Category Archives: Gear

Packing your Backpack

Packing your backpack is a follow up to last weeks discussion on how to choose, fit, and adjust a backpack to meet your needs.

You now have chosen a backpack and you are ready to embark on a journey. What do you put into the backpack and how much do you put in, where do you put it and why do you put it where you do? These are the next key questions you want answered to be assured that you will have a great experience and that you are prepared for an adventure. These same principles apply to the day hike because all of the above attributes are our desires for every trip. We want to be comfortable, not painful; safe not short sighted, and prepared not to miss any opportunity to engage in the providential adventures offered on each trip out.

In addition to how and why to pack what you pack, we will discuss the care and feeding of your backpack, storing it, and waterproofing. I will also discuss hydration, though it is not directly a part of the backpack question; it is an optional item that can be included in your backpack selection and packing preparation.

Last, but by far not the least, I want to impart the concern of weight. The lighter the gear and supplies the lighter the pack, the lighter the pack the lighter the shoes/boots required. The issues of balance in difficult terrain goes down and the stamina goes up and so does the experience of freedom. The process of going light is developed individually by evaluating your gear and supplies after each trek. First, always include the 11 essentials. This is your safety net. Then make two piles of your gear and supplies. One pile for those items you used and one for those you just carried around. Decide if you really need all of the items in pile two and discard what you can. When your next buying season comes around evaluate what you can replace that is lighter and more efficient. Over time you will discover two things. The first is you will develop a list of gear and supplies that are essential to you and likely must be on every adventure. The second is that you will discover you can become quite creative in meeting your needs and going lighter. A lighter backpack makes hiking a ton more fun.

PACKING YOUR PACK

Loading an External-Frame Pack. The major consideration in loading a pack is how best to distribute the weight.

There are two basic principles: for trail hiking over flat ground, the weight of the pack should be high and relatively close to the body. The heavier items should sit between your shoulder blades. For consistently steep or rough terrain, carry the weight lower to give you better balance and avoid falls from having a higher center of gravity. In this case, heavier things should be placed more toward the middle of your back. To achieve either arrangement, load the heavier, bulky items into the large top compartment in the position where you want most of the weight. Then fill this and the remaining compartments with lighter items. Tents and tarps can be lashed to the extender bars at the top of the pack and sleeping bags can usually be lashed to the frame at the bottom of the pack. In either case, the horizontal weight distribution should be balanced so that the left side of the pack is in balance with the right. A woman’s center of gravity is generally lower than a man’s. So, for women, the heavier items should be placed close to the body but lower in the pack, as in the case for rough terrain, described above. Packs designed especially for women take this into account by lowering the pack bag on the frame. Load these packs as described above and then lash sleeping bags and tents or tarps to the extender bars at the top and bottom of the pack.

Loading an Internal-Frame Pack. The key thing to remember is that you can’t fight the basic laws of physics. Try and keep the heavyweight as close to your body as possible.

The further the weight moves from your body the heavier it feels and the more difficult it is to control. For easy, level hiking, a high center of gravity is best. To achieve this, load bulky, light gear (e.g. your sleeping bag) low in the pack and stack heavier gear on top of it. For steeper terrain, a lower center of gravity is best because it lessens the chance of falls from a top-heavy pack. In this case, place heavier items a little lower in the pack and closer to your back than normal. Women may prefer this arrangement under all circumstances.

Backpack

A well-loaded pack is as skinny as possible. A skinny pack is easier to carry and control. Use every compression strap and pull it as tightly as possible. A poorly loaded pack will cause you to spend far more energy and endure unnecessary pain.

Packing a backpack

PACKING TIPS

Develop a color-coded packing system. There is nothing more frustrating than having to go through your whole pack to find the gear you need.

I suggest you use colored stuff sacks. Red is for an emergency. Pack your medical kit and survival kit in red bags and mark them on the outside. Put clothes into another color, food into a separate color, etc. This not only identifies your contents but it helps fill all the voids and avoids content shifting.

  1. Develop a pocket strategy. My day hiking backpack, for example, has about 8 pockets. I carry the same gear in the same pockets all the time. Within the pockets are stuff sacks where practical. So my navigation gear is always in X pocket, my snacks, my camera, etc. Most often the priority is based on a need-strategy so, for example, in my case, I have my camera in my most accessible pocket.
  2. The horizontal weight distribution should be balanced so that the left side of the pack is in balance with the right side.
  3. Avoid hanging things all over the outside of your pack—no one wants to listen to you clank and clang your way down the trail; also, all that junk can snag branches. If you find yourself having to tie things on all the time, either your pack is too small or you are carrying too much (or both). This is also a direct violation of the principle of stealth. Being present but not manifest.
  4. For protection from rain, line your sleeping bag stuff sack and main pack compartments with plastic garbage bags. They also work as emergency shelters.
  5. Fuel bottles should be placed below any food items or in pockets on the outside of your pack.

HOW MUCH WEIGHT?

How much weight you should carry depends on your size, weight, and physical condition. It also depends on your need and hiking strategy.

The general rule for a multi day backpacking trip is to carry no more than 15 to 25 percent of your body weight. On longer expeditions or trips with more gear (such as winter camping), this figure may go up. The bottom line is, don’t carry more than you need or more than you can handle. Many a hiker has blown out knees, ankles, or backs by hauling more weight than they could handle. Here are some things to do to make your trip as comfortable as possible:

TIPS…Before you hit the trail

  1. Try on your loaded pack at home before you leave and, if possible, do a mini hike to evaluate. An hour climbing through some brush and up a hill or two will tell you a lot about your pack weight.
  2. Fiddle with the pack and adjust it at home (you probably won’t take the time to do this at the trailhead while your friends are waiting).
  3. Weigh your pack and compare that to your body weight. Figure out the percent of your body weight that you are carrying. Is it too much?
  4. Take a good look at what you are bringing. Prune out the nonessentials.
  5. Look and see what other people are carrying and how the whole group can share the load in a way that makes sense for each member, given size, weight, physical condition, and experience.
  6. Checking Your Pack Before a Trip:
    1. Take a look at the shoulder straps, hip belt, and other compression and load-carrying straps. Check all buckles, zippers and seams.
    2. Check the pack itself for rips or tears.
    3. If the pack is an external frame pack with a pack bag mounted onto the frame, check the attachment pins (typically clevis pins and split rings).

CARE AND FEEDING YOUR BACKPACK

With this in mind, when the season is over, place your pack in the tub with warm water and some scent free laundry detergent and let it soak for a while. Rinse it and hang it upside down so it can air dry. This is the perfect time to inspect the pack for any loose strap or signs of problems. DO NOT PLACE YOUR PACK IN THE WASHING MACHINE OR THE DRYER.

STORING YOUR PACK

After each time the pack is used, turn it upside down and shake out all the crumbs and other remnants of all things edible. During a long cold winter, mice will smell those little morsels. (FYI, we only have one documented case were a mouse has unzipped the pack to enter.)

WATERPROOFING YOUR BACKPACK

Your pack, unless it is made of rubber, is stitched together. Normally off the shelf a backpack will have the seams and zippers sealed and taped, and reasonably waterproof. Reasonably waterproof means, in most cases, that they can withstand rain for 1 to 3 hours and then things start getting wet. If you have an older pack, you’re in trouble likely within a half hour. The reason is that your seams are made of threads and threads act like small wicks which absorb water and eventually soak through and, guess what, you have wet gear, clothes and food. The plastic bag liner I mentioned earlier will assist to keep things dry and the stuff bags, if water repellent, will also be a good line of defense against moisture. But tramping along on a multiday trip with a wet bag is just asking for trouble; extra weight and dirt sticking to everything. So, each season as you pull your backpack out in preparation of that year’s adventures, spray it, spray your stuff bags, and anything else that needs it (like boots and clothing, tents and hats) with a nonchemical waterproof spray. The key here is to get a waterproof spray that smells like dirt! If you don’t do the dirt smell you’re going to have a tough time being present but not manifest if you smell like daisies. I am not here discounting your first line of defense, which is to put on your waterproof cover that most modern internal frame packs have built in. The trouble in relying solely on the cover is that it can be a pain to work with when you need to access your gear or while taking a rest break and forgetting to put it back on or putting your pack down on soaked ground. The opportunities for forgetting to adequately protect your sponge, which is what an unprotected non-waterproofed backpack becomes, is not worth the potential impact on your trek. You may need to recoat your backpack during the year if you are using it a lot, especially under wet conditions. A dry pack interior is a bit like dry clothes, for then everything works better.

HYDRATION

Dehydration is one of the most preventable backcountry problems but also one of the most ignored. Do not allow yourself any excuse to keep you from proper hydration and proper hydration properly.

Failure to stay hydrated can lead to serious and even life-threatening problems including heat-related illnesses, hypothermia, hyponatremia, and death. Stay Hydrated. So what does that mean? We will get into an extensive discussion about hydration in another venue but as related to picking a backpack a good standard is 10 to 12 ounces of water every 1/2 hour. But taking it properly means you don’t just stop every half hour and drink down 12 ounces of water and then press on. You will feel crummy and it is not meeting the bodies need. You really want to be consistently taking in water with the goal of consuming the allotted quantity of water every half hour. The most efficient means of doing this is to use a water bladder. Consider getting a backpack that has a bladder compartment built into your backpack. Not only is it accessible for constant use but also moving back to one of our key principles of discovery hiking and that of being present but not manifest, water bottles are noisy particularly when half empty along with being inconvenient. Remember our pocket strategy! See if you can find a pocket that allows you to conveniently, and without lots of movement including taking your pack off, access your water every 10 minutes without undue noise and distraction.

The ultimate goal of adventure hiking is to have your equipment be a facilitator of discovery, not a deterrent.

You want that pack to fit comfortably both on the trail or in the backcountry where there is no man made trail and you are laying on your stomach watching porcupines (baby porcupines) enjoying their morning munch.

I hope to meet you on the trails of adventure.

With Hiking Stick in Hand,

Scott

 

 

 

 

The Right Backpack For You

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:

  1. Planning your Hike, the key to success
  2. Backcountry Trip Planning

Preparation:

  1. Spring Hiking Preparation
  2. 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:

  1. The basic types of backpacks available and their pros and cons.
  2. Pack sizing for various hiking conditions and events (loads and volume)
  3. Sizing your pack to fit you.
    1. Fitting the backpack to your body
    2. Fitting the backpack on your body

I will follow this post with a second post dealing with:

  1. How to pack your backpack
  2. How much weight to carry
  3. Care and feeding your backpack
  4. Storing
  5. Waterproofing
  6. Hydration
  7. 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.

Lastly convenience.

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.

The Backpack:

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.

External-Frame: 

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.

Pros:

  1. Good for carrying weight
  2. Allows more airspace between pack bag and back thus better cooling and less sweating.
  3. Weight is carried higher in the pack, allowing for a more upright posture.
  4. Frame extension bars provide space for strapping on lots of additional gear like sleeping bags and tents, making the backpack more versatile.
  5. Usually less expensive than internal framed packs.

Cons:

  1. Since external framed packs carry the load higher, they raise your center of gravity, making you more “top heavy” and less stable.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. External-framed packs tend to get caught in brush and are more difficult to maneuver in tight places.
  5. Most all external framed packs do not have load lifters.

Internal-Frame:

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.

Pros:

  1. Good for carrying lots of gear
  2. Conforms to the body for better balance
  3. Generally more comfortable to wear for long periods
  4. 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.
  5. They generally have load lifter adjustments allowing you to shift weight between you shoulders and hips

Cons:

  1. Because the pack frame and pack are directly against your back, they have less air circulation and likely more sweating.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Daypacks:

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.

Pack Size:

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.

Trip Length External Frame Pack Volume Intern-Frame Pack Volume
2-4 days 1,500+ cubic inches (25+ liters) 3,500+ cubic inches (57+ liters)
5-7 days 2,000+ cubic inches (33+ liters) 4,500+ cubic inches (73+ liters)
8-10 days 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:

  1. Spine length…Some backpacks have adjustable spine lengths. On others, it is a matter of selecting the correct spine length backpack.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Now buckle up the sternum strap across your chest and pull it snug. The sternum strap should cross your chest below your collarbone.
  5. 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.

Backpack Adjustments

Super summary by diagram number:

  1. Pull down & back. The belt will rise.
  2. After buckling, there should be a minimum of 2” on each side of the buckle before it runs out of adjustment.
  3. As you pull forward the shoulder straps will lift. Weight transfers to hips.
  4. Sternum strap keeps it together. The sternum strap should cross your chest below your collarbone.
  5. Slightly release the shoulder strap adjustment. Retighten sternum strap.

General fitting guidelines for an external framed pack:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Be sure the width of the shoulder straps is positioned so that they neither pinch your neck nor slip off your shoulders.
  4. The sternum strap should cross your chest below your collarbone.
  5. 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,

Scott