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Selecting the right Backpack
Written by Rita Liotta

A good backpack can make or break your outdoor adventures. Before purchasing one for use on your next expedition, here’s some information a backpacker should consider:

• Primary use
• Size
• Type of frame
• Pack design
• Construction and materials
• Fitting a backpack
• Weight
• Cost
• Consumer reviews

Primary use of your pack: Day trip, overnight hike, long trek

Take a few minutes to think about the main ways you will be using the pack. Also, consider frequency of use. A pack you plan to use infrequently need not be as durable as one you’ll use every day. If you’re going overland on an extended hiking and camping adventure, your choice of pack is more critical than if you’re just toting books around campus. In this article, we’ll focus on high-use packs and discuss some of the features you should look for in lightweight, quality backpacks.

Size does matter: Choose it carefully

Lay out all the outdoor gear and supplies you’re planning to carry in the pack on a flat surface like a large table or a bed. You’ll be surprised at how much there is! Especially if you need to carry your food, shelter and other equipment along with you in the pack. Choose a large pack in this case. A large pack is generally rated at 4000 cubic inches or more. Planning just a short jaunt to the backcountry? A daypack of 1000-2000 cubic inches might be just right to carry your gear, lunch, water bottle and an energy bar or two. For campground-type camping, a medium-sized pack will work well for your clothes and personal care items. These packs have a capacity of 2000-4000 cubic inches and will work well if you transport your tent and food separately – in a car or canoe, for example. Regardless of size, the pack should have a waist belt and contoured, padded shoulder straps. The waist belt allows the weight of the pack to be evenly distributed.

Frame design: Two major types

If your adventure will take you away from home for more than a day, you should choose a pack with a frame. Frames are either internal or external. While both types lend support to the pack, there are important differences.

Internal frame packs have the following features:

• Pack support system is internally integrated into the pack design.
• Frame is designed to transfer a substantial portion of the weight to the hips, which are stronger for load bearing than the shoulders.
• Internal frame stays are usually made of aluminum or carbon fiber.
• Internal frame stays should be contoured to match your spine’s curvature.
• Internal frame stays run from the top of the pack down to the hip belt and help to stabilize the pack as well as distribute weight to the hips.
• If you choose a pack with a framesheet, remember that framesheets have little effect on weight distribution. However, framesheets do improve back shaping compared to stays which allow the back panel to round out.
• Internal frames are designed to have a low profile that fits the curves of the body. For that reason, they give the pack better balance.

External frame packs have the following features:

• External frames are often are quite slim from the side and therefore get the load closer to the back. .
• External-framed backpacks are generally less complex in design than internal packs
• The support system is outside the pack – the pack attaches to the frame.
• The frame is generally made of tubular aluminum and is stiffer than an internal frame.
• External frames distribute weight and stabilize loads similar to internal frames.
• Frame members are not curved to body contours. This allows an airspace between the pack and the body that’s more comfortable in hot or humid weather.
• Less expensive than internal frame packs.

Which to choose? Internal or external frame

• An internal frame pack generally fits better. This means you will stay balanced because the load moves when you move and doesn’t sway or shift. Many people who use packs in light to medium applications value the comfort, versatility and balance of an internal frame pack. More people buy internals than externals.
• External frame packs cost less and are often purchased by beginners. External frame packs are better for carrying extra-heavy loads because they shift the pack’s weight to the appropriate areas of the body where large bones and muscles can manage the load more efficiently. External frames act as extensions of bones and muscles although you may have problems with the pack’s balance.

Pack design: Features to look for

• Customizable harness sizing and shaping to allow a precision fit.
• Ease of removing and shaping frames to match back shape.
• Harness movement systems to allow free body movement, greater agility, stability and balance.

Pack materials and construction: Fabrics and features to look for

Nylon is the material of choice for pack construction. There are several types of nylon used in packs including:

• Nylon packcloth is a water repellant fabric that is pliable and easy to sew. Nylon packcloth has a urethane coating.
• Ballistic nylon was developed for bullet-resistant vests and military flak jackets. Ballistic nylon provides a smooth, bright, high-quality look and feel for luggage, packs and bags.
• Cordura nylon has a natural, spun-like appearance and texture. Easily cleaned and quick drying, it is not affected by rot or mildew and has excellent strength and abrasion resistance.
• Ripstop nylon is woven with a ripstop grid and coated with urethane water repellant finish.

Be sure to choose pack that is treated to be water-repellent or –resistant. If your pack isn’t water repellent, consider purchasing a water-repellent cover for it. Look for packs that have waterproof inner liners with taped seams. Seams can also be heat-welded to make them waterproof. Look for reinforced stitching at stress points, such as where straps are attached. Zippers should be reinforced. Pockets and loops should be bar tacked. Webbing should also be reinforced. In places where the pack is subject to abrasion, such as the bottom, the pack should have an extra layer or two of abrasion-resistant material such as Kevlar. The back of the pack should curve like the stays of the internal frame and should use materials that are breathable and that wick perspiration away from the body.

Fitting a backpack

It’s important to choose a backpack that fits properly. To do this you have to know a couple of your body measurements: torso length and hip measurement. To measure your torso, have a friend use a flexible tape measure to determine the distance between the bony bump at the back of your neck to the tops of your hips (where you can feel the bony protrusions in the front of your body, near your pelvis.) Armed with this number you can select a small, medium or large frame backpack.

• Up to 17.5 inches – small
• 17.5 – 19 inches – medium
• More than 20 inches – large

You should also measure around your hips so to be sure the hip belt of the pack will properly fit. A properly positioned hip belt will straddle your about an inch above and below the bony hip protrusions mentioned above.

Pack weight: Light or heavy

• Choose light weight if you are optimizing all your equipment for low weight.
• Choose heavy weight if you don’t mind carrying heavy loads and heavy gear. Also, choose heavy weight if you hike in rough terrain and bush.

Pack cost: You get what you pay for

The conventional wisdom is to buy the best pack you can afford. A flimsy or uncomfortable pack can make your backpacking or hiking trip a disaster. Like shoes or other hiking equipment, backpacks and backpacking equipment are critical pieces of hiking gear. Consider it an investment: this is no place to cheap out. $500 spent on a top-end pack for long treks outdoors will repay you with years of comfort and utility. Don’t underestimate its value.

Conclusion: Purchasing a backpack

Primary use, size, frame type, design, features, construction, materials, fit, weight, cost and consumer reviews are important components in your decision to purchase a backpack. Whether you’re hiking, biking or mountaineering, your pack should enhance your outdoor experience and enjoyment. A carefully-considered decision when buying a backpack can go a long way toward making your outdoor adventures the best that they can be.

About the Author:
Rita Liotta is a successful freelance writer offering guidance and suggestions for consumers regarding backpacks, binoculars, hiking boots and sleeping bags. Her many articles give information and tips to help people save money and make smarter decisions.