Recent years have provided backpackers with tons of options when it comes to the pack on your back. Second in importance only to the footwear you have selected, a pack is what gets your gear from camp to camp.
A good pack should be durable, lightweight (but made to carry the intended load) and comfortable on your back. As I mentioned earlier, you probably only need one pack to start so you should look for something large enough for long treks but small enough for a quick weekend getaway. If you find that you enjoy backpacking as much as I hope you do, you may decide to purchase specialized packs in the future depending on the type of trip you are planning.
Choosing the perfect pack
With so many choices available it may seem like a daunting task to choose just one pack that can meet your backpacking needs in the foreseeable future. Yes, there are lots of choices but for our purposes, they all fall into two categories: ultralight frameless packs and lightweight internal frame packs.
Gone are the days of the external frame pack. You’ve probably seen them before — a large metal frame with a fabric pack attached. Although there are still a few companies that make these packs, it’s not the type of design best-suited for getting into backpacking.
An ultralight frameless pack is just what the name implies. They are relatively small and typically designed for loads no greater than 20 pounds. They have no frame (although some may have a frame sheet for added support) and often have no hip belt or padding. Ultralight packs are very popular with minimalist backpackers who enjoy traveling through the wilderness with as small a load as possible.
While these packs are usually inexpensive and a good choice for quick two day trips, the small size and limited features make them difficult to use for longer trips where more gear is required.
Lightweight internal frame packs are relatively new in the backpacking scene but have quickly been adopted by most backpackers. These packs come in a variety of sizes ranging from 2,500 – 5,000 cubic inches (40 – 82 liters) and can carry loads up to 45 pounds. The internal frame is usually nothing more than two metal strips that run through the pack and a frame sheet (usually made from plastic) to provide additional rigidity and balance.
Most lightweight packs are padded and usually come equipped with a hip belt which can move up to 90% of the weight off your shoulders. Never underestimate the power of a well-designed hip belt when shopping for a lightweight pack.
This is the category of pack best suited for the novice. In fact, I use a lightweight pack for just about every trip I take and always seem to have enough room to carry what I need. Look for something with at least 3,500 cubic inches of space if you plan to take longer trips. I use a 4,200 cubic inch pack that weighs approximately four pounds. Although it is certainly overkill for an overnighter, it has enough space to carry two weeks worth of gear and supplies when needed. For this reason, it is definitely the most versatile pack I own.
Just as it is important to ensure your footwear fits properly, it’s important to select a pack that fits you well. If you go for an ultralight pack this isn’t as much of a concern, but the lightweight internal frame pack is designed for a specific torso size.
Unlike footwear, however, the difference between manufacturer sizes isn’t much so it’s likely that a specific size pack from one brand should be very similar to the same size from a different brand. I mention this in case you decide to purchase your pack online but choose to try a few on at the local store first.
A good pack isn’t cheap so it helps to look for clearance items (like last year’s model). Often you can get 50% off retail if you don’t mind shopping around a little bit.
To find the right size pack for you, measure from the seventh cervical vertebrae (near the base of the neck) to the iliac crest (upper hipbone area). Although you can do this yourself, it is much easier to have someone help you. In a retail setting, the staff can assist you with properly taking this measurement to ensure the best fit.
You must make sure the hip belt fits properly too. Our shoulders are not designed to carry large amounts of weight directly. The hip belt moves most of the weight away from the shoulders assuming it fits correctly.
Also, when trying on packs make sure they are loaded with at least 20 pounds of gear. An empty pack always feels like it fits and is a poor indicator of how the pack will feel when loaded down. Most outdoor shops will fill the pack for you so you can ensure it fits when loaded. I’ve even known some backpackers who bring their own gear in when shopping for a new pack to make sure the gear fits and the pack is comfortable.
Once you’ve decided on an appropriate pack, you need to make sure it is packed properly. This is something you will do every day when breaking camp so you might as well start practicing now.
The goal is to keep heavy items close to your back to maintain your center of gravity while walking. Most internal frame packs have a compartment on the very bottom designed for the sleeping bag. This keeps the bag protected and close to your body.
Before filling the main compartment, many people choose to put in a pack liner which could be as simple as a large plastic trash bag. By placing items inside the liner, they are reasonably protected from rain or an unexpected dip in the creek while crossing.
Start adding gear to the main compartment remembering to keep heavy items close to your pack and balanced from side to side to ensure an even load on the trail. Few things are more aggravating than walking miles with a lopsided pack.
Everything should fit in the pack with the exception of a few items you need easy access to such as a camera (mine goes in one of the hip belt pockets) or items that are too bulky to fit inside (such as a closed cell foam sleeping pad). Sleeping pads can be rolled tightly and lashed underneath the lid of the pack or if you use an inflatable pad, it can be stuffed in the main pack compartment with everything else (deflated and neatly folded of course).
While packing, also keep in mind when each item is to be used. The tent, for instance, should be near the top so you can quickly make camp in the evening. Insect repellent, sun screen and first aid items could be needed at any time so they should be relatively close to the top for easy access as well. Many packs have small outside pockets perfect for carrying these items.
Accessories to consider
When it comes to carrying your gear, there are a couple of accessories you should consider that make protecting gear much easier. I already mentioned using a plastic trash bag as a pack liner, but a better solution is to use waterproof stuff sacks. Relatively inexpensive and lightweight, stuff sacks keep gear separated while protecting them from water.
This is especially important if you have rain gear or a wet tent fly you want to keep separate from dry gear in the pack. Carrying a couple of different sacks is a great way to keep your pack organized while protecting expensive items from water damage.
Some backpackers also use waterproof pack covers. Many newer packs actually come with these integrated into the lid of the pack. They are designed to cover everything and work well. The only problem with these is that they must be removed to access the pack – potentially allowing water to get into the pack as well.
Ideally, a quality’ pack cover and waterproof stuff sacks should be used to separate gear and protect it from the elements.