According to conventional wisdom, you should only decide on what backpack you will carry after having chosen the gear with which you intend to fill it. Something about not putting the cart before the horse. The problem with this rationale is that it disregards human nature. Say again?
It goes something like this. If your average hiker buys a huge backpack, say 80 litres, chances are they will find ways to fill it. An extra shirt here, an extra jacket there……….don’t want to see all that space go to waste! On the other hand, if you start out by buying a smaller pack, you will have no choice but to pare down your gear list from the outset. The focus will immediately be on necessities, rather than superfluous luxuries.
EXTERNAL FRAME PACKS
These bad boys have pretty much gone the way of the dodo. Nonetheless, you occasionally still see the odd retro hiker lugging one around. Good luck to them; at the very least they make for a good conversation starter with other backpackers (i.e. “What are you carrying that for?”).
- Pro’s: Cheaper than internal frame models; great ventilation; good for carrying heavy loads on nice, even trails.
- Con’s: Heavy; not as stable in off-trail conditions; larger profile means it’s tougher to squeeze through tight gaps; the frame is prone to damage if traveling by public transport.
- Unless you have a thing for antiques, I wouldn’t recommend external frame packs…….too many limitations.
INTERNAL FRAME PACKS
What most backpackers carry. Many different designs, but basically they all have their suspension system incorporated within the main body of the pack.
- Pro’s: A closer fit means more stability when traversing uneven or rugged terrain; usually have thicker, more comfortable shoulder straps than frameless models; greater inner storage space means you have less strapped to the outside of your pack, thus less chance of snagging gear on branches, bushes etc.
- Con’s: No ventilation between hiker’s back and pack; fancier, larger models tend to be on the expensive side; heavier than frameless packs.
- Large capacity (ie. packs that weigh over 2 kg/4.4 lbs) internal frame packs can be deceptive. When you try one on in your local camping store, filled to the brim with 15 kg/33lbs of tents and sleeping bags, you may think to yourself, “Wow, this feels incredibly comfortable.” Don’t be fooled. After a long day on the trail, I guarantee you that fifteen kilos will feel heavy no matter what you are carrying it in. Save your money, cut down your base weight (see Going Light) and invest in a smaller, lighter pack.
Basically a sack with shoulder straps. Most models have side pockets, but not all have compression straps and hipbelts. Personally speaking I like to have both, as they provide a superior level of comfort and stability over a wider range of pack weights.
- Pro’s: Simple; lightweight; ideal for smaller loads; inexpensive.
- Con’s: Minimum support if packed indiscriminately; uncomfortable if carrying heavy loads for extended periods.
- Weigh less than 0.7 kg (1.54 lbs).
- An unrolled or folded sleeping mat can provide a makeshift frame sheet.
- Well constructed frameless models are fine to carry heavier loads for shorter periods (e.g. the first couple of days of a long stretch without resupply), however will breakdown if constantly overloaded.
- I don’t recommend frameless packs made of silnylon, spinnaker or cuben fiber. These waterproof fabrics are ideal for lightweight shelters, but are not durable enough for extended use as backpacks.
For loads under 12 kg (26.5 lbs), my preference is a frameless pack. The reasons are as follows:
- Simplicity: Frameless packs generally have simpler designs. Less zippers, less compartments, less straps, less that can break, rip or go wrong.
- Fit: With frameless packs it is the load itself which provides the structure. With a foam mat acting as a makeshift frame sheet, ideally a frameless pack should mould to the contours of your back. In order for that to happen, particular attention must be paid to the manner in which your pack is filled (see below). A heavy load packed indiscriminately into a frameless model, will be a lot more uncomfortable than it would be in a more forgiving internal or external frame backpack.
- Weight: Frameless packs are lighter, but not at the cost of durability. The one caveat to this point is if you consistently overload them, in which case they will eventually breakdown as a result of excessive strain.
- Cost: As an added bonus, frameless packs are cheaper!
FAQ’S About Backpacks
HOW MUCH CAPACITY DO I NEED?
- Heavy backpacks are designed to carry heavy loads.
- Packs sporting a high tech suspension system, metal stays, a thickly padded hipbelt and a 80-90 litre capacity generally weigh in the vicinity of 2.5 to 3.5 kg (5.5 to 7.7 lbs). That’s a lot of weight. I carried one of these puppies for many years. My knees hurt just thinking about it.
- Unless you are planning a career as a high altitude porter, carrying gear for a family of four or heading off into the wilds for a three week trip with no resupply, then such heavy packs are overkill. There is simply no need to have a pack this heavy.
- If you have a moderately light base weight of around 8 kg / 17.6 lbs (very achievable for most backpackers), than a pack with a 65-70 litre capacity should be sufficient. If filled correctly, this will provide enough space for essential equipment plus at least four or five days food.
WHAT IS THE BEST WAY OF FILLING MY PACK?
- If you are using a frameless pack, begin by inserting your foam mat into your backpack (either in cylinder form or flat against the back).
- Waterproof your pack by lining it with a garbage bag.
- Bottom: I place my bivy sack and clothing items (e.g. extra socks, rain pants, thermal underwear) I will not need during the day at the bottom of the pack. Such items are generally not excessively heavy, but their bulk provides a base upon which you can put weightier items such as food and water.
- Middle: Heavier items such as food, shelter and water (if you happen to be carrying more than a couple of litres) should be packed close to your back in the medium to upper regions of your pack. This holds true no matter what the weight of your pack. Lighter items such as clothes and/or sleeping bag should be utilized to fill the outer sections. This method has the dual benefits of keeping the pack’s centre of gravity close to your back, as well as helping to maintain the long term loft of your sleeping bag (i.e. By not compressing it in a stuff sack and/or putting it at the bottom of your bag where the weight of the other items is constantly compressing it).
- Top: At the top of your pack, put your snacks, wind shirt and any other items you think you may need during the day.
DO I NEED A PACK COVER?
- In a word, no. Pack covers have a tendency to get caught on branches and can sag in wet weather if not properly sized for your pack. Instead of a pack cover, try lining the inside of your backpack with a trash compactor bag. It’s lighter, more affordable and does exactly the same job. The only time I will cover the outside of my pack is if I am wearing a poncho tarp.
Irrespective of which backpack model you choose, the durability of your pack is to a large extent contingent upon how you care for it. I’m not suggesting mollycoddling; just basic common sense precautions. Tips for improving the longevity of your backpack include:
- Don’t regularly overload it.
- Establish the habit of alternating which side you put on and take off your backpack. By doing this, you avoid putting excessive strain on either the left or right shoulder strap.
- No matter how weary you may be, try not to ‘drop’ or ‘plop’ your pack down on abrasives surfaces.
- If hiking off-trail in overgrown terrain, try to put any items that are stored in external pockets inside the backpack. Overstuffed pockets can take a beating when bushwhacking.
- Don’t pack sharp items directly against the sides of your pack.
DOES SIZE MATTER?
- Horses for Courses: When choosing your backpack, it’s important to take into consideration your body type and back length. To paraphrase accomplished long distance hiker, Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva: ‘Hikers with a wiry frame and longer-type torso are suited to narrower, slender shaped backpacks; whilst those of us with bulkier and a more stout frames are better suited to wider packs’.
- Stuck in the middle: It is not uncommon for a hiker to be “in between” sizes. In this situation, if I am buying a pair of shoes I will size up; if I am purchasing a backpack I will size down. The reason being, I prefer the pack to ride higher, rather than lower on my hips. This particularly holds true during lengthy descents carrying a heavyish load, when the last thing I want is an overly long backpack pushing into my coccyx.
- Compartments: Useful for travel packs, not so great for hiking purposes. The more zippers and seams your pack has the more likely it is to leak in heavy rain.
- Side Pockets: Handy for water bottles, maps, gloves, beanie, etc.
- Compression Straps: Over the course of a multi-day backpacking trip, the volume and weight of your pack’s consumable items (e.g. food & fuel) will decrease significantly. That being the case, compression straps are useful for keeping your pack’s centre of gravity closer to your back once your pack begins to empty.
- Extension Collar: I am not a fan of big extension collars. If your pack always seems to be towering over your head then chances are you need a bigger pack. The problems with “maxing” out a large extension collar are as follows: 1. They limit freedom of head movement and place undue strain on the neck; 2. Impede balance when traversing uneven or overgrown terrain, and; 3. The top-heavy nature of the load results in the hiker leaning unnaturally forward, which in turn places extra pressure on the lower back.
- Mark Verber’s Recommended Outdoor Gear has a comprehensive overview of anything and everything pertaining to backpacks. This guy definitely knows his outdoor gear. Highly recommended reading.