Ruby Bayan
is a freelance writer who enjoys sharing her simple joys. She used to be an avid backpacker.

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Choosing a Backpack
by Ruby Bayan

Your backpack is your bedroom, kitchen, and washroom rolled into one and riding on your back. It houses everything you will need to sleep, eat, and survive in the outback, so it must be strong enough to hold all your essentials securely, yet light enough to let you keep walking. It must straddle comfortably on your back, yet be versatile enough to adjust to your changing requirements. How do you choose the backpack that meets all these criteria? Let's start with your body.

Pack and Torso Length

The first thing you need to consider when choosing a backpack, which will effectively become an extension of your back, is the size of your torso. It doesn't matter how tall you are, it's the length of your torso that counts. You will be overwhelmed, if not teetered, by a pack that's too long for your posture; and you will hardly be optimizing your hauling capability if your pack is too small. In both cases, you will certainly look a bit uncoordinated.

The standard backpack lengths are small, medium, and large. Small corresponds to a torso length of less than 18 inches, medium for torsos 18 to 20 inches, and large for those longer than 20 inches.

To determine your torso length, have someone run a soft tape measure down the contour of your spine, from the base of your neck (the 7th vertebra) to the shelf of your hipbone (the first hip, which is about three to four inches below the waist).

Loading Capacity

The next thing to consider in choosing a pack is its volume or loading capacity. Depending on the length of your backpacking trip as well as the quantity and mass of items you want to take with you, you can choose from among four different sizes of packs:

  1. Overnight Packs. Also known as light overnight packs or day-packs, these are labeled to have a capacity of 2,500 to 3,000 cubic inches. They are ideal for quick overnight adventures in warm-weather conditions where you don't have to pack extra-thick sleeping bags and multiple layers of clothing.

  2. Weekend Packs. These are slightly larger than day-packs and ideal for three-day outings. With a loading capacity of about 3,000 to 4,500 cubic inches, weekend-packs are good to carry your basic essentials without the tendency to overload.

  3. Weeklong Packs. Ideal for longer trips, like a full week's summer hike, these all-purpose packs fall within the 4,500 to 6,000 cubic inches category. You will be able to fit your basic outdoor prerequisites, with some room to spare. These packs are the favorite among all-around backpackers.

  4. Expedition Packs. Allowing more than 6,000 cubic inches of load, expedition or winter packs will let you carry everything but the kitchen sink. You can go on extended trips and haul all your snow camping paraphernalia in a pack this size, but depending on the weight of its contents, you may have to seek the help of a llama or a donkey along the way.

You will be traveling with your pack the whole time, so it better be suited to your body as well as to your backpacking activities. One of the major ergonomics options you will need to consider is if you want a pack with an internal or external frame.

External-framed backpacks allow you to attach bulky gear and other stuff to the outside of the packbag, but these can get in the way when trekking through dense forests and tight trails. Narrower and more streamlined internal framed backpacks, on the other hand, will require you to cram everything inside the packbag, but with properly contoured frames (graphite or aluminum stays shaped to fit your back), the load becomes one with your back, permitting more freedom of movement.

When choosing the most ergonomic pack, therefore, think about the outdoor activities you will be engaging in. If you plan on going bushwhacking and exploring steep and rough trails, choose the pack that will give you enough clearance for high-stepping, arm-swinging, and head-turning. Look for optimum safety, load balance, and freedom of movement.

Special Features

Aside from pack length, capacity, and ergonomics, you also need to look into other desirable features, such as:

  • Durability. Examine the materials and construction of the pack. Check the labels; although thicker materials are often more durable, many lightweight fabrics are now manufactured to withstand considerable stress and duress. Be sure the buckles, zippers, straps, and attachments are of good quality. Inspect the stitching and the reinforcements at stress-prone areas.

  • Versatility. The pack should be easy to adjust, which means that if your load changes during the trip, you can instantly alter or re-calibrate the belt and strap tensions to conform to your new circumstances. Many packs offer interchangeable hipbelts, contoured and padded shoulder straps for women, moveable sternum straps for a comfortable fit, and multi-purpose straps and buckles.

  • Convenience. Your taste will play a major role in your choice of the most convenient pack to carry. Some models provide numerous pockets and several access panels and compartments; they may be more convenient in terms of organizing your stuff, but they also weigh a lot more than no-nonsense minimal packs. There are packs that open up via a zipped panel in front (panel-loading), those that open only from the top (top-loading), and those that have separate bottom compartments. Before deciding on which pack to buy, try out the zips, latches, and openings and see if they provide the accessibility and loading-unloading ease that you prefer.

Probably one of the first investments you will make as an outdoor enthusiast, the backpack you choose should be custom-fitted to your body and outdoor circumstances as much as possible. Before closing the sale on a pack that meets your fancy, strap it on for size. Load it with 20 lbs of weight and see how it agrees with your back and arm/leg movements.

If you're getting an internal frame pack and it doesn't "feel right", have an experienced packfitter reshape the frame stays for you.

Remember to care for your backpack well -- clean it out and air-dry it after each trip, inspect and repair as needed, and store it safe from pests, mildew, and UV rays. A well-chosen and well-maintained pack will keep you good company through many long years of outdoor adventures.

Suggested Reading:

Pocket Guide to Hiking\Backpacking, Ron Cordes Gary LaFontaine Kirk Botero (Illustrator) ; Format: Paperback, 28pp.; ISBN: 0963302477; Publisher: Greycliff; Pub. Date: December 1993

The Whole Backpacker's Catalog, Edwin J. C. Sobey John Vigor; Format: Paperback, 210pp.; ISBN: 0070595992; Publisher: Ragged Mountain Press; Pub. Date: October 1998

Hiking and Backpacking, Eric Seaborg Ellen Dudley; Format: Paperback, 1st ed., 152pp.; ISBN: 0873225066; Publisher: Human Kinetics ; Publishers; Pub. Date: January 1994

Related Tutorial:
How to Pack a Backpack


Introduction to Backpacking

A first guide and set of tutorials on preparedness, presence of mind, and delight in memorable escapades in the great outdoors.
[First published as an online course at Suite101 University.]

Fitness Exercises
Outdoor Survival Basics

Choosing Equipment:
Choosing a Backpack
Choosing a Sleeping Bag
Choosing a Tent
Choosing Hiking Boots

Gearing Up:
What to Wear
How to Pack a Backpack
How to Pack Food

Campsite Management:
How to Choose a Campsite
How to Pitch a Tent

Emergency Situations:

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