BACKPACKS… Everything you ever wanted to know

Backpacks, Rucksacks, Knapsacks, Haversacks, and Kitbags, whatever you call them are the easiest and most comfortable method of carrying  equipment and provisions when you must carry it yourself. The weight is mostly supported by the pelvic girdle with a little by the spine and shoulders, leaving the hands free for doing whatever you need to do with your hands.

Packs are never one size fits all, so try on a few before you decide which one is for you. It may seem like an inconvenience, but bring a bag of gear to the store, load up each of your preferred selection, and walk around for a while, then choose the one that suits you best. It is a bit strange that shops do not have bags of gear specifically designed to simulate the weight of a loaded pack for you to try on in store.

ANATOMY OF A BACKPACK

Once again, gear is like underwear – everyone’s tastes are different and there are a lot of grey areas in selecting the best. We have tried to provide the most pertinent advice but if you don’t agree with us share your ideas with us and we will include them in this material.

Let’s get one thing out the way right now – not everything the manufacturers put on a pack is necessarily useful, desirable or even serves a purpose. It is a sad reflection of the marketing world that we buy things because they are fashionable regardless of purpose. An example of this is having Ice axe loops on tiny day packs just big enough for a sandwich. They serve no purpose other than to maybe hang you mug off of, but look the part and so manufacturers add them. Make sure you identify each aspect of your needs and get a pack that meets as many as possible.

ASK YOURSELF THESE FEW VITAL QUESTIONS…

Before we look in detail at backpacks, ask yourself…

1. How much gear am I going to have to carry?
2. Do I prefer my gear sorted into compartments?
3. Do I need to be able to flex my torso a lot on the trip I am planning?
4. How easily do I need access to the gear in the bag?
5. Will I be needing to take the pack off and put it back on often?

HOW MUCH GEAR AM I GOING TO HAVE TO CARRY?

Backpacks are like handbags – the bigger it is the more you will want to put in it. When selecting a bag, be honest with yourself about how much gear you really need.

The size of your chosen backpack should be related to the activities that you will be doing, bearing in mind that no one bag will be perfect for all your chosen uses.

There are four main size & uses of backpacks, and many varieties of each:

Day Bags

10 – 30 Litres – Day walks from a base.

The simplest form of backpack. Shoulder straps and a pocket of sorts are standard. More expensive versions may have a waist belt for stability, this is not usually padded, nor designed to absorb the weight carried, unlike the padded hip belts on larger backpacks. Some larger day bags may have a padded back for support and comfort.

Soft Packs

25 – 50 Litres – Rock climbing, Supported Treks, Mountain Biking, Skiing, Hill running & Hostelling.

This type of backpack is for those engaged in multi-sport activities. The main difference between this type of backpack and day bags mentioned above is that they are designed to carry heavier loads (10 kg or over) so many have internal frames and better hip belts, spreading the load more effectively between the waist and shoulders. These packs are often close fitting, improving stability and freedom of movement.

Hiking & Expedition Packs

55 – 120 Litres – Multi-day backpacking, Long mountain tours and expeditions. Generally, ladies should not carry more than 65 litres in this category of pack.

The early external frame packs have now almost totally been replaced by the internal-framed backpack. The external frame has been modified to fit inside the back of the backpack so that they lie parallel to the spinal column, so helping transfer most of the weight from the shoulders to the padded hip belt which is sewn directly into the bottom of the backpack. The hip belt transfers the weight to the pelvic girdle and down to the legs. This protects the spinal column and shoulders from damage.

Travel Bags

50 – 80 Litres – Globe-trotting and combination business / leisure trips.

These bags have similar load-bearing systems as the internal framed backpack and can be zipped-away behind a cover sheet. This is to prevent the straps from getting in the way when not required or getting caught in conveyer belts in airports. In addition, the travel bag usually has an unconventional zippered front-loading feature like a suitcase that allows the entire bag to be opened and packed as a conventional suitcase. It has straps and handles that allow it to be carried like a conventional piece of luggage. If cost is a factor, cover bags are available that store a conventional backpack during transit, providing the advantages of the travel bags.

Materials

Materials and fabrics match to the intended use of the backpack. A daypack will be made from a lighter material then a larger internal-frame backpack. However, material for the same size of bag will vary according to intended use. For example, a canyoneering bag will be made of robust waterproof PVC, where as a bag for easy day walks will be lightweight rip stop nylon usually.  Similarly, a large backpack will have double, or even triple stitching, as it will hold a heavy load.

POCKETS AND COMPARTMENTS – DO I PREFER MY GEAR SORTED INTO COMPARTMENTS?

Many people are organisation freaks and like to have a compartment for individual items. No problem with this if you do not mind the extra weight it generates. Think about how you like to be organised. Some people like just one or two compartments as well as a few external pockets to put regularly needed items in like water bottles, and others prefer to just have one big compartment and stuff everything in from the top. There is no right answer to this. It depends on your preferences.

Many backpacks have a split compartment two-thirds of the way down to allow access to the bottom contents without having to unpack the entire bag. Optional pockets on the top, front and side of the main compartment allow for separate regularly needed items such as map and compass. However, side pockets can make the bag too wide, restricting arm movement and generally getting in way during activities which involve squeezing through narrow gaps.

Some basic single or double compartment packs have optional add on pockets which can be added or removed depending on the trips needs.

Frame Support Systems – Do I need to be able to flex my torso a lot on the trip I am planning?

Keeping your spine in a splint like frame all day can be very tiring and prevent ducking under low hanging branches or looking up at the vultures flying above you. However, depending on what you need to carry, a ridged frame might be just the thing for you.

The frame support system, sometimes called a frame racking system, is what provides the stability and shape of the backpack.

External Frames:

Traditional external frame packs often get overlooked in favour of newer, internal frame packs. If you take long trips and stick to designated trails, externals can handle big, bulky loads. Externals usually position the weight higher and keep it away from your back so avoiding being poked by that tin of beans, but this higher centre of gravity can throw you off balance.

An external frame is exposed aluminium tubing and typically H shaped, with a stretched mesh back band or foam padding and a load baring hip belt. The pack bag attaches to the frame with straps or clevis pins, and the frame often extends above or below the pack bag, giving you a shelf on which you can tie your sleeping bag, tent, or mattress. Check for headroom, because the high load can get in the way of looking up. They usually have pockets and compartments for separating equipment. Perhaps the best thing about externals is that they usually cost about half as much as comparably sized internals.

Internal Frames:

These are slimmer than externals. Their support comes from aluminium or graphite flat bars mounted inside the backpack, sometimes combined with a hard-plastic frame sheet that protects your back from hard objects you have packed and provides more rigidity. Internal frames hug your back tighter and are lower than externals, offering better balance and the feeling of being ‘one’ with your pack as it moves with you and allows bending of the spine.

The narrower width allows arm movement and it lets you to squeeze between trees, and other obstacles that would stop external frames.

Many internals, depending on how they are packed can make you lean forward when walking. They also require more care in packing because hard items can rub against your back. Internals tend to have fewer compartments, so you need to pack carefully and stay organised. (Try to keep items in small colour coded stuff bags).

Internals definitely tend to, if packed properly, feel more comfortable as they allow flexibility of your spine so your back does not feel so tired.

Types of Internal Back System

There are many internal frame system backpacks on the market and the main difference between the manufacturers is how the load is distributed from the shoulder to the pelvis. Opinion differs about how best for the load to be transferred. Some say the hip belt must be rigidly connected (via a frame) to the internal struts. Others say that the hip belt should be allowed to pivot from a central point as the hips move from left to right when walking and the hip belt must follow, not hinder, this natural movement. Some prefer their back support to be like a sports car seat. Then still others fall somewhere amongst these options. There are also back systems designed specially to fit women, although not all woman like these…

Frameless Backpacks:

These packs are meant for light travel. Some actually have a frame sheet (thin plastic sheet instead of a frame) for extra support, but most only have a simple foam pad. They seldom come with adjustable suspension, so make sure the one you choose fits your torso. Look for well-padded shoulder straps and hip belts, and plenty of compression straps (the straps on the sides of the pack) so you can stabilise smaller loads.

These compression straps are designed to reduce the volume to the pack when it is not full by squeezing the pack which stops it moving around on your back. No, they were not designed to hang gear from, but can double for this purpose.

Loading – How easily do I need access to the gear in the bag?

No matter what type of frame you choose, you will also have to decide between a top loading and panel loading backpack.

 

Panel Loading:

Travel packs normally are panel loading, the main compartment opens via a large U-shaped zipper, making these packs easy to load and organise. The front panel usually opens like a door, allowing you to see all the contents. Look for panel loaders with big heavy weight zippers and compression straps that can act as a backup if a zipper should blow out.

Split compartment packs that load from the top can have zippered panel loading access to the lower part of the bag.

Top Loading:

For people who like to cram their packs, a top loader is best. You just dump gear down the top of the pack, jump on it, and then dump in some more. Most have a sleeve and draw string closure that allows you to expend the volume of the pack. The top pocket buckles over the whole load, and cinches tight. While top loaders tend to be more durable and weatherproof, you need to be more organised. Top loaders due tend to hold more gear in the same size pack as it is easier to compress gear.

Will I be needing to take the pack off and put it back on often?

This is something often overlooked when selecting a pack. Some packs have such complicated strap systems, that taking it on and off is a hassle. When in the store, put a fully laden pack on and check how easy it is to take off and put on again. Everything from easy adjusting straps to a top centre handle to assist lifting is vital. Small pockets in the hip belt also can carry snacks so avoiding the need to remove the pack often.

Waterproofing Your Backpack

Although backpacks are made from waterproof materials, the seams are not usually sealed. In heavy or prolonged rain, moisture will inevitably seep through seams and zips. The most reliable (and cheapest) method is to wrap everything in plastic bags, making it easier to find specific times. An alternative is to use one large waterproof bag (such as an orange 500-gauge survival bag) to line the entire contents, not so easy if your backpack has two compartments. If this is the case, a backpack cover can be purchased, which has the added benefit of keeping the bag clean and protecting it from being damaged, but make sure it fits snugly as they can act as sails in strong winds.

Caring for your Backpack

Considering the cost, you will want to keep your pack in good shape, so it will last several years. Here are some tips to help keep your pack looking like new even after it has been around the mountain a few times.

  • Pack hard-edged items such as stoves or cookware, so that they don’t rub your back or poke holes.
  • Remove any food packs from your pack and don’t leave any crumbs inside. The odors and tasty bits attract vermin.
  • Clean out your pack after every trip by unzipping all pockets and compartments and shake out the crumbs, dirt, sand and hazardous waste like old trail socks. If the pack is dirty, sponge it off with mild soap and water and dry out of the sun.
  • Stitch any rips and seams that are coming apart with a heavy-duty needle and upholstery thread. Dental floss is great for this. If nylon straps start to fray, melt the edges with a match or lighter.
  • Check annoying squeaks on external frames, try silicone spray where the bag contacts the frame. Replace any worn clevis pins or split rings.
  • Carry a spare clevis pin and a couple of rings if you have an external frame.
  • Store the pack in a cool, airy, dry place to keep it from collecting mildew which can de-laminate the fabrics waterproofing.

Backpack Fitting

To guarantee you get a comfortable pack, know the basics of fitting.

Once you have settled on the size, style, and model pack that suits your needs, load it up. At a minimum, you need 8 – 10kg to get a pack to hang correctly on you back. Do this after adjusting the frame. Remember the store may not want you bending all their nice new frames, so you may have to fit the pack properly later. See next section for how to fit the pack properly.

Many smaller packs are not adjustable – if you are thinking of getting one of these, you will need to try on many packs till you find one that fits your torso correctly. The fundamentals you are looking for in a pack are:

  • Weight sits on the pelvic girdle, not the shoulders. About a 70/30% combination is right.
  • Pack sits firm on your back and does not wobble about.
  • Shoulder straps extend lower than your armpits.

Fitting an Internal Frame Backpack

Fitting a bag is a bit of a science, and a good retailer will have a trained pack fitter to make sure you pack fits before you leave the shop. But this is a rarity.

The following is a general procedure to follow to fit your new internal frame pack. You may need to adapt this to your own style of pack. Generally, it is easier to have someone assist with fitting your pack. It can be done alone, but it’s not easy.

  • Your height has little to do with pack fitting. You need to consider the part of your body that wears the pack, your torso & you cannot judge torso length by looking. To find your torso length, get your assistant and a soft tape measure, measure from the seventh vertebra – the knobbly one that protrudes from the base of your neck, down the spine, following all the contours to the invisible line drawn between the iliac crests of your pelvic girdle. As a general guide, if your torso measures less than 46cm, you’re a size small, 46cm to 51cm is a medium and over 51 cm is a large. Most modern packs have an adjustable support system so this largely becomes redundant.
  • Start off with the pack empty and all the straps loose. Put the pack on and tighten the hip belt so that the iliac crest (pointy bit) of your pelvic girdle is one third from the bottom of the hip belt, with two thirds of the belts width above the iliac crest.
  • Ask your assistant to look at your back from the side and gently shape the frame of the pack to bend following the curve of your small of the back. Then shape the top part of the frame to curve around the shoulder blades. You want the frame to be the same shape as your pack, not flat and ridged like when you left the shop.
  • Now gently tighten the shoulder straps, so there is no looseness, but they are not tight either. The shoulder straps should be anchored to the pack just below the crest of your shoulders, providing sufficient wrap without any gaps. When cinched tight, the bottom of the padded section of the straps should extend to a point about a hands width below your armpit. If the strap maxes out all the way to the buckle, then you need a smaller harness. If the buckles are clearly visible when you look front on into a mirror, then the harness is probably too small. The straps should match the contour of your shoulders. If they are too wide, the padding will pinch into your armpits.
  • If your pack has ‘load lifters’ (the small straps attached to the top of the pack and the top of the shoulder straps, gently tighten these so there is no slack, but they are not tight. Again, get your assistant to look at the position of the buckle attaching the shoulder straps to the backpack frame (somewhere between your shoulder blades), and adjust this so that the shoulder straps are about 2 centimetres off your shoulders. The load lifter straps attach to the main pack about ear level, creating a 45degree angle from the pack to the shoulders. If they are not set high enough, you won’t be able to shift the weight off your shoulders.
  • Now remove the pack and put some load in it. About 8 – 10kg should be fine.
  • Put the pack back on after loosening the straps again. Start by tightening the hip belt, then tighten the shoulder straps and lastly the load lifter straps. The load lifters should gently lift the shoulder straps off the shoulders so that your assistant can slide a finger between the strap and the shoulder top. The weight should be being carried on the hips, not the shoulders. You may need to play with the load lifters moving where they attach to the shoulder straps forward or backward to get the right angle to lift the weight off the shoulders.
  • The sternum (chest) strap should be set a few centimetres below your collarbone. Most adjust up and down for fine-tuning especially for the ladies’ comfort.
  • Check the headroom. You want to be able to look up without your head hitting the pack.
  • Lastly if you pack has them, adjust the hip belt width adjusters, (straps on each side of the hip belt), to get the hip belt the same width as your hips.

From the above sequence you will see a pack is fitted to a person. Generally, it is not good to loan your fitted pack to someone else as it will change the shape of the support system so making your next trip uncomfortable unless you re fit your pack.

The aim of an internal-frame backpack is to transfer weight to the pelvis and hips, so the first feature that must be fitted correctly if the hip belt. If this isn’t sitting on the hips, then no weight will be transferred.

Internal frame packs are like underwear, Personal. If you lend it to your friends the frame will change shape to their torso and you will feel uncomfortable on your next trip. So, if you have a super comfy pack, keep it that way by not lending it out.

Loading Your Pack

If you are feeling lopsided or you are going to fall on your face or end up like a capsized turtle, then your pack needs re adjustment.

There are as many ways of packing a backpack. As a rule, people tend to pack the heavy times at the top of the backpack nearest the back. It is worth taking the time to pack your bag in different ways to find out what works best for you. Whatever order you decide on, the principal of “first in, last out” always applies and is worth bearing in mind.

Looking at different frame styles and packing…

External Frame Packs:

Heaviest gear goes on top to get it as far forward as possible. Carry weight too low or too far back and you will have to lean too far forward to counter balance it all, which may turn you into a hunchback…

Heavy stuff – stove, cookware, bulk foods etc. Goes in the upper compartment and topside pockets. Keep heavy items close to your back. Store fuel bottles and water bottles upright in separate pockets away from food and clothing. The tent, usually the heaviest item, is tied on top behind the extender bar. Odd shaped gear fits under the top lid.

Mid-weight gear fills the middle of the pack. Clothing, personal gear, headlamp and the like in the centre compartment and lower side pockets. Stuff spare clothing in plastic bags to protect from rain.

Light bulky equipment goes towards the bottom of the pack. Lash sleeping bag below the main bag. If your sleeping bag stuff bag is not waterproof, line it with a plastic bag.

Tie long items like poles to the frame uprights on each side.

Internal Frame Packs:

For internal frame packs the load creates part of its stabilising structure. Filled the pack stands upright, but with its contents removed, it collapses.

Merely filling the pack however isn’t enough. You need to think carefully about the order in which your gear nestles in the pack. For level hiking over easy terrain, try to create a high centre of gravity. Place loose clothing and other high bulk low weight items low in the pack bag, gradually adding heavier, denser items on top.

For more active pursuits like bush whacking or rough ground, keep the heavy stuff lower and closer to your back to maintain a compact centre of gravity.

Try to pack soft items against your back. Many people with internal frame split compartment packs fill the bottom compartment with heir sleeping bag. This stabilises the pack creating a solid base to build everything else onto.

Tips and Hints

  • Choose a backpack that best fits your main activities.
  • Ask for a heavy weight to put inside the backpack when trying it on.
  • Do not pack the heaviest items in the bottom of the backpack.
  • When fitting a backpack, fit the hip belt first.
  • Experiment by loosening or tightening suspension straps to see what difference they make.
  • Buy the bag which feels the most comfortable not with the prettiest colours or pockets.
  • Waterproof your backpack with plastic bags, or use a backpack cover

Selecting Your Backpack Checklist

Be honest: Choose a pack that serves your actual needs not your pocket or ego.

The Standard:

An internal frame pack with 65 to 90 Litres of capacity offers good versatility for most people. Make sure the torso fits, then look for a firm hip belt, curved shoulder straps that end just below your armpits, and enough clearance for your elbows and thighs.

Variables:

Do you want pockets or a hydration system-ready pouch? These and other decisions about features will help you design the perfect pack. Women may want to try out frames, harnesses, and hip belts designed specifically for female hips and torsos.

In Summary

  • Get a pack that suits the trip you are doing – forget fashion or cost considerations.
  • Internal frame packs should ideally only be used by one person.
  • 50 – 75 litres are more than big enough for the average trek. Only go bigger for fully self-contained unsupported trips.
  • Internal frames are better if you need a lot of movement such as bending under obstacles or twisting through narrow spaces.
  • No pack is waterproof unless specifically designed for water based activities.
  • Packs directly off the shelf need to be fitted before they will be properly comfortable.
  • If you pack hurts you, it is either the wrong type of pack or has not been properly fitted.
  • Most of the packs weight should be carried on the pelvic girdle – not the shoulders.
  • In wet climates – always waterproof everything in the bag.
  • Always empty out the bag and air at the end of a trip.
  • Generally, keep heavier items near the top of the pack.
Andrew Friedemann

Author: Andrew Friedemann

Andrew holds qualifications in South Africa, Australia and the UK as an Outdoor Recreation Instructor and qualified Mountain Guide and Instructor. Passionate about developing the Adventure Industry in South Africa to make it safer and provide opportunities to a younger generation of adventurers. Represented South Africa on the World Mountaineering Federations (UIAA) International Training Standards Commission for 10 years and has administered the South African Mountaineering Development & Training Trust. A qualified Wilderness EMT and Emergency Care Practitioner. Qualified as an Skills Development Practitioner, he has been intimately involved in the development of Adventure based qualifications particularly with regard the quality management of adventure qualifications. Founder of Adventure Qualifications Network, he was instrumental in the development of National Vocational qualifications for the adventure industry in South Africa, but also worked closely with Australia where he attained the Cert IV in Outdoor Recreation Instruction. Currently resident in the Scottish Highlands - UK, with his wife, Michelle, they travel to many areas of the world gaining information and skills. A keen adventurer, Andrew has participated in mountaineering, skydiving and scuba diving among other activities.

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