How to Choose the Best Backpacking Backpack

Buying Advice
By and Chris McNamara - Sunday August 31, 2014
Click to enlarge
Dan Whitmore heading into Boston Basin, Backpack testing in the North Cascades, Washington.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

Below are some key tips on how to choose the right backpack for your backpacking trip.


Some Questions to Ask yourself before selecting a Pack

How much weight are you going to carry?
Are you doing a two-day trip and carrying 30 pounds or a seven-day trip with 60+ pounds? If you are carrying less than 30 pounds, then most backpacks will carry the load just fine and you may be able to save weight and money by going with a lighter pack. If you are carrying 30 to 60+ pounds, you need to make sure the pack is up to the task. How comfortable are the shoulder straps and waist belt? Does the lumbar support help you carry the pack or does it feel too big and awkward?

Get measured
Torso Length
Getting your back measured is a very useful tool that will help choose what frame length you should buy. Most shops should be able to do it for you, but if you don't have somewhere to be measured or just want to do it at home, you just need another person and a soft, flexible measuring device. A soft measuring tape works far far better than a yardstick or a stiff measuring device because if it's stiff it can't follow along the curve of your back. If you don't have a soft measuring device you can always use a shoelace or a piece of cord against your back and then measure its length with it straightened out. When being measured, stand with your feet shoulder width apart, standing nice and straight. The top of the measurement is at C7. If you can't find C7 along the spine, then have the person who is being measured tilt their head forward and C7 is the first and most prominent vertebrae to protrude from your spine. For the bottom end of the measurement you are looking for the spot where the "Pelvic girdle" is. The best way to find this spot is to have the person being measured put their hands on the top of their iliac crest (hip bones) with their thumbs pointed toward their backs. It is this line between their thumbs that is the bottom of your measurement. If you are still having a hard time just feel along their lower back until you hit bone.
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Second Ascent Pro Pack fitter Andy Dahlen demonstrates on fellow employee Andrew Magnussen how to properly measure someone for a pack fit.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

Test drive…err…walk your pack
When trying out a pack you do need some weight but contrary to popular belief tossing a ton of weight into it isn't the answer to seeing what pack feels better faster or even more effectively. I normally recommend 25 to 35 pounds and never more than 40 pounds. You will get a better comparison without crushing yourself.

Take control of the straps
When trying a pack on for the first time, you want to loosen all the straps. What are all those straps and adjustments anyway? I don't know how many times people have bragged about how adjustable their pack was only for me to see it wasn't adjusted properly.

Start with the hip belt. The top of your hips or iliac crest should be anywhere from the middle to the top of the waist belt. You should have at least one inch of adjustment to either tighten or loosen the waist belt.

The next thing you should do is pull on the lower shoulder straps, not too tight. You are looking for a good consistent curve of the shoulder strap around your shoulder front to back. Look to see how wide the shoulder straps are across your chest. This is an easily overlooked and less adjustable part of many packs but can be a big factor in the long run. Your sternum strap can help but its isn't a miracle worker. The next thing is the load lifters or the straps on the top of your shoulder straps. With many packs you can adjust the angle of the load lifters as they come off the shoulder strap. In an ideal world you want that angle to be 45 degrees. It should never be more than 60 degrees and always greater than 25. All that said about your shoulder straps, realize that you do need to adjust them on the go on the trail. If going uphill, having the load lifters a little looser can be more comfortable. Having them looser allows to you lean further forward, which is a more natural and balanced way to walk uphill. If you are hiking uphill with your pack and start getting lower back pain, loosening your load lifters will create relief in about five to ten minutes. The lower back pain comes from your body fighting the frame to lean forward. On the flip side, when walking downhill tighten everything up a little more. Don't go to crazy on the load lifters, they are easy to make too tight.

Pack weight distribution
Once you have your back loaded up and on your back, you will notice that you have to lean slightly forward. This is a normal and natural response by our bodies to manage the increased load. As you ascend steeper terrain you will notice that your body will adjust be leaning even slightly more forward than when compared to flatter terrain. In this body position the majority of the weight should fall on your hips; roughly 65-80% of the weight, the rest should be spread out along the fronts and tops of your shoulder straps and thus the reasoning for getting a pack that can wrap around your shoulders well.

Weight
While having a light pack is great, lighter packs often don't have as plush suspensions nor as comfy straps. This will matter less to someone who goes on mostly trips of two to three days and tends to pack light (less than 30 pounds). For people who tend to bring a few of the extra comforts of home, favor longer trips or just end up taking everyone else's stuff, they will benefit greatly from a pound or more of suspension and padding. Heavier packs also tend to choose more durable materials and have more bells and whistles. Be realistic: which features do you "need" and which features are cool but seldom used?


Durability
Durability is an obvious question to ask about packs and there can be quite a bit of difference in the toughness and longevity of each pack. But the truth is not everyone needs a super durable back, nor needs to carry the extra weight that comes along with it. Are you someone who tends to go on overnight trips along well maintained trails or are you someone who finds themselves going bushwhacking or traveling cross-country on their adventures?

For many more tips on finding the right backpack, check out our full Backpacking Backpacks Review. In the beginning of each paragraph we describe how to assess a backpack's comfort, ease of packing, and adjustability. We also have a detailed article on how to choose a backpack from the vast market options here.

Click to enlarge
Backpack testing in the Oregon Cascades.
Credit: Ian Nicholson
Ian Nicholson
About the Author
Ian is a man of the mountains. His overwhelming desire to spend as much time in them as possible has been the reason for him to spend the last seven years living in small rooms in dusty basements cluttered with gear and in the back of his pickup (sometimes in the parking lot of the local climbing gym). This drive and focus have taken Ian into the Kichatna Spires of Alaska and the Waddington Range of British Columbia (with the help of two Mountain Fellowship Grants from the American Alpine Club) as well as extensive trips through much of the Western United States and Canada. His pursuit of guiding has been tenacious. He was the youngest person to pass his American Mountain Guides Assn Rock and Alpine Guide exams (on his way towards becoming a fully certified International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations guide). Ian also holds an American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) Level 3 certification as well as an AIARE Level 1 avalanche instructor certification.

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