Author: Dallas Shewmaker
You can pull off to the side of the road when you see the 'Scenic View' signs and catch some interesting sights, but to experience the really good, marvel-at-the-insignificance-of-man kind of stuff, you've got to go deep. Into the backcountry deep. Days removed from civilization deep. And to get there you need a backpack.
But which one? We offer a wide choice of backpacks to suit most any trip. To help you select the best one for your needs, whether to rent or buy, we've put together some suggestions below. Also included are tips on fitting, loading, and carrying your pack without killing yourself.
Capacity and Sizes - Where Do I Start?
Internals and Externals - Which is Best?
Other Pack Features to Consider
How to Pack a Pack
How to Hoist a Pack
How to Adjust a Pack for Fit
Packs for Women
Packs for Kids
Pick your pack in part based on the type of trips you envision taking - overnight and weekenders; week-long adventures; or long expeditions. Most newcomers rightfully expect only to do a weekend at most, but it's a shame to have a get a larger pack later if you really like the activity and want to venture out further. But not too big, as we'll elaborate on more below. That's why renting is such a bargain - get only exactly what you need, only when you need it!
Backpacks are most often sized in terms of cubic inches or liters, referring to the volume capacity of the gear-holding compartments. Most models also come in different lengths (usually referenced as long, medium or short) to meet the different torso lengths of potential wearers. Following are more details on each measurement.
Your cubic-inch/liter needs will be dictated by factors such as how many days' supplies you need to carry; whether it is warm or cold weather; and if you are a minimalist or comfort-seeking hiker. Packs up to 3,000 cubic inches (~50 liters) are excellent for day hiking or a 1-night trip in warm weather where your supply needs will be minimal, or when you utilize minimalist or higher-end, low volume gear. Packs of 3,000-4,000 cubic inch capacity (~65 liters) will typically hold enough gear for 2 - 4 nights out, and maybe more, again depending on weather, the size of your pieces of gear and your comfort needs. Once you get a bit over 4,000 cubic inches, your options really bump up, but at a cost of some weight. This range is still small enough to not be so heavy by itself, but flexible enough to carry several days worth of gear. You can typically carry up to 50 pounds including the pack in this size range, but your weight-goal should be a lot less.
Packs above 5,000 cubic inches (~85 liters) can accommodate most any trip - plenty of capacity for 7-10 days of gear in even cold weather (extra clothes take up room in cold weather). A pack in this size range offers a lot flexibility for backpackers when you have to carry a lot of heavy gear, but may be overkill for most trips.
Note that not all manufacturers calculate cubic inch (ci) volume the same way, and that an external frame pack will usually hold more gear than an internal of the same rated size. Also, don't 'supersize' your pack if you know you'll never need it at full capacity - no point in carrying around the extra weight of a larger, heavier pack itself, and there is a tendency to overpack if you have the room to stuff extra gear into it. Watch our video on our backpack selections. The specific models of various sizes we make available for rent include:
1) For the typical weekend or 3-4 day trip carrying gear for yourself - longer if you have more compact gear inside - consider one of our Medium Capacity Backpacks.
2) For a week-long trip in cold weather, or weekender where you're packing a lot of gear and food for yourself and maybe others, one of our Hi Capacity Backpacks will do the trick.
3) We also have some Expedition Packs for those that are a little more serious about their backcountry adventure - call us about those.
The other sizing factor to take into consideration is the torso length of the pack. What is a torso length? It's the length along your spine, starting at the top at the C7 vertebrae, which is the bone at the base of your neck that sticks out when you bend your neck forward, down to your lower back even with those hip bones that stick out and support your spare tire - the iliac crest is what that's called. It's tricky to measure yourself, so get a friend with a measuring tape to help you figure it out. For a picture/diagram of how to measure your torso, see here. And just because you think you're tall doesn't mean you have a "long" torso - you might be all legs - so always measure to be sure.
The importance of this torso measurement isn't the capacity of the pack, but the way the load can be shared between your hips and shoulders. A pack with a too-short torso setting for your build will be too heavy on your shoulders, and vice-versa. Our packs all have adjustable settings so you can fine-tune the fit.
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Most backpacks feature a metal frame that supports the 'container' bag and puts the weight where your body can best carry it with the least amount of strain - on your hips. These frames are referred to as either internal or external frame packs. We include this discussion for your education, but we only rent internal-frame packs. Watch our video on our backpack selections.
Internal-Frame Packs. Most packs sold today are internals - but that doesn't necessarily make that style the best choice for you. Internals appear narrow and tall on your back, with their framework inside the pack, behind the shoulder harness. An internal frame pack is ideally suited for trips where balance is critical or where narrow spaces will be encountered. Internal frame packs' backbone rests closely to your back, bringing the packs' center of gravity closer to you. This makes internals a good choice for people who carry loads while doing activities that require unrestricted arm movement, such as skiing, climbing or hiking rough trails. Rock hopping across a creek is often easier with an internal, for instance.
On the other hand, internals tend to cost more than external-framed packs; are hotter to wear because the pack is right on your back with little room for ventilation; and are typically harder to keep your gear organized - most internals just have one big compartment for all your gear to get stuffed into, whereas externals usually have more storage pockets.
External-Frame Packs. Externals are the traditional load workhorses, designed to carry large loads for long distances, which is why they are popular for military and hunting uses. Externals connect the bag to a rigid outside frame usually made of metal tubing, the design of which is intended to be supported mostly by the wearer's hips. More weight can thus be carried more comfortably while allowing the wearer to walk erect. External frames allow for increased ventilation to your back, keeping you cooler while backpacking. And, externals usually feature several main and side compartments, allowing greater organization of carried gear than comparably sized internals. Externals are usually priced lower than internals of comparable size, but the truth is, not many brands make them anymore.
There are some disadvantages to externals. Though not as bad as some would suggest, there can be a balancing problem with a heavy external if you are hiking in an area requiring nimble shifting around, such as on rough trails, creek crossings and skiing, for example. The lack of flexibility in the frame can cause problems in transporting - as in airline baggage or in your trunk. And some hikers think the internals simply look better, which is probably not a very good reason to go that route. Most externals will be heavier.
Other Pack Features to Consider
Padded comforts. Unless you're going after the ultra-light type of packs, look for and try out packs with padding and strap widths that are a good fit and match with your body shape - what is comfortable for one person may be uncomfortable to another. Find this in the hip belt, shoulder straps and padding between your back and the pack.
Adjustable fit. Good packs should be adjustable for torso length; feature load lifters and levelers; and accommodate different hip widths and angles. Each make and model will fit differently and in different degrees of comfort, so try on several with a weighted load before making a final decision. Note that some ultralight packs get that way by having little torso adjustment or padding.
Compression straps. Particularly in larger packs, look for straps on the sides and top that will allow you to compress the pack material down around smaller loads. This keeps gear from shifting and helps keep the load balanced while on your back.
Tough packbag material. Your pack will be tossed around, propped up against trees, get caught on rocks and protruding branches, get soaked from rain, plopped down in gravel and sand, and may be over-stuffed and under-cared for. Make sure it's made of materials that will last longer than a weekend. Any quality pack we offer or others in comparable prices ranges should last many years. Beware lower cost bargain packs - they may not be such a bargain after all. Ultralights will typically be less durable.
Lash points. If you are glutton for weight, look for packs that feature lash points, daisy chain loops and other attachable means to add gear or secondary packs to the outside.
Detachable compartments. One handy feature in some new larger-size pack models are gear compartments and pack accessories that can be removed to lighten up the base weight when not needed. For instance, some packs have side pockets that can carry substantial amounts of gear if needed, but that can be removed if carrying smaller loads. This increases the flexibility of one pack for different types and lengths of trips. Some of these detachable compartments can be used separately as a smaller daypack or summit-bagger pack, featuring straps or belts to carry from your hips or off your shoulders.
Water bottle/bladder holders. The most frequently accessed item you carry will be your water. Look for packs with external holsters to carry water bottles, and/or internal pockets to support a larger water bladder with a drinking tube.
Multiple access points. A convenient feature of some packs is to have multiple compartment entry points, so you can more easily access your gear. Otherwise, you may have to take everything out to get to something you need at the bottom of the compartment. But the more packets compartments and zippered areas, for example, the heavier it makes the pack.
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For maximum comfort - and safety to some degree - don't just jam your gear into your pack without some planning. Your goal is to keep it weight-balanced left and right, and to keep the primary weight close to your back and near your center of gravity. Here's some specific suggestions to that end:
• Generally, lighter-weight items go at the bottom with heavier items near the middle and close to your body. However, if you are going to be scrambling or hiking off-trail on rough terrain or snow, you might want to pack some of the heavier items a little lower to bring down your center of gravity. But whenever possible, always try to keep the heaviest items near your back.
• The sleeping bag is usually pretty light for the space it takes up, so it should go in or on the bottom of the pack. Most packs are designed with a compartment at the bottom for your sleeping bag. If your pack has dividers that separate the sleeping bag from the rest of your gear, use them; it will take damaging compression off a down sleeping bag.
• Pack clothing and other light gear around heavy items to keep them from shifting around too much.
• Items you will need to access during the day like a trail map, should be packed in the top of the main compartment, the top pocket, or side pockets.
• Weather and puncture resistant items, such as tent poles and tools can be carried on the outside of the pack. Use accessory straps or loops for these items.
• Water is probably the heaviest and densest single item you carry, so try to keep that near your back.
• Try to store your stove fuel upright and away from your food, in case of an accidental spill. Many hikers put their bottles in an outside compartment. These items can have hard edges; be sure they don't poke you in your back.
• A lot of hikers roll up their sleeping pad and strap it to the outside of their pack. This works fine, but beware of protruding rocks and branches along your trail that could rip it.
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If you are not careful, more damage can be done to your body when you first put a loaded pack onto your back than by hiking with it all day. You're usually not warmed up, the pack is at its heaviest, and the sudden wrenching and weight can cause havoc, particularly with your back and shoulder muscles. Here's how to avoid that problem.
When removing a pack, reverse the steps. Unbuckle the sternum strap, loosen the shoulder straps and loosen and then unbuckle the hip belt. Leaning forward, roll the pack off your back onto the thigh of one leg, then lower to the ground by its haul loop. Lean up against a tree or rock, avoiding sharp objects or tree sap. Watch our video on backpack hoisting.
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How to Adjust a Pack for Fit
You should do an initial fit adjustment of your pack at home before trying to fool with it on the trail. Familiarize yourself with what can be many straps, belts and buckles of various sizes and functions on the pack. Some are for fitting adjustments, some are compression straps to reduce the size of the bag to fit the load inside, and others are for attaching gear or other bags on the outside. Our interest here is in the fit adjustment straps.
1) Your first adjustment should be a tweak to the torso length settings. Most packs are designed to fit torsos within a range of at least 2-3 inches, and are adjustable within that range. See above on how to measure your torso. How to then fine tune that torso adjustment varies from model to model. Most adjust where the straps are attached to the body of the pack. User guides often have the specifics; see the product rent section to see if a manual is available or see a list of most of our manuals here. The torso straps adjustment is best done with the pack off and empty.
2) Once the torso adjustment is done, add at least 20 or 30 pounds of weight inside the pack that is comparable in volume to what you will be carrying. That is, don't just throw in a 25-pound barbell plate into it as 'pretend' weight. Distribute some of your actual gear or test dummy contents throughout the pack. Also note that if you carry substantially more weight in a pack than it is designed for, the pack frame or suspension may sag and no amount of adjustment can make it comfortable.
3) Loosen all of the adjustable straps and hip belt and hoist the pack onto your back as described above. To best make the final adjustments, you really need a friend or a mirror nearby to help spot anything out of kilter.
4) Position the hipbelt so that the middle of the hip belt comes to the hip bones of your iliac crest (those pointy bones just below your spare tire), and buckle the hip belt, partially snug. The belt should be long enough to comfortably come around your hips, but not so long that its two ends touch at your belly button. If you have either case, stop and get another hip belt; most models have interchangeable belt sizes. Loosen or tighten hip belts like a car seat belt.
5) Cinch the shoulder straps down tightly, then loosen back just slightly. Look sideways in a mirror or have your friend check the position of your shoulder straps. Shoulder straps should anchor to the backpack about 1 inch below the crest of your shoulders. The buckle on the strap should be far enough below your armpit that it won't chafe. The straps should be far enough apart that they don't squeeze your neck, but close enough together that they don't slip off of your shoulders during hiking.
6) Check your load-lifter straps. These should attach to your shoulder straps at a point just above your collarbone and just below the top of your shoulders. From there, they should rise up to join with the frame at an angle of between 40 and 50 degrees. If the angle is higher than that, your frame is too long. Any lower and your shoulders will carry too much of the load.
7) Check for a good torso fit. If the hip belt is on tight, the shoulder straps should be just resting on the top of your shoulders. You can then redistribute the weight of the pack between your shoulders and your hips simply by loosening and tightening your shoulder straps slightly.
8) Adjust the sternum strap so it is about 2" below your collarbone. You should be able to breathe comfortably when the strap is fastened. Sternum straps are meant to keep your shoulder straps from sliding off your shoulders under a load. They are not meant to support weight and should never be pulled tightly enough across the chest so as to restrict breathing.
9) Walk around for a few minutes with the loaded pack. Lean forward and sideways; bounce around a bit; walk some stairs. Note the weight shift within the pack and on your back. If you fall over, adjustments are needed! The pack may well feel heavy; that's part of it. But, you should have reasonably unrestricted movement. There should not be pinching anywhere. You should be able to stand upright without hitting the pack with your head.
10) The metal stays that serve as the frame of internal-frame packs usually can be bent to conform to the contours of your torso. Sometimes just the weight of the pack after a bit of hiking will bend the stays to fit, but if not, you can adjust the relatively soft metal to better match the curvature of your spine. We're talking small adjustments here; not twisting or folding like a piece of aluminum foil, so be careful.
11) You might be surprised at the number of subsequent adjustments you have to make after you are on the trail. There are several reasons for this. First, no matter what you do, the first mile with a fairly heavy pack is the worst, until your body adjusts to the equivalent of you having gained a lot of weight overnight. Since how the pack feels to you after that first mile will be quite different than when you start, further adjustments may be in order. Somewhere along the way the load may shift within the pack bag, altering the weight-balance, requiring an adjustment. The pack weight may fluctuate considerably as you drink and then reload food and water, requiring adjustments. Sometimes a pressure point, cramp or pinch will develop anywhere from your shoulders down to your hamstring; a small adjustment in the shoulder straps can often make all the difference in the world. Watch our video on backpack fitting.
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Many women backpackers have used the same models as men for years without any problems. However, there are some new pack models that accommodate the Venus/Mars physical differences in our bodies that women may find more comfortable. These models take into consideration the typically shorter torso lengths of women in the pack frame length; the presence of curves in the shoulder strap configuration; and the support belts are more accommodating for the female bone structure in the hips.
We carry packs and sleeping bags specifically designed for women. If this gear is otherwise appropriate for your trip, and everything else being equal, try one of these Women's Backpacks for maximum comfort.
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Despite the seemingly unending energy that kids and teenagers have, most aren't cut out for long backpacking trips with heavy loads. So don't burn them out with too much too soon. I've seen 10-year-olds on top of mountains I struggled to get to myself, but it's not uncommon for football-playing studs of high school age to give out early into hikes. The solution? Start out with short introductory trips with light loads and comfortable packs specifically designed for the typical kid's straight-arrow build and still-malleable bones.
Most backpacks for the younger set are of lower volume to keep weight light and loaded on the stronger hip bones. Most are highly adjustable to keep up with growth spurts. Try to keep backpack weight under 25% of body weight. For another angle on improving the backpacking experience, review our article on "The Seven Sins of Scouts" - obviously written for Boy Scouts, but applicable to adults as well.
For some third-party user reviews on backpacks and other gear we rent and sell, visit our backpacking and camping user gear review page. Also see some information we put together on trail etiquette while backpacking.
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