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How to Choose a Hiking Backpack - Moosejaw

How To Choose a Backpack

The perfect pack for you is out there. If you're planning a trip and need a pack, you're just a couple steps away from finding it. It's currently sitting on a shelf in a shop or in a box in a warehouse, waiting patiently to find its new home. I'm gonna help you locate it. It might take a little digging, but when we're all done with this guide, that pack will be in your hands, metaphorically.

A 60 liter backpack like the Osprey Aether provides enough capacity for extended trips into the backcountry.
A 60 liter backpack like the Osprey Aether provides enough capacity for extended trips into the backcountry.
Backpacks ranging from 35 to 88 liters
Here are a few backpacks with capacities ranging from 35 to 88 liters.

Pick A Capacity

Contrary to what you may have heard, size does matter.

How long? How far? How much gear?

The fastest way to narrow down your pack search is by figuring out a good estimate of the pack volume, or carrying capacity. The biggest determining factor in carrying capacity is trip length. The longer you are going to be out in the backcountry, the more supplies you'll need. Another determining factor is if you're bringing along your zebra print bean bag chair. Your supplies are very much dependent on your camping habits. Some people can get by with minimal luxuries and limited food selection. Other people like gourmet meals and a lot of extra comforts like chairs and hammocks. Here is a little chart with some general capacity estimates based on trip length.

Overnight: 30 - 40 liters
Weekend: 35 - 55 liters
Multi-day: 45 - 70 liters
Extended: 60+ liters


These numbers will also vary based on activity and season. If you're heading out for a winter hiking trip or alpine mountaineering, you'll be bringing along a heftier tent and a lower temperature sleeping bag. If you're looking to hammer out 15+ miles a day in the summer, you might want to shoot for the lower end of a capacity range and look to get by with less gear. If you're heading out to hike on the moon, I don't think weight is even a factor. There is less gravity, right? Get the biggest pack and load it up. I'm no space-ologist, but I'm pretty sure that's how it works. It's a safe bet to purchase your pack last after you round up the rest of your gear so you can make sure you're looking for a pack with an appropriate carrying capacity.

Internal frame packs are the new standard, and provide the best comfort and stability for hiking with heavy loads.
Internal frame packs are the new standard, and provide the best comfort and stability for backpacking.
External frame packs still have their loyal followers, and offer an old school look and feel.
External frame packs still have their loyal followers, and offer an old school look and feel when lugging heavy loads.

Pack Frame Types

I've always wanted to frame somebody.

Internal frames offer comfort that is hard to beat.

There are three basic types of packs which are differentiated by their frame type: internal frame, external frame, and frameless. The job of your pack's frame is to give your pack structure and to direct your load weight onto your hips. They all do so in a slightly different manner and with varying degrees of success. Picking the right one is a lot like Goldilocks trying to pick a porridge; I'll give you a hint: for most trips, internal frame packs are juuuuuuust right.

INTERNAL FRAME packs are the best choice for almost all types of backpacking and unless you're looking for a very specific functionality, it will be the type of pack you're looking for. Suspension and ventilation technology has steadily advanced over the years and the internal frames on packs these days are leaps and bounds past what were on the market even 10 years ago.

EXTERNAL FRAME packs used to be the only option for carrying heavy loads, but they have slowly been phased out almost entirely. They still might find some use for niche needs like carrying large, strangely shaped loads. Like if you needed to lug a giant stuffed tiger to a backcountry campsite, then maybe an external frame pack would get the job done.

FRAMELESS should be used only for ultralight hiking. Having no frame, they aren't rated for comfortably carrying loads much more than 20-25 lbs. They often require very careful packing and even a rolled up foam sleeping pad to ensure the load weight is distributed properly. That being said, if you're looking into some long thru-hikes, it is definitely an option that you should consider. Frameless packs are like frameless glasses, only get one if you really know what you're doing.

Find the C7 vertebra and iliac crest, aka the top of the hip bone. It's the measurement between the two that will determine pack size.
Find the C7 vertebra and iliac crest, aka the top of the hip bone. It's the measurement between the two that will determine pack size.
Have a not-so-creepy friend help you measure from your C7 vertebra to iliac crest so you can pick a backpack size.
Have a not-so-creepy friend help you measure from your C7 vertebra to iliac crest so you can pick a backpack size.

Fitting Your Pack

"If it does not fit, something something."

Here's how you measure and determine your pack size.

To determine your torso size, you have to do a little measuring. You'll need to get your hands on a measuring device (preferably a cloth one), a friend or trustworthy stranger, and your torso. You need to figure out the length from your C7 vertebra to your iliac crest. If you're not a doctor, that sentence might sound confusing, so I'll explain it for you. If you are a doctor, you can skip down to the part where I talk about hiring a Sherpa to carry all your gear for you. Here are the steps:

1. Put your chin to your chest and feel for the big bone protruding on your neck at the top of your spine. I'll give you a second to try it. …… Yep, there it is. That's your C7 vertebra.
2. Feel your hip bone, the top part of this is your iliac crest. Find the spot on your back that is level with the top of this crest.
3. Have the friend/stranger measure the distance between these two points, following the contours of your spine.

Figuring out your hipbelt size isn't as tricky as your torso measurement. All you need to do is measure the distance around your hips at your iliac crest. Your hipbelt size is NOT your waist size. Your hipbelt will fit snuggly around the iliac crest, with 1/2 to 2/3 of the hipbelt padding positioned over the crest so your hips can better support your load weight. Keep in mind that around 80% of your total pack weight should be carried by your hips. With a securely tightened hipbelt, there should be 3-6 inches between the ends of the padding around the front buckle, or the average length of a full grown clown fish.

WOMEN'S SPECIFIC FIT
For all you women out there, there are women's specific packs that aim to give you more options for finding a great fit. These packs are tailored for shorter and often narrower torsos, in addition to offering shoulder straps and hipbelts that better conform to the female form. If you have a smaller frame, your pack should too.

An extendable lid offers additional storage capacity.
A sleeping bag compartment offers quick and easy access to your bag when you're ready to crash.
An extendible lid offers a bit of extra storage space for your favorite extras on backpack trips.
An extendible lid offers a bit of extra storage space for your favorite extras on backpack trips.
Store your ice axes properly so you don't damage your pack. Or your body.
Store your ice axes properly so you don't damage your pack. Or your body.
Free up some space inside your pack by storing your sleeping pad on the outside of your pack.
Free up some space inside your pack by storing your sleeping pad on the outside of your pack.

Backpack Features

My Osprey pack has more useful features than my car.

Tons of additional storage for gear inside and out.

The features that you should be looking for in a pack greatly depend on your personal hiking habits. At the very base level, you can get by with a streamlined pack with almost zero features. However, you can make your trip a lot easier on yourself if you can find a pack that fits your style and activity. Here is a little list of some of the more important pack features and why/when you might want to utilize them. Remember, additional features come at the cost of extra overall pack weight.

SLEEPING BAG COMPARTMENT - At the end of a hard day of hiking, it can be super convenient to simply open a zipper and pull your sleeping bag out of its compartment. An added bonus is that these compartments are always at the bottom of the pack which encourages proper load packing. Light items like sleeping bags should go on the bottom of your pack so the heavier items can be stashed above them, more towards the center of your back. Your heaviest items, like a bowling ball or a couple bricks should simply be left at home.

HYDRATION COMPATIBLE - If you prefer staying hydrated as you hike (instead of during breaks), then a hydration bladder is right up your alley. If you need a little extra water on a tough push up a steep trail, just take a pull from your hydration tube. No need to stop. A lot of packs have hydration ports to facilitate the use of a hydration bladder. I just wish they didn't call them bladders. Gross.

DEHYDRATION COMPATIBLE - This isn't a real thing. I just felt like wasting all of our time for a second. Sorry.

WATER BOTTLE POCKETS - Some people like to take breaks from their activities to hydrate. It's a chance to take a load off and metaphorically drink in the beautiful surroundings as they literally drink in water. The biggest advantage of water bottles over hydration bladders is the ability to ration your water better because you always see how much you're chugging. If you're not using your big stretchy water bottle pockets for holding a drink, you could instead us them to fit additional gear like tent poles or trekking poles.

EXTENDABLE LID - There are a couple benefits of an extendable lid, the obvious one being the extra load space. You can pack a little extra food for your hike and simply cinch down your lid as you consume it. It's also a great place to stow your sleeping pad. You'll have to check the features for each specific pack, but a lot of lids can be removed and used as a daypack.

LID POCKET - Pockets that can be accessed without opening the pack and shifting around all kinds of gear are worth their weight in gold. A lid pocket is a great place to stow snacks, sunglasses, a compass, a camera, your phone, a.... maybe a small dog. I don't know about that last one. Just know they're super useful and you'll surely end up over-stuffing them.

BIG EXTERIOR POCKET - As I just touched on, the more external pockets the better. In my opinion, the most underrated pack feature is a big stretchy external pocket. This is the perfect place to throw an extra layer or your snacks for the day. Just don't put anything too heavy in there as it will throw off your pack stability.

ICE AXE / TREKKING POLE LOOPS - This one is a no-brainer. If you're using ice axes, you need a place to stow them. For mountaineering and climbing, this is most likely a necessity. They'll also quickly stash a set of trekking poles. They can also conveniently hold a baguette.

SLEEPING PAD STRAPS - If you're a fan of big, comfortable, self-inflating sleeping pads or closed cell foam sleeping pads, you'll most likely be looking to store them somewhere on the outside of your pack. However, your lashing options are very limited. The best bet are sleeping pad straps or the aforementioned extendable lid.

Backpack rain cover and storage bags
Storage bags and a pack rain cover.
Backpack bladder
Add a hydration bladder. Or don't.

Backpack Accessories

That see through pack over there is the bees knees.

Make your pack even mover versatile, you guys.

Now that you know all that you need to know to find the perfect pack, it's time to talk about a few additional things that will make your perfect pack even perfecter.

RAIN COVER - It's gonna rain. Even the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth, still averages 15 mm of rainfall a year. You don't want 15 mm of water on your gear, do you? Most packs are treated to offer a bit of water resistance and should be able to shed varying amounts of moisture, but in a decent downpour you'll want the added precaution of a rain cover.

STORAGE BAGS - Internal pack organization is crucial to proper weight management and for basic quality of life. You should get your hands on some ultra-sil nylon sacks for your clothing, food and gear. It helps you find whatever items you're looking for quickly as well as offering additional protection from rain. Also, nylon sacks slide around easily for easier pack packing, you just might need additional items shoved in the dead space between sacks to conserve space and keep the sacks in place.

HYDRATION BLADDER - As I mentioned above, a lot of people enjoy the convenience of a tube of water that's always just a quick sip away. If you prefer that method of hydration and pick a pack that has a hydration sleeve and port, you should pick up a bladder to complete the system. If only they also made soup or gravy bladders so you can eat and drink without breaking stride.

Get the hipbelt properly positioned on your iliac crest, and then cinch it tight.
Get the hipbelt properly positioned on your iliac crest, and then cinch it tight.
Tighten up the shoulder straps to keep the weight of your pack up against your back. Do NOT pull your shoulder straps too tight, you guys.
Tighten up the shoulder straps to keep the weight of your pack up against your back. Do NOT pull your shoulder straps too tight, you guys.
The load lifter straps can be adjusted to ensure your shoulders are not taking on too much weight.
The load lifter straps can be adjusted to ensure your shoulders are not taking on too much weight.

Adjusting your Pack

Here's what you do with all those straps.

Make your pack as stable and comfortable as humanly possible.

The most common question people ask me about adjusting a pack is, "Hey Fletch, my arm is stuck in an ice axe loop, am I gonna die here?" Just kidding, I've only been asked that once. The actual question is, "How do I properly adjust all the straps?" The trickiest part about adjusting your pack is getting the right amount of weight distributed to your hipbelt. As I mentioned above, your hipbelt should support upwards of 80% of your total pack weight. For it to support that much weight, you need to aim the force of the load in the right direction. I'll do a quick little numbered step guide. Startiiiiiiiiiiing.... now.

1. Put at least 20lb in your pack and give all your pack's straps a bunch of slack.
2. Fasten the hipbelt around your waist, positioned over the top of your iliac crest. I mentioned this part earlier, if you forgot already, well then shame on you. Cinch it tight.
3. Put your arms through the shoulder straps. Cinch those tight, too. With your hipbelt secured, your pack load can no longer slide down, so it will naturally try to tilt backwards. The shoulder straps will keep the weight up against your back. If your shoulder straps are too tight they will start to support some of your pack weight, which is bad. You will be able to feel the weight shift to your hips as you fine-tune the tautness.
4. Adjust the load lifter straps. These little straps help your shoulder straps contact only the front of your shoulders and not take on too much weight themselves. If your pack isn't the right fit for your torso, the load lifter straps will be fairly useless. They work best when your frame extends the right amount above your shoulders so that the load lifters function at as close to a 45 degree angle as possible.
5. Cinch down any and all compression straps to move all of your pack contents as close to your back as possible.
6. Tighten your sternum strap to pull your shoulder straps together until they reach a comfortable position that doesn't impede mobility.
7. The 7th step is the easiest step because the steps ended at step 6. So take a little break maybe.

Remember, the overall goal is to get your load weight to fall straight down onto your hips. All the other straps are just trying to position the weight correctly to facilitate this.

Now get out there already

Just remember, there isn't one magical pack that will work perfectly for every trip. Well, not yet at least. If you're into a variety of outdoor activities, odds are you'll need a couple packs. I use a 50 liter internal frame pack for most extended weekend treks, a frameless pack for 20+ mile a day thru-hikes, and an 80 liter expedition pack for two night camping outings with friends where I bring tons of luxury items. If you are trying to stretch out the usages of a single pack, it has to be big enough for your biggest trip, and should have compression straps to allow it to correctly carry a smaller load as well.

Osprey Backpacks Gregory Backpacks Deuter Backpacks Mountain Hardwear Backpacks Granite Gear Backpacks Arc'teryx Backpacks Black Diamond Backpacks
 
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