Guide to choosing the right backpack

By Justin Walker March 26, 2014
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A reliable, well-fitted pack will be one of your best outdoor investments. Ever.

Harness and frame

How these two key features combine is the key to comfort – and the durability of your pack. The pack harness needs to fit you perfectly when fully loaded. A harness system will offer size adjustment, and varying degrees of padding in key areas, such as the waist belt and shoulder straps. Straps above the shoulder strap can be adjusted to bring the pack closer to your upper body (for when walking uphill), then be relaxed for when walking on flat surfaces or downhill.

The waist harness will have similar straps for cinching the pack in snug. Your lower torso/back is where most of the load should be, so ensure the waist belt is comfortable and adjustable. Most manufacturers offer specific packs for women.

In regards to the frame: most large trekking packs have internal aluminium frames. These are designed to support the load and direct the weight to the wearer’s load-bearing areas.

Backpack materials

Most modern packs utilise synthetic fabrics but there are still canvas packs available. The benefit of “old school” canvas is its durability. Today’s canvas packs are not as heavy as their predecessors (weight is one of the material’s negatives) and are treated with durable water repellent (DWR) for water-resistance – important, as canvas absorbs moisture so does get heavy when wet.

Synthetic packs used to be frowned upon because of perceived fragility, but this is not the case today; synthetic packs are robust enough for years of abuse. Some packs combine both materials – canvas is used in high-wear areas.

Backpack design

Harness systems come in varying degrees of complexity, from the simple shoulder harness and waist belt combo through to a harness system that can be personally configured to the user, with methods including heating the harness so it “moulds” to your waist/body for an exact fit. Other designs include climbing packs that may double as trekking packs (depending on your intentions and budget).

These packs often have extra gear loops, which can be handy or a hindrance. The shape of a pack is a defining feature: tall and narrow allows for squeezing through narrow places but can mean the pack towers above your head, which can disturb the balance of it on your back. Wide and short may allow more free head movement but cause problems when negotiating said narrow terrain.

Other design features include a separately accessible bottom section(s) for storage of bulky items such as a sleeping bag. The disadvantage of this is the zip becomes a potential water ingress point. Speaking of zips – none are fully waterproof and you cannot rely on pack covers as they don’t fully protect your pack’s vulnerable areas, such as seams around the harness, etc. The best bet is to always pack your gear in a dry-bag/garbage bag inside your pack.

Packs that offer additional load capacity (often written as +10, to describe an extra 10 litres of space) are handy, especially if they can be cinched smaller for day/overnight walks.


Buying a backpack

Try as many backpacks as possible. Ensure you load each one with the same gear you would take on a multi-day trek. An easier alternative is to ask in-store; some retailers have ‘dummy loads’ that replicate certain pack weights that you can load in the pack you’re trying on.