How to Fit a Backpack

Before leaving for your trip make sure the pack you plan to use is adjusted to fit your body. If you have purchased or rented a backpack, do not leave the store until the salesperson checks and adjusts the pack for the proper fit. This needs to be done with the pack moderately weighted. Most stores have large sandfilled “bean-bags” of various weights that can be placed inside the backpack while the customer is trying it on. This allows them to see how the pack will fit after you’ve loaded your stove, food, clothes, water, sleeping bag, etc. inside.

This method is a little artificial, since the weight of the bags are concentrated into a small area. In real life, your gear will distribute the weight over a larger area inside the pack, but it is a good way to help determine how to adjust the pack so it will fit your body when loaded for the trail.

backpack man How to Fit a Backpack

When properly fitted you should be able to hike along the trail at about a one mile per hour rate, depending on terrain, elevation gains, etc. Your pack should be adjusted so that no part of it rubs uncomfortably against your shoulders or back or bumps against your head. The waist belt should be adjusted so that it rides on your hipbones and doesn’t slip too low or ride up and squeeze your stomach. The sternum strap should cross below your clavicles on your chest, across your breastbone, not up high where it could choke you (don’t laughˇŞI have seen this happen!). Do not hesitate to adjust your pack as you hike along, and be sure to learn how to shift the weight by tightening and loosening compression straps.-readjusting shoulder straps, cinching up the waist belt, etc. etc.. These minor re-adjustment slightly redistribute the weight and can help prevent any one part of your body from becoming fatigued. Be sure to learn how to do this since it will be up to YOU to adjust and keep your pack comfortable during your trip. Only you can tell what feels best.

Adding or subtracting thick clothing, hiking through changing terrain, and even changes in temperature may require readjusting the fit of your pack. Hiking up- or downhill will cause the weight of the pack to shift slightly and require moderate adjustments. If it’s very hot and you’re wearing an internal frame pack and perspiring heavily, it’s nice to loosen the shoulder straps a bit and let some air circulate over your back and cool you off, but be carefulˇŞdo not loosen the straps too much so the pack becomes unstable.

Also, there should be a small space between the top of your shoulders and the shoulder straps. In other words, the weight of the pack is not being supported by your shouldersˇŞit should be supported by your hips. Your hips are much stronger and are better designed to support a heavy load than your shoulders. Shoulders will quickly grow tired and sore if they are carrying a lot of weight.

One “early warning sign” of an improperly fitted backpack that is placing too much weight on the shoulders is numb, weak or tingling arms or hands. This indicates that the blood circulation from your shoulders to your arms and hands is being disrupted. If you feel this tingling starting, first try elevating your hands (I like to hold onto the sternum strap). If that helps you may not need to adjust the pack. But if your arms or hands stay numb or feel weak, it’s time to stop and adjust the shoulder straps, to relieve pressure on your upper body.

You should be able to look up without hitting your head on the internal backpack or external frame. Many external frames have a cross bar at the top that are slightly curved to allow your head more movement. You should also be able to stand up and feel evenly balanced once all the equipment is loaded in the pack. If you feel pulled to one side or the other, or maybe even feel like you are falling over backward, reduce or redistribute the weight accordingly.


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