The Significance of Ergonomics in Metal Detecting
Over the past few years, I’ve managed to pick up a few physical issues from bad desk posture and ignoring ergonomics while at work. Equipped with that experience, and the lingering ailments they caused, I started to wonder what basic ergonomic issues should I familiarize myself with to prevent issues or reduce the pain from existing ones.
Metal detecting, whether pursued as a hobby or a dedicated profession, requires a unique set of physical movements and postures. Swinging the detector, bending over to pinpoint a find, and the act of digging can all take a toll on the body over an all-day hunt in the sun.
Just like any other physical activity that involves repetitive movements, it’s essential to approach metal detecting with an understanding of ergonomics. Ergonomics, in this context, refers to the science of designing and arranging our metal detecting equipment to interact most efficiently with our body.
Physical Challenges in Metal Detecting
While most of the physical needs of our hobby appear basic, the repetitive motions and postures associated with metal detecting can lead to various physical issues over time. These range from temporary discomforts that can be shrugged off to more severe ailments that might require medical attention if not addressed promptly.
The Role of Accessories and Best Practices
Fortunately, there are now a plethora of accessories designed specifically to alleviate the physical strains of metal detecting. Coupled with best practices and regular stretches, these tools can significantly enhance the metal detecting experience, making it more comfortable and physically sustainable in the long run.
In the sections that follow, we will expand upon the common physical challenges faced by metal detectorists, explore the accessories designed to counteract these issues and suggest stretches and exercises to keep you at your detecting best.
Common Physical Issues Caused by Metal Detecting
Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI)
Repetitive Strain Injuries, commonly known as RSI, are a group of conditions caused by placing too much stress on a joint or muscle through repetitive motions. In the context of metal detecting, the continuous swinging of the detector can lead to RSI, especially in the shoulders, elbows, and wrists. Symptoms might include pain, tenderness, swelling, stiffness, or tingling in the affected area.
If you’re a desk jockey during the daytime like I am, you might already be familiar with this type of injury. They tend to hang around and are also often caused or exacerbated by poor posture and ergonomics. If you already have a pre-existing RSI, I’d start your metal detecting journey off with a sling or a harness to better distribute the weight.
Back and Neck Pain
One of the most common complaints among metal detectorists, and a decent amount of people over the age of 30, is back and neck pain. This discomfort can be attributed to several factors:
- Poor Posture: Holding the metal detector for extended periods, especially if it’s not adjusted to the user’s height, can force the user into a hunched posture.
- Frequent Bending: The act of bending over to retrieve a target or to dig can strain the lower back, especially if done without bending the knees.
- Carrying Equipment: Carrying a heavy backpack or bag filled with tools and finds can add additional strain to the back and neck.
Posture and weight distribution is one of the first things I addressed while designing my loadout to reduce back and neck strain. Drawing from my experience backpacking, I identified necessities and removed my small backpack entirely to reduce overall weight and instead opted for a good harness that had a waist belt. This significantly improved the weight distribution of my carry-along items and it attached to my metal detector for added support.
I’ve since added a water bottle holder, a few carabiners, and a removable pocket that I once saw while hiking. I also often wear a waist pack/fanny pack to store finds and a few extras (aka snacks).
Knee and Joint Pain
Kneeling is a frequent posture adopted by detectorists, especially when digging up a find. Continuous kneeling, especially on hard or uneven surfaces, can lead to knee pain or even conditions like bursitis. Additionally, the repetitive motion of standing up and kneeling down can strain other joints, such as the hips and ankles.
While we don’t have any way to completely eliminate kneeling; knee pads, a high-quality shovel, and a knee brace are worth their weight in gold. A good shovel that’s both light and about waist height can also double as a support while going into and out of a kneeling position without adding additional weight to your kit.
Shoulder and Arm Fatigue
Swinging a metal detector, especially for extended periods, can lead to fatigue in the shoulders and arms. The weight of the detector, combined with the motion, can tire out the muscles, leading to soreness and discomfort. Over time, without proper care or breaks, this can escalate to more severe conditions or chronic pain like the repeat stress injuries mentioned above.
As I mentioned in my article discussing swing mechanics, I usually recommend buying a sling for your metal detector as soon as possible. The easiest way to reduce this fatigue is to better distribute the weight of the metal detector across your body. If a sling isn’t enough, opt for a harness with a waist belt to shift some weight and stress caused by the swing away from your shoulders.
By understanding these common physical challenges, metal detectorists can take proactive measures to prevent or alleviate them. The subsequent sections will delve into accessories and practices that can help counteract these issues and ensure a more comfortable and enjoyable detecting experience.
Expanding on the Accessories to Alleviate Physical Issues
In response to the issues above, a range of accessories has been developed to enhance comfort, reduce strain, and ensure longer, more enjoyable detecting sessions. Here’s a closer look at some of these ergonomic solutions:
Metal Detector Shoulder Strap/Sling
A shoulder strap, or sling, is designed to distribute the weight of the metal detector more evenly across the body. Unlike the harness detailed below, a sling is simple, easy to remove, and shifts weight to only the opposite shoulder. If you don’t suffer from existing issues but you still want to improve your metal detecting experience, this is what I would recommend starting with. A few benefits of a sling are:
- Reduces Arm and Shoulder Fatigue: The strap takes on some of the detector’s weight, allowing the arm muscles to relax periodically.
- Promotes Better Posture: With the weight distributed, users are less likely to hunch or adopt poor postures, reducing the risk of back and neck pain.
- Lower Cost: Slings are generally cheaper than the recommended harness options. Making it a good choice if you want improved ergonomics without a higher cost.
An upgrade in both weight distribution and utility, a harness with a waist belt is the best way to take the weight off of major pain points. Several metal detecting manufacturers offer harnesses with padded straps and padded waist belts akin to those found on backpacking packs. These higher-quality support systems also offer a plethora of opportunities to attach pouches, bottle holders, and clips for other gear like your pinpointer or shovel. If you have the extra money, or existing physical issues, I highly recommend trying a good quality harness to help alleviate pain points. A harness provides the fatigue reduction and posture-improving benefits of a sling along with:
- Improved Weight Distribution: A harness with a waist belt will distribute the weight more evenly between both shoulders and shift some of the weight to your hips.
- Attachable Accessories: The same attachments used for backpacking can often be used on a harness. These include bottle holders and removable pouches. If you find yourself carrying a backpack, you can change it out for attachable pouches to remove extra weight from your back and shoulders.
Waist Pack/Fanny Pack/Carry Bags
They can go by several names but they are not just about storage; they can play a crucial role in improving ergonomics. While using a metal detector, you’re already going to be putting weight and stress on your shoulders and upper back. To improve your experience and reduce physical stresses, avoid using a backpack and opt instead for a waist pack/fanny pack to shift the weight away from your shoulders and to your hips. A few benefits of a waist pack are:
- Weight Distribution: By placing tools and finds around the waist, the weight is centered and balanced, reducing strain on the back.
- Easy Access: Having tools within arm’s reach means less bending and stretching to remove your backpack, which can lead to back and shoulder strain.
- Customization/Variety: Many waist belts come with adjustable pouches and holders, allowing users to set up their gear in the most comfortable and efficient manner.
- Reduced Stress When Kneeling: If you don’t sit your backpack to the side or remove it while you kneel to dig, you’re adding stress to your knees and back. A waist pack avoids that issue entirely.
Before metal detecting I hadn’t donned knee pads since I was eagerly trying to learn how to ride a bike. Unfortunately, that old pair is lost to time, but my new pair is taken on every trip without fail. The pair I have conveniently double as a slight compression sleeve, but the real reason I wear them is simply to save my kneecap. This makes knee pads essential as we frequently kneel to dig or pinpoint targets. A few benefits of knee pads are:
Cushioning: Kneeling on rocks while pinpointing and digging for a target is one of the most uncomfortable parts of the process. Knee pads reduce the discomfort as much as possible.
Reduce Cartilage Damage: Prolonged kneeling can be a serious issue, especially as we age. Knee pads provide protection and support to help prevent those issues from developing.
Reduces Risk of Bursitis: By offering protection and cushioning, knee pads can reduce the risk of conditions like bursitis, an inflammation of the fluid-filled sacs in the knee.
Ergonomically Designed Metal Detectors
While there isn’t a metal detector specifically designed around ergonomics, a few were clearly not designed with it in mind. If you already have physical issues, you should avoid metal detectors that don’t follow the typical design. A metal detector like the Minelab SDX5000 is a good example of a device that’s simply rough on the body over time and requires a sling. Keep an eye out for the following when looking at your metal detector:
- Weight: Most metal detectors can weigh between 2-8 lbs. Luckily, most of the top-rated metal detectors sit around 3 lbs. Generally, the more advanced prospecting metal detectors are the ones that creep up into the higher end of the spectrum.
- Balanced Weight Distribution: Most modern metal detectors fall into a standard profile that counterbalances the weight of the device with a forearm rest/strap. Various forms can change this balance to place more stress on the wrist or forearm.
Other Accessories to Consider
There are several other tools and accessories that I’ve either experimented with personally or that I’ve seen used with some success in the field. At a certain point, it’s a game of incremental improvements, but if you’re in the aches and pains club, I’m sure you’ll agree that those improvements are often worth it.
Proper Digging Tools
A traditional shovel or garden tool should be left at home. Our goal is to dig a targeted hole, often in rocky soils, while leaving as little of a trace as possible. To accomplish that with as little strain on the body as possible, we need a specialized tool to get the job done. Shovels like the Lesche Sampson models or the Garrett Razor Relic are purpose-built with our goals in mind. They are more narrow, often serrated to help with roots, and fall below the weight of their larger counterparts. I’ve even seen a few rigged up to connect and hang on a harness.
In any outdoor activity that involves getting off the beaten path, you need to have good footwear to ensure proper balance and support. Without a properly supported base, it’s easy to succumb to bad postures, injuries, and lower body fatigue. I generally opt for a hiking boot to add some support for my terribly weak ankles. If your ankles are in better shape, I would at least consider hiking shoes for their added structure while navigating rocky fields and root-covered forests.
Stretches and Exercises for Metal Detectorists
While accessories play a pivotal role in enhancing the ergonomics of metal detecting, incorporating regular stretches can further alleviate muscle tension and reduce the risk of injuries. These practices not only improve flexibility and strength but also ensure that detectorists remain pain-free during their hunts.
I generally stretch anytime I get to a location to either hike or metal detect, but you’ll get the most out of these if you do them more frequently.
Before we get started, I want to clarify that I don’t exactly feel qualified to provide guidance on these stretches, so below are links and embedded videos of professionals that I reference myself (aka Bob and Brad on YouTube)
Upper Body Stretches
The continuous swinging of a metal detector can strain the muscles of the upper body. With weight being placed on your upper back, shoulder, elbow, and wrist, incorporating a few upper body stretches can cover a lot of key pain areas. I personally suffer from persistent carpal tunnel issues, so incorporating those stretches into my daily and pre-trip routine has been game-changing.
When I first encountered my wrist issues, Bob and Brad’s YouTube channel was one of the first resources I found that offered a solid explanation of what was going on and how to potentially address it. Below are two videos with stretches that have helped me move on from most of my own Carpal Tunnel symptoms.
While there was some mention of shoulder stretches in the video directly above, the following videos focus more specifically on the nuances involved in shoulder-specific stretches.
If you’re working to loosen your shoulders but you don’t pay attention to your neck muscles, you might just be trading one issue for another. Luckily neck stretches are easy to incorporate into your pre-trip stretches and knock out while working at a desk.
Back and Core Stretches
Back and core muscles are more likely to prevent or shut down a trip than be a tolerable, nagging issue. As a result, if you’re suffering from back or core pain, you should be incorporating these into a daily routine rather than a pre-trip stretching session to see real benefits.
Lower Body Stretches
The act of bending, kneeling, and walking can strain the lower body. These issues are compounded by the uneven terrain we often find ourselves metal detecting in. The 90 second routine below is exactly what I do to warm up my legs.
By integrating these stretches and exercises into their routine, metal detectorists can ensure that their bodies remain flexible, strong, and ready for the physical demands of their passion and their life in general. The subsequent sections will delve into best practices and guidelines to further enhance the ergonomic experience of metal detecting.
Best Practices for Ergonomic Metal Detecting
Beyond the use of accessories and regular stretching, adopting certain best practices can significantly enhance the ergonomic experience of metal detecting. These guidelines aim to reduce physical strain, prevent injuries, and ensure that detectorists can enjoy their hobby or profession for years to come without adverse health implications.
We’ve mentioned periodically checking your posture, but what should you look out for specifically?
- Detector Height: Adjust the metal detector’s stem so that it’s at a comfortable height, allowing you to keep your back straight and your arm slightly bent.
- Avoid Hunching: Regularly check and correct your posture to ensure you aren’t hunching over as you walk along.
- Engage the Core: Engaging your core muscles can provide additional support to your back, reducing the risk of pain and strain. A harness helps accomplish this by shifting weight towards your core.
Have a Plan Before the Trip
Before you visit any location, you should familiarize yourself with both the topography and history of the location. You don’t need to metal detect every crack and crevice (at least on your first few trips!). With a good understanding of your location, you can focus on specific areas that are more likely to produce targets. This reduces the overall time spent doing the repetitive motions and increases your chance of success.
Having a plan goes beyond pre-trip research. When you arrive on the site, keep track of the time as it’s easy to lose yourself. Take regular breaks and get out of the sun if possible, stay hydrated, and bring food even if it’s a short hunt.
I also recommend trying out different techniques to break up the process if possible. I usually bring ~10 small flags to mark good targets. This allows me to spend ~45 minutes focused on progressing through my marked area, and then I circle around and clean up my targets in one sweep. I’ve found this helps me stay more conscious of the day, and it allows me to keep my shovel out of arm’s reach to reduce carry weight.
Some Final Thoughts on Ergonomics and Metal Detecting
Metal detecting, while being methodical and slow-paced, comes with its unique set of physical challenges. As we’ve explored throughout this article, a combination of ergonomic accessories, regular stretches, and best practices can significantly improve the physical issues associated with the detecting experience. Adopting a holistic but personalized approach ensures that you can enjoy your passion while minimizing the risk of compounding existing physical ailments.
By investing time and effort into understanding and implementing more ergonomic principles, metal detectorists can enjoy longer detecting sessions, reduced fatigue, and a lower risk of injuries. This not only enhances the immediate experience but also ensures that enthusiasts can continue their hobby or profession for years, if not decades, without adverse health implications developed through bad habits.