Our testers' body types range widely as well. They're short. They're tall. They're curvy, petite, lanky or muscled. These women also have wildly different backpacking experience levels — some are newbies, others are long-time backcountry travelers. This helps us gain a broad perspective of how comfortable, adjustable, and easy to use each of these packs really is.
Comfort and Suspension
To compare comfort and suspension on each pack we loaded them up with quick overnight gear as well as weighed them down with 6 days of food for 2 people, climbing ropes, winter gear, etc. We looked at how well the suspension transferred weight to our hips versus resting on our shoulders. We contemplated the positioning and stability of the hip belt: does it stay in place, sag toward the back, curve up in front, shift when we bend and twist climbing over downed trees? Does the padding of the shoulder straps and hip belt feel soft or rigid? Does it stand up to multiple days of heavy loads or begin to crumple? How easy is the pack to get on and off? We had women of all shapes and sizes wearing each model to determine if the comfort was versatile for many body shapes or just a few.
We broke out the kitchen scale and weighed each model down to the tenth of an ounce. We considered the weight compared to other models as well as the weight compared to the comfort, ability to carry a load, and the number of features offered. Sometimes we felt a heavier model's weight was worth it due to its comfort and sometimes we wished a lighter pack had added a few more ounces to offer the comfort needed to carry it day in and day out.
Every backpacker keeps their gear organized differently so we tried each pack out in a variety of way. We packed small items and bulky jackets in and out of every pocket we could. We used each model for multiple days to learn each new packing system intimately. Most awkwardly, we pulled water bottles in and out while on the go - more than a few were dropped! We considered not only how large the pockets were but also how easy they were to get into and how visible our gear was inside the sometimes dark cavernous bag.
Each model has a different level of adjustability as well as a different system. Some took time to get to learn, others were intuitive and fast, and some were just too much of a hassle to recommend. We lengthened and shortened every torso and hip belt possible. We took measurements and looked at the range of waist sizes each pack will fit. We considered interchangeable belts and padding. Versatility also played into our adjustability testing. Some packs have options to change and remove features and straps. Some allow for bulky items to be strapped on the outside, while others were clearly designed for almost everything to be loaded into the main compartment. Those with a lot of options typically scored high but a few were overly complicated to use and actually lost points.
Yes, these subjects were put through the wringer both in the backcountry and in our labs. And each year, we continue to search out the new options on the market, the re-designed models, and the old favorites to test and re-test for the most thorough review available.