“Backpacking lets you get away from the city and go to places that are magical and special,” says Eagle Scout Jon Almquist, who works for national outdoors retailer REI. “Not everybody can see those places. In order to get there you have to pay your dues a little bit. But if you do it right, getting there is half the fun.”
Doing it right means having a backpack that fits all your gear and, more important, fits you. There are some tricks to pack shopping, so we asked Almquist to fill you in.
You wouldn’t buy a pair of hiking boots three sizes too big. The same goes for backpacks.
“If you’re not an adult, don’t buy an adult pack,” Almquist says.
In order for you to carry the weight properly, a pack must fit properly. Sure, some guys who are 16 or 17 are already pretty much grown and they need a men’s pack, but most kids don’t.
“Prior to picking a pack, it’s important that you measure yourself,” he says.
The measurement you need is your torso length. Use a soft seamstress tape and have someone measure from the base of your neck (precisely, your C7 vertebrae, the most prominent bone at the base of your neck) straight down your spine until it is level with your hip bone (also called your iliac crest). Most adult packs have a fit range of 18 to 20 inches, while youth packs are more adjustable and fit torso lengths between 14 and 19 inches.
INTERNAL VS. EXTERNAL
There are two types of backpacks: External frames have a metal framework on the outside. Internal-frame packs have their support structure hidden within the pack like a skeleton. External-frame packs are less expensive, provide better ventilation in warm climates and are best for carrying heavy loads on smooth trails. Internal-frame packs are more form-fitting.
“They bring the load closer to your body. They are more comfortable and stable so the load doesn’t shift and is easier to carry off-trail,” Almquist says.
The amount of gear a pack can hold is measured in either liters or cubic inches. A larger capacity is not always better. Be careful not to overfill your pack and carry too much weight.
“Once fully packed, try to keep your load within 25 to 30 percent of your weight,” Almquist says. “When I was a young Scout, I used to carry too much and struggle.”
A good rule for those not yet full grown: Look for a pack with a capacity of 50 to 65 liters.
BELLS AND WHISTLES
Naturally, the comfort of a pack’s shoulder straps and hipbelt are among the most important considerations, but thoughtful extras and handy accessories are worth mentioning. Some packs have built-in pockets for hydration reservoirs; others have a removable top that can be carried as a fanny pack for day hikes.
“Make sure the pack has enough exterior pocketing to handle your on-trail needs,” Almquist says.
And look for compression straps that help keep your load in place when the pack isn’t totally filled up.
HOW MUCH TO SPEND?
“You could spend $400 on a big brand-name pack, but if you target somewhere in the $150 range, you’re going to get something very good,” Almquist says. “There’s really no reason to spend more than that.”
WHERE TO BUY?
Shop at an outdoors specialty store with a knowledgeable sales staff who can help fit you with the right backpack.
“Try on at least three packs and then spend the time having each adjusted properly by the sales staff,” Almquist recommends.
Fill the pack with gear to simulate the sort of weight you’ll be carrying on the trail and spend at least 30 minutes walking around the store fully loaded. The hipbelt should rest on your hipbones, not your waist, and the shoulder straps should come within three or four inches of your armpit when cinched down tight. Don’t be swayed by color or name brand. Pick the one that fits best.