How To Buy A Backpack
The keys to buying a backpack are fit and capacity. While fit should be determined by your body type, capacity (the types and amount of gear a pack is capable of carrying) should depend on intended use and length of trip. Here is what to look for to determine what backpack is right for you.
First of all, there is no such thing as the perfect backpack for all activities. If you are serious about Hiking or other Outdoor Activities then you will probably end up buying multiple backpacks, each targetted at a specific activity and trip durations. You will first have to determine what volume you need to be able to bring the things you will need for your hike. Overloading a small backpack by connecting equipment at the outside of the pack is a bad solution as it disturbs the center of mass and the load distribution. You should determine your needed volume for internal storage inside the backpack.The general rule is that the heavier the load you will have to carry, the more technical features your backpack should have. Take a good look at our list of the different backpack features. For heavier loads, you will definitely need a hip belt and the combined workings and adjustability of the shoulder harness, sternum strap, and the stabilizer straps.
Six Steps to a Great Fit
Once you've selected a pack with the right Torso length and hipbelt size, you need to get properly fitted. REI's pack-fitting experts recommend these steps to help you enjoy a comfortable fit every time.
With all straps loosened, place hipbelt directly over your hip bones and tighten it.
- Snug shoulder straps just enough so that they are not bearing weight.
- Snug load-lifter straps so that weight is off of your shoulders.
- Adjust sternum strap to a comfortable height across your chest.
- Adjust load stabilizer straps along sides of hipbelt to bring load closer to your back.
- Go back and loosen shoulder straps to take some tension off of them.
Your goal is to have 80% to 90% of the load weight resting on your hips. To achieve this, start by putting about 10 to 15 lbs. of weight into the pack to simulate a loaded pack. Follow the steps below in front of a mirror. Get a friend to help if possible, or visit an REI store for more assistance.
- Step 1: Hipbelt
- First make sure all the pack's straps and hipbelt are loosened.
- Put the pack on your back so that the hipbelt is resting over your hip bones.
- Close the hipbelt buckle and tighten it.
- Check the padded sections of the hipbelt to make sure they wrap around your hips comfortably. Keep at least 1" of clearance on either side of the center buckle.
- Note: If the hipbelt is too loose or tight, try repositioning the buckle pieces on the hipbelt straps. If this doesn't solve the problem, you may need a different pack (or hipbelt).
- Step 2: Shoulder Straps
- Pull down and back on the ends of the shoulder straps to tighten them.
- Shoulder straps should fit closely and wrap over and around your shoulder, holding the pack body against your back. They should NOT be carrying the weight.
- Have your helper check to see that the shoulder strap anchor points are 1" to 2" inches below the top of your shoulders.
- Step 3: Load Lifters
- Load-lifter straps are located just below the tops of your shoulders (near your collarbones) and should angle back toward the pack body at a 45°.
- Gently snug the load-lifter straps to pull weight off your shoulders. (Overtightening the load lifters will cause a gap to form between your shoulders and the shoulder straps.)
- Step 4: Sternum Strap
- Adjust the sternum strap to a comfortable height across your chest.
- Buckle the sternum strap and tighten until the shoulder straps are pulled in comfortably from your shoulders, allowing your arms to move freely.
- Step 5: Stabilizer Straps
- Pull the stabilizer straps located on either side of the hipbelt to snug the pack body toward the hipbelt and stabilize the load.
- Step 6: Final Tweak
- Go back to the shoulder straps and carefully take a bit of tension off of them. Now you're ready to go!
Types of Backpacks
Backpacks come in different sizes, styles, colors, materials and available features. Many backpacks have been developed for specific use and have many different features. Knowing the basic Backpack Types are a step in the right direction for Choosing the Correct Backpack for you or for your need. Generally speaking, backpacks can be divided into the following categories:
- Waist Packs / Hip Packs / Fanny Packs / Lumbar Packs (Up to 610 Cubic inches)
- These are not officially backpacks but they can replace your traditional backpacks for smaller day hikes. The simplest versions consist of just a pouch and belts. The pouch and the weight of the waist pack is located in the curve of your spine near your center of balance. This makes these packs very easy to carry as they put virtually no strain on your body. Some more advanced versions feature shoulder yokes that increase the stability and maximum load. Waist packs that are overloaded will start to sag at which time you are better off moving to a day pack. A typical waist pack has side pockets where you can keep your drinking bottles for easy access.
- Hydration Packs (Up to 610 Cubic inches)
- Hydration Packs consist of a bladder with a drinking tube around which the actual backpack has been built up. Some hydration packs consist only of the bladder and some shoulder straps while others might have a casing and side pockets which make them real backpacks. Larger backpacks generally do not have a fixed bladder but have a special compartment to facilitate the insertion of a bladder and have a hole for the drinking tube. Camelbak is one of the best known producers of hydration packs.
- Day Packs (915 - 2,135 Cubic Inches)
- The name Day Pack already gives away its intended use: Day Hikes. Day Packs are typically small-sized backpacks with shoulder straps and no hip belt. Some day packs might have a chest strap to keep your shoulders from being pulled back by the weight of the pack. As the day pack increases in size and expected load, the necessity for a hip belt increases and some larger day packs feature smaller hip belts.
- Midsize Packs (2,135 - 4,577 Cubic Inches)
- Throughout the years, improved technology has caused Hiking Equipment to reduce both in volume and weight. This has resulted in a need for midsize packs that can be used for multi-day hikes with a small inventory. These smaller packs are also ideal for people who go on day hikes but want to carry a lot of stuff like cameras or books. Midsize packs will mostly have all the features of expedition packs which are handled next.
- Expedition Backpacks (3,660 - 6,600 Cubic Inches or even bigger)
- As your need to carry equipment increases so will the size of your backpack. Full-sized Expedition Backpacks can carry enough gear to keep you on the trail for weeks. Expedition packs use a broad hip belt to redirect the weight to the hips instead of the shoulders. A lumbar pad protects the base of the spine from the added stress of a heavier pack. The heavier the pack, the more important its balance and snug fit become.
- Internal or External Frames
- In larger backpacks a sturdy frame structure gives better support. In the old days most larger backpacks had external aluminum tubing as frames that could be seen from the outside of the backpack. Nowadays most backpacks have internal frames hidden in the fabric sheaths that consist of a combination of tough but lightweight materials.
- Shoulder Harness
- A general rule for the shoulder harness is that the number of technical features increases as the load increases. Simple shoulder straps will do for lighter loads but for heavier loads go for curved, broader and more padded shoulder straps that prevent the straps from cutting into your shoulders. Look for a Chest/Sternum Strap that help prevent your shoulders from being pulled back and further help to distribute the load. Look for upper stabilizer straps.
- Chest Strap
- These straps are often connected across your chest using a clip-lock. By connecting and tightening them you prevent your backpack from pulling your shoulders back.
- Waist Belt
- A waist belt is the way to move the strain of a backpack from your shoulders down to your hips and closer to your center of gravity. All people will find that a waist belt helps to make a backpack's load more bearable. However, it differs per person when a waist belts become a necessity. As the weight load increases the effectiveness of the waist belt becomes more important. Look for a waist belt that goes full circle under the lumbar pad and not just side straps from the base of the backpack. Make sure the waist belt has soft and broad padding to avoid pressure points that could quickly become very painful. Heavier loads will cause the waist belt to slide down so look for high-friction fabrics.
- Inner and outer pockets allow for a better seperation of your provisions, gear and other backpack contents. Outer Pockets are mostly used for items that have to be available while Hiking. Outer Pockets should not be over weighted to prevent a shift in center of mass.
- Many backpacks have either built in water bladders (hydration packs) or have a special pocket for a water bladder and a hole to facilitate the drinking tube.
- Rain Cover
- Backpacks are generally not 100% waterproof so some backpacks have a built in or seperate splash cover which is basically a waterproof cover that you can use to cover your entire backpack. It effectively places your backpack in a waterproof bubble. This feature is very handy during rain storms, to cross rivers and to keep your backpack protected from dew during nights.
- Spindrift Collar
- Most larger backpacks have a top compartement which can be flipped backwards to give access to the backpack's inside pockets. Access to the backpack is protected by the spindrift collar which is a large cover that can be shut with a drawstring
- Equipment Straps
- Most backpacks have either bungee cords or equipment straps or a combination of the both that provide you with the means to fix equipement to the outside of the backpack. Hiking Poles, Ice Axes and Crampons and good examples of gear that can often be attached to the outside of your backpack.
Pack styles and uses
The more weight you carry, the more supportive your pack needs to be.
- A waist or lumbar pack or small daypack is best if you are taking a short hike with little gear
- If you'll be carrying a bulky or heavy (10 pounds or more) load, or if you plan to be out for more than a day, consider an internal or external frame pack
- Both internal and external frame styles have a harness system comprised of shoulder straps and a hip belt; compression straps pull the pack and load closer to the body
- Refers to a support system that is built into the interior of a pack
- Internal frames transfer a large percentage of the pack's weight onto the hips, which can bear far heavier loads than the shoulders. This frame style is comprised of a hip belt that works with an internal suspension system.
- The internal frame suspension system usually consists of one or more aluminum or carbon fiber stays that curve to fit your spine
- The stays extend from the top of the pack to the hip belt, and their job is to stabilize loads and transfer weight to the hips
- Many models also include a framesheet, often made of high-density polyethylene, to stiffen the back of the pack and allow for better weight transfer
- Internal frames offer better balance because of their low profile and close-to-the-body fit
- The first generation of framed packs
- They feature a rigid support system, or framework (usually constructed of tubular aluminum), to which a pack and harness attach
- External frame packs transfer weight and stabilize loads, but are much more rigid than internal packs
- Usually have a wider profile than internal frame packs. On an open trail where balance isn't a critical factor, this should present no major problems, but in the backcountry, the frame could snag on branches or get tangled in brush.
- Because the rigid frame keeps the pack away from your back, such models tend to be comfortable when used in hot weather
- Usually less expensive than their internal frame counterparts because their design and production is less complicated
Daypacks are ideal for carrying light loads over short distances.
- General purpose daypack capacity range is from 500 to 2,500 cubic inches
- In daypacks of 3,000 cubic inches or more - for ski touring or a long day of hiking--look for models with a framesheet and at least one internal stay
- A padded hip belt and padded, contoured shoulder straps are also nice to have
- The features you choose should be based on your intended activity
- Outside mesh pockets are handy for carrying water bottles, snacks, field guides, or wet shoes or clothing
- Easy-access pockets are good for storing cameras, GPS receivers, or other items you want to keep protected, yet accessible
- A daisy chain, nylon webbing that offers multiple lash points, is good for securing small items
- An external bungee cord is handy for securing a jacket or rain gear to the outside of the pack
Sport specific packs
Many daypacks have sport-specific features to accommodate specialized equipment.
- Back-counrty skiing
- A model with loops or straps for hauling skis will probably be more comfortable and useful than a general-purpose pack
- Inline skating
- Packs with a larger cargo area to hold your skates or an outside loop to attach your skates
- Plenty of room for helmet and protective gear
- These packs generally sit lower on the back to provide a lower center of gravity
- A special pocket or compartment to stow a helmet
- Outside mesh pockets to accommodate cycling shoes or water bottles
- Extra-durable rear pocket, usually made of Hypalon, Kevlar or heavy-duty Cordura, to accommodate a snowboard, snowshoes or avalanche shovel
- Streamlined, narrow-profile design that won't hinder balance and maneuverability in the backcountry or on the slopes
Hydration packs are designed to provide an ample supply of water while you're on the move.
- A bladder, or reservoir, usually made of food-grade plastic holds the water
- This is placed into a specially designed waist pack or low-profile day pack
- Users drink the water via a hose equipped with a non-leaking valve
Styles and uses
- Hydration packs were originally used by long-distance bicyclists and runners who required lots of water, free hands, and who couldn't juggle lots of water bottles
- Now they are commonplace among skiers, snowboarders, hikers, inline skaters, climbers, triathletes and adventure racers
- Daypack styles offer the largest bladder capacity as well as varying degrees of storage space
- Waist pack styles generally have smaller bladder and storage capacities
- Reservoir capacity
- Generally run from 1 to 3 liters
- Your choice depends on intended use
- Recommended to keep water cool in warm weather and to prevent freezing in cold weather
- Fill weight
- Measure of what the bladder weighs when filled
- Most indicated weights pertain to empty reservoirs
- Wide-mouth reservoirs
- Accept ice cubes and make for easier cleaning
- Moisture-wicking fabric on shoulder straps and back panel for added comfort
- Sculpted shoulder harness for better fit
- Reflective trim
- The most popular--and durable--technical pack materials are found in the nylon family: Cordura nylon, ballistics nylon, ripstop nylon, and nylon packcloth, which are all:
- Very durable
- Strong and abrasion resistant
- Many feature water-repellent or waterproof coatings or treatments
What to look for
- Backstitching and bar tacking in high-stress areas, such as around zippers, pockets, and external loops and webbing
- High-abrasion areas, such as pack bottoms, should be reinforced with a strong material such as Kevlar, Hypalon, or heavy-weight Cordura
- Back panels made of reticulated or compression-molded foam covered with a breathable, wicking fabric to disperse perspiration and enhance airflow
The capacity of a backpack is measured in cubic inches. The size you need depends on what you'll be doing and the amount and type of gear you want to carry.
- For a warm-weather weekend trip (two or three days), look for a pack in the 3,500 to 4,500 cubic inch range
- For a week-long trip or more: 5,500 to 7,000 cubic inches
- Avoid using a pack that is too big. Most people tend to fill available space, which makes for a heavier than necessary load to haul.
Detailed "How to fit a backpack"
Your height has little bearing on what size pack you should wear; it's your torso length that matters.
- If the pack is too long, it will sag onto your rear end
- If it's too short, it won't support your lower back
Determining your proper pack size
- To determine your torso length, measure from the seventh vertebra (the bony protrusion at the base of your neck between your shoulders) to the small of your back (level with your hipbones)
Determining your hip belt size
- The hip belt should cup your hips and when cinched tightly, the pads should not touch
- Women with straight or narrow hips may prefer a standard hip belt
- Women (and men) with more curve to their hips should choose a women's-specific model
- Shoulder straps should anchor to the backpack just below the seventh vertebra and the crest of your shoulders. They should wrap comfortably, yet securely, around the shoulders and should be at least 5" below the armpit.