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Backpack buying guide

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“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.

WAIT! Although the following is still great advice, the Gear Guy is currently researching new models and writing an update to this article. Watch for his updated tips and reviews in the June 2015 issue of Boys’ Life.

MEASURE UP

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.

CAPACITY

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.

183 Comments on Backpack buying guide

  1. SCOUTER HIKER // March 24, 2015 at 2:10 pm // Reply

    I was looking at an osprey under at 190$, but then I found the Back Diamond epic 45 at 123$, small, i am 5 foot 6 and am looking for a pack to last 3 to even a week hiking. Very rugged terrain. Any suggestions?

  2. don’t forget about frameless packs they are a little bit hard to pack though because you have to do it precisely

  3. I bought a really good quality backpack at a thrift store for $20. It was really lightly used. Just shop at a thrift store and save a TON of money.

  4. I’m looking for a good pack for a younger scout that would fit for someone five foot three and is very light. I’m looking for something under $150

  5. I prefer using day packs without a any frame in them at all for multi day backpacking trips . I like the way it feels on my back and shoulders

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