Ever dreamt of hiking the Appalachian Trail or cruising the Yosemite backcountry on foot? Then you might have the soul of a backpacker. Carrying your world in a rucksack can be a terrific way to connect with nature and find inner peace. Your enjoyment of the experience, however, could depend heavily on the wise selection of a backpack; you'd be amazed what ravages an ill-fitting, poorly designed one can wreak on the body of even the most avid fan of the wilderness.
Here are some points to consider when shopping for a backpack for weekend trips and expeditions.
When you think of a hiking backpack, you might picture the type of backpack that looked like a folding aluminum chair with a sack sewed on. Those external frame packs, so named because the metal frame was outside the pack, have mostly fallen out of favor. Today's packs, even the largest, depend on internal framing, which reduces the likelihood of snagging on rocks and branches. They also keep the weight nearer to your body, helping with your balance and stability.
Backpacks come in all sizes, from day excursions to multi-week hikes. The volume of a pack is often expressed in liters — one liter is slightly smaller than a roll of toilet paper. It could also be expressed in cubic inches; that same toilet paper roll is about 71.5 cubic inches.
A pack large enough to carry multiple days of supplies should be in the 40 to 80 liter range for men, 40 to 65 for women, according to outdoor supplier REI.
For trips of five or more days, favor the larger pack. Do the same if you're winter camping, where you'll need more clothing and a heavy sleeping bag. If you're hauling supplies for an accompanying child, go big as well. If you take along a dog, make him wear his own backpack, like this REI Classic Dog Pack for $55, with his food in it.
Take it from me, one who learned a painful lesson on a Idaho trail when I failed to test-hike my fully-loaded bag beforehand. If you can barely heft your bag, you might want to rethink what you're carrying.
Weight is a key to a successful trip, and great strides have been made in the last decade in lightening up backpacks. That's why you might want to consider replacing bags that predate the late 1990's. Why haul a heavier pack than you need to?
Today's ultralight packs are, well, ultralight. Take the REI Flash 65 Pack, for example — it weighs only 2 lbs. yet has a capacity of 65 liters.
Fit is another crucial consideration. You want to carry most of the weight on your hips, since they are supported by your leg muscles, some of your body's strongest. To measure your torso length, start with the most noticeable vertebra at the base of your neck, the C7, and end at the point where your pelvic bone forms a shelf at your hips. This video explains the process.
Humans vary a great deal in torso length. Too short a pack will force weight onto your shoulders, while too long a pack will cause your belt to ride too low on your hips, again putting more weight on your shoulders.
Fortunately, the better backpacks come with a plethora of adjustments, in suspension, load-lifter straps, stabilizer straps, even sternum straps, to help redistribute the load. You can also find replacement waistbands for many models that will help fit you better. One manufacturer, Osprey, even makes a heat-moldable hip belt that you can get at stores like REI for $39, that can be customized to your body.
Fitting is particularly important for women, who tend to have smaller, leaner torsos. Many bags are made to fit their frames. Take for example, the Osprey Ariel 65 Pack, a multi-day bag in a women-specific fit and torso length.
There are also backpacks made for children, and these have some adjustments so the bag can grow as they do. See, for example, the North Face Terra Youth 55: best price, SunnySports, $117.95 with free shipping.
While some older backpacks featured a main compartment that opened with a frowny-faced zipper in the front, most modern bags are top-loading. And while older bags were festooned with pockets like a fly-fisherman's vest, newer ones are more frugal with compartments. Each pocket is snaggable, and each zipper something to break, so the streamlined look is in.
There are still some places to put your lip balm, iPod, GORP (good old raisins and peanuts), GPS and sunglasses, though. Many bags come with a pocket on the hip belt, or a zippered top lid on the pack.
Heat and Hydration
Hydration is another crucial element to backpacking (you've never sweated like you'll sweat climbing a mountain with a 50-pound bag on your back). Most better backpacks have a built-in sleeve for your hydration reservoir, assuming you rehydrate with something along the lines of the Camelbak system, with a bite valve and a tube running from your reservoir to your mouth.
Heat is the enemy of many a backpacking trip, and wearing an internal frame pack robs you of the ability to evaporate the sweat on your back. When choosing your backpack, look for one that has built-in mechanism to allow air to circulate on your back, perhaps in channels or via a mesh web.
If you're ready to start shopping for your adventure, here are three examples to whet your appetite. There are many other fine manufacturers on the market, too. (If you have your own suggestion, please tell us about it in the comments below.)
- The Editors Choice by Backpacker magazine, the Granite Great Blaze AC 60, weighs less than 3 pounds yet comfortably carries 35 pounds of gear.
Best price: $199.94 from Backcountry Edge, with free shipping.
- The High Sierra Long Trail 90 pack has it all, with an enormous 90-liter capacity. Fill it to the top at your own peril, unless you're The Hulk.
Best price: In the REI Outlet store, this bag is selling for an unreal $109.93, down from $260.00.
- The High Sierra Hawk 45 Internal Frame Backpack is a more modestly-sized bag that would be perfect for a long weekend or the middle of summer, when you can get by with much less gear.
Best price: Sunnysports, $93.95 with free shipping.
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