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How to buy a backpack

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In the same way a pair of too-tight hiking boots can ruin your day on the trail, an ill-fitting backpack can easily turn your fun trek into a nightmare march. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Backpacks come in many different shapes and sizes with tons of adjustability to fit just about any type of backpacker. The trick is finding the right pack for your body and the type of backpacking you have planned.

Your Gear Guy is here to help get you on the trail and easily shouldering that load.

TORSO LENGTH

To pick a pack that fits you correctly, first measure your torso length. Have a parent use a soft seamstress tape to measure the distance from the base of your neck straight down to your hipbone. Now find a pack that fits that sizing. Most youth backpacks have adjustable harnesses that accommodate a range of torso lengths.

WAIST WISE

The next measurement you need is your waist size. About 70 to 80 percent of the weight of your pack will be supported by your hips, so getting a hip belt that fits is key. Most hip belts offer a lot of adjustment, and some packs provide removable/swappable hip belts so you can size appropriately.

Deuter Fox 40 and Outdoor Products Dragonfly

Deuter Fox 40: ($109, deuter.com) Capacity: 40 liters/2,440 cu. in. Weight: 2 lbs. 14 oz. Adjusts to fit torso range of 11″-18″. The Fox 30 ($99) fits smaller guys. Outdoor Products Dragonfly External Frame Pack: ($67, outdoorproducts.com) Capacity: 45 liters/2,780 cu.in.; Weight: 3 lbs. 10 oz. Adjusts to fit torso range of 15″-18″.

INTERNAL VS. EXTERNAL

There are two basic types of backpacks: External frame packs use a metal framework on the outside to support the load, while internal frame packs have their support structure hidden inside the pack like a skeleton.

Internal frame packs are more formfitting, bringing the load closer to your body for more stability and better performance on tight trails.

External frame packs are cheaper and provide better airflow between your body and the pack, while also offering more flexibility for packing bulky items.

When choosing between internal and external frame packs, make sure to consider the size of your sleeping bag. You might buy an internal frame backpack only to get home and realize there’s no way your sleeping bag will fit inside. If you have a lightweight, compressible sleeping bag, it should fit well in most internal packs, but if you have a big, bulky sleeping bag and won’t be getting a new one anytime soon, consider an external frame pack. It’ll give you plenty of room for strapping on a large sleeping bag.

Gregory Wanter 50 and Kelty Yukon 48

Gregory Wander 50: ($179, gregorypacks.com) Capacity: 50 liters/3,051 cu. in. Weight: 3 lbs. 6 oz. Adjusts to fit torso range of 13″-18″. The Wander 70 ($199) fits larger guys. Kelty Yukon 48: ($170, kelty.com) Capacity: 48 liters/2,900 cu. in. Weight: 4 lbs. 13 oz. Adjusts to fit torso range of 13″-19″.

CARRYING CAPACITY

When it comes to backpacks, bigger is not always better. The amount of gear a pack can hold is measured in either liters or cubic inches. Your pack’s carrying capacity should mirror the type of trip you’re planning, whether it’s a simple overnighter, a full-on seven-day backpacking trip or something in between.

An internal frame pack with a capacity of about 40 to 60 liters would be a versatile size for most guys and perfect for a multiday trip. Of course, the smaller you are, the smaller the bag you should carry, so a 35- to 50-liter pack might be fine for you. You can also get by with a lower-capacity external frame pack since there’s lots of extra space to strap on a sleeping bag and pad.

Remember, just because you have space left over doesn’t mean you should fill your pack to the brim. Keep your load within 20 to 30 percent of your bodyweight. Carry just the essentials and your pack will be much lighter, you’ll use less energy getting down the trail and you’ll probably have a lot more fun, too!

EXTRAS

They’re nice but not necessary. Comfort and fit are most important. Beyond that, look for a pack with compression straps that help keep your load from flopping around when the pack isn’t filled up. Some packs are top-loading only while others have side zips that let you access your stuff from several places. You’ll also find bells and whistles like built-in sleeves for hydration packs and lots of exterior organization pockets for easy access to what you need on the trail.

BORROW FIRST

Ask around to see if friends have a backpack you can borrow. This will help you get a feel for what type of pack you want to buy and how it should fit. Some outdoor shops even rent backpacks, so you can try before you buy.

Osprey ACE 38 and Mountainsmith Youth Pursuit

Osprey ACE 38: ($140, ospreypacks.com) Capacity: 38 liters/2,319 cu. in. Weight: 2 lbs. 6 oz. Adjusts to fit torso range of 11″-15″. The ACE 50 ($160) fits larger guys. Mountainsmith Youth Pursuit: ($140, mountainsmith.com) Capacity: 45 liters/2,746 cu. in. Weight: 3 lbs. 6 oz. Adjusts to fit torso range of 13″-17″.

BACKPACK BUDGET

Before you go pack shopping, set a budget. Sure, you’ll see lots of tricked-out big brand-name backpacks in the $400-plus range, but you certainly don’t need to spend that much. The $150-$200 range will get you a nice pack that should last for several years or more.

WHERE TO BUY?

Nothing beats a Scout shop or outdoor specialty store with knowledgeable sales people who can help with fit. Try on several packs, have them adjusted appropriately, then fill them up with gear and wear them around the shop for 15 to 20 minutes. The key is to simulate the kind of weight you’ll be carrying. So fill up the pack with 20 to 30 pounds of tents and climbing ropes from the store or bring your own gear. While buying online can save you some cash, you won’t be able to try out the pack before you buy it.

L.L. Bean Youth White Mountain Pack

L.L. Bean Youth White Mountain Pack: ($159, llbean.com) Capacity: 50 liters/3,051 cu. in. Weight: 4 lbs. 11 oz. Adjusts to fit torso range of 14″-16″.

REI Passage 65

REI Passage 65: ($159, rei.com) Capacity: 65 liters/3,967 cu. in. Weight: 4 lbs. 4 oz. Adjusts to fit torso range of 15″-19″. The Passage 38 ($100) fits smaller guys.

All prices are MSRP — manufacturer’s suggested retail price. You can often find better deals in stores or online.

192 Comments on How to buy a backpack

  1. None of ur business // July 18, 2009 at 8:37 am // Reply

    Nice how heavey should a backpack be

  2. I like the backpacks. and I wish I could buy one.

  3. Worcester Scoutmaster // June 16, 2009 at 4:30 am // Reply

    The tent in the article was the MSR Trekker Tent.

  4. If anyone wants my opinion:
    External backpacks are the way to go. there cheap.There sturdy. They also can easily have a sleeping bag just dangle off a bar.

    • definitely i agree, external packs are the way to go for 90% of scouts. but when i went on a backpacking trip in the adirondacks, i found that my external frame pack constantly shifted left and right on the rugged trails, and the frame sometimes caught on low-hanging branches (a common occurrence in the adirondacks), so in conditions like those an internal frame pack would be more appropriate.

    • skip the external and get an internal, when bushwhacking it is much easier to get through dense brush the pack protects everything inside of it, and you don’t have to deal with strapping your gear on and don’t have to worry about the gear falling off.

    • Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // October 5, 2011 at 12:59 pm // Reply

      yeah they work good… for a kiddy trail. if you are a serious hiker (like myself) you don’t walk on perfectly groomed trails (I RARELY hike or a trail at all!) internal frames are the best of the best for rough trail hiking (or no trail at all)

  5. Very specific

  6. I think that a larger capacity of pack is needed rather than these internal frames with only 3 to 4 thousand cubic inches because they allow you to carry some of your troops gear or if your sleeping bag or pad is rather bulky.

  7. what was the name of the tent that was in the article. i was going to look for it on ebay but my dad threw away the magazine

  8. Backpack Camper329864 // May 27, 2009 at 12:58 pm // Reply

    Thank you for the insight regarding hip belts and how to affix a tent and sleeping bag to a backpack when backpacking to a campsite.

  9. scuba dude 642 // May 18, 2009 at 7:57 pm // Reply

    Dear Backpack Camper,

    Hip belts are a must in all situations. They are well worth the cost. Hip belts do reduce injury, but are also much more comfortable to where. The hip belt is designed to eliminate load on the shoulders, thus increasing range of motion and hikability. You will always want a hip belt once you try it out.

    When camping I put the tent on the top under the top cover, and attach my sleeping bag to the bottom of my pack with tie-downs.

  10. Backpack Camper329864 // May 15, 2009 at 12:50 pm // Reply

    Are hip belts really worth the cost for people who go camping and hiking frequently to reduce injury to the lower back by placing the weight of the backpack on the pelvis? Or, are hip belts on a backpack only really needed for people who hike for distances such as at a High Adventure Camping Program. How does a person properly affix both a sleeping bag and a four person tent onto a back pack for hiking to a campsite?

    • YES hip belts are worth the cost. They help a bunch.
      And for the affixing the sleeping bag: with a backpacking bag, just put it inside. For a regular bag, use the straps on the bottom of the bag. For a tent, either use the straps on the bottom if nothing else is there, or loosed the straps on the main pocket cover, put the tent under it, and tighten the straps

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