Backpacking 101: Choosing a Backpack
This post is dedicated to those of you who want to get into backpacking, but don’t really know where to start when choosing a backpack. I cannot overstate how important a proper pack is to the overall experience of backpacking. It can be your best friend or your worst enemy and if it's the latter, you'll miss out on all the best parts of the experience. Your pack should be your best friend and the least of your worries. Choose it wisely and don't settle.
First things first, there’s no “one size fits all” pack because if there were, the industry wouldn’t be making so many of them. Secondly, what works for me doesn’t mean it will work for you, so I’ll simply do my best to be your guide in explaining what you may want to consider before making a purchase. I’ll filter out what works for me and why. When it’s all said and done, I hope this post helps point you in the right direction which eventually leads you down a trail for that awesome adventure in the backcountry.
Things to Consider when Purchasing a Backpack
Okay, here we go. Before I dive into the basics of choosing a pack, let me just list out the core elements of what I look for in a pack before I spend my money on it.
1. Design – Is it organized the way I like to organize? Does it have all the features I like? For example, I REALLY like stretch pockets on my packs. At a minimum there has to be one on either side and preferably one in the back as well. If a pack is missing them I don’t even give it a second thought because I know how much I like stretch pockets. I also don’t like too many zippers so if it looks complicated or has a million pockets I again look the other way.
2. Warranty – If a company doesn’t back up their product, I don’t waste my time. All the packs I own have a solid warranty.
3. Overall Pack Weight – I’m not an ultralight freak nor am I willing to pack around unnecessary weight on my back just because I like a design. If you go too far on the ultralight side of the house, you give up durability and comfort. On the contrary, if you go with a pack that is built like a tank, you’ll be able to toss it down a cliff with no problem, but it’ll likely be over built. This all depend on what you intend to do with your backpack. I personally think a pack in the 3.5-5 lbs. range is a great place to be. You’ll get the best of both worlds without sacrificing comfort or durability.
4. Purpose – Who and what was the pack built for? Is it a Thru Hiking pack? A hunting pack? A mountaineering pack? This is important to know before you make your purchase because each pack is designed for a specific use. What you’ll generally find at REI or some other outdoor store is probably what you’re looking for when you’re starting out, but still ask the question and make sure it’s built for your intended purpose.
5. Comfort – This is last on the list because you won’t know until you actually use the pack, but it’s by far the most important. If a pack isn’t comfortable while on the trail after a few miles, you’re going to hate it regardless of how awesome it might look.
It’s not rocket science, but those are 5 of the basic things I look for in a pack.
This Above All Else – Comfort
I don’t care what pack you have, who makes it, how much it cost, or how much or how little you can fit into it, if it’s not comfortable and fitted to your body then it’s not worth having. I’ve spent over $500 on a pack once only to find out that it hated me. I loved how it functioned, but no amount of love could make up for how it destroyed my hips. If you remember nothing from this post, please remember this one thing – if your pack hurts you, it’s either fitted wrong, packed wrong, or it is simply not built for your body type. The first two issues are easy to fix, but the last one - well, it just is what it is and there’s nothing else to it. Backpacking doesn’t have to hurt so don’t be afraid to ditch that pack and keep searching for one that works for you.
Bigger isn’t Always Better
If I had a dollar for every person (including myself) who thinks they need the biggest pack ever made… I’d at least have a twenty dollar bill in my pocket. Here’s the deal – the bigger the suitcase, the more crap you’ll bring that you don’t need when you’re on vacation. That same concept applies to packs. Unless you’re going on a 10-day expedition to the North Pole, you probably don’t need more than a 50-65 Liter pack (3000-4000 cubic inches). If you’re new to backpacking, you’ll more than likely head out for 1-4 days, which if packed correctly, these size packs have more than enough room. Choose the right gear and pack it well and you won’t need that gigantic pack hanging on the wall at the outdoor store. Trust me, just look the other way! If you don’t use everything in your pack, you’re wrong and you’re packing too much crap. Each item you bring with you should be used (minus first aid kits and things of that nature). If I find myself not using an item after a couple of trips, then I ditch it and never bring it again. You’d be surprised at how little you really need out there.
What Was the Pack Built For?
I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s important so I’ll say it again. Don’t bring a mountaineering summit pack on a 4-day backpacking trip with 50 lbs. of gear in it. Also, don’t toss an elk quarter in a pack that was only rated for 35 lbs. Each pack out there has a purpose and a rating to which it’s built for. Most ultralight packs go to crap after you tip the scales at 40 lbs. and when it does, it’s going to be hell on your shoulders and hips. On the other end of the spectrum, there are some really great packs out there built for load hauling (such as for hunting) which are built to easily carry 100 lbs. without sacrificing structural integrity or comfort. That said, maybe this pack is over built for what you’re needing. You won’t see a thru-hiker carrying a hunting pack when their typical load is only 30 lbs. and you won’t see a backcountry hunter with a thru-hiking pack that weighs only 2 lbs. Bottom line, choose a pack for what you want to do.
You Won’t Know Until You Know
Here’s the real truth – it’s probably going to take you a while to find the pack that works for you. Unless you happen to strike gold right away, you’re going to buy a backpack and find something about it you don’t like. If you’re like me, it’ll bug you until you can’t stand it so you’ll end up falling away into an endless crusade to find the Holy Grail of backpacks. It’s taken me a long time to find what I’ve been looking for, but I promise you that it’s made my time in the backcountry so much better. Just accept the fact that you may need to try a few different styles before you find what you like. Anytime you can try out a new pack, do it! The more you try, the more you’ll learn what you like and don’t like.
** On this note – it may be smart to purchase your first pack from somewhere like REI who has a great return policy. Take it for a spin and if you don’t like it, return it and try something else until you find what you like. Just don’t be that person who beats up gear then returns it. That’s not cool at all.
There are a lot of packs out there with a million designs and not all are created equal. My backpack suspension is fully adjustable and I love it. I can swap out the waist belt for a different size, adjust the torso length when needed, and I can even swap bags on the same frame. It’s pretty darn cool. I can have a daypack one moment and a big expedition pack the next – all on the same frame.
What you need to know is that some packs are adjustable and some are not. To cut down on weight, manufacturers will remove the features of an adjustable suspension. Without this, unless the fixed suspension fits your body perfectly, it’s going to be a rough go on the trail. This is another reason why packs in the 3-5 lbs. range are great because most in this weight class are adjustable (confirm before you buy). Also, keep in mind as the weight increases or decreases in your backpack, it will ride differnetly. This is another reason why an adjustable pack is good to have because you can adjust as you go.
Know what you’re getting into and unless you really need that ultralight pack, just go for the next step up and save yourself some pain until you know you that you really want that ultralight design.
What Does Emory Use?
I’ve come to use the Exo Mountain Gear 3500 (exomountaingear.com)because of the style of backpacking I do. In recent years, I’ve become very interested in backpack hunting so I needed a pack that was capable of hauling heavy loads. That dwindled down the herd pretty good with that requirement so then it was just a matter of reviewing features and comfort. As I mentioned, I previously had a pack that was capable of handling heavy loads but it beat my hips up like a battering ram after just 6 miles on the trail. No matter how much I liked the design, the fit was simply not good for me. I went about searching out other options and gave Exo Mountain Gear a shot. After my first trip out with it, I fell in love and have been ever since. I have both the Exo 3500 and the 2000 Daypack and they both have some awesome features. I can also swap the bags out on the same frame when needed. They both include stretch pockets and to me they just work how I want them to work. Not too much and not too little. If I need to carry heavy loads, the Exo can do it.
I’ve also tried the Kuiu (www.kuiu.com) brand packs - specifically the 2015 Ultra 3000 – and while it rides very nicely, it didn’t function how I wanted it to. No big deal - this is exactly what I mean about having to try stuff out to see what you like. In the end that’s really the only way you’ll know what you’re looking for long term.
At some point you just have to go with what you think you’ll like and find out. Stick to the following purchasing guidelines and you’ll be on your way to finding the exact pack you need.
1. Decide what you want to do with the pack and purchase one built for that specific mission.
2. Buy your pack from somewhere that has a great return policy just in case it turns out to be a bust (aka REI…again, don’t be that person who returns something that’s worn out).
3. Check the manufacturers warranty (tip – Osprey is known to have a great warranty and customer service…and no I don’t own one).
4. Don’t buy the biggest pack out there because it’s the biggest pack out there. A 50-65 Liter is a great size to start with.
5. Though you don’t know exactly what you like and what you don’t like, do your best to identify features of a pack that you think you will like and ensure the one you purchase has them.
6. Ensure you have the proper fitted pack – REI and other outdoor stores have fitting tools to make sure you’re at least close to the right size. If the store you’re buying from doesn’t have this to offer… RUN AWAY! Seriously, get the hell out of there and never go back because all they want is your money and the probably have no business selling packs in the first place. Pretend it’s the zombie apocalypse if you have to…seriously…I’m serious.
7. Do your best to gauge comfort, but accept that there is a chance it may not be as comfy as you wish it were after a day on the trail. If you can’t fix it or if it just kills you, cut your losses, sell the pack, and look elsewhere.
Start somewhere and whatever you do, just get out there!