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How Backpacking Works


Backpacking Gear
A couple sets up camp near Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
A couple sets up camp near Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Greg Von Doersten/Getty Images

Backpacking is more enjoyable when you've got the right equipment. But outfitting yourself with the newest and the best of everything just isn't realistic for most rookie backpackers. As you collect equipment, shop carefully and make decisions based not just on price, but on comfort and durability.

The piece of equipment that deserves the most thought is the backpack. It will contain everything to your name on the trail, so it's important that it fits properly and is comfortable enough for you to wear all day. There are two basic types of backpacks -- internal-framed and external-framed. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and you should try them out before purchasing.

As the name implies, an internal-framed backpack has the frame on the inside of the pack. The backpack is designed to fit snug against the hiker's back. This streamlined fit makes it easier for you to maneuver rough trails or venture off the beaten path. But because it sits against your back, it's hotter, and you'll find that even in cold weather, the back of your shirt becomes damp with perspiration. It also can be more difficult to organize than an external-framed backpack because it typically has fewer pockets.

The external-framed pack has a rigid outside frame and a variety of pockets and bags attached, which makes it easier to organize than the internal-framed pack. The rigid frame of the external-framed pack holds the pack away from the hiker's back, which makes things cooler for the hiker. But this design also affects the hiker's balance. So external-framed backpacks aren't suited for off-trail or rough terrain hiking.

­Whether you choose an external- or internal-framed backpack, a proper fit is important. You can carry more weight comfortably when the pack fits well than when it doesn't. To determine what backpack size works best for you, you'll need to know your torso length. Look down and feel the back of your neck. The vertebrae that feels the largest is where you want to begin the measurement. Continue down your back to the area even with your hips. The measurement of the length between these two spots is your torso length. Between sizes? Opt for the larger size. Once you know what size you're looking for, try on a variety of styles until you find a backpack that feels comfortable on your back, shoulders and hips.

Next, you'll need a sleeping system. When choosing a sleeping bag, bear in mind the weather conditions in which you'll backpack. Price often directly relates to insulation and weight. If you plan on hiking in milder weather, you may want to invest in a lighter-weight sleeping bag. Later, if the opportunity for a cold weather trip arises, you can add a quilt or fleece liner to your existing sleeping bag. Bags rated for nights as cool as 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 6 degrees Celsius) are affordable and will be warm enough for most three-season camping. The choice between goose-down filling or synthetic is personal, and both have advantages and disadvantages. Goose-down is heavier and takes a long time to dry if it gets wet, synthetic dries quicker and is lightweight. But many people feel that goose-down makes for a warmer and more comfortable sleeping bag.

If you plan on hiking rough terrain or in cold or wet conditions, you'll probably need hiking boots. Trail shoes are lighter weight and often more supportive. They're a good alternative if your backpacking trip is not overly aggressive.