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How to Pack a Backpack

For years, we taught beginning backpack students to carry no more than 25% of their body weight in their backpack, but this generalization no longer holds true. For a small inexperienced backpacker, even 25% of their weight may be too much for them to carry. For a large, experienced, strong backpacker, 25% may be hardly enough weight for them to notice (an experienced backpacker will be more confident and comfortable carrying a heavier pack than a beginner).

For a group or family, the best solution is to distribute the weight among each person based on their strength and ability level. If you all feel loaded down and can’t pack anything else, and there’s still some unpacked clothes or gear lying around, it’s time to reconsider how much you’re trying to carry. It’s important to have the equipment you need when you reach your campsite, but you do not want to lose a camper due to exhaustion or injury along the trail because they are carrying too much weight.

packing backpacks How to Pack a Backpack

In general, men seem to prefer keeping the weight in their backpacks high and close to the body to help maintain a good sense of balance. Women’s center of balance is lower, near the hips, so they may prefer to pack their heavy gear lower in the pack.

There are also a few differences between the way you load an internal versus external frame pack. One similarity between internal and external packs is in the way sleeping bags are carriedˇŞ both types of packs are designed to carry them at the bottom. Most external frames carry the sleeping bag strapped onto the frame on the outside of the pack itself. This means you need a sturdy waterproof stuff sack to store the bag in to protect it from rain, sharp branches along the trail, etc. Internal frame backpacks also carry the sleeping bag at the very bottom of the back, but typically they have room inside for the sleeping bag, in a separate compartment located at the bottom.

The next “level,” as you move up the pack, is the area near your lower torso. Many people prefer to use; this level for heavier and denser equipment, such as cookpots, food, stoves, etc., and also for equipment that is not used frequently throughout the day. This is because this gear will be covered with other equipment, clothing, etc., and therefore is more difficult to reach. Keep things like water, snacks, first aid kit, warm jacket and raingearˇŞthe items you might need in a hurryˇŞpacked closer to the top of the pack.

Most people strap their lightweight sleeping pad at the very top of the pack, either by securing it under the flap that covers the top opening or via attachment points and straps on the top pocket. In many packs, the top flap or pocket also contains small storage compartments for maps, compasses, sunglasses, and other small, lightweight items that are nice to have handy. These pockets can also be reached by one of your hiking buddies. On brief water or snack breaks, when there’s not enough time to stop and take off backpacks, it’s not unusual for people to reach into each other’s packs and find water bottles, snack bars, etc. that are loaded in these top pockets.

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.

How to Choose a Backpacking Stove

Of course, there are still places left in the wilderness today where you can have a campfire, so you could cook over an open fire-pit, using a grill supported by rocks to balance your pots upon. However, stoves are easier to light, will get hotter faster, burn more evenly, and take up less space than a campfire. Plus, stoves are inexpensive, and require much less work to operate than a typical campfire.

Stoves come in a variety of shapes and styles, and burn a few different kinds of fuels. The simplest stoves use cartridges full of butane, iso-butane, or propane gas. These pressurized cartridges are attached via a twist-on device which punctures the cartridge or canister. Once they are attached you simply open the valve, light a match, and are ready to begin cooking.

Because these stoves are so simple, they are probably best for families. If children want to help with the cooking (under supervision, of course), these stoves are the easiest for them to operate and offer the least chance for fuel spills and fire.

backpacking stove How to Choose a Backpacking Stove

Some cartridges have reuseable seals, which means you don’t have to use up all the fuel inside the canister before removing it from the stove for packing. Other canisters must remain attached to the stove until empty. Once used up, these have to be carried out in your trash bag.

The other main types of stoves include those which burn white gas only, multi-fuel stoves which burn white gas and kerosene or even gasoline, and some stovesˇŞ such as the MSR XG-KˇŞwhich I’ve heard will run on just about any liquid fuel.

However, because the fuel is not pressurized, as with cannisters, these stoves require a bit more work to operate. You must warm up the fuel, usually by burning a small amount in a “spirit cup” located somewhere near the gas jets. Then, once the gas is warm, you slowly open the valve and allow the fuel to ignite. Eventually, the heat from the burning fuel provides a vacuum effect, drawing the remaining fuel out of the stove or fuel storage container, in vapor form.

Obviously, if you are in a hurry to cook food or boil water, this process can be a bit tedious. You probably wouldn’t want children lighting these stoves without careful supervision. Also, they tend to be a bit noisier than the pressurized gas stoves. (I have an old Svea white gas stove that hisses horrendously while cooking, but it’s also very reliable and economical. I call it “the Volkswagen of stoves”).

The major advantage for non-canister stoves is in the fuel efficiencyˇŞwhite gas tends to be a bit more efficient, and a fuel container of white gas takes up less space than a comparable canister of pressurized gas. For a long trip, with several people, you would have to carry many cartridges of gas and transport the empty cartridges out at the end of the trip.

You could create a “pros and cons” list of different stoves, fuels, etc., but I suggest you simply visit your favorite outdoor store, ask for a demonstration of various stoves, and perhaps even rent one for a trip and see how you like it. When it comes down to it, choosing the best stove for you and your family is a very personal decision. You may want more than oneˇŞone for simple, quick water heating, or for weekend trips, and another for longer trips, or for menus involving more complex cooking, simmering, longer preparation times, etc.

How to Choose a Backpack

Technically, there are two styles of backpacks to choose from for use on several-day backpack trips: external frame and internal frame. There are also the smaller size “daypacksˇ± that have no frame and only moderate structural support, and are typically used for day trips, bicycling, or student’s bookbags. These frameless style packs are generally not used for extended trips into the wilderness at least, not by adults. Young children can use these packs to carry their personal gear until they are big and strong enough to carry the heavier load of a frame pack.

“Before going shopping, develop some idea about the pack you want.”

Also, keep in mind that some modifications are possible, in case you find a pack that is “close, but not perfect,” and needs just a few minor changes.

backpack How to Choose a Backpack

I once found a good price on a backpack that was close to what I wanted, except for its top-load style. It was a long pack, and when it was full, it was difficult to reach the gear at the bottom when I was reaching in from the top.

Solution: I took it to a local outdoor equipment seamstress and had her install zippers along the side seams. It cost around $25 for the modification, but it made using the pack much more convenient.

Before you decide to run out and buy a new backpack, remember, they are expensiveˇŞanywhere from $125 to over $300, depending on manufacturer, design, capacity, features, etc. So before you buy something new, look through the “For Sale” notices in the newspaper or posted in your favorite store, visit a few backpacker’s swapmeets, and talk to your friends who are selling their old gear or may be willing to let you borrow their pack. Also ask a few stores when they plan to hold a sale or sell their rental equipment.

If you buy a used pack, be sure to inspect all the zippers, seams, and frames for excessive wear and tear. Most pack manufacturers supply retailers with spare parts for minor repairs, so problems with hardware can be handled quickly and inexpensively. Large tears in the packcloth, bent or broken frames and other major problems should be avoided.

If you choose to go with a new pack, shop around for the best deal, or wait for an “End of Season Sale.” If the pack is being phased out, or the manufacturer has designed a new model or changed the color, you may be able to get a better price.

Backpacks now come in sizes and shapes with women and children specifically in mind. Are you looking for a backpack for a fast-growing teen-ager? Choose one that can be expanded to grow along with her or him, via an adjustable/expandable frame, and external attachment features for additional pockets and compartments that add capacity. If you’re looking for a child’s or adult’s first trip, and not sure if they will want to do more in the future, consider renting or borrowing a backpack. Use this opportunity to try a variety of designs, styles and sizes for the first few trips to see what they prefer.

When deciding which design is best for you, once again make a mental outline of the logistics of your planned trips. Before going shopping, develop some idea about the pack you want. It is easy to get distracted by the latest designs, bright colors, and newest technology on display in the outdoor stores. Look through backpacking magazines and talk to your friends about the packs they use. Determine what capacity pack you will most often need and what features you want to include. (If you have access to the Internet, check out the discussion group called “Rec.backcountry” for information on backpacks and other gear.)

Do you need lots of pockets to store small equipment, or are you happy storing things in nylon stuff sacks and loading them inside one large main compartment? Do you want access from the top, front, or via side zippers? Would you prefer a separate internal compartment for the sleeping bag, or a backpack that carries the bag outside, strapped to the frame?

Remember: there is no “right” backpack. Just as with stoves, tents, and long underwear, the final choice will vary from person to person depending on their quirks, likes and dislikes, budget, planned trips, etc.

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