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How to Pick a Hiking Backpack

The hiking pack is probably my favorite piece of gear.  There is something about carrying all you need to live and survive on your back that appeals to me.  That is the problem though, you are carrying all that on your back.

Sure you might have packed as light as possible, and sure you might be strong, but none of that is going to help much on an eight day hike with a poorly fitted and selected pack.  Unless you are carrying nothing except a knife and matches (which, kudos to you if you can survive for a week like that) you need to know how to pick a pack that will save your back.  Trust me on this, back pain in the woods is no fun at all.

Step 1: Pick the right size.  When I first got into hiking I wanted the largest pack I could find.  I think this was because I loved the idea of carrying all these cool gadgets on long solo hikes.  Thankfully, after some research, I didn’t get a 90 liter pack.  My first pack was actually a 70 liter (which some would say is very large) and I think that is a good size for up to week long hikes.  For shorter hikes I use a 45 liter pack and for day hikes just a small 15 liter bag.

I think 60 liters is a good size unless you’re willing to go ultralight.  Any larger and not only will the pack weigh more but it will cost more and having all that space will offer a temptation to fill it with useless stuff.  60 liters also generally has the largest selection of packs available.

Step 2: Pick the right brand.  Most reputable outdoor stores will only carry quality brands of equal durability and utility.  The difference comes in three areas: fit, cost, and gimmicks.  Cost does not equal a better pack.  My pack was a hundred and twenty bucks and it is the best pack I’ve ever owned.  It fits perfectly, it’s durable, has the right amount of features and is the right size.

Try different brands while you’re at the store and find what is the most comfortable for you.  Be sure you add weight while trying the pack on.  Look at the gadgets, are they going to be useful (like areas to clip gear) or fail points (like plastic rotating hip belts that can break)?

Step 3: Properly fit the pack.  Once again the staff at the store should be able to help with this but here are the basics.  You want the weight to be on your hips not your shoulders.  The right pack size will fit the length of you back (from the major vertebra in your neck to the top of your hips) so be sure to choose short, regular or long depending on that.

Put on the pack and clip the hip belt, snug the shoulder straps and be sure they don’t touch your neck and the strap ends aren’t touching your armpits.  Now adjust the top stabilizer strap so that it’s comfortable and clip the sternum strap.  See how it all lines up and adjust accordingly if possible.  There is usually a way to raise or lower the height of the hip and shoulder straps.

Step 4: Pay attention to ‘hotspots’.  It will be hard to tell by wearing a pack for a few minutes but be aware of where the weight is resting and try to think if that will be comfortable in an hour.  How about three? Or six?  This will be hard to get right so make sure that before buying a pack you check the return policy with the store, this is where the final step comes in.

Step 5: Test hike time.  Load the pack up with weight (or with your gear to make sure everything fits) and go for a walk.  Wear the boots you plan on wearing for the hike and spend three hours walking with the pack.  Try to do this on terrain that is close to what you’ll be hiking on.  Pay attention to any pain points, rubbing or other potentially uncomfortable areas.  Be careful with the pack because you might have to return it.

Conclusion

Picking a hiking pack is not the most difficult thing but takes time to do right.  There is no reason why a good pack should not last your whole life (barring an accident of some sort).  Once you have your pack take care of it.  Store it with all the clips closed (clipped) to prevent one breaking and keep it away from moisture when storing.  You should also consider spending a few extra bucks and getting a pack cover to keep your gear dry on wet hikes.