Thoreau “went into the woods into live deliberately and to front only the essential facts of life”, but he still needed something to carry his things. If you’re headed into the great outdoors, the backpack you wear can mean the difference between pleasure and pain. Pronto’s Backpack Buying Guide can help you identify which kind of backpack is best for you, whether you’re planning a day on the trail or two weeks in back wilderness. Backpacks can be purchased for less online than at sporting goods stores. However, you should always try on your pack before making a purchasing decision. When buying on-line, make sure that you have enough time to try on your pack and allow for any returns if necessary.
The pack size or volume you need depends on the length of your trip and the amount of space your gear takes up. The weight of your empty backpack may be a consideration (some pros chop handle off toothbrushes to reduce overall weight). Ultralight packs weigh less than traditional packs.
Most packs today have internal frames that hug the curve of your spine and offer increased flexibility. External frames are still the choice for extra-heavy loads and offer more air circulation between your back and pack.
Backpack fit is key to comfort and safety on the trail. Avoid one-size-fits-most models. The more custom the fit, the better. You won’t always be hiking in one season or one kind of weather.
Where they are, how many there are and how they’re packed affect the overall weight balance of what you’re carrying. Avoid packs with too many on the perimeter of the pack.
Hydration bladders (CamelBaks) reduce pack weight and make it easier to stay hydrated on the trail. If you’ll be using ice tools or other technical equipment, look for packs that have well-located loops and attachments.
You’ll need this measurement to select a pack that fits well and provides optimal comfort. Torso length is the distance between your shoulders at the C7 vertebrae (let your head hang forward and run your finger down the spine starting at the neck; the vertebrae that protrudes the farthest is C7) and the top of your hip bones. Look for packs with torso specs that include your measurement.
Stays are rods, bars or tubes that help transfer the weight of the pack load from the top of the pack to the hip belt. Some packs include high-density polyethylene (HDPE) framesheets that provide similar load support, but sacrifice some flexibility. Carbon-fiber stays are also available, weigh less than traditional stays, but add to the cost of the pack.
A broad term used to describe the way a pack’s strap system (shoulder, lift, sternum, belt stabilization) work together to support the load.
Refers to backpacks and backpacking gear that is compact and lighter weight than traditional or regular weight packs and gear. Ultralight backpackers can get away with smaller-volume packs.
What size (volume) pack do you need? That depends on how long your trip is, the gear you carry and how much your gear weighs. Backpack size is measured in cubic inches (cu. in.). You want the smallest pack that meets your needs. If you have extra space, you’ll fill it and increase pack weight unnecessarily. The current trend in backpacks and gear is ultralight. Ultralight gear is compact and takes up less pack space, reducing the overall pack size needed. Ultralight backpacks can weigh as little as 8oz for 3,800 cu. in. while some of the largest medium-weight (5,000 cu. in. and up) packs can tip the scales at close to 7 lbs.
|Trip Length||Medium-Weight Volume (cu. in.)||Ultralight Volume (cu. in.)|
|7 + or longer winter expeditions||5,000-7,000||3,500-4,000|
If you choose a pack that is larger than you actually need, look for excellent top compression for the empty space. Packs fit best when full. Need additional space on occasion? Size can usually be increased up to 1,000 cu. in. by using a top extender.
Don’t know if you want ultralight or medium-weight? Something to consider is convenience. Ultralight packs are typically comprised of one large internal pocket with an outside pocket to stow wet items and/or pockets to store water bottles. They’re easier to fill, but having to search for small items can be annoying. Medium-weight packs offer more outside pocket options. Beware the pack that offers too many outside pockets; if not filled properly the pack weight won’t be balanced and you’ll experience less stability on the trail. Pocket options are discussed in more detail later in the guide.
The majority of today’s backpacks have internal frames. The benefit of internal frames is their ability to fit the curvature of your spine, an important factor to consider if you’ll be scrambling or bouldering and need your pack weight to work with your center of gravity. Internal frame packs are also good when you need to store all your gear inside and away from the elements. A drawback, for some, is lack of air circulation between your back and the pack itself. Manufacturer’s use of moisture-wicking materials helps, but doesn’t solve the entire problem.
Does this mean external frames are going the way of the dinosaur? Not at all. For hikers who require maximum stability for heavy loads (75-100lbs), external frames remain the favorite. Also, external frames cost less than internal, are simpler in design, have a few more pockets, and are easier to load/unload. If these features are important to you and flexibility isn’t top concern, an external frame pack might better suit your needs, especially if you plan to haul large supply loads to trail huts.
Your pack will fit and feel best when the weight is transferred from your shoulders to your hips, where our bodies are designed bear it. Hipbelts and stays transfer that weight. Look for adjustable belts with medium firmness and that hug the hip bones and be sure your hipbelt is rigid enough to support the load without sagging. The best packs offer different hipbelt sizes. Hipbelts designed for women are also available.
Knowing your torso length is critical to finding a pack that works with your individual build. One-size-fits-most should be avoided in favor of packs that offer two or more sizes and the ability to fine tune the fit of both the hipbelt and shoulder straps. Like hipbelts, shoulder straps should be neither too hard nor too soft. Sternum straps are also available if you want need additional support so your arms can swing freely.
Try on more than one pack and packs from more than one manufacturer.If possible, have an expert fit you; dress in layers and your hiking footwear to gauge comfort in close-to-actual conditions.Load and unload the pack with the approximate weight you’ll be carrying. You should be able to move your hips and shoulders freely and raise your knees to marching height; your head should have enough clearance to look up. Wear the loaded pack around the store and mimic movements you’ll make on the trail or inquire about pack rentals and try before you buy.
Most packs are top-loaders, which allow you to pack more by using a built-in extender, and have bottom compartments for sleeping rolls. Side zipper or horseshoe compartments offer easiest access to gear, but what you choose will ultimately come down to personal taste.
How do you know what your taste in pockets is? If you like to be organized, you may be attracted to packs with lots of external pockets, but the organization you gain is lost by the temptation to fill them. Do that and you add weight to the pack’s edges which can compromise freedom to move. Robert Earle Howells, a former Josuha Tree rock-climbing instructor and contributor to Outside Online, prefers a single front pocket large enough to hold a rain jacket. Add a couple of water bottle holsters or hydration bladder sleeve, he says, and you’ve got all the extraneous compartments you need. On the pack top he recommends the floating pocket (top lid) be removable and convert to a daypack.
Look for pockets that accommodate various-sized hydration bladders; avoid hydration bladder pockets near the pack top, adding weight where you don’t want it. Hydration bladders are lighter than water bottles and you won’t carry bottles in winter (they’ll freeze)
Ice tool or trekking pole loops, daisy chains, crampon patches, quick release straps for skis.
Bartacked stitching, waterproofing, nonmetal zippers and overall durability (ultralight pack material is less durable and prone to damage in rougher terrain).
Warranty and repair policies (most manufacturers provide exceptional service in these areas).