The Gear Guide: 7 Steps to the Perfect Pack

Adventure Travel, Backpacking & Trekking, Cabins & Camping, Packing & Wardrobe — By on January 21, 2011 at 12:00 pm

by Jessica Goldstein
LG Adventure Editor

You think it would be simple. It’s just a backpack, right? You used to carry your books in one every day. No big deal.

Then you pull up to your local outdoor gear store and are suddenly overwhelmed by all the options. It occurs to you that you don’t even know what size you are—who knew backpacks even came in sizes? These packs, it turns out, costs hundreds of dollars; it’s not the kind of cash you want to be plunking down on the counter unless you’re sure you’ve made the right decision. They are made out of materials that sound like something out of Transformers: “Take the Kevlar to the decepticon. Use the ballistics nylon. Hurry!” Um, what?

Worry not, intrepid first time travelers! Whether you’re about to set off on your first RTW trip or looking to head out into the woods in your backyard for a few days, we’ve got your back(pack) with our ultimate backpack buying guide. Read on for everything you need to get out of the store and one step closer to the great outdoors.

1. Show me what you’re made of

Most quality packs out there will be made of some kind of nylon. As far as details go, you want to see backstitching around parts of the pack that experience the most wear and tear—places like pockets and zippers. The bottom of the pack should be reinforced with something tougher than just plain old nylon; look for something like Cordura or Kevlar. And not to scare you away, but chances are your back is going to get pretty sweaty when you’re scaling the side of a mountain. Fortunately for you (and everyone with whom you’re hiking) plenty of packs have back panels that are covered with a wicking fabric, which will, you know, wick away perspiration. No sweat.

2. You’ve really got a hold on me

You are not carrying the weight on your shoulders. Despite what the famous expression says, you want the bulk of the weight on your hips (like here). Buy a pack with a wide hipbelt that sits just above your hipbones so the weight can be transferred there. You’ve also got a Goldilocks paradox to consider: a belt that’s too soft will not be up to the task of bearing the weight of your pack, but a belt that’s too tight could leave black and blue bruises across your waist. You want firm foam. Remember that these packs aren’t made with only men or women in mind, so be sure to find one that accommodates you.

You’re going to want similarly firm foam for the shoulder straps. Any creases in the fabric will cause blisters on your body, so while it might seem like the extra money for smooth straps is exorbitant, your shoulders will thank you later for the investment.

3. No, really, bigger isn’t better

The magic number here is 5,000-cubic inches. It’s enough space for a week’s worth of stuff. Should you be traveling for longer than that, you can either take a quick field trip to civilization and hit up a local laundromat or you can just embrace the ick factor and be good and dirty.

In finding the right size pack for your body, your height is not the factor to consider. What you need to measure is the length of your torso.  Perhaps you’re thinking, “That’ awesome, I already know my torso size! Who doesn’t?” For the rest of you (that is, for basically everyone) here is how to measure your torso: start at the bony part of your neck, the bit that sticks out a little between your shoulders and end at the small of your back. Between eighteen and twenty inches means your suspension size is most likely a medium, anything smaller is a small and anything bigger is a large.

Once you’ve narrowed it down to the right suspension size, make sure the straps on the pack you’ve selected are adjustable. Even torso-twins will have body idiosyncrasies, and you’ll want a pack that can cater to your quirks.

4. Dolla Dolla Bills

For a good internal-frame backpack, you should anticipate spending $200 to $420. Saving money on this end will seriously hurt you once you’re literally in the woods. However, unless you’re climbing Everest, there’s no reason to spend half a grand on your week-long camping trip either.

5. Compartmentalizing

Some packs open from both the top and the bottom and even have a way of internally sectioning off the lower portion. This is excellent if you want to be able to pull out your sleeping bag without emptying your entire pack every time you set up camp for the night.

Try not to be persuaded by the packs with the most external pockets. You’ll definitely want a couple—water bottle, trail mix, sunblock—but the more pockets you have, the more you’ll be tempted to fill them. This means more weight in the parts of the pack that’s furthest away from your body, which is the opposite of what you want. Keep it simple.

6. There is no such thing as a stupid question

Many, many people have an aversion to asking for help in stores. It’s completely understandable—you can feel like that old lady in the lingerie department at Bloomingdales is silently judging your lacy choice of underwear, or that the salesgirl will say you look amazing in everything just to make commission. But in this case, you’ll be at a store where the people who work there really know their stuff. Once you’ve narrowed it down to a few packs, ask for advice. Explain your travel plans and any personal needs and preferences. Ask questions. This is a big investment you’re making here, so don’t feel like you’re being annoying or interrogating the folks who work there. Sounds obvious, but it’s their job to help you out. Let them do their job.

7. Bust a move

This is the part that might make you feel like an idiot, but you need to test out the pack. Fill it with stuff (they’ll probably have weighted bags you can use for this very purpose, and the more prepared among you can bring your actual gear to the store) and mimic all the movements you’ll be making on the trail. Take giant steps, lift your knees as high as they can go, twist, let your shoulders rise and fall, or even teach someone how to dougie. Have you ever bought the omigosh perfect dress only to wear it to the party and find you can’t actually dance in it? Yeah, that’s not a mistake you want to be making here.

Congrats! Consider yourself ready for an excellent adventure.

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