Gear: Packs

It's important to consider loading, capacity, and pockets when choosing which pack to buy.

What Makes the Perfect Pack?

When shopping for a new pack, do what any savvy home buyer would: Analyze your current situation, then prioritize your needs.

Here are some factors to consider.

Loading. How tough is it to cram gear in and yank it out? Are you able to organize gear in side pockets, get at loaded items through access points, and secure awkward items under the top lid and at lash points? Does the compression strap system allow you to stabilize a load evenly?

Pockets. Compulsive organizers will want to look for packs with lots of compartments and pockets. But while simpler packs may be tougher to organize, they weigh considerably less. All those zippers and that extra fabric add up!

Capacity. It’s only one aspect of a pack’s overall performance, but volume gives you a rough idea of the pack’s intended use.

Note: Because some external frame packs are designed to carry bulky items outside the packbag, their cubic-inch measurements can be smaller than those of a comparable internal frame pack. Based on cubic inches of carrying capacity, the pack world breaks out into four major categories:

  • 5,500+ cubic inches: We consider these to be “expedition/winter trip packs.” Buy a pack this size only if you go out on 7-day-plus hikes with no resupply, if you regularly go camping in snowcountry, or if you’re the family’s designated Sherpa. With a pack this large there’s a temptation to overpack to the point where your knees buckle. Given the kinds of loads you’ll be hauling with these packs, ample cushioning at the hips and shoulders is a must.
  • 4,000 to 5,500 cubic inches: We classify these as “long trip packs,” capable of handling a weeklong trip in the summer or going the distance on the Pacific Crest or other long trails. If you’re forced to select one pack for all-around backpacking, you’d be wise to shop in this category.
  • 3,000 to 4,000 cubic inches: Packs in this range are just right for the Friday-to-Sunday thing, which is why we call them “weekend trip packs.” They’re small enough to prevent you from overpacking, yet large enough to hold a sleeping bag, a tent, a stove, food, and a change of clothes.
  • 2,500 to 3,000 cubic inches: Just right for gear-intensive dayhikes or warm-weather overnights, these are considered “light overnight packs.” Most packs in this category are frameless rucksacks.

Ease of adjustment. Does custom-fitting the pack to your body require a toolbox, or can an average human being fine-tune the fit on the trail? Also, how adjustable is this pack? Did you max out any of the adjustments?

Comfort. Does the pack ease the burden of a heavy load, or is it more like a monkey on your back? Pay particular attention to comfort at the shoulders, at the back/lumbar region, and at the waist and hips.

Load control. How does the pack affect your freedom of movement on the march? Is it best suited for on-trail hiking, rough and steep trails, or backcountry bushwhacking? Consider things like pack balance, arm-swinging and high-stepping freedom, and head clearance.

Look at materials used, stitching, zippers, attachments, etc. You’ll want a pack with heavy-duty nylon throughout, reinforcement on the bottom of the pack where it touches the ground, big, sturdy zippers, hefty buckles, and double stitching at pressure points.

Decisions, Decisions

Before you can find the pack that best suits your needs, here are a few questions you need to ask yourself about basic design.

Internal or External?

While many backpackers switched from external to internal frame packs in the late 1970s and early ’80s, that doesn’t necessarily mean they all made the right choice. As a Backpacker field test showed, external frames are strong contenders if you need to carry a big load or don’t need the narrow profile and load control of an internal.

So, what are the factors to consider when choosing between internal and external frames?

If you take long trips and stick to designated trails, externals can handle big, bulky loads admirably. Because externals usually position the weight higher on your back (near the shoulders), they allow you to carry heavier loads in a relatively upright stance. But this higher center of gravity can throw you off balance during more active pursuits such as skiing, boulder-hopping, or bushwhacking.

An external frame is exposed and typically H-shaped, with a stretched mesh backband, or foam padding, and a load-bearing hipbelt. The packing attaches to the frame with straps or wired clevis pins, and the frame often extends above or below the packbag, giving you a shelf on which you can lash your sleeping bag, mattress, or tent. Late-model externals feature the best of both worlds: the load-carrying you expect from this class of packs, plus the more contoured fit you associate with internals. With any external, be sure to check for adequate headroom, because the high-set load can get in the way when you’re craning your neck to glimpse a circling hawk.

Externals are the ticket for organization freaks. They usually have all sorts of pockets and compartments for separating gorp from grungy socks. But perhaps the best thing about external frame packs is that they usually cost about half as much as comparably sized internals.

Internals are slimmer and sleeker than externals. Their support comes from aluminum or graphite stays mounted inside the packbag, often combined with a hard plastic framesheet that protects your back and provides more rigidity. Internal frames hug your back tighter and lower than externals, offering better balance and the feeling of “being one” with your pack. The narrower cut allows better arm movement, and it lets you sneak between trees, boulders, and other obstacles that would stop an external in its tracks.

Many internals, however, have a nasty habit of forcing you to lean forward, which can add up to a sore lower back at the end of the day. They also require more care in packing because sharp or lumpy items can rub against your back. Internals tend to have fewer compartments, so you need to pack carefully and stay organized, or you’ll end up dumping everything out just to find the Fig Newtons.

Panel- or Top-Loading?

No matter which type of frame you choose, you will also have to decide on either a panel- or top-loading packbag.

In a panel-loading bag, the main compartment opens via a large,

U-shaped zipper, making these packs easy to load and organize. The front panel usually opens down like an oven door, allowing you to see all the contents. Look for panel-loaders with big, heavyweight zippers and compression straps that can act as a backup if a zipper blows out.

For people who like to cram their packs to the gills, a top-loader

is the way to go. You just dump gear down the mouth of the pack, stomp on it, then dump in some more. Most of these have a sleeve-and-drawstring closure that allows you to extend 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 (there are fewer openings to let in rain), you’ll need to be more organized.

Nowadays, you can find hybrid models that load from the top, yet have some sort of zippered access to the lower bowels of the packbag.

Fitting Fundamentals

The sad reality of pack-buying is that you can’t always rely on salespeople to give you a perfect fit. Your safest bet is to know the fundamentals of fitting. Follow these steps, and not only are you guaranteed to walk away from the store with a custom-fitted pack, you might even land yourself a part-time job at the local outdoors shop.

Torso Talk

Height has little to do with pack-fitting. You need to consider the part of your body that wears the pack, your torso. You can’t gauge torso length just by eyeballing it. Say, you and your hiking buddy are both 5’5″. You may have long legs and a 16 1/2-inch torso, whereas he may have short legs and an 18 1/2-inch torso. You’d typically wear a small pack, he’d wear a medium.

To find your torso measurement, grab a friend and a soft tape measure–the kind seamstresses use, not construction workers. Stand up straight with your legs about shoulder-width apart. Have your friend start measuring at the seventh vertebra–the knobby bone that protrudes at the base of your neck. From there, run the tape down the spine, following all the contours. To find the end point, place your hands on your hips with thumbs pointing back. Depending on how much extra padding you have around the hips, you may have to dig in a bit to find the shelf of your hipbones. The invisible line connecting your thumbs marks the end of your torso.

As a general guide, if your torso measures under 18 inches, you’re a size small; 18 to 20 inches is a medium; and over 20 inches is a large.

The Loading Test

Once you’ve settled on the size, style, and model of pack that suits your needs, head to the showroom and load it up. At a minimum, you need a 20-pound load to get a pack to hang correctly on your back.

The hipbelt should rest on your hipbones, not on your waist. If it rides too low, it will inhibit high-stepping. If it rides too high, you’ll end up carrying too much weight on your shoulders. The padded section of the hipbelt should wrap around the front of your hipbones, but not quite meet in the front. Some pack makers offer interchangeable hipbelts (as well as shoulder harnesses) for better fit options.

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 straps should extend to a point about a hand’s 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’re too wide, the padding will pinch into your armpits. Good news for women: Some packs have contoured shoulder straps and canted hipbelts that conform to the shape of a woman’s body for a more comfortable fit.

The load-lifter straps attach to the pack somewhere about ear level, creating a 45-degree angle from the pack to your shoulders. If they’re not set high enough, you won’t be able to shift the weight to the front of your shoulders. By loosening the load-lifter straps, you should be able to shift the weight onto your hips.

The sternum strap should be set a few inches below your collarbone. Most adjust up and down for fine-tuning.

Next, check the headroom. You want to be able to look up without thumping your head on the pasta pot.

A last-ditch option for an internal frame pack that, despite your best strap adjustments, still doesn’t feel matched to the curve of your back: Reshape the frame stays. Most stays come shaped to fit the curve of an “average” back. If you need a bit more customizing, work with a skilled packfitter when doing this. Be sure to make a tracing of the original shape of the stays, so you can start from scratch if you go overboard.

Pack Prescriptions

After investing the money, you’ll want to keep your pack in tip-top shape so it will last for several years. Here are some tips to help keep your pack performing like new even after it’s been around the mountain a few times.

Wrap hard-edged items, such as stoves or cookware, in items of clothing so they don’t poke your back or rub holes in other packed gear.

Remove any food bags from your pack when you stop for the night, and don’t leave pieces of granola bar inside. The odors and tasty tidbits draw hungry varmints. If you’re lucky, you’ll attract a mouse or squirrel, who’ll gnaw only neat little holes to get at the goodies. If you aren’t lucky, you might lure a bear into camp and find that he’s happily ripped your entire pack to shreds in search of food.

Clean out your pack after every trip by unzipping all pockets and compartments to shake out crumbs, dirt, sand, and hazardous waste like crusty trail socks. If the pack is really grungy, sponge it off with mild soap and water. Air-dry it out of the sun; ultraviolet rays can damage the nylon fabric in a surprisingly short time.

Perform basic maintenance. Stitch up any rips with a heavy-duty needle and upholstery thread. If nylon straps begin to fray, melt the edges with a match or lighter.

Carry a spare clevis pin and a couple of split rings if you’re an external frame pack wearer. These little units love to disappear at the most inopportune moments, and unless you have a spare, you’ll have to live with a floppy packbag or shoulder strap.

Inspect for loose seams or deteriorating hardware at major stress points around the hipbelt, shoulder straps, and suspension stabilizers. A blown shoulder strap could mean big transport troubles deep in the woods. Repair worn zippers before they pop, otherwise you might end up with belongings strewn along miles of trail.

Store your pack in a cool, dry, airy place to keep it from collecting mildew, which can delaminate the fabric’s waterproof coating.

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