SUGGESTIONS FOR BUYING A BACKPACK
A good pack is more important than most people realize, second only to what is on your feet. Choose your pack carefully and it will make your hikes much more pleasant. It will probably become your best friend, to the point that buying a new pack becomes almost a traumatic experience, and you may even feel bad about leaving your “best friend” at home when you start using your new pack (sob, my old daypack is on its last legs…).
How to go about making this important purchase? If you hike frequently, you already know what works for you. If you are buying your first pack (or your first “real” pack), please see the suggestions below, and talk to a knowledgeable salesperson in the store if you have any questions.
CAPACITY (SIZE): Think about the kind of hiking you plan to do with your pack. Summer day hikes? Winter overnights? Something in between?
Day packs: For day hikes, 25 liters (l.) / 1525 cubic inches(cu.in) is a good, flexible size. It may be a little big if you only do short summer hikes (20 l. / 1220 cu.in would be better) but for most people, this is a very good size for a daypack. If you plan to do long day hikes in the winter, rock climb or back country ski, you probably need something around 30-35 l. 1830-2135 cu.in. Be careful about buying a pack a lot larger than you really need, as there is a real temptation to fill it up with unnecessary gear. But don’t underbuy, either, an overloaded pack isn’t comfortable and you may blow out the zipper – remember you need room for a jacket, water, food and at least a minimum first aid kit, and other little things like camera, glasses, suncream, maps or nature books. If you buy a little big, you can always cinch the pack down with the compression straps (see below) on shorter, summer hikes.
Midsize / overnight packs: the upper end of daypacks (30-35 l.) will be fine if you plan to stay in hotels. Otherwise, you may need something 40 l / 2440cu.in or a little bigger, depending on what you will carry: sleeping bag? tent? climbing or skiing gear? cooking equipment?
Big packs: Over 60 l / 3660 cu in. These packs should be purchased with special care, as they are intended for longer, self-contained hikes, probably carrying sleeping and cooking gear.
FIT is important in packs, too! Packs are made differently and the distance between the shoulder straps and the hipbelt needs to be right for you – the hipbelt should fit over your hipbones when shoulder straps are adjusted to a comfortable tightness, without extra space between your shoulders and the straps (yes, you DO want a hipbelt, well padded if pack is mid to large size). This is especially important for smaller or short-waisted people -many packs seem to be made for big guys and don’t always fit the rest of us. Try on different packs and if you can, look at yourself sideways in a mirror to see how the pack rides on your body. Some larger packs have an adjustable back length – this is different from tightening the shoulder straps. Ask about this in the store to see if it is an option for you. The other thing to consider about fit is the placement of shoulder straps: people with narrow shoulders (especially women) should also see if pack straps seem to hit the middle of your shoulders. Women take note: if you can find a women’s pack for mid to large size packs, take a close look. These packs are usually much better for women than standard men’s packs, though at least here in Spain they are sometimes more expensive.
OVERALL DESIGN: There are two big basic divisions in pack design. The first is between top-loading and zipper closure. Both have advantages – a zipper makes it easier to get at your gear, but is a potential weak point in a pack, toploaders can be frustrating as what you want is ALWAYS at the bottom, but you can usually stuff a little more in – and never worry about blowing the zipper. The second big division is between long and narrow packs and different styles of short and wide packs – basic but not only types are squarish or “teardrop” (wider at the bottom than the top). These different styles ride differently on the body and one may be more comfortable than the others for you. Try different styles with some weight!! These design options are a personal choice, and you should try different styles and factor in other things before making your decision. Just one firm indication: if you go with a zipper pack, be SURE zipper is good quality!
PACK WEIGHT: INTERNAL STRUCTURE / MATERIAL: Most daypacks and mid-sized packs have very little if any internal frame. Though a frame does help distribute the load, it adds to the weight of the pack and may not offer a big enough advantage for lighter loads like you will probably carry in this size of backpack. Pack material also makes a difference in pack weight and durability, resistance to abrasion or tearing, etc. Compare empty weights of different packs, see how they feel with weight in them and think about how much and where you will use the pack. Big packs do have a frame, internal or external, and design varies. See what works for you.
TRY IT ON WITH SOMETHING IN IT! Once you have narrowed things down as to size and general design, try on different packs with some weight in them, walk around a little in the store. Jump up and down, wriggle and twist. Is the pack comfy? Does the pack sway or bounce or does it feel like part of your back?
BELLS AND WHISTLES: Pockets or not, auxiliary straps, color, there is an infinite variety out there! You probably shouldn’t decide on a pack based just on these features, but if you have to decide between two packs, the bells and whistles can definitely tip the balance one way or another. Again this is a very personal decision but there are some things you should think about: Side straps or compression straps, usually two on each side, running from back to front perpendicular to shoulder straps. These straps help cinch down a partly-empty pack, carry skis, hiking poles, a wet jacket, hydration system, garbage. Good to have!! Other straps: some newer or technical packs have specific straps for ice ax, hiking poles, shovel, etc: if well designed and useful for what you want or versatle enough for other uses, great. Inside pockets: if they are well designed, ok, but otherwise can limit pack load capacity. The exception: a flat pocket against inside of pack for keys, ID and wallet: definitely handy! Some midsize to large toploader packs have a division between main pack and smaller compartment at bottom, usually used for sleeping bag or other light gear; this compartment is usually accessible from the outside by a separate zipper and can also be accessed from top by a drawstring arrangement. This is a nice feature but can add to price of backpack. Outside pockets: nice to have in the hood of toploader packs, also on front of pack as long as you don’t use for heavy or valuable things. If pockets are on the side of pack, be sure they don’t interfere with your arm swing – you may need to put something in them to check this out in a store. Pack cover: Some packs now have an attached pack cover, usually in a velcro-closed pocket on the bottom: when it rains, just pull it over the pack and adjust the drawstring. (no your pack is NOT waterproof, at least not for its full lifetime.) This is a nice feature if you will be doing hiking in rainy months, otherwise it may not be worth the expense: line your pack with a double plastic bag to keep your things dry. Color: theoretically this should not be real important in your decision, but it often is, isn’t it? Visibility is something to think about if you will use the pack to hike in the mountains, but otherwise any color should be ok.
Sound confusing? It really isn’t, but this is an important decision, one of your major purchases for walking and hiking, so you should think about it seriously. Don’t buy the first thing you see and beware of overly-insistant salespeople! If possible, read the gear reviews published in outdoor magazines and talk to more experienced friends, especially if you are getting a mid to large size pack intended for serious use. A good pack makes a happy back makes happy hiking!