That Long Trail section hike. That week-long hut trip. A weekend camping in Maine’s Northwoods. Peak bagging in the ADK. If any of these are on your “to-do” list, now—as Covid fades but before travel and international borders fully reopen— would be the time to tick them off. The only thing you need is a really good backpack and gear. We’re talking about a backpack that won’t chafe or bounce and that you’ll keep for …well…forever.
Backpacks have come a long way in the last year or two. Lighter and more versatile, the 2021 models have dozens of options for fit, neat ways they can expand or contract, and new options for carrying water, ice axes, cell phones and more. So much so that even if you are not planning a big hike, it’s worth it to add a 40 to 60 liter, go-anywhere, carry-almost-everything pack to your quiver of lighter daypacks.
The biggest question: which one to choose? We asked a few local experts for their advice and then picked our favorites. [See A Sixpack of Backpacks We Love For 2021]
How Big Should You Go?
If you walk into any gear shop, the first things a backpack sales associate will ask you are: “What’s the rest of your kit look like?” and “How long are you planning to be in the woods?”
““If you don’t actually have anything, you don’t start with the backpack,” says Hayes Gilman, who heads up the packs department at Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington where the Church Street store has more than 165 models of backpacks and bags in inventory. “You want to actually get all of the little pieces fist.” Knowing what stove, tent and sleeping system you are going to be carrying will help you determine what pack you should consider.
If you have compact, lightweight gear, you can generally fit that into a pack in the 40 to 50 liter range. But if you have more standard gear, for 3- to 5-day trips you will want something in the 40 to 60 liter range. Anything smaller will not give you enough room, but anything bigger is going to be overkill. “Food and water are one difference in what size pack you should use,” adds Seth Dandurand, a sales associate at OGE.
Fit is Everything
Sure, browsing different gear sites and reading reviews can give you an idea of what the market has to offer, but when it comes to buying a pack, if you buy online you are missing out on the most important things: fit and comfort.
Before going into the shop, have a friend measure your torso from your hip to your neck, specifically from the nape of your neck (that bone that sticks out when you tilt your head forward) to your iliac crest (the bones between your hips where a pack often sits). Gear shops may also do this for you. Packs often come in three sizes (small, medium and large), but don’t go by your shirt size—you might wear a medium but may find a large pack fits your longer torso better.
Women often have shorter torsos relative to their height than men do, wider hips and narrower shoulders. The best pack makers are designing a women’s line with this in mind, such as Osprey’s women’s line and Deuter’s SL fit—a slimmer fit with narrower shoulder straps. Most packs feature a telescoping yoke that can be adjusted up or down as well as various hip belt and harness options.
Gregory’s packs come in standard sizes but offer three different harness lengths and five hip belt sizes so you can customize them with 15 different fit combinations. Gregory also just released its first full line of plus-sized packs, designed with testing and input from Unlikely Hikers, a Portland, Ore.,-based group that prides itself on diversity and represents a spectrum of body types.
“I learned so much from their feedback,” says Vice President John Sears who has been designing for Gregory for 19 years. “It’s amazing it’s taken this long but we now have a complete line of packs that have plus-size options and they cost just the same as our regular packs,” he noted.
For spring 2021, Granite Gear has launched its new fit-focused Perimeter pack. Designer David Eisenberg also worked with Jenny Burso and Unlikely Hikers and the Perimeter is the result. While the pack is unisex, it is far from one-size-fits-all. Designed for “body diversity,” the pack has a spring steel frame. On that frame are two settings for shoulder straps so you can adjust the width and it comes in a Regular or Long torso size. “The RE-FIT adjustable hip belt can go from 26 to 44 inches on the unisex model and 24 to 40 on the women’s fit. There’s also an option for a Large waist belt that goes from 36 to 52 inches,” says Eisenberg. He also says the company regularly gets calls from people on thru-hikes who have lost weight while hiking and are asking them to send a smaller hip belt.
Six Moon Designs has a modular system that allows you to fit its ultralight frameless packs to a vest-style harness (great if you are a trail runner) or to shoulder straps. The newest Swift X comes with three different harness options (shoulder harness, flight vest or s-curve harness) which each come in two sizes, as well as three different hip belts.
Without trying on a pack, putting weight in it, tinkering with the harness and hip belt, and walking around for a little while, it will be hard to know whether it is going to fit you properly. Often, this means trying on a number of different packs and comparing how each one feels. Shops will often have sandbags or climbing ropes they can throw in the pack. That’s why it’s best to head to a gear shop staffed with experts who can help you through the process.
“Let’s say you put 20 pounds in there and you go on a little walk,” remarks Gilman. “You’re like, oh, there’s like this little thing. It’s kind of annoying, but it’ll be fine. Five hours into your first day, it’s not gonna be fine. You’re going to be really mad. It’s going to be a less than ideal situation for sure.”
As you are trying on packs, consider how easy it is to adjust the straps, how wide they are and whether they will cut into your arms as you swing them. Are the load lifters (the straps that run from the top of the pack to your shoulders) accessible? An important feature, too, is where the sternum strap that crosses your chest is placed and how adjustable it is. Is the hip belt the right width and well padded? Does it sit on your hips comfortably? Can it expand or contract as you gain or lose weight?
“When you’re backpacking, 80 percent of the weight goes on your hips. That’s why there are so many different styles of hip belts and trying them all on and making sure one fits you well is important,” explained Gilman. “Because you’re not just carrying the pack on your shoulders, you’re actually trying to carry as little of it on your shoulders as possible.”
That’s also why you want to consider how you pack the weight you are going to carry and one reason many packs have a sleeping bag pouch at the bottom. “You don’t want the heaviest thing right at the bottom, you actually want the heaviest thing to be right above your hips. So, you put the sleeping bag at hip level and then all your heavy stuff right above that. So those things can be resting on your hips, not below them,” says Gilman.
Consider too, things like how much cushioning are in the waist belt and straps and how well ventilated the back is.
Details That Matter
Even if you aren’t looking for a pack that has dozens of features, but want something that will allow you a range of options, there are some things Dandurand suggests considering.
A kangaroo pouch on the front of the pack is perfect for stuffing a wet raincoat, rain cover or stream-crossing shoes into. Dual water bottle side pockets give you easy access to fluids and keep them from taking up space in your pack
Compression straps allow you to carry trekking poles, skis, ice axes, tent poles, extra layers, and more, without worrying about stuffing them into your main pack pocket. A removable lid is great for a little extra storage. Several can also be turned into a fanny pack for short treks out of base camp. The lid on Granite Gear’s Blaze 60 pack can even be snapped to the front of the pack for quick access.
Unless you plan to exclusively camp in the desert, plan on encountering rain or moisture and the drier you can keep your gear, the better. As Frank Gibbons, the camping and sporting goods buyer at Sam’s Outfitters in Brattleboro, notes: “There are two ways of waterproofing; one is a dry sack that you use inside the pack. And then the other would be to buy a pack cover that goes over the outside of it. Generally speaking, most of the bags and backpacks are not waterproof.” Many packs, like the Gregory Katmai/Kalmia, come with a rain cover.
Access is another consideration. Many of the new packs have zippers that allow you access to your entire pack instead of only having access at the top. Mystery Ranch’s Terraframe has three full zippers that make it easy to lay the pack down and access gear as easily as you would from a zip-top duffel. The Bozeman company makes packs for the military so the zippers should be strong enough to withstand strain.
Carrying enough water is critical, even for day hikes. If you dislike the bulkiness of large bottles, a reservoir system may be the best choice. If you do plan to carry a reservoir, you will want a pack that has a reservoir pocket or sleeve and consider how you access it for refills. Gregory also just launched a new reservoir that fits into it’s pack that is easier to pour from.
If you plan to bring water bottles, you will want a pack with side pockets. Side pockets seem standard enough, most are made of stretch-mesh, but Gilman points out that all are not equal. “In my opinion, the most undervalued thing on a backpack is this horizontal water bottle holder. I can’t even tell you how much time I’ve spent fighting to get a big Nalgene in the vertical thing.” Gilman points to a Gregory Paragon 58, “This one, you just slot it right in.” Bring your water bottle and test the pack when it is loaded. If the pocket is too tight, it’s tough to pull out a water bottle. Too loose and it could jostle out on its own. Think too about where you will put maps, phone, car keys and other small items. Are the pockets big enough and accessible?
Last, even smell matters. “I hate having a smelly pack,” says Gregory’s John Sears who added what he calls “Polygiene Stays Fresh Technology” – a coating designed to fight bacterial build-up and odor on the mesh parts of the pack where sweat often permeates.
Yes, even the littlest details matter.