Framing Your Backpack Search: How to Shop for and Fit Backpacking Packs

Stepping into a shop for your first backpacking pack can be a little intimidating. There are a lot of options, a lot of letters and numbers on the tag that might not necessarily make sense, and it can get overwhelming. You want to come out with a pack that satisfies your needs, feels good when you hike with it, and, arguably most importantly, is one that you like – which is why we are here to help you navigate this new experience! 

Step One: Selecting Your Pack

Think about what you want to use this pack for – long backpacking treks or day hikes? If you will only be using this pack for day hiking, like on our New England Mountains & Coast trip or our Colorado’s Rocky Mountains program, then there’s no reason to get an enormous pack with lots of space. Something in the 20L – 30L range will be a great fit. However, if you’ll be packing a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, etc. inside this pack, like on our California Mountains & Coast or Northwest Explorer trips, then you will want to head towards the larger packs – 60L+ will be a great place to start. 

You’re standing in front of the packs you want, now we need to pull the correct size off the wall. Your backpack size is going to correlate to the distance between your C7 vertebra to the line between your iliac crests. Don’t worry – I’m about to tell you what that means. You’re going to need a friend and a measuring tape. 

To find your C7 vertebra, bend your head forward and put your fingers on the protruding bump in your spine that forms. You will straighten up, keeping your fingers on this spot. Using your other hand, find the very top of your hip bone on the outside of your leg. Trace that line to the middle of your back and your friend will measure between these two points. Let’s say that number turned out to be 17”. 

We’ve got our measurement, but not all sizing charts are created equal. Keep that measurement in mind as you look at different companies’ backpacks. They should have the measurements listed next to each size, but you can always Google the sizing chart if it isn’t listed on the tag. If you have a 17” torso, you will likely be in a Small (S) sized frame. However, it will depend on the model and often, you could find yourself in an XS frame.

Step Two: Strapping in for Test “Hiking”!

You will want to spend 20 minutes or so walking around in your pack with some weight in it – 15-20 pounds should do the trick. You can bring your own weights, though a lot of businesses will have weights available for testing backpacks. 

You will want to make sure that you strap in correctly to feel how the pack sits on your frame. The way that you will strap in to test your pack is also how you will strap in for a real hike when you take one of these packs home – so we’re learning two things at once!

Before you put your pack on, loosen all the straps and have the weight already loaded into the pack. This will help gravity work in your favor! 

Start strapping in with your hip belt. This strap will often be thicker than the rest of your straps because this is where we want the load to sit. That extra thickness helps the pack be more comfortable. A thin waist strap will get the job done as well, but will be less comfortable. 

Clip the waist belt together and then tighten down the straps on either side so it is tight, but not painful. Next, you should tighten down your shoulder straps. Grab the straps dangling from your armpits and pull them down and back. Again, we are pulling them tight, but not painful. Lastly, you should have a chest strap. We’ll buckle this strap and then this strap should be tightened the least. You want to have some tension on the strap, but it should not be tight. If the chest strap is too tight, it can pull load onto your collarbone, which gets pretty uncomfortable on a long hike. 

Step Three: Feeling it Out!

Now we want to check the fit. Your waist strap should be sitting approximately on the iliac crest line that we discussed earlier (for those who don’t remember – basically the top of your hip bone). Your shoulder straps should sit pretty flush against your shoulder blade. There should not be a gap between your shoulder and the back of the pack. Right above your shoulder strap, you’ll see the load straps. These should be at an approximately 45 degree angle. If they are not (too steep or too flat), then the torso sizing is just a little off. Many backpacking packs will have the ability to adjust the torso length of the pack. Check the frame of your pack to see if you can adjust yours to be longer or shorter. 

Walk around for a while, shift side to side, do the chicken dance, whatever you need to do to feel if the fit is right! If there are any painful pressure points after 20 minutes, then it is likely not the right fit or the straps need to be adjusted. This is a great time to have somebody else (a friend or staff member), look at the fit and see if they notice anything you have missed. If it isn’t going to work, then pick up another pack and do it again from the top!

If everything feels good and comfortable, then you’re ready to hit the trail! Happy hiking, everyone!