine contributor Eric Hansen wrote about how he had tested out the economy of the tumpline for himself. After convincing a team of Nepalese porters to let him into their ranks, he was fitted with a rope tumpline and loaded up. The experience wasn’t fun or comfortable, but it did question prevailing norms in the world of outdoor sports. Whereas a client might struggle with a 55-pound load, that was the absolute minimum that a porter would carry for the same distance.

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Back in Northern Ontario, a group of kids from Keewaydin sets out on a canoe trip. Their camp is committed to preserving “the old ways”: They are portaging a month’s worth of gear, food, and the canoes needed to carry it all by tumpline. It’s not just for the sake of nostalgia or grit-building, either. The old technology makes efficient use of the limited space inside of a canoe, for one thing. For another, it’s more logical than the complicated contraptions people have dreamt up for portaging boats. There are rolling carts, backpack-style frames, and yokes—but a simple strap still suffices.

The wilderness-canoe guide and writer Cliff Jacobson recommends that backpackers and canoe-trippers take a piece from each tradition—a hip belt for added support when going downhill, shoulder straps for stability, and a tumpline modification for uphill climbs. Like Chouinard, he claims that he’d never own a pack without a tumpline. “Everest Sherpas use tumplines,” he writes, “but Americans still insist on backpacks with hip belts. You tell me: Who’s the professional?”

With simple technologies staging heroic comebacks, maybe the tumpline will enjoy a 21st-century resurgence. In the meantime, native communities and passionate advocates who choose function over fashion and long-term safety over short-term comfort keep this traditional method of carrying things on the head from going extinct.