When you think about your dream trail, you’re likely not imagining back pain along with the views. But just as the wrong pair of shoes can give you morale-murdering blisters, the wrong backpack can really take the fun out of, well, backpacking.
Before you gear up for your next adventure, be it a dayhike 10 minutes from your house or a week-long trek on the other side of the world, invest the time to make sure you’re choosing the right pack for what you’re doing and that it fits well. Here are a few steps to help guide you as you shop.
Take inventory of your trip.
What kind of hike are you doing, and where is it? What will you need to pack? If you’re going to be hiking for three days on a rocky trail in the desert, for example, you’re going to need a pack with the capacity and stability to carry a lot of water. Start there—you’ll be able to narrow down your search for a pack much more quickly if you can first figure out how much volume you’ll need to carry.
Ask yourself what you want and what you need.
Whether you’re going for a few hours or a few days, there are tons of backpack features that are common but not necessarily standard. Not every daypack, for example, has a sleeve and port for hydration bladder integration. And not every overnight-worthy pack has side water bottle sleeves or exterior access to the main compartment from the side or bottom of the pack. Are you going somewhere wet and rainy? While all quality packs have a water-resistant coating, making sure you have a rain cover is crucial. Going to a store to play with the options available—and ask for advice from someone who’s been there, done that—will help you figure out which features you really like and don’t want to hike without.
Invest the time in trying out packs in person.
Once you’ve narrowed down the type of backpack you need, the real work begins. Finding a pack that fits your personal frame well and is comfortable to haul for long distances is perhaps the most important thing you can do to prepare for a trip, aside from being physically ready to head off on the trail.
Start by going to your local gear shop and having a conversation with an employee in the backpack department. Tell them about your trip, what features you can’t live without, what your budget is, etc. Plan to spend some time here—maybe even a couple of hours. You might have to make more than one trip. Consider this time to be an investment. Choosing the right pack can save you from back and shoulder pain, it’s an investment in your happiness on the trail, and it’s also a financial investment. Choosing the perfect $300 pack, for example, is ultimately better for your wallet (and the environment) than choosing a cheaper $200 pack that you don’t love and ultimately end up replacing.
Don’t write off packs based on looks, unfamiliar features or materials, or other superficial details that won’t matter in the wilderness.
When shopping, it’s important to suspend your pre-conceived notions about certain brands, frame types, colors, and even the gender of the pack. Choosing the pack that fits regardless of what it looks like or what it’s called will ultimately serve you well in the long-term.
Get help sizing the pack to your body, then weight it and wander around in-store as long as you can.
Be sure to take the time to wander around the store with weights in the backpack so you can find potential pain points and learn how to fit the pack so that it’s most comfortable to you. Have a sales associate adjust the back panel, hip belt, and straps, and show you how to do it so that you can make adjustments on the trail as needed.
Don’t be shy in asking for help.
Gear shops want to set you up for the best possible experience out on the trail, so don’t hesitate to ask for a packing demo with gear on hand in the shop or to inquire about exchange policies if the pack you choose ultimately doesn’t work out after your initial test run—it’s always good to test new gear close to home before taking it out into the backcountry.
If you’re new to backpacking, ask about classes and demos the shop is holding, too. Many stores offer free events to customers to learn the basics of packing, camping, thru-hiking, and more.