How to Select the Right Backpack

You're going to have to do some research to select the right backpack for you.
You're going to have to do some research to select the right backpack for you.
Joe Fox/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Camping and hiking can be uncomfortable pursuits. You're sleeping on the ground, doing your business outside and exposed to the elements. Throw in the wrong backpack and your trip suddenly becomes the outdoor equivalent of flying coach on a discount airline. Yeah, you'll probably get where you're going, but it won't be much fun.

Odds are, you aren't named Dora so you can't unleash your inner explorer with a magic backpack filled with everything you might need while out on the trail. You're going to have to do some research and select the right backpack for you. Demasiado malo para ti!

When you're looking for the right backpack for hiking and camping, you need to think like a snail. No, that doesn't mean oozing slime over everything you touch. That means remembering that while you're on the trail or out in the backcountry, your backpack is essentially your house. It needs to be able to carry everything you'll need on your trip. And you need to be able to carry it comfortably over long distances.

While carrying the wrong backpack sucks, choosing the right backpack isn't so bad. You just need to take into account how you'll be using it (to carry stuff on your back, duh). What kind of trips will you be taking? How long will you be on the trail? What gear will you need it to carry? You'll also need to make sure that the backpack fits you. You've got choices when it comes to selecting a backpack. You're stuck with the body you've got, so keep trying different backpacks until you find one that fits well. You'll also want a backpack that can be customized to your needs and that can withstand the weather conditions where you'll be hiking or camping.

So right there, you've got a lot riding on your shoulders, but get the right backpack and you'll be able to distribute the weight more comfortably. Unfortunately, not even the best backpack can save you from terrible metaphors like that one.

Select the Right Backpack: Function, Padding and Durability

The first step in selecting the right backpack is to think about what kind of trips you'll be taking with it. If you're only intended to do short day hikes, you can get by with a smaller backpack. Though you'll still need to be able to fit some basic supplies, like water, a first aid kit, snacks and some overnight gear (though you might not be planning to be out overnight, if you get lost you'll be glad you packed it), a smaller, less technical backpack should work fine. If, however, you're planning multi-day back-country excursions, you'll need a backpack that's as up to the challenge as you are. Actually, it would be better if the backpack were more up to the challenge than you are since you'll be depending on it to make sure your trip goes smoothly.

You'll also want to make sure the pack you choose has comfortable straps, not just in terms of fit, but also padding. While your grandfather's old army pack may hold enough gear, old canvas straps are likely to cut into your shoulder and make you want to cut your trip short. When you go to try a backpack on (and yes, you should try packs on -- this is not shopping you can do completely online), check out the padding on the straps. You'll want enough padding to comfortably absorb and distribute the weight of your gear, but thick, bulky padding could end up being too hot and limit your range of motion.

Having your house fall apart would suck. Having your backpack fall apart when you're a long hike from civilization is pretty much like having your house fall apart, but on a smaller scale. Check the durability of any backpack you're considering. Look for seams that are double- or triple-sewed. Check out gear reviewers online to see how durable people who've actually used the backpack you're thinking about getting have found it. If you're going for a larger, frame backpack, check to make sure the frame is made of a strong metal, like aluminum. Also check all external parts. Any elastic or bungee cord parts should be thick. Straps should be thick nylon webbing and all clips should be heavy-duty plastic. Zippers should be protected from the elements. Most experts agree that nylon is the best material for a backpack because it resists tearing and is more durable than cotton or polyester.

Select the Right Backpack: Capacity and Load Support

You don't want to try to stuff 25 pounds worth of gear into a pack that's only designed to take 15.
You don't want to try to stuff 25 pounds worth of gear into a pack that's only designed to take 15.
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You need to make sure your backpack can carry all the gear you want to take and that you can carry it (unless you're bringing a Sherpa on your trip, in which case: Why are you reading this?). Backpacks have different load capacities. You do not want to try to stuff 25 pounds worth of gear into a pack that's only designed to take 15. The knowledgeable staff at a reputable camping store can help you determine what gear you'll need and how much it will weigh (or you can weigh your gear at home).

Bigger hiking backpacks typically have two types of load support systems. Internal frame backpacks have a lightweight metal frame that runs inside the back. It's typically curved and molded to the backpacker's body. External frame backpacks have the metal frame on the outside, and they tend to not be molded to the backpacker's body. The external frame is more customizable. You can add or remove packs, or rearrange them to get a configuration that's comfortable to carry. Internal frame packs force you to use one setup, but because they're molded to the body, they tend to distribute weight well, too.

Different backpack straps also offer different types of load support. The last thing you want is a pack that puts all its weight on your shoulders. Your shoulders are weak (girlie man!) and will tire quickly. Instead, the pack should have a waist strap that distributes some of the pack weight to your hips, which are much stronger than your shoulders. A chest strap will also help transfer some of the weight from your shoulders to your torso. Cobra shoulder straps are also a good idea. It would be so badass if cobra straps were actually made of cobras, but cobra straps are wider and more padded at the top than the bottom. That means they can distribute weight across your shoulders and part of your chest without irritating your sides or restricting your arm movement.

Select the Right Backpack: Torso and Hip Size

The right backpack will not only fit all of your gear, but it will also fit you. It may seem odd, but hiking and camping backpacks come in different sizes. Like wearing the wrong size underpants, the wrong size backpack will make you miserable fast.

You may think that your height and girth dictates the backpack size you need, but that's not exactly right. Your torso length and hip size, not your size overall, are what you need to know to find a backpack that fits well.

To find how long your torso is and what size your hips are, get a flexible tape measure (not the big yellow Stanley one from your toolbox -- but rather, a sewing tape measure). If you don't have one, you can use a long piece of string or ribbon. Then get a friend, because unless you're an extremely talented contortionist, you just can't do this alone.

Tilt your neck down and have your friend locate you seventh cervical vertebrae. When you're looking down, it will be a hard bump at the base of your neck, where it meets your shoulders. Have your friend take the tape measure from this vertebrae to your iliac crest. Your iliac crest is the top of your pelvic bones. It's easy to find -- run your hands down your ribs. Once you pass your ribs, you'll come to your soft belly (maybe you should do some sit ups or order a salad once in a while). The next bit of bone you hit is your iliac crest. Have your friend measure the distance between your seventh cervical vertebrae and iliac crest (if you're using string or ribbon, mark the distance on the string, then measure that). That's your torso length.

To measure your hips, take your tape measure or string and wrap it around the top of your iliac crest, right where the tops of the bones of your hips stick out. That's your hip size.

Use these measurements when checking specs of the backpacks you're interested in. Most camping and hiking outfitters list the range of torso and hip sizes each backpack they sell will fit, as well as what ranges of each measurements different sizes of the same packs will fit. Buy a pack that fits.

Select the Right Backpack: Customization

Being able to customize your backpack will not only make it easier for you to use it, but it could also get you legions of adoring fans based on your pimped-out pack. Or not.

When you look at how a pack can be customized, look at fit first. Many packs have removable hip belts to allow for a better fit; some even have moldable hip belts. These belts are filled with malleable foam. Pop it into an oven to warm the foam, mold it to your hips and soon you'll have a backpack that's customized to fit you, and only you. Also make sure that each strap of the backpack can be adjusted for the exact fit for you.

Beyond fit, look for a backpack that can be customized for how you're going to use it. External frame packs are very customizable; you can add or remove packs to the frame based on what you'll be doing. Internal frame packs sometimes have smaller additional packs or hydration packs that can piggy back onto the larger pack. Removable sections of the pack are helpful because they give you more space for gear when you need it and allow you to drop the extra weight when you don't.

Select the Right Backpack: Weather-Proof

Most backpacks have a water resistant interior coating, but water resistant does not mean water proof.
Most backpacks have a water resistant interior coating, but water resistant does not mean water proof.
Tyler Stableford/Photodisc/Getty Images

After a day of hiking in the rain, finding that your sleeping bag and packed clothes are also waterlogged is about as much fun as finding that your dog has confused your bed with his toilet. Weatherproofing your backpack is critical. Few people plan to go hiking and camping during downpours, but it's good to be prepared if one comes up.

Most backpacks have a water resistant interior coating, but water resistant does not mean water proof. Big difference. Plus, that coating won't do much good around the packs zippers and other openings. You can try waterproofing the exterior of your pack yourself for additional coverage, or you can get a rain cover for your pack. Rain covers are water proof and cover your entire pack, so water won't seep in zippers or other openings. Most backpack manufacturers sell rain covers that work with their packs, or you can go the cheap and easy route and slip a plastic garbage bag over your pack.

Carrying a backpack in the rain or snow can be a soggy experience, and so can carrying one on a hot summer day. The difference is, in the rain you get drenched with water. In the summer you get drenched with sweat -- and no one will want to share a tent with you, stinky. While your backpack is, like the name says, going to ride on your back, if you do a lot of summer hiking you may want to look for one that's a bit cooler. External frame packs, because they aren't molded to your body, can offer more ventilation between you and your pack, which can help keep you a little cooler.

Author's Note

Having spent a few miserable hiking trips dealing with a backpack that didn't suit my needs (I bought it at Costco. Hint: don't do that) and learning what I should have been looking for in a pack while researching this article was eye opening. Here's the kicker: Though this article tells you what you need to look for when buying a backpack, there's really no substitute for going to a reputable camping or outdoor store and trying packs out, preferably with the help of a knowledgeable staff member. So, while it's smart to research and shop for a lot of things exclusively online, a backpack isn't one of them.

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Sources

  • Camping Gear. "Selecting the Right Backpack." (July 7, 2012) http://camping-gear.ca/bags/selecting-the-right-backpack.htm
  • Hiking Trails and Gear. "Hiking Backpack Guide: Choose Your Pack Wisely." (July 7, 2012) http://www.hiking-trails-and-gear.com/hiking-backpack.html
  • REI. "Backpacks: Finding Your Torso and Hip Size." REI.com. (July 6, 2012) http://www.rei.com/expertadvice/articles/backpacks+torso+hip+size.html
  • Wood, T.D. "How to Choose a Backpack." REI.com. April 2012. (July 6, 2012) http://www.rei.com/expertadvice/test/backpack.html?s_tnt=42401:2:0