On a hike, your pack is an extension of yourself. You are essentially carrying everything you need to survive on your back; your home, your food and comforts. Your pack has a big load to carry; literally and figuratively. Don’t you think it’s important to put some serious thought and consideration into what pack suits you and your needs best? In addition to being comfortable, it needs to be functional; but this can mean different things to different people.
There are several helpful articles online that cover sizing and fit, but be sure to go to your local gear shop and have a professional size you correctly for a pack. Second to getting the right size, is the importance of a pack’s special features. For me, these details are what make (or break) a pack. Most people looking to buy a new pack get bogged down (or completely overlook) these special features and make a decision without realizing their importance. For those of you looking to purchase your first pack, I’ll share a bit of tried and true insight to help you pick your perfect pack.
A quick word about pack capacity:
There are many schools of thought on choosing a pack capacity; loosely based on how many days out or type of adventure you plan to undertake. In my experience, the MORE important point to consider when determining what pack capacity you need is: How much does my stuff weigh? AND, how bulky is my gear?
To determine the capacity of your pack, consider the weight/size of the gear you are going to put in it. If you have heavy, bulky gear, it’s obviously going to take up a ton of space in your pack, warranting a larger capacity with better support to carry the load. If you have made the investment for lighter, more compressible gear (and you leave the luxury items at home) you can get away with a smaller capacity pack. Consider something in the 45-55L range if you are just starting out with light, non-bulky gear. Compression sacks for sleeping bags are also a MUST OWN.
The biggest mistake I see people make when selecting their first pack…is thinking they need to buy the biggest pack in the store. Unless you are doing arctic/winter or an extreme backcountry expedition, you likely won’t need pack with 70+ L Capacity. Chances are higher that you will end up filling it with things you don’t need. People often forget that the amount of gear you need for a week trip is pretty much the same for an overnight with the exception of food and fuel.
A word on comfort:
Another important thing to consider is the weight of the load you will be carrying. I recommend weighing all of the gear (yes, EVERYTHING) you plan to take to get an idea of what you are working with.
Although frameless packs are significantly lighter and may seem like a great option, if you plan to haul a heavy load or push the manufacturer’s recommended “comfort” limit of the pack, you are going to feel it. As a personal preference, I like the support an internal frame and hip belt provides me for the few added ounces. For beginner backpackers, I would recommend starting with a framed pack until you get used to hiking with the weight of a pack.
Pay careful attention to the recommended weight “comfort levels” listed for most packs. Some packs may be able to hold 40L but will be incredibly uncomfortable with anything more than 20 pounds in it. Reading reviews is the best way to find out how people really felt about that pack’s performance. If you are just starting out, it may make sense to buy 2nd hand, do a gear swap or borrow from a friend. It may take a few trips to find what you like and what’s comfortable.
Most importantly ! What features do I want my pack to have?:
Heres the down low on some of a pack’s “special” features
Easy access to outside/ compartments: I want a large pocket (I only need one… NOT five) on the outside of the pack where I can store the items I’ll need handy for the day (hat, gloves, rain gear, extra pair of socks or a snack) so I won’t have to enter the body of my pack. Bonus if it’s stretchy.
Ventilation; its gotta breathe: I prefer a suspended, mesh panel back vs a flush, padded back, because I sweat a lot when I’m hiking. I like the air flow a well ventilated back provides, especially on summer hikes. The more rigid design of the stretched mesh over the pack frame keeps me from getting hot spots where a pack tends to rub over time.
The perfect hip belt is a personal preference: This is the most important feature for me. Since the pack forces most of its weight on the hips to carry the load, I prefer a snug, rigid hip belt that stays in place. People who have protruding hip bones (not me!) may appreciate a well padded, less rigid hip belt. DO NOT leave the store without loading up the pack with the amount of weight you think you’ll carry on a regular basis (likely 35-40 pounds for a beginner hikers) to see how the pack sits and feels when it’s fully loaded.
Another important feature is having hip belt pockets. The perfect spot for hand sanitizer, chapstick, or sunscreen; anything you want at the ready without having to remove your pack. Stretchy elastic hip pockets are even better.
What do you plan to attach to the outside of your bag?: These are key for clipping on extra gear to the outside of your pack that you don’t have room for inside. Its also useful for hanging things to dry on your pack while you hike! Some bags also have straps for poles or ice axes. I almost NEVER use those but I LOVE straps at the bottom of my pack to strap on my bulky items like a tent, chair or extra foam mat.
Will you be using a Hydration Bladder?: Do you plan on using a bladder system for water and want a space for it in your pack? Some people love them… I personally find them cumbersome and inconvenient. Having to open up my pack and shift my gear to remove the bladder to refill it and then try to shove back in a full pack is the world’s biggest pain. I would use a regular old water bottle any day. If you think you prefer this system, look for packs that have the bladder sleeve on the outside of the pack.
Sleeping bag compartments are pointless (IMHO): Considering that you will end up pulling everything out of your pack at night to set up camp, a sleeping bag compartment seems unnecessary and is more added fabric and weight. I usually end up cutting this extra fabric out because it gets in the way. Bottom line, don’t put things you need during the day in the body of your pack so you dont have to go in and out of it. See my first comment about a handy external pocket.
Removable lid or day pack: I’ve seen a lot of people with packs that have a pop off top that can be used as a fanny pack or a removable day pack. Consider if this is an important feature to you for the type of trips you want to do. I find that my empty, full-sized pack is pretty light and serves as a perfectly useful day pack if I take side trips while I’m backpacking. This is therefore not an important feature to me.
To use a pack cover or not: How will I keep my gear dry? Truthfully, No bag is “waterproof” and despite what is advertised, neither are pack covers. Eventually they will all wet out. I’ve not found any pack cover too efficient at keeping the wet off in a bad rain storm, while be super efficient at catching the wind and trees and ripping in half. What I find more effective is lining the inside of my pack with a heavy-duty trash bag (I also use a waterproof compression sack for my sleeping bag).
Elastic side pockets for water bottles: No water bottle pocket is made alike. Though it seems like a trivial thing, it’s a critical one for me. I want a STRETCHY water bottle pocket on the side of the pack that has a top AND side access point. The benefit of side access is that you can reach back and pull the water bottle out of the slot. Unless you have super flexible twisty long arms, its hard to reach and pull out your water bottle from a top loading pocket; requiring that you ask a friend for help, or take off your pack. It’s these little things that make all the difference on the trail, especially while hiking solo.
A Hidden pocket: I prefer to have a secret pocket on the inside of the top lid. This is a pocket where I put special things that I don’t want to access for most of the trip or that I don’t want to misplace when I’m pulling gear out of my pack. (For example: My ID, money, car keys).
Your pack will be an individual preference and may change as your hiking style changes. Over time you will get a feel for what works for you and what totally doesn’t. I’m often asked what packs I recommend to others. This is a tough answer because a pack is such a personal thing. I do recommend the Osprey brand of packs which have been my personal favorite. I’ve had lots of great feedback from people whom I’ve recommended them to. I like that Osprey has light weight options without sacrificing support and comfort. I’ve put my osprey packs through a lot and they are still holding up great. I also love their stretchy pockets.
Completely clueless, I bought my first pack because I was “told” it was the size I needed for a 3 day trek I was planning and I liked the color. It wasn’t long before I swapped it out for a smaller, more practical light weight pack. Don’t fall victim to these mistakes! Do your research, read reviews and try on everything. A pack is an expensive investment so it must be COMFORTABLE and PRACTICAL for what you intend to use it for.