Friday, July 25, 2014

A Quick Guide To Backpacking Packs

Well, given that your pack is the literal namesake of backpacking, it is one of your most important pieces of gear. Ironically, however, a backpack is probably the very last piece of gear you want to acquire. Sure, you can reverse engineer your kit to suit your pack (and there might be benefit to doing so if the goal is to force yourself towards smaller or lighter gear.) The wiser method, however, it to get your gear in order and then find a pack that can handle the weight and volume of what you plan to carry. There are countless brands, types, and pack designs. Frankly, I am not nearly knowledgeable enough to cover them all (and this would be a 20,000 word post if I tried to even address half of today's most popular models.) Instead, I’ll offer a very general overview of pack considerations based on my experience and, more importantly, what I’ve learned from those with much more experience than myself. Let’s get to it…

Simple is Better
Admittedly, I’m biased towards simplicity as this site’s name would suggest. The advantage to a more simply designed pack, though, is that you have fewer things that can go wrong. I am a fan of a simple top-loading design rather than those with zippered compartments. My main pack does have a zipper that runs across the base of the pack, supposedly to allow access to one’s sleeping bag, but I absolutely never use it (it might be the only change I would make to an otherwise perfect pack for my needs.) There are many pack designs out there with multiple compartments, zippered pockets, and supposed organization systems. In my opinion, such designs only add weight, bulk, and more opportunities for mishaps. I like a pack with one big main compartment, a couple of stretch side pockets, and a stretch pouch on the front. I also like that my pack’s lid functions as another large pocket. For some, even these features might feel “overbuilt” and unnecessary. The main point is that I’d rather have control over organization within my pack using stuff sacks and/or smart packing rather than having a pack divided into arbitrary compartments by a manufacturer. I find the former method much more versatile and useful.

Size & Volume
A number of factors will determine the size and volume of your pack. Of course, your body is the first consideration. Most quality pack designs come in differing sizes according to your torso length. Many designs also allow for slight variations with a size to account for fine adjustment in torso length. (Here’s a guide to help you determine your torso length.) You want your pack to be supported by your hips, and pelvis. Your “pelvic crest” provides a natural shelf for a pack to rest upon so that your lower body and its larger, stronger muscles, can support the bulk of the load rather than your shoulders. Figure out your torso length and look at a pack's specs, especially if buying online. Sizes such as Small, Medium, Large and even gender are less important than the actual torso length. This will usually be between 15 and 22 inches for most adults.

The volume and weight of your gear is the next factor. If possible, bring all of your gear to a store or outfitter and see which packs hold your gear better than others. Don’t forget to account for food and water with respect to weight and volume. Unless you know you are planning to get into some serious ultralight, minimalist backpacking, you’re probably going to want to look at pack volumes starting around 40 liters at the least. I suspect for most backpackers, the range of 40 – 65 liters is a general sweet spot. Of course, many variables can change that. If you’re planning to backpack in sub zero temperatures for ten days, you’re going to need a much larger pack than those backpacking in mild weather for a weekend.

Frame vs, Frameless 
Load lifter for backpacking pack
I am not even going to address external frame packs. They are very much a dying breed. I won’t argue that some likely love them for good reason, but I’ve never used one and they account for a tiny, tiny fraction of today’s pack market. What is more relevant is whether to opt for a pack with some kind of internal frame or not. A very crude rule of thumb might say that if your loads are typically under 25 pounds, you can probably get away with a frameless pack of the most simple (and, therefore, lightweight design). Many frameless designs will incorporate a foam back panel (or even a sheet of plastic) to offer a bit of structure. If you expect to be above 25 pounds on most trips, I suggest finding something with a frame to keep your pack well supported and stable. Today’s pack frames can still be incredibly light and minimal. You’ll also probably want to look for a pack with load lifters, these are straps that attach from the top of your shoulder straps to the top of your pack. They allow you to pull your pack closer to your body and take weight off of your shoulders for more “in-line” support from your hips upward.

Water Bladder Pocket
bladder pocket for backpack
I love the convenience and carry capacity of a water bladder. Others hate them because they can be hard to clean and dry, and some feel they are vulnerable to puncture and other failures. If you know you like to carry a bladder, be sure to find a design that incorporates some way to attach a bladder. Most will provide some sort of pocket or compartment for bladders. For the record, I’ve tried “improvised” methods to attach a bladder to packs that weren’t designed to handle them (simple day packs, in my defense), and the results were always lackluster at best.

Attachment Points
Most packs will come with some variation of attachment points so that you can strap items to the outside of your pack. These might include “daisy chain” webbing, dedicated ice axe loops, trekking pole holders, and sleeping pad straps. Pay attention to whether you need these options. Some of these might just be annoying, in the way, and adding unneeded weight if you don’t need them. If you know you’re going to be using trekking poles and a big foam sleeping pad, however, you might be very glad to have a well-designed method to attach them.

As promised, this post is nothing more than a simple overview to get you headed in the right direction for pack choices. The best thing you can do is find a reputable outdoor gear dealer and go try on some packs. If possible, bring your gear with you, too, and load up the packs you’re interested in. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions and solicit advice from employees. When I purchased my first “serious” pack from REI, the employee showed me some tips on packing more efficiently that I use to this day and might never have discovered on my own.

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