Backpacking 101: Choose Your Bag
It’s a perfect day on the trail: blue skies with warm temperatures, and not a cloud in the sky. You’re hammering out the miles; only three more until you hit camp for the night. Your shoulders feel good, your feet don’t ache and your back is not a sweaty, uncomfortable mess. Everything you need is tucked away in the most important part of your backpacking kit- your bag! It’s time for part two of Backpacking 101; choosing the right bag could be the most crucial decision you make before hitting the dusty trail.
A good bag barely gets noticed. Everything works as it should. Your body will thank you for not rushing out and buying the coolest, most tricked out bag or the cheapest, flimsiest sack you can find. This is a decision that takes some time. The first question you have to ask is this: what type of backpacker are you? If you are just starting out, chances are you don’t need a monster, “everything but the kitchen sink” pack. The truth is, most trips will consist of a night or two in the backcountry. You won’t be trekking in Nepal straight out of the gates, and you shouldn’t buy a pack based on a trip you might take in a couple years from now. Assess your goals: your money will be well invested if you purchase a pack that fits your needs; you can always buy that big trekking pack two years from now when you do head for Timbuktu.
Pack volume is measured in liters. Entry level packers should look for a rucksack in the 30-60 liter range. A bag of this size will be sufficient to carry your gear for trips ranging from one to three nights. The next consideration is the size of the pack: small, medium or large. Begin by measuring your torso: have a friend place a flexible tape measure on your C7 vertebra. This is the bony bump at the base of your neck; tilting your head forward makes it easy to locate. Next, place your hands on your hips at the top of your iliac crest. The crest is the first bump you’ll feel below your ribcage, and it’s where your pack’s hip belt will rest. Position your hands so that your thumbs are facing backwards. Measure from the C7 to the imaginary line between your thumbs; you now know your torso length. Small size packs fit torsos 16-17.5″ in length, medium from 18-19.5″, and large sizes are for 20″ and bigger torsos. Each manufacturer will differ slightly, so know your measurement before you hit the store to shop.
Head to your favorite outdoor store and get busy! The sales folks should be ready to help you, and are a great source of info on all the brands (if this isn’t the case, leave the store ASAP and shop somewhere else!). Start by finding a few different packs in your size and volume range; there will be plenty to choose from. Ask the salesperson to help you load the bag with sandbags and pillows (they will have these ready in a variety of shapes and sizes). Load up approximately 20 pounds to get an idea of how the backpack feels with a moderate cache. Loosen all the straps on the pack and then put it on. Begin by positioning the hip belt at the top of your iliac crest. The buckle should rest right over your belly button. Tighten the hip belt straps and move on to your shoulders. Tighten the shoulder straps by pulling down and out until they wrap over and around your shoulders. The anchor points should be a couple inches from the crest of your shoulders. Next, tighten the load-lifter straps. These are located just behind the shoulder straps. When you pull them, you will feel the bag snug up against your body (this will weight off of your shoulders). The sternum strap is next: buckle it and pull it until you are comfortable with how the pack feels (too tight and you will constrict your breathing). Finish things off by tightening any loose stabilizer straps and experimenting with the weight. Your hips should be carrying roughly 80% of the pack’s load. Keep trying on bags until you find one that feels great, otherwise you’ll pay for it on the trail.
Don’t obsess over brand names and prices. You may find that a less flashy, smaller company’s pack fits and feels great; just go for it! You may even save a few bucks. Of course, the reverse is also true: if you find that nothing fits you like the most expensive pack on the shelf, well, take a deep breath and lay out the extra cash. It will be worth it when you’re 15 miles deep in the backcountry and still feeling great. Every pack will be different: some are lighter, some have more bells and whistles, some have rain covers built right in. The numerous options may seem overwhelming, and that’s why it’s important to spend some time researching as many brands as you can. This will all pay off in the long run.
What do we recommend? Well, that’s a tough question, because we don’t know what kind of packer you plan to be. Ultralight? Creature comforts? A “quiver of one?” Here are a few suggestions to get you started in your search:
The Kelty Rally 45 is a solid pack with a modern design and great price point. Read the review to find out more.
When I’m not testing a pack, I carry my Osprey Kestrel 48. It’s a simple pack that fits and feels great, and I can carry enough gear for multi-day trips. Your perfect pack is out there, and with a little time and effort, you’ll find it, and your body will thank you when you finally do pull into camp.