The backpack is an icon of backcountry travel. A good backpack can be your travel partner as you visit wild and rarefied places around the world – places perhaps best discovered with only the things you can carry on your back.
When selecting a pack, consider the terrain, activity, and weight or volume of the load you’ll generally carry.
To accommodate a variety of body types, activities, and environmental conditions, manufacturers make packs in a range of designs and sizes.
These small packs have little or no internal frame to support loads, weight is supported by the shoulder straps. Daypacks are great for short, minimal-equipment outings like day hikes. Helpful features are a waistbelt to keep your load centred and padding along the back for added comfort.
These medium-sized packs usually have some internal stiffeners and a more substantial hipbelt that bears some the weight. Their load capacity makes them useful for equipment-intensive activities like ski touring and climbing, or even light overnight jaunts.
This size is designed for multi-day trips. They have a frame that gives structural rigidity and transfers the load from your back and shoulders to your hips.
The colossal capacity of these packs makes them ideal for extended backcountry travel and full expeditions. They’re also very useful on winter trips that require extra gear.
These vary from basic soft-sided suitcase with shoulders straps to elaborate backcountry packs. They have a flap that zips over the shoulder straps and waistbelt to reduce snagging on luggage conveyor belts. When the straps are folded away, they resemble a soft suitcase. This is advantageous for those seeking an air of respectability when checking into hotels or crossing borders. Remember to measure and weigh your pack before you travel with it. Most airlines restrict carry on luggage to 55cm high x 40cm wide x 23cm deep (21.5 x 15.5 x 9in.) and to 10kg. An additional small personal bag is limited to 33 x 43 x 16cm and should weigh no more than 10kg. Your checked bags are usually limited to two 23kg items.
Panel-loading, or front-loading packs allow easy access to your gear. Zippers on the panels, however, can be weak points that let in rain and snow. Look for compression straps that take the pressure off zippers.
Top-loading packs are stronger than front-loaders. However, everything must be unpacked to reach something at the bottom. This design remains popular in the backcountry, because it is durable and can stow a lot of gear.
Packs receive a lot of abuse. To ensure your choice is up to the test, look for these features:
Larger packs designed to hold a lot of weight have sophisticated suspension systems.
The shoulder harness should be designed to handle 30 to 40 percent of the weight. The straps keep the pack centred and balanced to ensure the majority of the weight is transferred onto the hips.
Look for shoulder straps with firm but forgiving padding. They should not pinch your shoulders, chafe under your armpits, or restrict your range of movement. More expensive packs have straps with shape or contour that enhances the fit and profile of the bag. A sternum strap is also a nice feature that helps keep the shoulder straps in the correct position and prevent chaffing under the armpits.
The hipbelt stabilizes the pack and keeps it in place. On small packs, the hipbelt’s primary function is to keep the pack close to the wearer and reduce shifting or bouncing; it is not intended to bear weight.
On large packs, the hipbelt is the main load-bearing component. It should have thick firm padding and ideally, a moulded shape. The shape helps seat the pack firmly on the hips, reducing lateral movement and making the bag more comfortable. The clip on the belt should be sturdy and easy to engage, release, and adjust.
The backpad is the part of the bag the touches your back. It is often a closed-cell foam pad covered with fabric. Larger packs may also include additional weight-supporting aluminum stays. Many smaller packs have a thin, but rigid panel built into the bag behind the cushioned backpad. The purpose of the sheet is to ensure the bag maintains its shape when partially full.
Larger packs have a rigid back panel and one or two aluminum stays. The stays ensure good weight transfer from the shoulders and the hipbelt. Very high-end packs may have pre-curved aluminum stays that offer maximum support and fit.
If you plan on carrying substantial weight it is crucial that the suspension system fits your back properly. The majority of high-performance packs are available in multiple sizes. See Fitting Your Backpack to determine the right pack size and suspension system for you.
You can also make micro-adjustments to the suspension system for a custom fit. Some manufacturers offer suspension systems designed specifically for women’s unique proportions. See Fitting Packs for Women for details.