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Backpack basics

Backpack basics

Posted by Ben Dahmen, Tyler Morrissey & Allister Fenton on 10th Dec 2020

Delving into the world of backpacks is an overwhelming experience, and planning a getaway has enough of its own stresses – choosing the right backpack shouldn’t be one of them. Luckily, this blog is here to help you narrow down your options and clue you up to what to look for so the pack you buy is one that will serve you well for many adventures to come. If you’re still on the fence, or on the edge of your seat with anxiety, then you clicked on the right link!

When deciding on a pack, many factors go into the decision-making process. Where are you going? What are you doing? How long are you going for? Does your pack need to work for different trips and adventures after this one? How much money are you willing to spend? The durability and features of the pack also affect your decision, as does the weight of the pack itself. Like cars, backpacks have become quite specialized over time with many categories and sub divisions, we’ve divided them into day packs (small), overnight or weekend packs (medium) and hiking or expedition packs (large). A small commuting car and a big 4X4 both get you from A to B (mostly) but they have different purposes, similar to a day pack and an expedition pack and if an expedition pack is like a 4X4 then we need to decide between Land Rovers, bakkies or Subaru’s.

Types of backpacks 

Day Pack:

At first glance, all daypacks may look similar, but they actually have lots of functional differences. A quick way to narrow your search for a daypack is to look for one that’s designed for the activity you want to use it for. They often have specific features for that activity, but that doesn’t mean they can’t cross over and work well for multiple activities. Daypacks range in size from small 1L capacity running vests to 40L packs for hiking or climbing.

Hiking: Nearly all of these packs are made with a hydration reservoir pouch and about two additional side pouches for water bottles. They come in various torso size options and suspension designs so that you can find the bag that fits your body. They’ll have a few different compartments to make things easy to find. Some of the bigger day packs will have an internal frame to stabilize the weight of the back and make it more comfortable to carry. Our favourites are the Osprey Talon / Tempest series and the Vaude Brenta series because they’re versatile and will last many years.

Climbing: These are split into two categories, packs for climbing longer routes and packs for cragging (where you carry all your gear to a climbing area but don’t climb with it. Packs for climbing with are made with a narrow profile which makes them less likely to get in the way. They are often made with a heavier material to help minimize damage from abrasion and some have a padded back for comfort with heavier loads and a hip belt to stabilize the pack on your body. Cragging packs are designed to carry all the climbing gear you’ll need for the day (rope, quickdraws, harness, shoes etc.) and make it easy to get to what you need. Check out the Black Diamond Bbee and the Mammut Neon Gear packs for your climbing needs.

General use: These are the jack of all trade type packs, use them for school or work, heading to the gym, commuting and travelling or hiking and climbing. They won’t excel at any one activity but they can do them all. The Black Diamond Street Creek pack takes a 15” laptop, has a front pocket for the little things and feels at home in the city or on the trails. It’s also worth looking at the Vaude Tecoair pack that has a well ventilated back panel and plenty of features for urban users but is as comfortable for day hiking as a dedicated hiking day pack.

Running: The smallest and most compact packs, these are designed to limit jostling while you run. The pocket features are easily accessible to reach snacks or water and nearly all are compatible with hydration reservoirs. The Osprey Duro / Dyna series is amazing for longer runs where you need a shell, some snacks and more water than you can fit in a belt.

Weekend Packs

So you enjoy your day trips but you want something more. To get out there for longer means you will need a larger pack size with the correct functions and features to handle a weekend or a couple of days long trips. All these packs are similar in a way as they are all needed to do the same job, but with brands competing against each other you may find some that have just what you are looking for personally. You’ll often need to pack a sleeping system (shelter, sleeping bag, sleeping pad), cooking system with food for your trip, some clothes and the outdoor essentials. Here are some features you should consider:

  • Suspension system (shoulder, hip and chest straps) is probably the most important feature. It should be adjustable to fit you well and the frame size should be appropriate for the length of your back. Most packs come with an internal frame which helps distribute weight evenly throughout your pack and makes carrying it a lot more comfortable. A padded hip belt is important as most of the weight from your back will rest on your hips. This will put less strain on your shoulders and back. If the hip belt has pockets on it, you’re winning; it’s so useful to be able to get to some things without taking your pack off.
  • Multiple compartments that allow you to separate your belongings into different sections. This makes it easier to access and find the stuff you need. Most packs in this category will have two or three openings so you don’t have to empty the pack to get to something at the bottom.
  • Water resistant materials and built in rain covers can help keep your belongings dry if you happen to get stuck in stormy weather. It’s a good idea to put essentials like your sleeping bag in a separate dry bag.
  • Other features such as compression straps to stabilize a pack that isn’t full, external gear straps that allow you to attach a foam sleeping pad and trekking pole holders are often overlooked but very useful.
  • The Mammut Lithium Crest series (37, 47 and 57 liter) packs are really great weekend hiking packs and Osprey and Vaude make really great packs in this category.

    Expedition packs

    These are similar to the weekend packs in terms of features but are bigger and sturdier to handle bigger loads and longer distances. A few of them, like the Osprey Aether Pro, have fewer hiking features and are optimized for mountaineering or bigger climbing trips were simplicity, durability and weight are more important. The regular Aether and Arial series is a perfect example of a well-rounded hiking pack that will do almost anything you need a hiking pack to do.

    Pack Size: How much do I need

    Backpacks come in a various sizes that are measured in litres to determine the volume. The duration of your trip or the intended use and the amount of gear you normally need is important to consider as this can be the factor that guides you towards the pack you’ll end up getting. For example, day trips or urban travel a pack with a volume of 20L to 45L is ideal whereas expeditions or international travel using a pack with a volume of 50L to 100L should be perfect. Consider these factors when deciding what pack to buy.

  • Duration of your trip (days or weeks)
  • Pack contents (food, clothing, gear etc) - how much you will need
  • Location - isolated or near civilisation
  • International or local
  • If you are worried about weight and size. Pack slowly to avoid wasting space and plan each day of your trip individually so that you don’t over pack.

    Fitting a pack

    So you now know what type of bag you need and type, it all comes down to fitment. We can’t stress this enough, if you don’t size your bag well you are going to have an uncomfortable trip. Some packs are built to be adjustable to fit most body shapes but others come in set sizes so you’ll need to determine your torso length to know which fits you best.

    Measuring your torso length is quick and easy, you just need a flexible tape measure and a friend.

    1.Tilt your head forward and have your friend feel along the base of your neck for a bony bump. This is the top of your torso (aka C7 vertebra). The bottom of your torso is at the top of your hip bones. An easy way to find this spot is to put your hands comfortably on your hips, it’s where your thumbs point to on your back.

    2.Have your friend measure between these two points - this is your torso length

    All modern hiking backpacks have a recommended torso length. In case yours falls between sizes (small, medium or large) you can choose which one feels best. When trying out backpacks in a store, it’s vital to make sure the shoulder harness is in the right position for you. When you’ve adjusted this and found the right setup, keep it that way. Ask any of the shop assistants for guidance or advice if you are struggling.

    Brands

    Osprey: They have been in the backpack industry for years so you are guaranteed to get quality out of your purchase. Having plenty of athletes in the field using their products, they understand the needs of backpackers. Most of Osprey’s products come with the All Mighty Guarantee which means you can take a damaged pack into any retailer that sells the brand and they will send it in for repairs or replacements. This is a big perk especially if you are in a foreign country and you rely on the use of your bag. Material used on the packs is water resistant and nearly all have a built-in rain cover. The hip belts have the option to be moulded to a persons torso to make it as comfortable as possible and some pack lids detach and become a day pack if needed. You really can’t go wrong with this brand so definitely consider it when you are making a decision.

    Vaude: The eco-friendly brand. Vaude’s backpacks are made with materials and chemicals in efforts that do not effect the environment. Everything down to the “plastic” buckles are biodegradable. These packs come in plenty of options but some have complained that they lack certain features to make a hikers life easier. Although this does make a weight difference in the bag and its not a big issue, it all comes down to what your personal needs will be.

    Black Diamond: Our BD range for rope/climbing bags are a fantastic option if you plan on taking a bag through rough conditions as the material is one of the toughest so you don’t have to worry about abrasion. They come in day packs that suit the needs of people who just want to get away on the weekends.

    Other: Mammut, Petzl and DMM also make great pack options for every need. Each brand has its own unique features that make them stand out so it's worth comparing them to each other.

    We recommend that when looking for a new pack you visit us in store and browse through the options. Some brands will fit you better than others so by testing them out you are sure to find what suits you best so your next adventure will be fun and comfortable. The staff in our gear shop are experienced and knowledgeable so feel free to ask lots of questions.

    See you on the trails

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