Review of backpack solutions to the dreaded 'sweaty back' after cycling

At some stage, we have all gotten the dreaded sweaty back when cycling to or from work with a backpack on. What are the causes of this? and how can we go about preventing this from happening, because we all know that unpleasant feeling arriving to work or place covered in sweat.

Most backpacks on the market sit very tight against back and tend to push against the cyclist’s back while riding. Sweat builds up between the backpack and the back, especially when the weather is warmer. Why? There is no airflow between your back and the bag and there is no room for the air to escape.

Credit: WeBikeWorld

Of course, sweating is normal in everyday life and typical in summer. However, commuters that travel daily to work over summer can execrate the problem and this risks picking up skin diseases.

A common problem is heat rash which occurs when the skin's glands are blocked and the sweat cannot evaporate from the surface.  Although heat rash typically fades when the skin is given time to cool, too much heat rash could see you needing medical treatment if the area becomes infected. Other skin infections or irritations can come from acne and redness blisters from chafing.

What can we wear to prevent having a sweaty back while riding?

Clothing can make a big difference on how the person sweats. Typically if a person cycling with a backpack uses heavy clothing it tends to insulate the skin when in turn creates heat generated by the body which cannot escape. The body then will trigger mechanisms like sweating in an attempt to lower the body temperature.

If you wear a cotton t-shirt you on a hot day, you will quickly discover why cycling clothing isn't made from this material. Cycling clothing is made from fabrics such as Nylon/Lycra polyester, and spandex which helps move water or sweat away from the skin, helping it to evaporate.

Photo by camera_phone_lomo / CC BY

Merino wool is also a fabric that is popular with outdoor people, Merino absorbs sweat easily and dries relatively fast while providing a slight cushioning effect between the backpack and your skin.

With All these types of garments, a mesh undershirt can be an added feature. A typically wide mesh cycling undershirt design helps wick away sweat from the body while creating a second level of airflow between the body and cycling top whether it be lycra, merino or polyester. These can be used year round, both in Summer and Winter.

Wearing slightly less clothing than cycling without a backpack can also help to keep the body temperature lower, resulting in a lower rate of sweat. 

Backpack positioning

The key to being comfortable using a backpack is adjusting the straps of the backpack before getting on your bicycle. Positioning the straps as needed to evenly distribute the weight between your shoulders and keeping the backpack as high as possible on your back, allowing some air flow to travel underneath and upwards behind the bag.

Credit: zpacks

Securing the waist strap correctly on the backpack also allows the backpack from shifting significantly while riding. Preventing any chafing or rubbing on your back and creating discomfort on longer rides.

Once you have started riding slowly, pay attention to the weight of the backpack shifting as you turn and how the weight of the bag affects your riding. Again check if there is any unwanted movement or rubbing against your back and then reposition the bag with the straps.

Packing the heavier stuff you are carrying at the top of the bag moves the center of weight to the upper back creating a channel on the lower back between the bag and back. Allowing some needed air flow to the mid to lower back area.

The backpack

Preventing a sweaty back from the backpack itself is more difficult. using a backpack with an external frame helps keep the backpack some inches from your back. Although any fixed hard frames can cause more problems than its worth during a longer ride.

Leading manufacturers of cycling bags have specific designs to increase airflow and reduce sweat.  Some use a concave curve design (curving inward) covered with mesh, to help allow the back to breath easier. Others create a ribbed surface or mesh back panel to help allow air to travel freely.  Some use external frames, drawing from the hiking industry.

What is our view?  We believe that a sweaty back can best be avoided through a combination of techniques.  Firstly, a mesh vent is essential to allow air to pass through the backpack and bag.  Ribbed back panels are also needed to separate the back from the packpack itself.  Straps should have air pockets to release air so that the shoulders and upper back stays cool.  We are not big fans of external frames or D shaped back panels as they reduce the capacity of the bags and tend to be more uncomfortable.

See photos below of our Cadence cycling backpack, in which we have paid careful attention to detail, all aiming to minimise the dreaded sweaty back. Notice the deep mesh padding and the air channels to enable maximum air flow.

While everyone is different, ventilated backs on backpacks don't necessarily reduce how much we sweat, they simply offer the user more airflow which in turn helps sweat dry quicker. While some people have the options of using pannier bags to eliminate the sweating issue, these are generally not as convenient as having a backpack which you can slap on when not commuting.