Backpacks are an amazing invention. They are bags that nestle nicely on your shoulders and hips that can hold everything you need in them to survive for long periods of time outdoors. You’ll find every type of bag you can imagine. Canvas, leather, hemp, synthetic, nylon and more. Bags made to carry books, computers, food, wine, and all your backpacking gear! So, where do we begin when we are looking for that perfect bag? Ask yourself this question – What will I be doing with it mostly?
I have three backpacks that I use consistently. One is my daily commuting backpack that has reflective material on the back, can hold a water bladder if needed and has just enough room to fit my lunch, a change of clothes and my fancy phone. I use this on my bike rides. I also use this pack for most of my day hiking as it has a chest strap that keeps the pack snug to my body while I am moving and the material on this pack is more water resistant than my other light pack.
The 2nd backpack I have is my hippy sack. This puppy has been around since 2003. It is my favorite bag, made of canvas, has travelled the world with me and screams comfort and love. It is, unfortunately, on its last strappy existence. This bag has been patched and re-sewn and all sorts of creative “put-back-together” type of extended life I could give it. Maybe one day I’ll find it’s match. (I may have just found it yesterday!)
My 3rd backpack is my backpacking pack – and believe it or not, I do have 3 of them. I keep them around because two of them are completely adjustable, which means that if I don’t want to go trekking alone, I can easily fit my pack to a buddy or two to come along with me.
One I inherited from a friend’s father. It is an old school external frame Camp Trails pack that weighs more than most of my other gear combined. Yes, it’s totally awesome. Huge, which means I can stuff it full, which also means when I do it’s as heavy as can be. I use this pack when I’m going packing with someone who doesn’t have equipment. It is my backup pack.
I backpack with a 40 liter High Sierra Hawk pack. I love the size. I cannot overstuff it at all which means I’ve been getting my pack weight down more and more each year. It is big enough to take on a 4 day trek and small enough that it isn’t cumbersome and overwhelming. It is also relatively light weight at 5 lbs 3 oz. There are definitely “lighter” packs in the world, but this one fits me like a bug, snug in a rug. I hardly even notice that it’s on my back when I’m trekking along. I think that’s one of the most rewarding parts about a good pack – is that it has to fit well.
Lastly – my distance pack is a Deuter Act-Lite 75+10. It weighs in at an astounding 4 lb 6 oz. I can pack a third of my house into this vessel which works great and horribly at the same exact time as the tendency for any of us is to overpack. One of my friends who is pack weight conscious actually cuts the tabs off of extra things and the handle off his toothbrush to save weight. I haven’t gone that crazy, yet, but I can see how all those little bits and pieces can add up really quick.
So, let’s come back to the subject at hand – where do you start? Well, in this case, size matters. You cannot get a pack for an extended backpacking trip that cannot hold all of your gear, and you do not need a 70 liter backpack for a day hike (unless you’re training for long distance and you load that puppy up). Are you going for an overnight and only need to carry your tent and sleeping pad with minimal food? Are you going for 3-4 days and sharing gear? Are you going for a solo trek for longer than a week and have to carry all of your gear? Know what you want to do with it immediately, and what you plan on doing with it down the road.
Regardless of the liters your pack can hold, you need to make sure the pack fits. Guys, honestly, you’re not all a large frame. I know you would like to think yourself big and burly because it attempts to tell the mind that you’re more manly if you are, but the majority of menfolk fit into a small or medium framed pack. The majority of women fit an extra small or a small. It is not too uncommon for a smaller guy or girl to fit nicely into a youth sized pack! Go see a pack fitting expert at a local outdoor equipment store and get fit properly. An unfit pack means a messy hike. The pack will shift around your body causing aches and pains that are not only uncomfortable, but unnecessary.
The waist belt should lay cleanly across the hip bones when it is on and there should be extra room on the cinching strap after you’ve pulled it tight. The chest straps are usually adjustable and women’s shoulder straps are curved to match their curvaceous bodies. Shoulder straps should be snug around the top of the chest all the way around the top of the shoulders and down the back. The entire pack should be resting on the back. If you have space between the tops of your shoulders and the bottoms of your straps, then your pack is too big. Too big means extra chafing, and not from a pleasure point of view!
This also means that the “really cool pack” that you see with all the bells and whistles that you think are totally rad, may actually be the worst fitting pack for you regardless of how you size it. Some brands just do not fit some types of bodies. So when you are out there searching around, be flexible like you hope you can be after hiking for 15 miles.