This blog post begins a two-part series on the backpack.
Lately, my blog posts have been focused on gear and preparation. This to some degree is a diversion from my passion for adventure hiking, but to be prepared for the adventure we must be prepared for the hike.
Foundationally what we want is to be: FIRST, Physically prepared for the adventure we are engaged in; SECOND, Prepared with the right gear to both make our adventure safe and enjoyable.
There is nothing like pain to divert your attention from discovery and broken or deficient gear just messes things up. THIRDLY, We need the skills to provide both the framework for adventure as well as the confidence to enter into it.
We covered the subjects of planning and physical preparation in the following blog posts.
- Planning your Hike, the key to success
- Backcountry Trip Planning
- Spring Hiking Preparation
- The Hiking Stretches
These are beginning points; not an exhaustive study.
Last week I discussed key issues relating to hiking boots, the foundation of our hiking gear. Today, I start a two-part series on the backpack. This first post will cover:
- The basic types of backpacks available and their pros and cons.
- Pack sizing for various hiking conditions and events (loads and volume)
- Sizing your pack to fit you.
- Fitting the backpack to your body
- Fitting the backpack on your body
I will follow this post with a second post dealing with:
- How to pack your backpack
- How much weight to carry
- Care and feeding your backpack
- Tips etc.
The backpack is likely the second most critical item of gear that needs to be right for you.
If it fits you, and it carries the weight right, you will find it can become a key measure of your success in adventure hiking. So today within the context of discussing the right backpack and how to make it fit you and your conditions, I want to also point out the related elements of discovery necessary for a good adventure. What I am speaking to is that you can have the right fit and the right suspension but the wrong backpack.
Three critical elements, usually not considered in choosing a backpack, are the impact of color, noise, and convenience.
The prey side of the animal world largely survives on their hearing, smell, and sight.
Have you ever noticed how big a deer’s ears are or noticed that their eyes are on the side of their head, not in front?
As you hike into a habitat, what you do not want to do is announce your arrival. The eyes of the forest are watching and you will want to be as discrete as possible so as to not unduly attract attention. I was, just the other day, moving into the sight lane of a mother great horned owl and her two chicks. They were totally unaware of my presence. I was present by not manifest. So, being prepared for such moments, I grabbed my camera, which was in a convenient location, to start taking pictures. Unbelievably, meaning I overlooked something important, I had just purchased a new case for the camera and, by not thinking through the impact, I purchased one whose flap was held shut by Velcro. I opened my case and the noise of the Velcro parting was like a siren going off, as off did go my great horned owl family.
Your gear must compliment your intent and if you are looking for the adventure, purchase gear that compliments your strategy of discovery.
Therefore when you are looking for a backpack, get one that is present but not manifest.
No bright colors especially blue! Purchase a pack with the subdued color(s) of your environs; deer brown, dull leaf green, dirt gray, etc. The same context should be considered with all your clothing, hats and shoes. The more they move the more color integration is important… Like walking sticks.
I noted color, noise, and convenience as aspects of a backpack purchase. I spoke of the color above. The noise comes from things like crinkly fabric, items attached to the outside of the pack, moans of pain, Velcro attachments and the like. Think through what you are purchasing and consider the impact on noise.
Purchase a pack or attachments that will allow you to have ready access to your critical tools. Items like camera, water, map, compass, binoculars, etc. Each of us will have a different list but if you are on a trail of something and you need to record a track or scat, for example, you do not want to have to take your backpack off to get to your camera. This is particularly so if you want to get a picture of a mother great horned owl as she is training her chicks.
There are two basic types of backpacks; the external-frame and the internal frame.
The purpose of the frame is to stabilize your pack and transfer most of the weight of your gear from your shoulders to your hips where the strong muscles of the hips carry the load. The ideal distribution is 70 to 80 percent of the weight on your hips and 20 to 30 percent on your shoulders. Today’s technology advances in backpack design provide a wide range of options in design, size, and fit. Ultimately, the suspension is the most important part of any backpack.
The external-frame backpack is designed to provide the foundation for carrying lots of weight in different parcels. Attached to the frame is your pack bag usually in the 3000 to 4500 cubic inch range (49 to 73 liters), then, separately, items like your tent, your sleeping bag, your mattress, etc. The result is a large capacity platform that you attach the various elements to as needed for the intended hike. The external frame revolutionized backpacking for it allowed much larger volumes and weight to be carried easily and comfortably for long distances. Present day designs have good lumbar padding, a conical hip belt, recurved shoulder straps and chest compression straps. They can work well. Additionally, they allow you to carry a smaller pack compartment, which means a lighter backpack (almost a day-pack) for your excursions away from home base once you have set up camp.
- Good for carrying weight
- Allows more airspace between pack bag and back thus better cooling and less sweating.
- Weight is carried higher in the pack, allowing for a more upright posture.
- Frame extension bars provide space for strapping on lots of additional gear like sleeping bags and tents, making the backpack more versatile.
- Usually less expensive than internal framed packs.
- Since external framed packs carry the load higher, they raise your center of gravity, making you more “top heavy” and less stable.
- Most external framed backpacks don’t hug your body as well, so you get some sway as you walk which can be a problem with snowshoeing or skiing.
- Airplane baggage-handling machines like to bend stuff, so don’t send your external frame pack via the airlines unless you have your pack separately boxed.
- External-framed packs tend to get caught in brush and are more difficult to maneuver in tight places.
- Most all external framed packs do not have load lifters.
Internal-frame packs use a wide variety of materials-aluminum trays, carbon fiber, polycarbonate, plastic sheets, and foam to create a rigid spine to which the hip belt and shoulder straps attach. The pack bag runs the full height of the internal-frame though it may be divided into separate compartments. Pack volumes range from 3,000 to 7,500 cubic inches (49 to 122 liters). Present day internal-frame backpacks come in a variety of sizes, some with fixed spine lengths and some with adjustable spine lengths. Key features to look for include good lumbar padding, a conical hip belt, and recurved shoulder straps with good padding, chest compression straps, and side compression straps for carrying smaller loads and load lifter straps.
- Good for carrying lots of gear
- Conforms to the body for better balance
- Generally more comfortable to wear for long periods
- Your gear, particularly your sleeping bag, is inside your backpack thus not so exposed to the elements. Many internal- frame packs come with a built in rain cover to maintain a dry interior.
- They generally have load lifter adjustments allowing you to shift weight between you shoulders and hips
- Because the pack frame and pack are directly against your back, they have less air circulation and likely more sweating.
- The weight is carried lower in the pack thus causing you to walk not quite as upright as you would in an external frame pack.
- You can’t put as much gear on the outside of the pack so its capacity is largely confined to the internal volume of the pack bag.
Almost all daypacks are internal-frame packs if they have any frame at all. The larger the capacity the more rigidity is provided which helps distribute weight to the hips. In most cases you will be looking for a daypack in the 1,200 and 3,000 cubic inches range for any serious day hikes. There is no way to come properly equipped with anything much smaller than a 1,200 cubic inch pack. Unless you are using your daypack for a book bag or to carry your lunch and some wraps, you will want to look for the same qualities in your hiking daypack as you would a backpack used for multiday hikes. Remember the 11 Essentials are important to have in you pack every time you venture out be it a short day hike or an extended adventure. There is absolutely no excuse to gamble with your health and safety or miss out on the excitement of discovery.
It is important that you obtain a backpack that can both carry the volume of gear and food necessary for your trip as well as fit you comfortably carrying the weight. Keep in mind that the external- frame pack bag will be smaller than the comparable internal-framed pack bag. The external-framed pack is designed to be a platform upon which you attach other larger gear directly to the frame thus giving you the added capacity. For example, a sleeping bag in a stuff bag may be anywhere from 700 to 1500 cubic inches (11 to 25 liters). Below are some rough guidelines on pack size related to trip length.
||External Frame Pack Volume
||Intern-Frame Pack Volume
||1,500+ cubic inches (25+ liters)
||3,500+ cubic inches (57+ liters)
||2,000+ cubic inches (33+ liters)
||4,500+ cubic inches (73+ liters)
||3,000+ cubic inches (39+ liters)
||5,500+ cubic inches (90+ liters)
Sizing the Pack:
It is imperative that you get a properly fitting backpack. The major measurements you want to consider include:
- Spine length…Some backpacks have adjustable spine lengths. On others, it is a matter of selecting the correct spine length backpack.
- Waist size…This affects the size of waist belt. You need to have sufficient length to adjust it tighter or looser depending on the need.
- Shoulder width…Your straps must not cut into your neck or slip off your shoulders.
Make sure you review the manufacture’s instructions for both adjusting your pack and loading it. Some backpacks come with a variety of options for hip belts and shoulder straps and you should be able to find specific combinations designed for women’s bodies.
Remember the key objective of the backpack is to transfer the weight from your shoulders to your hips and legs through your hip belt.
General fitting guidelines for an internal framed pack:
- Load your pack with 10 to 15 lbs. This will allow the pack to sit firmly on your body and will provide you the most accurate representation of how it will carry in the field.
- Put the pack on and pull the shoulder strap adjustment strap ((1) See illustration below) downward at about a 30 degree angle backward (see diagram). This will cause the hip belt to rise on your body. Once the center of the belt is level with your hipbones stop pulling and buckle up the hip belt. (2) Wearing the hip belt higher transfers weight onto major muscle groups. Wearing the belt too low on the hips can compress arteries and nerves and lead to poor circulation and numbness in the legs.
- Reach behind your head at about the height of your ears and pull the load lifter straps snugly towards you. (3) Note: this is a key step in the performance of your pack, as it engages the frame and causes the load to be transferred to your hips. These straps are also responsible for stabilizing the pack as well as pulling it into your natural center of gravity. When you do this, you should feel the top of the shoulder straps lifting off of your body, and there will be a small gap between the straps and your shoulders. If you can avoid it, never carry too much weight on your shoulders, as this is a common cause of spinal injuries.
- Now buckle up the sternum strap across your chest and pull it snug. The sternum strap should cross your chest below your collarbone.
- The last step to a good the fit is to place your thumbs on the shoulder strap adjustments at the bottom of the shoulder straps and slightly loosen them. Once again snug up the sternum strap to take care of any excess slack. (4) At this point the frame stays or frame structure should extend 2 to 4 inches above your shoulders.
Super summary by diagram number:
- Pull down & back. The belt will rise.
- After buckling, there should be a minimum of 2” on each side of the buckle before it runs out of adjustment.
- As you pull forward the shoulder straps will lift. Weight transfers to hips.
- Sternum strap keeps it together. The sternum strap should cross your chest below your collarbone.
- Slightly release the shoulder strap adjustment. Retighten sternum strap.
General fitting guidelines for an external framed pack:
- Put on the pack and adjust the hip belt to fit your hips. Wear the hip belt on the hipbones just underneath the rib cage. The center of the hip belt is about at the crest of your pelvis. The buckle will be about at your navel. Wearing the hip belt higher transfers weight onto major muscle groups. Wearing the belt too low on the hips can compress arteries and nerves and lead to poor circulation and numbness in the legs.
- With the hip belt on and properly positioned, tighten the shoulder straps and note their position. Some packs will allow you to adjust the height at which the shoulder straps attach to the frame to fine-tune your fit. For an external-frame pack, the straps should come off the frame about even with the top of your shoulders. If the straps drop too far down, the pack is too small and too much weight will be pulled onto your shoulders. If the straps go too far up, the pack is too large and too little weight will go onto your shoulders.
- Be sure the width of the shoulder straps is positioned so that they neither pinch your neck nor slip off your shoulders.
- The sternum strap should cross your chest below your collarbone.
- There will be no load lifter straps on an external framed pack. Adjustments must be made by the location of the straps on the frame, the shoulder straps, and hip belt.
Jump up and down, put more weight in the backpack, and sit down with your pack on. Make sure before you leave the store that the pack is comfortable, convenient, colored right, and not crinkly. The next test is to take the backpack home and fill it as if preparing for a trip.
My next upcoming blog post will provide instructions on how and why to pack your backpack for maximum comfort, stability, and use.
I hope to see you on the trails of adventure.
With hiking stick in hand,