Quick Guide to Backpacks
Backpacking has become an international sport that can take a hiker to places no other human being has ever been – literally. Whether your backcountry experience is a high mountain ascent or a walk in the local park, knowing what kind of backpack to take can make or break any trip.
What kind of experience do you want to create?
Before buying a backpack, take some time to decide what your goals are for your trip. Are you planning a weeklong adventure or an overnight stay? What is the physical fitness level of yourself and your traveling companions? Will you be carrying community gear, or only your own equipment? Do you want to cover lots of miles, bask in creature comforts around the campfire at the end of the day, or simply enjoy the pleasures of the outdoors?
The most important rule in backpacking is ‘keep it simple’. A lighter pack equals more fun on longer trips. Although carrying more weight means you can stay out longer and take more luxuries, they have to be toted on your back even when you aren’t in camp enjoying them. An added 15 pounds of luxury won’t seem like such a great idea 5 miles down the trail. You may think you want a big pack so everything will fit, but more people regret the extras they brought (and often never use) than wish they’d taken more. So as tempting as it is, it might be better to leave the battery powered foot massager at home.
Which type of pack is right for you?
There are basically three kinds of packs: external frame, internal frame, and frameless. While there aren’t any one-size-fits-all backpacks, there is a ‘right’ choice based on what you want to do.
External frames are much less common than they were 20 years ago. Typically you can carry more weight with an external frame pack. Other benefits include a frame to lash bulky items onto and lots of pockets and compartments for easy organizing of your gear. Unfortunately, this extra material also tends to make external frame packs a little heavier.
Internal frame backpacks are the popular choice today. There are fewer pockets and compartments on an internal frame pack. Some of the more spartan choices actually have zero pockets and only one or two main compartments. The frame is made of aluminum or graphite stays that give vertical strength to the pack. It helps transfer the weight of the pack off of your shoulders and onto your hips, which makes for a more comfortable trip.
Frameless packs are the choice for serious ultra-light backpackers. Some of these come with a lightweight frame sheet that gives some structure to the pack but remains flexible. Others use a partially inflated sleeping pad in place of a frame sheet to firm up the pack, while some take a closed cell pad that is less bulky and lighter weight. The obvious benefit is weight of the pack itself. The drawbacks are poor weight transfer, making it hard to carry heavier loads.
As a general rule, less frame means less weight you can carry with the pack. While an external pack might take you to 80 pounds of gear or more, you would be wise to keep the load to less than 25 pounds in a frameless pack.
What and where to buy?
Since every person is built differently, it is worth your time to find a place where you can try on lots of different packs to see what works best for you. Make sure you add weight to the pack and carry it around the store for a while. Once you’ve made your choice on type and size of pack, you can either buy direct from your local outdoor gear supplier or find discounted products on E-Bay.
Depending on the length of your trip and how much gear you need to carry, here are some pack recommendations:
Some good quality brands for smaller size packs ideal for that weekend trip are the Deuter Futura Pro 42, Black Diamond Speed 40, Gregory Z30, Osprey Talon 33, and Lowe Alpine Peak Attack 40.
For mid-length trips, try the Jansport Big Bear 63 or packs by Mountainsmith, Mountain Berghaus, or Karrimor.
If you’re into carrying those heavy loads or are planning an extensive trip, there are bigger packs available. Try the Arc’teryx 65, Mountainsmith Eclipse 55, Gregory Baltoro 70, Osprey Argon 85, or Northface Primero 60.
As a quick guide, the number with the pack name usually indicates the volume in liters. For instance, the Osprey Talon 33 is approximately 33 liters. Volume of the pack doesn’t always correspond to weight of the pack, so make sure you check both when deciding what pack will meet your needs.
And a final note of advice about backpacking: Just do it! Get out and enjoy the experience. Don’t be afraid to try different things. Learn from each trip and change the way you do it next time. Travel light and enjoy the journey.