What to Look for When Buying a Backpack

What to Look for When Buying a BackpackIf you're uncertain about choosing the right backpack, don't worry--the hundred or so different types of packs have confused many a hiker. A pack can represent a major investment of money and time into your hiking hobby, and is usually a first step towards becoming a dedicated hiker. Lots of research, try-outs and custom fitting can all help you determine which pack will suit your needs best.


Difficulty: Easy

Features: What You Need to Know

Step 1
Daypacks are smaller, lightweight packs used for day trips or very short overnight trips for which you need few supplies. Smaller day packs range from 12 to 36 liters and are generally less than 5 lbs., typically averaging 3 to 4 lbs. (Packs are measured in liters, which represent a little more than a quart of volume; however, you'll also want to look for the cubic centimeters of space the pack holds to really get a feel for its size.) Daypacks are worn over the shoulders and back and shouldn't be confused with fanny packs (worn around the waist), hydration packs (just enough for a water pocket and tube) or small shoulder-slung bags. A good day pack should fit well, weigh very little and provide just enough room for your supplies while giving you decent support in the shoulder and back areas.
Step 2
Mid-size, medium or medium-duty packs can be used for a variety of trails, including long hikes, elevation-intensive hikes, backpacking and thru-hiking. These packs are generally larger and constructed with more support than daypacks, and many of them convert easily to lighter daypacks. Many mid-size packs come with the option of an internal frame, as opposed to an external frame; there are differing opinions on the best style of frame, but trying both will help you decide which makes you more comfortable.
Step 3
Large heavy-duty packs have recently begun to evolve into more lightweight materials and fitting. However, traditionally, the largest packs are the expedition packs, designed to carry a lot of weight and withstand heavy use and weather. These are typically only used for longer backpacking trips or for some thru-hiking trails.

Significance: Your Choice and How it Affects You

Step 1
Think about how much you're going to carry, the maximum weight that you feel capable of managing on the trail, how often you're going to use the pack and what kind of terrain you'll be hiking most often. Also, remember to check for the basics: support, which can include lumbar supports, frames and strap-strengthening materials; accessibility in number of smaller pockets and their placement on the pack for easy access; waterproofing and materials used; and how the pack fits your body. Many hiking magazines and websites offer review services where you can take advantage of your peers' experience to learn more.

Identification: Trying Out a Backpack

Step 1
One good way to make sure you've chosen the right pack is to rent a few from outfitters' stores for certain hikes. If you've decided on a mid-size pack for both day hikes and overnights, rent one and try it out on a trip, getting a feel for the pack, how it carries and distributes weight, and the kind of support it provides. This service is available from many stores and can allow you to try out a few different styles before making your investment. Additionally, you may want to test-hike packs from different brand-name retailers. There's a large market out there for packs, and the most well-known companies have usually earned their place at the top of the list for a reason.

Considerations: Custom Fitting and Maintenance

Step 1
Most outfitters and retailers offer a custom fitting when you purchase your bag. Take advantage of this service! It will help you ensure that your pack is set to your body and can dramatically increase your comfort level on the trail. Also, proper maintenance will increase the durability and longevity of your pack. Clean it well after each trip, wipe off stains as soon as you see them with a damp cloth, and store in a dry and well-ventilated area to prevent mold and mildew buildup.

Article Written By Emily Elder

Emily works as a Greenway coordinator and parks project manager in her local community, and has been hiking, camping, fishing and riding all over the mountains of western North Carolina. She enjoys being outside with her family, especially her two children, Creedence and Mason, and her husband, James, and lives on a small farm surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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