A modern pack can seem to defy the laws of gravity, making
60 pounds carry like 40, and making 30 pounds feel like a heavy shirt (almost).
If you're carrying an older pack, you may find yourself stripping it off
regularly to relieve shoulder spasms and tingling fingers. Conversely, a good,
correctly fitted modern pack will rarely leave your back sore (same weight, more
comfort). And the heavier your payload, the more critical the pack quality
Virtually all packs are made of nylon, foam and aluminum
and fall into three basic categories: external-frame,
and frameless rucksacks.
External-frame and internal-frame packs are the most appropriate choices for
multi-day trips, while frame-less packs are best for light, fast ovenights or
big day loads. Choose your pack based on the type of trips you will be taking.
The external is the venerable purist's "back- packing" model, made
with an H- shaped exposed frame suspended by thickly padded shoulder straps, a
stretched backband, and a load-bearing hipbelt. Straps or wired clevis pins
attach the pack bag to the frame. An external carries best with the weight high
over the shoulders, supported largely by the waistbelt. It offers good
ventilation against your back, a relatively straight-up stance, and heavy
load-hauling capacity. However, the same high center of gravity also makes the
external shaky in the balance department, often causing the wearer to sway
during active sports like skiing, bushwhacking, and boulder hopping. A typical
external pack bag bristles with side pockets and compartments, allowing for easy
gear organization during long trips. Externals come in simple top-loading
and easy-access panel-loading versions or combinations. Look for
strong bag-frame attachments and a comfortable initial fit with good weight
transfer to the hips. After that, check for adequate shoulder-strap padding and
thoughtful pocket configurations. Strap on the pack, snug it tight, then look
up. Your head will probably hit the frame, so find one with reasonable
clearance. Although externals remain popular, they've lost ground to the recent
wave of Internal-frame models. An external is typically half the cost of a
An internal incorporates the load-transfer elements into the pack bag itself,
using flexible stays of aluminum or graphite to transmit weight onto a padded,
stiffened hipbelt. A flexible plastic frame-sheet adds support and guards the
spine from protruding cargo, yet has enough "give" to match your
moves. An internal hugs tighter to the body than an external frame and carries
the load somewhat lower so it's more stable for climbing or rock hopping. The
streamlined shape offers better arm clearance for awkward maneuvers, and slips
through tight spots where you'd be dragging a bulky external pack behind you.
Many people buy internals because of their "mountain jock" image, but
these packs do have their drawbacks. You lean forward more under an internal
than with most externals. Proper loading is critical because the cargo itself
helps stabilize the whole structure. Side pockets usually have to be purchased
separately. And most significant, a better internal pack can cost $350 and up,
though even the fanciest external rarely tops the $200 mark. Look for a good
harness fit, where the hipbelt centers over your hip bones and the upper ends of the shoulder straps attach to the frame
2 or 3 inches below shoulder level. The tops of the frame stays should protrude
at least a couple of inches above shoulder height, but no more than 5 or 6
Match the pack-bag size to your intended uses. Simple,
flat-bottomed sacks stand up better for loading than those with tapered
sleeping-bag compartments. Since all your stuff should fit inside an Internal,
take key items such as tents and sleeping bags along when you're shopping.
A rucksack in the midsized range (2,500- to 3,500-cubic-inch capacity) actually
sports some sort of frame. A simpler incarnation is just a well-tailored bag
with a foam-padded back panel and shoulder straps atop a webbing waistbelt. The
smaller end of the rucksack range is best suited to light-load activities such
as hut-to-hut hiking, grocery shopping, backcountry skiing, rock climbing, and
day-tripping, anything where the freedom of motion is ample reward for the
Suspension varies widely in this category. The better sacks
incorporate flexible plastic framesheets, shoulder-strap stabilizers, and
stiffened padded waistbelts. These models can usually handle 30 to 40 pounds;
heavier loads depend on your grit factor. A frameless rucksack requires careful
packing to carry well, since the stuffed pack bag s your load stability.
and Panel-Loading Design
Top-Loading: To pack a top-loader, you just dump gear down
into the opening, cinch the drawstring, buckle down the top flap/pocket, and
yank the side compressor straps tight. This most popular of bag designs offers
high cargo security at some cost in access convenience. Most top-loading
externals have a metal spreader bar that holds the main compartment open, so you
can simply lean the frame against a tree and shoot baskets until it's full. Most
internal-frame top-loaders also sport a sleeve-and-drawstring system that helps
compress the cargo. Access to packed equipment in a top-loader isn't bad if you
keep oft-used items near the top, utilize any access zippers, and/or organize
gear in color-coded stuffsacks. A top-loader is packed easily while upright,
offers fewer openings for rain to penetrate, and has fewer zippers to blow out.
The main cargo compartments of a panel-loader open wide with curved access
zippers, This design makes this type easier to pack than a top-loader. Finding
the widget of your immediate need may still require a little digging, but you
can usually locate it more quickly in a panel-loader. A panel-loader has to be
angled or laid down to load, and for durability's sake, the zippers should be
heavy-gauge coils backed up with buckled compression straps. But for the most
part, a panel-loader is plenty durable, easier to load, and almost as
weather-proof as any top-loader, especially since you'd use a raincover with
each style. Now that many packmakers have adopted high-volume hybrid
top-load/panel-load bag designs, you can have it either way.
Capacity ratings are expressed in cubic inches as supplied
by the manufacturers. These aren't much more reliable than the notoriously
mythical temperature ratings for sleeping bags since no industry standard
exists. Capacity ratings offer limited comparisons value between manufacturers
but generally hold true for comparing models within each manufacturer's line.
Compounding the problem is the fact that internal and external packs with comparable capacities may have widely differing cubic-inch ratings since sleeping bags end up outside the pack bag on most external-frames but go inside the bag on almost all internals. A reasonable rule of thumb: Sleeping bags run between 800 and 1,500 cubic inches, so subtract that figure from an internal's cargo-capacity rating when trying to compare it with a similarly sized external.
This pack type takes in mostly slim-profile internal sacks tailored to ambitious
day pursuits like rock climbing or ski touring. But this type is also
appropriate for one to three nights with honed-down, bare essentials gear. Most
packs are frameless rucksack designs; zip/panel loaders are popular in these
sizes. Overload these packs when shopping, because that's often how they're
carried. Double-check to make sure your sleeping bag fits without hogging all
your cargo room. Look for carrying stability. Capacity: 2,500 to 3,500 cubic
Weekend Pack: A
weekend pack should be short on frills and long on utility. It'll hold a compact
sleeping bag, small tent, stove, a little food, and miscellaneous equipage for
the weekend. A smaller sack forces you to travel light because there simply
isn't room to bring all your toys. Capacity: internals, 3,000 to 4,500 cubic
inches; externals, 3,000-plus cubic inches.
Long Trip: This
category includes the basic "load-monster" pack for most multiday
hardcore travel. It's big enough for a winter week, yet it's not too big for a
summer weekend. Ultralighters could make do for weeks in most climates. For the
occasional expedition, add side pockets. Capacity: internals, 4,500 to 6,000
cubic inches; externals, 4,000-plus cubic inches.
pack type can swallow far more gear than you'd probably want to carry, and it
can keep it safe from hostile elements. In this size range, fit is absolutely
critical. Before you buy, try the pack with 60 pounds aboard because that's the
sort of heinous load you'll be carrying. But be warned: With this much cargo
space conveniently at hand, there is a tendency- to
take things you don't really need. Look for extra-beefy shoulder straps and
hipbelt, lots of lash points, expandable top lid, and seriously cavernous
compartments. Capacity: internals, 6,000-plus cubic inches; externals, about
5,000-plus cubic inches.
The harness and waistbelt are any backpack's
most important features.
How to fit it
Load the pack, ensuring that the hipbelt fits right, then
adjust the shoulder straps. Getting those two systems work-
l) The hipbelt
should rest on your hip bones. The padded section of ! the belt should wrap
around your hips but not quite meet in front. You may have to move the belt up
or down on the frame so the pack's lower crossbar doesn't contact your back.
2) The shoulder
straps. With most frame packs, the shoulder straps' upper anchor points
should be even with the crest of your shoulders. The straps should be set wide
enough apart so they don't pinch your neck, but narrow enough so they don't
slide off to the side. If the straps are mounted too high, they'll transfer
weight to the front of your shoulders and "wedge" you in I place. Set
too low, they'll take too much of the load, won't let the waistbelt share the
burden, and tend to let the pack
3) The load-lifters.
Shoulder straps equipped with load-lifters generally should join the frame just
below your shoulder crest. The load lifters themselves should join the frame at
ear level, and attach to the shoulder straps just forward of your collarbone.
Tightening the load-lifters transfers more weight onto your shoulders. Loosening
them will settle more weight onto your hips. You can vary the load-lifters'
tension while you're on the move to help ease the burden when you've packed too
4) Frame size.
You can tell the frame is too small when you run out of headroom, can't get the
shoulder straps and waistbelt far enough apart, or you can't let out the
shoulder straps enough It's too big when the top flops around or the shoulder
straps bottom out against their adjustment buckles.
Packs: How to load it
Make these four simple steps a routine when packing:
l) Heaviest gear
goes on top. Carry weight too low or too far back and you'll have to lean
forward to counterbalance it all, which may turn you into a hunchback before
your trip is over. Weighty stuff; stove, cook kit, bulk foods, stormgear, water
bottles go in the upper compartment and top side pockets. Keep the heaviest
items close to your back. Store fuel bottles and water bottles upright in
separate pockets to avoid contaminating food or clothes. The tent, usually the
heaviest item carried, is lashed on top behind the extender bar. Odd-shaped
cargo fits under the top lid.
2) Midweight gear
fills the middle. Stow clothing, personal gear, headlamps, maps, compass,
compact camera, and the like into the center compartment and lower side pockets.
Stuff spare clothing into a plastic bag for good storm insurance. Organize
similar gear in separate pockets.
3) Light, bulky
equipment goes toward the back of the pack. Lash your sleeping bag below the
main pack bag. Always line its stuff sack with a plastic bag; after hiking all
day in the rain, you'll be glad you did. Or carry the sleeping bag in a daypack
you can use on side trips.
4) Lash long items
to the frame. Tie your flyrod case and long tent poles to the sides of the
frame, or shove them into tunnels behind the side pockets. An ice ax will fit
into the pack bag's loop carrier.
Internal Frame Pack:
How to fit it
Start by stuffing the pack full and ensuring that all
straps are loose. From here, it's a matter of putting it on so you can check for
a comfortable fit.
l) Fit the frame.
Slip into the shoulder straps and fasten the hipbelt where it's most
comfortable, generally centered over your hip bones. Watch your profile in a
mirror to see if the framesheet or stays protrude 2 to 4 inches above your
shoulders; if less than that, look for a larger size. Longer stays can restrict
headroom even though the suspension fits.
2) Fit the waist.
The padded ends of the hipbelt shouldn't quite meet in front. Make sure there's
enough room to change layers of clothing. If
the unpadded part rubs your tummy, guess what? Gotta find a bigger
hipbelt. Overtightening the hip stabilizer straps can distort the belt shape and
3) Fit the shoulder.
Shoulder straps should curve over your back and join the pack roughly 2 inches
below your shoulder crests. Reposition the shoulder harness if necessary. Cinch
shoulder straps so the lower ends are about a hand's width below your armpit. If
they bottom out or come up short, find a different size pack or parts.
4) Fiddle with the
load-lifters. These divert pressure to the front of your shoulders. The
upper ends should join the frame at ear level. If you can't position them above
shoulder height, find a larger frame. It's important that the buckle attaching
the load-lifter to the shoulder strap be positioned just in front of your
collarbone. Tighten the load-lifters to shift weight onto your shoulders, and
loosen to shift the load to your waist. Vary them on the trail to give your back
5) Fiddle with the
other doo-dad. By now, a bit of fine-tuning should be all you need to
achieve the ideal fit. Cinch the various hipbelt and/or pack-bag stabilizers to
pull everything snug against your waist, but don t distort the smooth wrap of
the belt. A sternum strap should be set a couple of inches below collarbone
height. If the frame stays are shaped properly, the pack will comfortably hug
6) Reshaping the frame. Shaping the frame stays remains a black art. Most frames come prebent to comfortably fit the majority of users. If you aren't among that privileged majority, we recommend working with a skilled packfitter, especially if the pack has a framesheet. But the merits of bending your own shouldn't be slighted; just keep a tracing of the original profile.
to load it
An internal's cargo creates part of its load-bearing
structure. Once filled, the pack stands tall, but with contents removed, it
becomes a heap. Merely filling the pack, however, isn't enough. You need to
think carefully about the order in which your gear nestles into the pack. For
level hiking over easy terrain, try to create a high center of gravity. Place
loose clothing and other high-bulk/low-weight items low in the gear department,
gradually adding heavier, denser items on top (food, stove, water bottles). For
more active pursuits like bushwhacking, skiing, or climbing, keep the dense
stuff lower and closer to your back to retain a compact center of gravity. Many
women, because of their naturally lower center of gravity, prefer the latter
packing technique for all occasions
to put it on
Once loaded, there are several ways to put your pack on
without pulling your back out:
l) Set it on a
boulder, stump, or downed tree, slide your arms into the straps, then lift with
2) Bend your knees in a semisquat position, then lift your pack onto one of your thighs. Slide your right arm into
the right strap. With the strap and the pack's weight on
your right shoulder, swing the pack around and onto your back while sliding your
left arm into the left strap.
WEAR IT WELL :
Advice on loading, fitting and using packs
Look for good sternum-strap arrangements that adjust
enough to handle extra clothing layers if you have narrow shoulders. Buy a
pack with a yoke placement that fits well.
Select a correctly fitting pack since packs fit men and
women differently. Men generally have long torsos, and women tend to have
short torsos and long legs. Make sure that you get a pack designed for your
Pack the heaviest items up high and as close to your
back as possible to bring the weight in line over your hips and feet.
Load heavy items farther down in the pack to lower your
center of gravity and to add stability if you'll be scrambling,
bushwhacking, or skiing with a full pack. Because of their lower center of
gravity, women may feel more comfortable using this packing method at all
Store fuel bottles away from foodstuffs in a separate
side pocket unless you really like gas-flavored oatmeal.
Generally pack hard-edged items, such as stoves or
cookware, carefully to ensure that they don't poke your back or rub holes in
Store your gear in color-coded stuffsacks to make
locating it in a hurry much easier.
Cinch the pack bag tight with the compression straps as
the last step in loading. A loose load will flop around and can throw you
In winter, use your empty pack as a door to your snow
cave or igloo.
Put your empty pack under the foot of your sleeping bag
for insulation when you're using a short pad.
After a trip, unzip all pockets and compartments to
shake out crumbs, dirt, sand, and hazardous wastes like crusty trail socks.
If the pack is really grungy, sponge it off with mild soap and water.
Air-dry out of the sun; ultraviolet rays can damage the nylon fabric in a
surprisingly short time.
Between trips, don't neglect basic maintenance. Stitch
up any rips with a heavy-duty needle and upholstery thread. If nylon straps
are frayed, melt the edges with a match.
Check annoying squeaks on external frames; try silicone
spray where the bag contacts the frame. Replace any worn clevis pins or
Inspect for loose seams or deteriorating hardware at
major stress points around the hipbelt, shoulder straps, and suspension
stabilizers. A blown shoulder strap could mean big transport troubles deep
in the woods. Repair worn zippers before they pop and allow your necessities
to fall out for miles along the trail.
If you won't be hitting the trail for a while, store your pack in a cool, dry, airy place to keep it from collecting mildew, which can delaminate the waterproof fabric coating.
Copyright 2001 Northern Arizona University, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED