How to Choose the Best Backpacking Backpack
By Ian Nicholson and Chris McNamara - Wednesday October 16, 2013
Below are some key tips to selecting the right backpack for your backpacking trip.
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?
Getting your back measured is a very useful tool that will help determine 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.
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 feature more durable materials and have more bells and whistles. Be realistic: which features do you "need" and which features are cool but seldom used?
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.
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. REI also has a detailed article on choosing a backpack here
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