Bikat's HOW TO CHOOSE series provides information about how to choose and use trekking or climbing equipment like backpacks, boots, gaiters, microspikes and a lot more.
Choosing the right backpack can be critical to whether you enjoy or endure your time in the outdoors. There are three broad factors you need to keep in mind while choosing a backpack, which will be broken down into more detail further -
The backpack with the right fit will be one that offers an appropriate size for your torso length, and a snug fit at the hips.
- Torso Length: Measure along the spine, from the base of the neck to the top of the hips. This is your torso length. Your torso length should be equal to the length of the backpack from the shoulder straps to the hip straps.
Although not common with Indian retailers like Decathlon and Wildcraft, most other backpacks are available in multiple sizes, and some offer a system that allows you to adjust the torso length of the pack.
- Waist Size: The majority of your backpack weight should be supported by the hips, not the shoulders. Most backpacks’ hip belt is adjustable for a wide range of sizes, from the 20s to the 40s in inches. People with narrow waists, and women may have problems finding a backpack that has both a suitable torso length and waist size, since most packs are constructed according to the male body. Some manufacturers offer women-specific packs and swappable hip belt systems
- Customising the fit:
1. Hip belt: Adjust the torso length (if possible), and put the pack on so that the hip belt rests over the hip bones. Close the buckle, and tighten the strap so that most of the backpack weight is on your hips.
2. Shoulder straps: Pull down on the shoulder straps to tighten them. They should be tight enough so that the pack is held against the body, but not so tight that the pack’s weight is on your shoulders.
3. Load lifter straps: These are straps connected to the frame of the pack, right above where the shoulder straps meet the pack. Tighten them enough so that they form an angle of 45° between the pack and your shoulders. This will prevent the upper part of the pack from sagging.
4. Sternum straps: Sternum straps provide additional pack stability and also help keep the shoulder straps inwards, allowing your arms to move freely. Although you don’t need to keep your sternum strap buckled all the time (some people, like me, find it suffocating), it’s useful during tricky and precarious sections, where the pack might shift and throw you off balance.
5. Final check: Now go back to the shoulder straps, and slightly loosen them. This will ensure the majority of the weight is carried by the hips.
The capacity of your pack depends on the duration of your trip, the season you are trekking or climbing in (winter trips require more equipment), and the style of your trip and equipment (ultra lightweight equipment will mean you carry a smaller pack even for extended multi day trips). The required capacity might also increase depending on the purpose of your trip - someone carrying photography equipment, for example, will need additional capacity.
- Frame: Most modern backpacks have an internal body-hugging frame made of steel/aluminium/alloy rods (called backpack stays). These help keep the body stable while hiking, and in transferring the load to the hips.
Older backpacks used to have frames on the outside, thus, they are called external frame backpacks. Although a few people might still choose external frame packs, they are mostly redundant and not easily available, especially in India.
Some backpacks are also frameless backpacks. They might do away with the frame altogether, or use lightweight frames made of foam. These are suitable only for ultralight camping, or very short hikes.
- Padding and Ventilation: While most packs have well padded back panels to provide comfort, the padding often contributes to perspiration build-up. Some backpacks have features to combat sweaty backs, which are common while hiking with loads. This is accomplished either via a suspended, trampoline-like mesh, or ventilation chimneys built into the back panel and the inside of the shoulder straps.
- Access: Most backpacks have a top access, which is pretty standard. These require some thought to be put in while packing, so you keep items required during the day at the top, and others at the bottom. Some packs have an additional front loading, or side zip, that allows you to fully open the interior of the pack at any time.
- Organisation: Although in the interest of weight-saving, most packs have one huge compartments, some have additional interior zips that help in organisation. A common feature is a separate, zipped sleeping bag compartment at the bottom of the pack. This can also be accessed directly from the outside. Some packs may have additional compartments for organisation of equipment.
- Removable day pack: Some packs have a removable daypack on the outside, or a top lid that can be removed for use as a daypack. This is valuable for day hikes and summit pushes.
- Raincover: A raincover is essential on a backcountry trip, whether you expect bad weather or not. Some packs have integrated rain covers at the bottom. With others, you may have to buy one separately.
1. Side pockets: Stretchable, can be used for water bottles and tent poles.
2. Hip belt pocket: For frequently accessed items like phone, GPS, trail snacks.
3. Front/Shovel pocket: Originally intended for snow shovels on winter trips, this is an elasticized mesh pocket that can also be used for dirty laundry, maps, and a jacket that can be accessed quickly.
4.Hydration sleeve: Most well built packs have an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, and portals through which you can pass the tube outside.
- External attachments:
1. Ice Axe/Pole loops: Useful for mountaineering, glacier trekking and for those who frequently carry hiking poles. These loops allow you to secure the axes/poles to the exterior of the pack. Most packs have at least one, some have two.
2. Daisy Chain: Mostly found on mountaineering and climbing specific packs, these allow you to attach multiple pieces of gear, like helmets and crampons.
3. Compression Straps: Mostly found on the sides of the pack, they allow you to compress your pack volume by tightening them, but are more commonly used to secure foam mats or tents to the exterior. Some packs also have dedicated straps at the bottom, for carrying tents and mats.