Backpacking

Tips for Buying a Backpack

May 22, 2018

Choosing a new backpack for your next great adventure is daunting for some people. There are so many manufacturers and options to consider: daypacks, multi-day packs, travel packs, and more. This discussion focuses on multiday hiking packs that carry everything (food, shelter, cooking gear, sleeping gear, clothing, etc.) you need for a weekend or weeklong trek. This guide is intended to help narrow the field to a few packs when you are ready to try them on.

Getting started 

First, here’s a brief description of the types of packs on the market today.  

  • Internal Frame: The most popular packs have a frame that consists of lightweight curved rods, plastic frame sheets or aluminum stays. These packs are designed to hold the load close to the back, and they excel at transferring the majority of the weight from the shoulders to the hips.
  • External frame: These are the rigid, old-school aluminum frames resembling the letter H. They have a pack bag with a generous supply of zippered pockets in the top section and room to strap a sleeping bag at the bottom. They are less prevalent today, but some diehards still use them to carry heavy loads.
  • Ultralight: The gram counters looking to shave weight in every possible way favor these stripped down, frameless packs. Generally, they use lighter weight materials, thinner straps and padding, and have fewer entry points.   

Size

The first question to ask is: How big of a backpack do I need? Backpack volume is typically measured in liters or cubic inches. As a general guideline, most hikers doing a multiday trek fall somewhere between 48 liters and 65 liters.  Where you fall in the volume range is affected by several things. How bulky is your gear? A large sleeping bag eats up space. How long is your trip? This determines how much food you need to carry. When is your trip? In the fall or winter, you’ll need space for a jacket or thermal layers. In the summer, you may not need a jacket at all. Where are you going? If you’re hiking in bear country, regulations may require that you carry a bear canister. 

We recommend buying much of your other gear first (sleeping bag/pad, cook system, shelter system). Then you’ll better know your volume needs. 

Features 

Now it’s time to decide which features are most important to you. Most backpacks have a sleeve for a water bladder, pockets for water bottles, a top lid with storage, and padded hip belts with small pockets. However, here are some features to ponder: 

  • Entry points: Most people choose a backpack with two entry points; one at the top, and a zippered entry point at the bottom (typically for a sleeping bag). Ultralight packs have just one entry point, at the top, so they are called top-loaders. Some people empty their packs each evening so having just the one opening is fine. Still others prefer having access to the middle of the pack without opening the top lid. These packs have a middle zipper creating three entry points.

  • Back suspension system: Some hikers prefer the load as close to the back as possible. So there are packs that follow the curvature of the spine. Other hikers want to feel a little cooler, so they like the pack to sit slightly off of their back. Backpacks with a “trampoline” style frame and mesh system create a bit of airspace between the hiker’s back and the pack.

  • Harness/hipbelts: Many backpacks could be considered unisex, but today’s manufacturers make shoulder harnesses and hipbelts that better fit the ladies. On a woman-specific pack, the frame is generally more narrow, the hipbelts slightly angled for their hips and the shoulder straps sweep outward more dramatically to fit the ladies’ different upper body anatomy.
  • Adjustability: Some backpacks fit the entire spectrum of torso lengths, from extra small to large. Other packs only fit one portion of the spectrum, so getter the wrong torso length means an incorrect fit. 

Measure up and try them on 

Next it’s time to have your torso measured. The torso length is the distance from the top of your hipbone (iliac crest) to the C7 vertebrae (bony bump on your spine when you look down at your feet). This determines the best fit. Now choose a couple of packs that fit your needs and try them on to see what feels best. 

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