March 2008 Backpacks Review: Start Smart

Start Smart

Measure your torso in 5 easy steps and guarantee a perfect fit with your next pack

1 Enlist a friend Unless you're a contortionist, you can't do this alone.

2 Roll the tape You'll need a soft tape measure that can follow the curve of your spine.

3 Tuck in your chin Tilt it down so the C7 vertebra at the base of your neck protrudes. This knob marks the top of your torso measurement.

4 Grab your love handles Then use your thumbs to feel for your iliac crests–the tops of your hipbones. Draw an imaginary horizontal line across your back between your thumbs; where this line crosses your spine is the bottom of your torso measurement.

5 Take the measure Have your friend drape the tape from top to bottom (C7 to the point on your spine). Most adults have a torso length between 16 and 22 inches.

Try Before You Buy

To find the perfect pack, test-hike a bunch in the store. Here's how:

1 Load it up An empty pack always feels good. When shopping, fill yours with at least 20 pounds, or preferably as much weight as you intend to carry; ropes and tents work well. Complete steps 2, 3, and 4, then walk around the store to assess comfort.

2 Loosen up Release all the straps when you throw it on–load lifters, shoulder, hipbelt, and hipbelt stabilizers.

3 Shrug your shoulders Lift the pack until the belt is even with the top of your hips, then buckle it tight. Cinch the shoulder straps and load lifters. The pack's lumbar pad should snug into the small of your back. Weight should feel evenly distributed between your shoulders and hips, and the shoulder straps should wrap over your shoulders with no visible gap at the top.

4 Check fit A general rule: The load-lifter straps, which run from the shoulder straps up to the top of the pack (they usually attach just under the lid pocket) should rise at a 30- to 45-degree angle. If they don't, try adjusting the pack's suspension or moving up or down a size.

5 Make on-trail adjustments Don't hesitate to experiment with straps on the trail, or to make constant refinements as you hike. Small changes can release pressure or eliminate rubbing when a sore spot crops up. On-trail adjustments are especially important with a new pack.

Reader's Rule!

Hints, Tips, and Tricks straight from the Field

Bladder Control"

Attach a rubber band to your shoulder strap (the D-ring on the strap works best), then put your bladder hose through the loop. This keeps it within easy reach, and it stretches to reach your mouth."

Evan Farrel, Bradford Woods, PA

Fast Straps

"I always carry a half-dozen 6- to 8-inch mini-bungies. You can use them to lash on gear, pitch tarps, or hang water bags."

Name withheld, via email

Pack Last

"If you're transitioning to ultralight backpacking, replace your pack last. A lightened load in a heavy pack is way better than a heavy load in an ultralight pack. Once your other gear is nailed, you'll have a better idea how big your new pack needs to be."

Eric Welsh, Anderson, IN

Pad Your Padding

"The sheepskin seatbelt pads favored by taxi drivers make pack shoulder straps more comfortable. The wool breathes better than nylon, and they're luxurious on long treks. Just cut one in half, and slide a section onto each strap."

Name withheld, via email