Thursday, February 9, 2012

Gear: Choosing A Backpack

I have had a couple of friends ask about packs in the last couple of weeks so I figured its as good a time as any to write a quick ramble on choosing the right pack to get the most out of your outdoor adventures.  As a friendly reminder, Most of this may be opinion, however, I am a seasoned backpacker with enough knowledge on the subject that you can feel confident in the suggestions and information given. 

One of the things I learned on my thru-hike that may sound dumb, but its not if you really think about it, was,  "Its not the gear you have that is going to carry you the 2,179 miles, but you who will carry the gear".  That sounds like an ancient Chinese proverb. (I should patent this phrase and forget about blogging and go into the Chinese fortune cookie and  proverb writing business....only kidding.)  When backpacking there is a constant struggle between weight and comfort.  I personally choose weight over comfort.  You may choose comfort.  Others find a happy median.  When choosing a backpack, you first must address a few important questions: 1. pack versatility  2. your backpacking/hiking preferences i.e. distances, length of trips, seasons for use etc. 3. Brand/Price range.  I will further elaborate shortly.  My #1 recommendation when choosing a pack is get one that is a little smaller than you think you may need ex.  your thinking a 70 liter, go with the 65, thinking a 35 liter go with the 30 etc.  What I have found is no matter what size pack you have you are going to fill it up.  All I needed on my thru hike was a 55 liter pack.  I didn't have a lot of money and got a 70 liter pack at an R.E.I scratch and dent sale and filled it to the max every time I used it.  I finally got smart and undid the 10 liter top and sent it home and used it as a 60 liter pack and had more than enough room for what I needed.  Many things come into play when choosing a size though.  I will try to be as inclusive as possible.  Forgive me if I leave anything out and please don't hesitate to ask questions.  I enjoy answering them.

Facts:  In no circumstance should a pack ever weigh over 40 lbs unless you are only hiking in to a location a couple miles from a trail head.  Anything above this takes away from your backpacking experience.  If you are distracted from the joy of your surroundings to think about back pain, shoulder pain, knee pain, or foot pain due to excess weight, that is not acceptable. 

Some people have to have all the amenities while others can deal with a little more discomfort, pack a toothbrush, tarp, and a prayer are on their way! Decide where you fall on this spectrum and what you need and what you can do without.

Versatility:   You first must decide what the pack will be used for. Will the  backpack used for day hikes, overnighters, weekend, week-long, or long distance hikes.   Most people don't have an endless budget so they want one that can span as many of these options as possible, others may want their pack to serve an exact purpose.  I think packs can be lumped accordingly:  Day packs by themselves as they are only used to carry some snacks, drinks, and extra clothes.  These packs range anywhere from regular book bag style backpacks to more elaborate packs with several compartmeents.  They should fall in the range of roughly 20-35 liters.  Overnight and weekend packs can be lumped together also.  These packs can be a little bigger than normal since weight may not be as much of an issue due to the lack of day after day after day of hiking.  I almost always overpack on these trips due to the extra 12 ounce containers that almost always find priority on my packing necessities list.  I will warn you however, overpacking in conjunction with extensive miles in a recipe for a bad sore time and likely to steer away first time backpackers from the hobby.   Packs for overnight and weekends should fall in the neighborhood of 55 - 70 liters.  These volumes are set in an estimated window to consider different sized people: ex. someone who is 150lbs I would recommend to purchase a pack closer to 55 liters while, someone who may be 250lbs would need a litter extra room to accommodate some larger clothing, maybe a long sleeping bag, and most likely a larger food bag.  If considering a thru hike long distance hike where you will need to carry a week's worth of food at a time, packing and contents becomes paramount.  A 65 liter pack is the maximum volume for a backpack you will need.  When doing a long distance it is very import  I would recommend.  If you can't fit what you need in that size you need to re-evaluate your contents.  (I would be more than happy to help with that if it becomes an issue with any of you guys).  I would also recommend nothing smaller than a 58 liter pack unless you belong to the ultralight cult.  There is nothing wrong with that either, its just most people don't plan on carrying almost nothing and crushing 40 mile days. 

Brand:  The top two brands I will recommend when buying a pack are: 1. Gregory  2. Osprey.  I have used both and have been more than happy with each.  I thru-hiked with Gregory Baltoro and currently use an Osprey 58 liter lightweight pack that meets all my needs and may being seeing a thru-hike of the PCT before too long.   I submitted the attached photo to the Gregory website and they actually used it on their webpage! Other brands to consider are:  Granite Gear, Mountain Hardware (ok, but they make better apparel, sleeping bags and tents I think), Gosomer Gear for the Ultra-light guys (not as much support with these packs and not made to exceed max load - usually like 25lbs or so) and R.E.I. actually make pretty good packs.  All of the prior mentioned companies have excellent customer service and will replace, repair, or even refund in almost any situation in a timely manner.   I would steer clear of any North Face gear.  Unfortunately they have fallen into Abercrombie and Fitch market targeting frat boys and the image obsessed weekend warrior.  Their quality has compromised in gear with exception to their serious alpine gear.  Your backpack is often an extension of your personality so pick the design and color that you like best and fits your backpacking lifestyle.

Price:  Now the part that hurts....To get a good quality pack with lifetime warranty you may have to come off your wallet a little bit.  Remind yourself it is for a lifetime investment for a very healthy pastime.  I would suggest setting aside $150-$250 for your backpack budget if buying new from store.  R.E.I is a great place to buy from if you are a member, which is a mere $20 for a lifetime membership, will put a lifetime warranty on anything you buy in the entire store. often has good deals.  EBay is always a must check when you have narrowed down your specific choice.  Do not be duped by great deals for seemingly tough looking no-name backs here though, you will only be disappointed.  If you live near an R.E.I, they often have scratch and dents where they sell items that have been periodically returned throughout the year for various reasons.  These price of these items are reduced significantly sometimes only because it was not what the customer wanted (no defect).  I bought a $300 dollar brand new pack at a scratch and dent sale for $50 dollars due to a busted zipper on a very insignificant pocket, which I was able to repair myself.  There are also websites that sell used gear and have gear swaps.  This may be another great opportunity to get some nice gear at reduced prices. 

Fitting:  If the pack isn't comfortable you will have a miserable time. It is important to find a pack which fits you well. This is especially true for daypacks since they tend not to be adjustable. I have found that many daypacks are too short for my torso and become uncomfortable after a number of miles.  Besides fit, other factors which effect comfort include what sort of padding / ventilation the pack provides, what sort of shoulder strap / waist straps the pack has, etc. Another issue is what is the suspension like. Is it a frameless pack (which most daypacks are), have a foam frame sheet, stays, etc? Depending on what you are carrying the suspension could make a big difference in comfort. My best suggestion here is go to a local outdoors store and try on a number of packs which have been loaded an equiv weight / bulk that you expect to carry for your activities.

I could write a short book on packs and reviews, but I will save you the time.  If there are any questions whatsoever concerning choosing a backpack or anything else please feel free to comment (maybe someone else could benefit from the question too) and I will be more than happy to answer it or send you in the right direction.   Thanks again everyone for reading:

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  1. If you want some more backpacking reading material, the guy I hiked the AT with started a blog check it out @

  2. More gear talk Jesse!
    Also, what are your opinions on ultra-light packs? And any suggestions for females as far as pack size recommendations?

    1. Hey Whitney! After a month, I'm back lol sorry! My opinions on Ultra-light packs are this.....I would only reccomend them to someone who is extremely serious about long distance hiking, they usually offer little to no support and do not hold up usually due to less durable material, thinner straps, lighter buckle molds etc...Also, it is easy to overload an ultralight pack which will make for a very uncomfortable trip. A 40L ultralight pack that weighs 14oz may only be comfortable for carrying 15-25lbs of gear and a 40L regular pack that weighs 35oz would be comfortable carrying 30-37lbs. In that case unless you are hiking 30-35 miles day after day on a long distance hike, I would There are some great "lighweight" packs out there that would do very well for you depending on what you are looking for. I have a great Osprey pack that is 48L and I wished I had it on the trail because it weighed about 3lbs less than my 60L Gregory pack I used. One reccomendation would be to go with a reputable company when buying a pack because you will use it and rip it or break it or something and it should be very easy to replace or repair. REI has great customer service on anything you buy. I would go "lightweight" vs "ultralight"....something around 2-3.5 lbs. As far as the size goes, backpacks are sized by torso length so you need to be sized by someone properly so the pack sits on your hips right. it has nothing to do with waist size or even really height. someone who is 6'0 and 300lbs may be a size small if he has a short torso and someone 5'0 100lbs may be a Large (however very unlikely thes examples are). If your question is regarding pack size (as in capacity), I think you would get the most versatility out of a pack in the 50-58 Liter range. Enough to pack a few days worth of provisions and not too big to make a good overnight or even day pack.