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General Information About Backpacks

By Brian J. Lane

Backpacks are, of course, one of the most basic pieces of equipment that we use when hiking, and the decision to purchase one should not be made lightly. An uncomfortable, ill-fitting pack can make your hikes miserable and can even cause neck, back, or shoulder pain. Always work with your outdoor retailer and have them explain your options in choosing a pack that works for you, and ensures a proper size and comfortable fit.

Internal frame backpacks are what most people use these days. They hug your back and have less side-to-side sway than external packs, giving you more stability. External frames keep the load off your back and provide some air flow between your back and the pack itself, making them a little cooler but slightly less stable from shifting loads. Externals also allow you to walk more upright and are usually less expensive than internals but can be bulkier. They are also becoming more difficult to find as the internal pack frames take over in popularity.

When backpacking, first of all, travel light. Food and water should be your two heaviest items, and you should only carry about one-third your total body weight when your backpack is fully loaded. When loading your backpack, make sure you pack most of the weight in the center of your back. This means that your heaviest item (usually the food bag), will be in the lower depths of your pack – and be sure to keep some nibble foods in a small bag readily accessible for snacking on the trail.

The usual order I use in packing, from bottom to top: sleeping bag, tent, food, miscellaneous, and clothing. Water bottles should be readily accessible while hiking, and I always keep rain gear or extra clothing layers at the top of the pack for quick access. You can adjust your pack to your liking, but make sure it is balanced from side to side. Try not to have loose straps that can get snagged along the trail, and don’t stack your pack too high or you could find yourself bouncing off tree branches and rock overhangs.

With an internal framed pack, be very careful not to pack anything hard sticking into your back or stuff it to the point where it pushes the natural contoured shape of the pack out of kilter. The weight of your pack should ride on your hips. If the pack straps are cutting into your shoulders, tighten the hip belt around your waist or reach up to the straps near your ears and tighten the load lifters.

When lifting your pack, use the haul strap located between the shoulder straps. Once when I was in Alaska, a guy transferring my gear onto a float plane carried my pack by using one shoulder strap. I subsequently spent the first night in the wilderness sewing the shoulder strap back on from where the stitching had ripped from the stress. Finally, avoid additional stress on the pack by only tightening the straps until they are taught. Excessive tightening will cause seams to pop open eventually.

Your backpack is the essential piece of equipment for getting your food and gear into the backcountry, make sure you get the one that works best for you.

Hike Smart & Have Fun!

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