Choosing a Backpack

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Buying a pack can be a large investment so before you go, take same time out to do a healthy amount of research

What activity will you be using the backpack for?

Consider exactly what you activities you will be using it for.  Will it be for overnight camping trips, or extended sessions of 5 plus days? Do you need it to be ultralight or will you be hiking miles upon miles with plenty of kit and thus require considerable padding to make it comfortable?</p

What Size Backpack do you Need?

Broadly speaking there are four types of back pack:

1.Day sack: 15-25

2. Overnight/alpine style: 30-55

3. Multi-day: 60-80

4. Expedition: 80+

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The Exped Cloudburst 25L waterproof backpack. There is no reinforced back so you can whack this in your expedition pack as a dry sack and use it as a waterproof day sack when you have established a base camp. We have used at as an ultralight weekend backpack and it has done well.

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The Gregory Wander 55L Alping backpack. A great alrounder for the weight conscious weekender.

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The Arcteryx Altra 65L Backpack. A cracking little number for all round general performance and we think a pretty sexy looking colour

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The Osprey Xenith 88L Expedition Pack. This is Osprey’s new replacement for the Argon and is designed for multi day expeditions or weekend adventures where capacity is needed for beer storage.

When I started camping I just wanted to get the biggest pack I could so that I could carry as much as possible. Sure if I’m going away for a week or during winter, I will need to carry lots of extra kit so an expedition pack would be appropriate, but for most trips I only need a pack with a 50-60L volume.

Materials and Methods Used to Make a Backpack

In the old days, backpacks were made of canvas lined with wax which was waterproof but pretty darn heavy.

Nowadays most backpacks are made from either nylon or polyester. Nylon is softer and stronger than polyester but polyester is more UV resistant. Nylon can be strengthened by weaving nylon in a cross hatch pattern. This is called ripstop nylon and, as the name suggests, stops the nylon from tearing further once punctured. Another type of high strength nylon that you may see is type 66.

When looking at backpacks, you may hear the name “Cordura”. This is a brand name that refers to a collection of fabrics that have been tested by a company called Invista, to meet mininum standards of “bombproof-ness.” The fabric most commonly used is nylon but it can be a combined with other fabrics such as polyester or cotton. The best way to understand cordura is to think of hotels. Some hotels have a Best Western stamp to show that they meet the minimum criteria of awesomeness set out by Best Western. Invista in this case is Best Western and giving nylon its stamp of awesomeness which suddenly morphs it into Cordura.

You will often see nylon and polyester measured in deniers (D), which refers to the fibre thickness. Thicker fibres tend to be stronger (and heavier) so many companies use it as a marker of strength; the higher the number the stronger the fabric but the weightier it is. This is an important concept because a 100D polyester fabric will have a lower strength to a similarly thick 100D nylon fabric. Day packs typically use 200D nylon whereas the more rugged multi-day load luggers will use 400-650D nylon.

Another measure that you may see is taffeta’s (T) This refers to the number of threads (threadcount). More threads should give more strength (and waterproofness).

A key consideration in backpack design is stitching; most backpacks have 6 to 10 stitches per inch. With more than ten stitches, the structural integrity of the backpack material is lost as you interrupt the threads. With less than six, the backpack may fall apart in your hands! Some backpacks come double stitched for added strength. This is ideal in a key weight bearing interface, such as where the shoulder straps join the backpack. When buying a backpack, check the stitching before you buy!

Zippers

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The majority of pack manufacturers are using plastic “coil” zippers on their packs these days.

The chief advantage of it is that if fabric gets caught in the teeth, the fabric can be gently pulled out of the zipper without tearing. Some packs may use regular plastic tooth zippers, and these are certainly okay as well. They won’t let go of fabric as easily but are more durable. Some of the cheaper packs may use aluminum or steel metal zippers, which are prone to rusting in poor weather conditions. Unless you want to get a new pack every year we would advise that you avoid these like the plague!

Features to Look out For in a Backpack

If you’re intending to carry heavy gear you need to think about hauling that gear in comfort. There’s no point hitting the trail and finding out you’re in agony after half a mile. Many packs have air channels and attempt to keep the load away from your back so that you don’t get too sweaty. Look for good padding on the arms, particularly in the section that will be around your shoulder. It’s worth bearing in mind though that the more padding you have the heavier the pack!

The hip belt is really important, particularly on packs above 50 litres in size. The hip belt on large bags should channel most of the pack’s weight onto your hips so that they take care of the lifting duties.  On smaller packs the hip belt primarily helps with stabilising the load. Companies like Osprey offer a custom moulded hip belt with many of their packs. Basically when you buy the bag in somewhere like Cotswold Outdoors they heat up the hip belt for a few minutes and then ask you to wear it around the store for 10 minutes. During this time it shapes itself to your hips. This may just be a gimmick but no one can deny Osprey make great rucksacks.

Think about whether there are enough attachment points on the pack. Are you going to be trekking in winter and need to carry ice axes, or crampons? Perhaps you will be wondering through woodland like a small hobbit with frying pans and various food items attached to the outside of your pack.  Maybe you’ll be doing a lot of walking through the wilds or Dartmoor and may want to easily access a map, so a flexible easy access front pocket could be useful. You may use a hydration pack so you will want to check it is compatible, or if you prefer water bottles you’ll need side pockets so you can easily access refreshment.

Consider the way you will pack your bag. Will you need a separate compartment for dirty or wet kit? Do you want access to the front of the pack? Some rucksacks offer you access from the top and front which makes grabbing kit from the bottom of your pack much easier. Once packed some rucksacks offer compression straps on the outside to make sure the load stays locked in place and won’t shift about as you trek. This is particularly useful if you haven’t completely filled the bag. Some rucksacks such as the Haglofs Women’s Lex Q 80 Rucksack offer internal compressions straps to ensure the kit stays where it should.

Climbers will be looking for a low profile bag, something slimmer that gives them greater freedom of movement. They will also look for removable features so that when they’re pushing for the summit they can strip out unnecessary weight and forgo comfort to get to the top. They might remove the hip belt or aluminium frame etc.

Some packs are waterproof like the CRUX RK40 but on the whole most packs aren’t so you’ll need to protect your kit. On most bags rain will seep through the seams so get a rain cover. A few bags come with them whilst others offer it as a separate purchase. If you  are looking to save a few quid you can get away with just putting all of your stuff in a black bin liner or a dry sack.

Once you know what style of pack you want it’s crucial it fits you properly. Get the people in the shop to help you out or ask friend to measure you. Each pack is different, cheaper ones tend to offer fewer customizable features whereas better packs will come in various sizes and further to that offer adjustable back systems. All good quality rucksack manufacturers produce packs specifically designed to fit women, these include hip belts that are shaped differently, shoulder straps can be in a different position and shaped away from the chest and padding in different areas.

Finally think about the weight of the pack, the more features you have the heavier the bag. We’ve compiled a comparison table of most of the packs on the market so you can look at weight, pack features cost etc.

Backpack Dictionary of Terms

Adjustable suspensions: a system that allows the shoulder harness to be repositioned (often using a “ladder” system of adjustment points on the back panel) this provides a better fit.

Aluminum stays: Flat support rods used in internal-frame packs, typically 1-inch wide, that more or less parallel the spine, forming something close to a V-shape at the hip belt.

Berghaus Bioflex:  Innovative back support system that responds to the body’s natural movement. When you twist, it twists. When you flex, it flexes. When you bend, it bends, that’s the simple principle behind the innovative Bioflex® Rucksack. The load you are carrying stays close to your centre of gravity giving effective load transfer at all times.

Berghaus EVA Breathe: Perforated EVA foam sheets are laminated together in an offset pattern creating a honeycomb matrix effect. This structure can be manufactured in multiple layers thus allowing it to be used in different areas of the pack carrying system. The unique structure of the inter-linked matrix of cavities ensures the foam does not collapse into sealed cavities when worn, which would restrict airflow. Air travels through the inter-linked cavities and passes out of the edges of the back system. This ensures maximum airflow and moisture vapour transfer, resulting in drier, more breathable back system, ultimately improving user comfort.

Berghaus Freeflow:  The Freeflow system improves airflow between your back and the pack. Essentially this technology gives you air around all your body parts which would normally touch the bag, making for a much cooler less sweaty experience.

Bungee Cords & Shock Cord:  Elasticated cords on the outside of the pack that allow you to attach equipment.

Compression straps: Straps on the sides of the rucksack that allow a bulky or partially full rucksack to be compressed making it easier and more comfortable to carry.

Crossing (X-shape) stays: Lends a touch of flexibility to a pack’s back panel.

Framesheets: A thin, stiff layer of plasticised, semi-rigid material that supports the rucksack it also protects the wearer from being poked by stuff in their pack.

Hip Belt: The hip belt stabilises the pack and keeps it in place. On small packs, the hip belt’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 hip belt is the main load-bearing component. It should have thick firm padding and ideally, a moulded shape.

Hydration System: many backpacks have either built in water bladders (hydration packs) or have a sleeve for a water bladder and a hole to facilitate the drinking tube.

Hypalon: is a flexible elastomer which is extremely durable and is often used in high wear areas or to make strong attachment systems. DuPont have unfortunately stopped producing Hypalon

Load-lifter straps: Stitched into the top of the shoulder straps they connect to the top of the pack frame. They don’t  lift the load but help stop the upper portion of a bag from pulling away from your body, which would cause the pack to sag on your lumbar region and could compromise stability and your balance.

Lumbar Pad: Thick padding for the base of the spine

Roll-top closure system : Some packs made by Crux and Arc’teryx have roll top closure systems. These are found on waterproof packs you simply roll the top a few times and then clip it together and you have created a water tight seal.

Spindrift Collar:  Larger backpacks tend to have a top compartment which can be flipped backwards to give access to the backpack’s inside pockets. Access to the backpack is protected by the spindrift collar which is a large cover that can be shut with a drawstring.

Stabiliser straps: Found on the side of the hipbelt connect the belt to the lower region of the pack bag. Keeping them fairly tight improves balance.

Sternum strap: Strap across the chest that clips together. It helps stabilise the pack and is particularly useful when you’re crossing uneven ground. These days you will find many packs include an emergency whistle inbuilt into the strap.

Wand pockets: Fabric or mesh pockets located on the sides at the base of the rucksack that allow long items to be fixed to your pack or storage for smaller items such as walking poles or ropes.

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