How To Fix A Pack That's Uncomfortable
We’ve all been there. You’re out on the trail a few miles in and your pack is starting to make its presence known. Some might just accept that “well, that’s backpacking,” while others begin figuring out what might be done to fix the issue. You want to be the latter.
I started this entire website with the premise that backpacking doesn’t have to hurt or be uncomfortable. That’s not to say that backpacking is a perfect but rather it means there’s a lot we can do to make our time in the backcountry with a pack on far more enjoyable than we thought it could ever be.
When it comes to packs, there’s a lot that can go wrong. From shoulder pain to hip pain, it’s all possible, but it’s also very much avoidable. I’ve put together a quick trouble shooting guide for you to use in the event you’re experiencing pain from your pack. Some of the ideas are complex, others are simple, but they all have an impact on the pleasant or unpleasant nature of wearing a backpack.
Sizing: Torso length, hip belt, and Shoulder straps
If your backpack is hurting you, pulling in a weird direction, or just generally uncomfortable, you’ll want to ensure the pack you have on you is properly fitted.
Even if you’ve been backpacking before, there’s a chance you’re not aware that packs come in different sizes. I know this because I was the guy who purchased a pack from a local store thinking I’d focus more on the volume of the pack rather than the way it fit me. Good lord was that thing a mistake! It pains me to even think about it, but it happened and I’m still here today talking about it so clearly I didn’t give up.
The fitment of the torso length, belt, and shape of the shoulder straps have a direct impact on overall comfort. If you own a pack that has an adjust able suspension, then you’ll want to take advantage of ensuring it’s adjusted correctly. If your pack has a fixed suspension, meaning it just is what it is, make sure you’re not in the wrong size.
If you’re 5’5” wearing a pack with a suspension system built for a 6’ individual, you’re going to have problems. The same works in reverse. A properly sized suspension allows for the weight of the pack to be distributed the way it was intended to, but it’s not just the length of a torso that matters.
In addition to the length of a suspension, you should ensure the waist belt is sized correctly. A belt that isn’t the right size won’t distribute the weight and glue that lumbar support to your body like it’s supposed to. These too can be fixed or adjustable. I’ll use the same example as above; if you’re a bean pole wearing a belt built for a larger person, life is going to be rough. Hip belts help secure, stabilize, and distribute the weight of a pack so it’s important to ensure your waist size matches that of the pack you’re wearing.
The same goes for shoulder straps, though not all packs have variations of these. Some packs straps have a nice “S” curve on them that fits a certain body type, while others have a fairly straight cut to them. I’ve noticed a lot of female specific packs have more of the “S” curve which, to my understanding, is because women usually don’t have as broad of shoulders. The curve improves comfort, but keep in mind that the shoulder straps of a pack are not responsible for bearing the entire load, unless the pack you’re wearing is specifically designed for that (ultralight thru hiking packs for example). Shoulder straps create stability, and should really only feel 30% of the load (general rule of thumb…not an exact science).
The human body comes in a wide array of shapes and sizes so it’s important to find a pack that fits your body type, and yes it may take some time. Unless you know a pack with a fixed suspension will work for you, I’d suggest starting out with a pack that can be adjusted or have hip belts and/or shoulder harnesses swapped out to ensure the best possible fit.
wearing your backpack
As a disclaimer, I’d highly suggest you refer to the instructions of the company who made your pack for how they want you to fit it. I’ve found there are a number of slightly different methods to wearing a pack, so get with the actual maker of the pack to learn how THEY suggest you wear their product.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s go over a wearing your pack and how that could induce some discomfort if not done properly.
Okay…second disclaimer… There are a LOT of different packs out there aimed at solving a lot of different problems by implementing a lot of different designs. One day, I’ll cover them, but for now we’re going to cover the one style that is most common; the standard style you’d find at REI or any sort of outdoor store. It includes a hip belt, internal or external frame for bearing loads, and your shoulder harness with a sternum straps.
Ugh…let’s freaking move on already!
Like I was saying, improperly wearing you’re pack is bad for a lot of reasons. For starters, it hurts. Secondly, it’s a waste of money if you’re not utilizing the structure that a pack provides.
In just a few easy steps, you can go from having a crappy fitting backpack, to a comfortable one. **ALWAYS adjust your pack with a load in it. Making adjustments to and fitting a backpack that is empty is like drinking decaf coffee…pointless.
Loosen up all straps for the initial fit. Once you have everything feeling good, you shouldn’t have to adjust anything further unless your pack weight changes dramatically.
Sling that puppy on and buckle the hip belt. Bend over a little to get the weight of your pack onto your back, then, when the hip belt is in the proper position on your hip bones, tighten it down. When you stand up, the pack should hold in the small of your back. If it doesn’t repeat this step.
Synch down the shoulder straps by pulling down and back until they’re snug.
Connect the sternum strap and slowly synch it down to a comfortable position.
Reach back and grab the load lifters on top of your shoulders and pull forward until the angle of the strap is near a 45 degrees. You should feel the load lift a little and change it’s center of gravity from pulling you back to standing up straight.
That’s basically it! By adjusting one or more of these steps listed above, you can improve the fit of your backpack. Not all packs or bodies are created equal, so it may take you a few times to dial it in just right, but you’ll get there.
The Anatomy of a Backpack
Lucky you, now that you’ve learned the steps of adjusting your backpack, let’s go into more detail on what the heck we just did. I’m going to list out each function of the pack so you know what is what and why you’re doing it.
Frame (not much you can do here except buy a different sized pack)
The bag that you’re putting everything into can play a key role in comfort as well. A lot of bags have horizontal compression straps that help tighten up the load so it’s not flopping around all over the place. The tighter the load, the more structure is provided and the easier it is to carry. Try picking your friend up when they’re limp versus when they’re rigid…same concept applies here. I always make it a habit to tighten everything down before I sling my pack on. It just makes life easier and more stable.
The frame of a pack creates structure and support for the items you’re putting into your pack. The items going into a pack get secured to that frame by being inside the pack bag and tightened down. Depending on how rigid the frame is, determines how much weight it can carry (for the most part). The more rigid, the more weight. Pack frames have suggested weight limits. If you’re putting 45lbs on a pack frame that’s meant for 30lbs….you’re going to hate life. At that point you have two options, you either drop weight or get a new pack that can handle that heavier load. Try not to reach that upper limit of what your pack can handle. Overpacking a pack is one of the most common errors out there. The frame goes to crap and so does your trip.
The hip belt is attached to the bottom of the frame which bears nearly all that pack weight. If it’s a quality hip belt design and if it’s sitting properly on your waist/hips, the weight of the pack is transferred into the frame of YOUR body, which is structurally rigid.
If the hip belt is too low, it’ll feel like someone is pulling you down, if it’s too high, you won’t feel the benefits of your skeleton taking on the weight of the pack. There are a lot of info graphics floating around the interwebs showing how all this works, so I’ll leave it to you to do the followup study. The last thing I’ll say on hip belts is to have the correct sizing. You want the belt to be snug, not loose, and wrap around your hips properly or else it won’t work.
True story: I took some friends backpacking and found out 4 miles into the hike that one of them had a broken buckle on their hip belt so she wasn’t even using it. Yes, she was VERY uncomfortable but she didn’t say a word about it because she figured “that was backpacking.” Please don’t blindly accept that backpacking hurts.
Next up, shoulder the harness. Again, be sure to research how your specific pack is supposed to fit the human form. In general, you don’t want the shoulder harness/straps to be so tight that they’re uncomfortable and you certainly don’t want all the weight of the pack bearing down on them. If a pack has a frame that is built to carry a load, you should be able to loosen your shoulder straps all the way and have the pack stay in place on your hips. If this isn’t happening for you, look into what’s going on and fix it.
Shoulder straps are there to provide stability for the load, not bear the brunt of it. Slowly tighten them down until they’re snug, but not feeling like you’re about to fly a fighter jet. Next, ensure the sternum strap is right about at your nipples, buckle it, and slowly tighten it. You might have to play around with where it feels best with regard to position up or down, but one thing to be sure of is NOT to crank that thing down or you’re going to feel bunched up.
Ladies, you know who you are if a sternum strap is going to be an issue. I’d highly suggest contacting some female hikers/bloggers/YouTubers who might lend some advice to those of you who may be putting up a fight with that sternum strap. That’s all I have to say about that…
Last but not least, you have these things called “load lifters.” They look like a piece of lashing going from your shoulder straps to the top of your pack. These should be let fully loose, then slowly tightened until you feel the load of the pack rise up a bit. These could literally be the culprit of an ill fitting backpack. If too tight, you’ll feel bunched up, if too loose, you’ll feel like someone is pulling you backward.
A quick and easy way to fix an uncomfortable situation is to check all of the above elements of your backpack to include the actual wearing of the pack.
Let’s talk about more ways to fix an uncomfortable backpack!
The waistband of your pants
Here’s an easy solution to help a pack feel better on the trail, don’t wear a big bulky belt or pants that have a strange waistline like big belt loops. I think it also goes without saying that you shouldn’t be wearing a knife or some other object on your pants that would come in contact with the belt of your pack. The less bulk on your hips, the better. Running shorts will likely feel the best or if you’re into running tights, those work too. If you DO wear a belt, make it very thin so it has little to no impact on comfort. I once wore a pair of pants by the brand First Lite that dug into my hips like a angry demon. Nothing like spending an entire day fighting that feeling of getting a bruise.
Loading your pack
Improperly loading your pack can negatively impact the fun of backpacking. If your pack is listing to one side or the other, pulling you backward, tipping over on you, then you have some work to do. Keep the heavy stuff close to your body and near the middle of your back. Lighter objects go above and below the heavy stuff. Don’t stuff all of your water onto one side of you pack only and not counter balance it on the opposite side.
When loading a backpack, you want everything to be balanced horizontally and not stick out to far from the body. Items dangling or hanging off will only hinder the stability you have going down the trail so do your best to avoid that. I know it might sound normal to just clip things onto your pack in random order, but it won’t help your cause. Everything should go INSIDE your pack to achieve the most comfort and if anything, to protect your gear. And yes…I’ve personally made this mistake myself. The first trip out with my new fancy tent and I put a hole in it because I had it strapped to the outside of my pack while sliding down a rocky hillside. Don’t be like the old me.
Be picky, and leave the excess gear home
The “what if” items add up to a very heavy pack. Bring only what you NEED for that trip and leave the rest at home. Keep in mind that all you need are the essentials. This part is hard, but the less clutter you bring, the lighter your pack will be, and the more comfortable you’ll feel on the trail. No one likes a heavy pack…
No, seriously…no one likes a heavy pack.
Ventilate your back
Some people easily overheat and others do not. If you’re the kind to overheat, find a backpack that breathes well. I’ve seen this make a huge difference in the overall enjoyment of a trip. If you’re the type to get hot and you’re not in a well ventilated pack, it’s going to be a very unfortunate trip.
I hope it’s clear by now that backpacks have a lot of room to be adjusted and for good reason. These adjustments make your life easier. If you’re hiking down the trail and paying more attention to your pack versus everything else, you need to address it. It might be something simple like shifting a load around or pulling up on the load lifter, but it might also be because your pack isn’t right for you. There are a LOT of packs out there for good reason. Find one that works for you and get back to having fun.
If you have any suggestions for improving pack comfort, feel free to drop a note in the comments below or shoot me an email and I’ll update this article accordingly.