Why Your Backpack Sucks

Don't let the title of this blog post fool you.  You're backpack probably doesn't suck, but I bet that if you've never taken the time to learn about proper fit or packing technique, it probably performs pretty badly.  Sure, some backpacks actually do suck, however I believe the majority of issues people run into with regard to the pack pain is due in part to user error. 

Let me explain...

When this picture was taken, my pack was full of gear for two people.  Two sleeping bags, two sleeping mats, 7 liters of water, and food for two.  While not crazy heavy, it was certainly not light.  This is where proper load distribution comes in handy.  Pictured here is an Exo Mountain Gear 3500.  Photo by Chris Murray.

 

Not only have I personally experienced the benefits of proper fit and load distribution, I've also helped and witnessed friends of mine go from "I hate this" type statements, to "dude…this is way better!"  Until a couple of years ago, I accepted that when you strap on a backpack, it's going to be uncomfortable, possibly painful, and straight up miserable at times.  From the first time I threw on an ALICE pack in the Marines to my random hunting adventures, packs were a burden.  What I've come to learn since then is that you can drastically improve your overall comfort by simply having the proper fit and appropriate distribution of your load. 

 

Proper Fit:

I loved this Mystery Ranch pack and have nothing but great things to say about the brand, but for me it just wasn't comfortable.  I've since found a pack that I find suits my body type and am much happier.  Though...I do miss this pack.  Photo by Ray Culbertson

Believe it or not, there is no such thing as "one size fits all" when it comes to backpacking backpacks.  It's for this reason alone that I've come to grind my teeth at outdoor stores who load up their walls with backpacks of all shapes and sizes just to make the store look cool.  What typically ends up happening with this retail model is that the rookie backpacker who has no idea what their looking for and who is too shy to talk to anyone, walks in the store and picks out a pack based on the color, the size of the bag, and the number of zippers or straps it has.  I know this happens because this was me not too long ago.  Zippers obviously mean better organization and a bigger bag meant I could haul more stuff (no, no, no)!  The only thought I put towards proper fit was whether or not I liked how the shoulder straps felt which I would test out by putting the empty pack on my back in the store and eagerly giving it a thumbs up. 

 

I'm sad to admit this to you, but for the sake of being real, that was how I chose my backpacks up until the last couple of years.  So what's wrong with this?  EVERYTHING!  Yes, color plays a part in what we like and don't like, but color has no bearing on how a pack functions…even if it's camoflage.  Today, I'd be willing to wear a bright pink zebra print pack if it meant it fit me properly.  I'd wear that thing loud and proud knowing that I was the most comfortable hiker on the trail!  If you're new to backpacking or hunting and are searching for a backpack, be it a load hauler for animal quarters or just your average 30-50 lbs weekend load out, have your first priority be proper fit. 

 

Let's keep it simple by listing 3 common suspension types you will run into in the wide world of backpacks;

 

  1. Adjustable Suspensions

    1. This means the shoulder straps and waist belt can become longer or shorter depending on user requirements.
    2. These can come in one size or in Small, Medium, and Large (torso length).
  2. Fixed Suspensions
    1. Think of this like you're typical school bag.  The shoulder straps are in a fixed position so they either fit, or they don't.  This is great if you're a perfect fit for the bag, but not so great if you're not.
    2. These packs also come in small, medium, and large (torso length).
    3. Designs like these happen to be really light so you'll see a lot of long distance hikers rolling down the trail with these because they can weigh as little as 2 lbs.
  3. Custom fit Suspensions
    1. Imagine a world in which the suspension is separate from the bag so that the bag remains the same, but the shoulder straps and waist belt are swapped out in order to attain a perfect fit.
    2. Where this comes in handy is when you have a long torso and a skinny waist or a large waist but a short torso.  With the previous two suspension types listed above, you might fit best in a large sized torso but because you can't swap out the waist belt, you are left with a large, sloppy, belt that won't hold the load right.  On the flip side, maybe you need a larger waist belt that comes with a medium or large suspension.  The problem now is that you'll find the suspension is too tall because you're shorter than what it's built for.   Neither of those situations are good.  The custom, interchangeable suspension fixes this issue!  
    3. These packs come in handy when you want a custom fit (which you do) and you're willing to shop around for the right pack that you won't hate when you're 6 miles deep.

 

So there you go, that's a basic rundown of backpacks and their fit.  It can be more complicated than that, but for now, just go with it and we can discuss it more in depth later.  If you take anything way from this blog, know that if you currently own a pack that you've come to accept as being painful, consider that it probably doesn't fit you correctly. 

 

 

Organizing Your Pack

 

Another shot of the Exo Mountain Gear 3500.  This pack rides like a dream for me.  Find a pack that works for you and you'll never complain about your pack causing you pain ever again.  Tight like a tiger.

Here's another reason your pack might suck.  BECAUSE YOU DON'T KNOW HOW TO PACK IT!!!

 

On more than one occasion, I've been backpacking with someone who, of no fault of their own, has no idea how to pack their pack.  After offering up some basic tips, it's fun to see how someones entire comfort level improves by simply loading the bag properly.  I too was in the same boat once.  A poorly packed backpack can ruin your day on the trial and I'm here to that with a little forethought, you can avoid this.

 

Let's keep it simple and give you a few rules to live by when packing your pack. 

 

  1. Locate the heaviest objects as near to the middle of the pack and as close to your body as possible. 
    1. It's not an exact science, but the idea here is to prevent the pack from sagging down or being too top heavy.  The middle of the pack is like your center of gravity.  By keeping it closer to your body, you won't get that feeling of your pack pulling your torso backward as you walk down the trail. Things like a cook stove, extra water, an air mattress, and food do well in this area. 
  2. Pack what you don't need access to at the bottom of your bag. 
    1. Think in reverse.  You don't need your sleeping bag until you're ready to camp, right?  Put that thing at the bottom!  Locate warming layers at the top because you may want access to them throughout the day.  Pull some snacks out and put them at the top but leave the bulk of the food in the middle of the pack.   Again, it's not an exact science, but do your best.
  3. Distribute the load evenly. 
    1. By this I mean try not to have the left side of your pack be heavier than the right.  By distributing the weight evenly across the pack, you'll in turn spread the weight across your shoulders and hips and won't get hot spots or aches.
  4. Tighten everything up! 
    1. All packs come with some sort of compression straps and load lifters so use them (load lifters are at the top that help pull the load toward your head)!  Having that load as tight and secure as possible will help stabilize it while you're hiking and your balance will improve.  Compression straps essentially help keep the load close to your body's center of gravity.  If you need an example, of how this applies, toss a bunch of heavy stuff into a duffle bag and carry it around with it loose.  Now find some straps you can tighten the load up with and do the same.  I bet you'll see a difference.  The same thing applies to you pack.

 

Real Life Examples

 

 

  1. A friend of mine has this bag that he accepted as being painful.  This also meant he accepted backpacking as being painful too.  He figured all packs are the same and pain was just something that came along with the territory.  He'd only ever needed to hike in a couple miles to get to a fishing hole, but it was always a bad experience for him.  After asking a few questions about the pack he was using, we found it had an adjustable suspension and that it had always been adjusted to be as small as possible.  This dude is about 6'2" and had it configured for someone more like me at 5'8"!!!  One quick adjustment of the torso length for the shoulder straps and his mind was blown.  For years he'd been hauling around 50lbs of gear in a pack that was adjusted for someone much shorter, which meant the weight was NOT being transferred to his hips, but rather directly down onto his shoulders.  To say the least, he's now excited to try out the pack that he was beginning to hate.
  2. Last summer I was on a hike with some friends who were new to backpacking.  I noticed one of them packed their pack in the what looked to be the manner of "make it fit" which meant it was lopsided and stuff was hanging out.  I didn't want to be "that guy" who kept offering advice no one asked for so I kept my thoughts to myself until the following morning when we packed up.  The way the pack was configured the previous day wasn't horrible, but the weight distribution was all over the place and nothing was tightened down.  While packing up camp that morning, I mentioned that they may want to try packing it in the method mentioned above.  As we made our way down the trail, I checked in to see how ieverything was going and there were nothing but smiles.   What a difference!  The pack felt lighter, more stable, and all around more comfortable. 
  3. On a personal note, I had a pack recently that just didn't fit my body the right way.  It was painful and no amount of organizing was going to fix the issue.  After finding a pack that was better for my body, I was shocked at how the same amount of gear could feel so much better simply because of proper fit. 

 

 

Final Thoughts

 

So does your pack suck, or do you just suck and operating it?  If you're always in pain, something is wrong.  Pain should only come from the burn your feel while climbing that mountain and not from your pack (well…unless you're hauling out an entire elk).  A properly fitted pack with appropriate load distribution can make an 60 lbs. pack feel like 30 lbs.  

If you can identify with some of what I've discussed here, pull that pack out, do some Googling and find out if you can adjust the suspension or not.  Chances are you can, so the only other problem to solve is how you pack it.  Give it a trial run and stuff it with gear in the way I described above and see what happens.  I bet you'll be surprised.

 

 

Be smart, pack light, and say no to pain!

 

By Land,

 

Emory Ronald