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How to Choose a Backpack for Camping

May 26 2021 – Cube Digital

How to Choose a Backpack for Camping - Crua Outdoors
How to Choose a Backpack for Camping - Crua Outdoors

We've said it before but in outdoor adventure, nothing goes quite so well as camping and hiking. One completes the other, the perfect marriage.

At Crua Outdoors, we've put a big focus on helping our community choose their camping essentials. For camping, that means a sleeping bag, camping mattress and camping chairs among a number of other things that we've explored already.

There's a lot more items we hope to get to shortly. For hiking, we've already looked at what to consider when choosing hiking boots. Those hiking boots will help to carry you along. Of course, how you carry everything else depends on your hiking backpack.

When choosing camping gear it is important to think carefully and purchase wisely. Buying camping gear should be a long-term investment so it's important not to be too hasty.

Weigh up all considerations and pick the right piece of equipment for you. Equipment that will stay with you for years of camping, hiking and enjoying the great outdoors.

There is no need to get lost in the details. Once you know the basics, you will be well equipped to find the right camping backpack for you.

We recommend following a few easy steps. Start with the volume, then torso size and finally it's finding a comfortable fit. 

Matching Your Bag With Type of Hiking Trip

The first thing to consider is the type of hiking trips you plan on taking and the volume of the bag you will need. In general, hiking backpacks are measured in litres. Depending on your trip, you might need more storage space and a bigger bag. There are generally three types of hiking trips.

  • Day or Weekend Trips (30-50 litres)
  • Multi-day Hikes (50-70 litres)
  • Extended Hikes (70+ litres)

Different brands will name these three categories in different ways. For example weekend, week long and expedition. However, the logic behind them is much the same.

The longer the hike, the more time you will be away from your base. That could be your car or home. The longer you are away from your base, the more room you need for food, spare clothes and other supplies.

The type of trip might not even come down to the duration. You may be hiking with your children and carrying their gear for them, or that longed for primitive camping in California trip. Maybe you don't plan on being away for too long but want to have room for a small hiking tent or sleeping bag. Maybe you are a minimalist hiker and like to keep it light no matter the duration.

Whatever the reason for your hike, it is good to match your hiking type with hiking backpack specs. Just know that anything below 50 litres would be considered quite lightweight. As your need increases you might want to look at bigger bags with increased storage capacity.

30 to 50L Backpacks

A 50 litre pack is ideal for a weekend adventure. If you are an efficient packer that knows how to keep things light, you may be able to get by with a 30L pack.

But keep in mind that packing light requires careful planning and a lot of self-discipline. The light-on-your-feet rewards are amazing if you can pull it off, though.

50 to 70L Backpacks

Most camping backpacks fall in this range. A backpack that’s over 50L is a great choice for multi-day summer adventures. It’s also excellent for multisport activities such as backcountry skiing or shorter hikes where you want to bring a little more luxury.

Extender-Trip

A 70+ L pack is the best choice for a winter trek lasting more than one night. A backpack that’s over 70 litres can comfortably accommodate a 4-season tent, warm sleeping bag, extra clothing, and extra poles.

Knowing Your Torso Size

Whichever hiking backpack you decide is best for you, it needs to match your torso length. Before you start looking for a hiking backpack, our advice is to get a partner to measure your torso length.

They can do this by measuring the length from your C7 vertebra down to your hip bones. Finding your C7 vertebra might seem like an overly technical challenge. Put simply, it's the part of your spine, between your shoulders, that sticks out when you lean your head forward. Once you measure that length, you have a rough idea of your torso length. Knowing this piece of information will come in handy when shopping. 

For the camping backpack to fit correctly, the distance from the top of the shoulder strap to the hip belt needs to match with your torso length. Bear in mind that torso length does not necessarily correspond to height. A tall person can have a short torso, while a smaller person can have a relatively long torso.

Women’s Specific Fit

Women’s specific backpacks come with hip belts and shoulder straps that better conform to the female form. They are also tailored for narrower and shorter torsos.

Youth-Specific Backpacks

To accommodate a child’s growth, these backpacks offer adjustable suspension. Women-specific packs may also work for young campers of either gender because they have smaller frame sizes.

Strapping Yourself In

You have determined the type of backpack you need and the correct backpack length for your back. The final step is making sure that your backpack will be comfortable once you get down to the small matter of the hike itself. This all depends on the suspension system.

This system refers to the parts of the backpack responsible for bearing the weight and connecting the bag to your body. Specifically this includes: shoulder straps, the hip belt, the frame, the back padding, and additional strapping. We will quickly examine those five areas below.

Hip Belt - For heavy loads, the majority of the weight will be taken by a good hip belt. The hip belt should be centered over the hip bone. It also needs to fit snugly.

Shoulder Straps - The best shoulder straps curve with your body and the anatomy of your shoulders and back. Thankfully, the majority of the weight of the backpack will be transferred to the hip belt.

This means that the padding doesn't need to be overly thick. Well fitted shoulder straps should be comfortable to wear and flush to the front and top of your shoulders. This leaves very little room for rubbing or chafing. 

The Frame - The frame refers to the two parallel bars that give the backpack its shape. There are two types of framing that a hiking backpack can have. Internal framing is where the bars are secured inside the back panel.

When fit right these should hug the contours of your back. There is also external framing, where the bar frame is visible and sometimes longer than the bag itself. Much like choosing capacity, deciding on which frame to choose depends on your hiking trip.

Internal framing would be by far the most common. External framing is useful when you are carrying equipment that is much longer than the back itself.

If you are a minimalist adventurer that likes to travel fast and light, you may want to get a backpack with a removable frame or frameless backpack. But do know that such backpacks are not so comfortable under heavy loads.

Back Padding - This is the area of the hiking backpack that presses against your back. Without quality padding this area could cause the most discomfort. Once the padding is accounted for, there is one drawback - poor ventilation.

Having insulated padding against your back for the duration of the hike can cause your back to sweat. To combat this, some manufacturers build in added ventilation.

Deciding on which is more important, proper ventilation or padding is a matter of preference. However, porous air-mesh foam can offer the best of both worlds.

Additional Straps - For larger bags and to prevent unnecessary strain on your back, it is good to have an understanding of the additional straps offered by most manufacturers.

A sternum strap is an adjustable strap which lies across your chest. This connects your shoulder straps for added stability.

This feature is useful in situations where your backpack could easily throw you off-balance. For instance, when you are hiking on uneven cross-country terrain.

Load lifter straps are stitched into the top of the shoulder straps and connect to the top of the backpack frame. This serves to keep the top of the bag close to your body. This again gives better support, stability and centre of gravity.

Ideally, the load lifter straps should form a 45-degree angle between the backpack and the shoulder straps.

Adjusting Your Pack

Getting the right amount of weight distributed to the hip belt is the trickiest part of adjusting a backpack. The hip belt should support about 80% of the total weight of the backpack. Here’s how you can force to load of your backpack in the right direction:

Put at least 20 pounds of weight in your backpack and try it on. You can do this while you are in the store, the sales assistant will likely be willing to fill it up with some random camping gear.

Position the hip belt over the top of your iliac crest and fasten it around your waist. Put your arms through the shoulder straps. Now, cinch the hip belt and the shoulder straps tight.

The perfect fit is when the hip belt is securely tightened, there should be a gap of 3 to 6 inches between the padded portions/buckle area of the hip belt. If the gap is too big or too small, you should get a different hiking backpack.

Your backpack load won’t be able to slide down when your hip belt is secured. But, naturally, the backpack will try to tilt backwards. This is why you should always cinch the shoulder straps—to keep everything up against your back.

However, you need to make sure that the shoulder straps are not too tight. If they are, they’ll support a part of the backpack’s load. This will start to feel uncomfortable very quickly.

So, you really need to make sure the shoulder straps are a perfect fit.

As you fine-tune the tautness, you’ll feel the weight shift to your hips.

Adjust the load lifter straps. The load lifters shouldn’t take on too much weight. They should contact only the front of your shoulders.

The load straps will be fairly useless if the backpack isn’t the right fit for your torso. If you don’t adjust the load lifter straps properly, the backpack may snag on your lumbar region.

If there are compression straps on your backpack, cinch them down. By doing so, you will move all of the stuff in your backpack as close to your back as possible.

To adjust your shoulder straps to a position that doesn’t impede your freedom of movement, tighten your sternum strap.

That’s it. If you’re feeling comfortable carrying the pack on your back after all of these adjustments, you’ve found a good fit.

Backpack Features

After you have found a few models that have a good suspension system, you can start checking out other features. Of course, if you are a minimalist backpacker or hiker, a streamlined backpack with almost zero features may be just what you need.

But if you find a model that has numerous features that fit your style and activity, you’ll make everything much easier on yourself. Still, extra features add to the overall weight of the backpack.

Here are some of the more important features you may see on a backpack.

Hydration Compatible

A hydration bladder is a great investment if you prefer staying hydrated while you’re on the go (as opposed to drinking water during breaks). You can just take a pull from your hydration tube if you need a bit of extra water. No need to stop.

But there’s no point in buying a hydration bladder if your backpack doesn’t have a sleeve for holding one. A pack that has an internal sleeve for a hydration bladder will also have one or two hose portals.

Sleeping Bag Compartment

It’s super convenient to be able to unzip a small compartment inside your pack and pull out your sleeping sack when you want to call it a day. So that you can properly load your backpack, this compartment should be located at the bottom (more on this topic later).

This useful feature allows you to reach for your sleeping bag without having to unload the rest o your stuff. Moreover, you don’t need to bring a stuff sack when you have a sleeping bag compartment in your pack.

This compartment can hold other camping gear as well, not just a sleeping bag.

Water Bottle Pockets

If you are going on a short hike, carrying a hydration bladder is probably overkill.

Even though water bottles are smaller than hydration bladders, they still have some advantages over them.

You can always see how much water you’re chugging when you’re using a bottle. This alloy you to better ration your water.

Many backpacks have big stretchy pockets that are designed for holding water bottles. A water bottle pocket keeps your bottle secure and within reach. Naturally, you can use water bottle pockets to carry some other gear.

Pack Access

Most backpacks have a top-loading opening. If you have a top-loading bag, packing can be a bit of a chore. You need to figure out what things you’ll be using the most so that you can put them close to the top. And even if you do that, your needs can easily change during your trip.

To make packing more convenient, some backpacks have panel access. A front-loading backpack gives you easy access to your gear. This allows you to grab practically anything from your bag without having to unload it from the top.

But don’t assume that a front-loading backpack is always a better option. Some top-loading bags have an extendable lid. It serves as extra load space.

An extendable lid is great for storing snacks for your hike. As you consume your snacks, simply cinch down the lid. You can also use it to stow your camping mattress (although there are better solutions for this, as you are about to find out).

There are also backpacks that have both a bottom-loading and top-loading opening. However, such bags are usually heavier and more expensive.

Water-resistant Fabrics

Unless you plan on hiking in, let’s say, the wettest parts of Ireland or Scotland, you probably don’t need a bag that’s 100% waterproof. But you do want to get a backpack that is water-resistant.

Higher-end backpacks are usually coated with some type of durable water repellent (DWR) or wax that causes rainfall to bead off the fabric. This coating can hold up against water for a while, giving you enough time to set up your tarp or tent, or find shelter elsewhere.

Lockable Zippers

Anti-theft backpacks are not made for camping. If you are worried that someone might steal stuff from your backpack, get a model that’s lockable.

Essentially, a lockable backpack is simply a backpack that has two zippers on each compartment, instead of just one. If you think there’s a risk that some will steal your stuff, you can lock the zippers together.

Make sure to use TSA-friendly locks. You can find these at any large retail store, such as Walmart or Target.

But what makes these locks so special? They feature special release valves that make travel less of a pain in the neck. So, when you find yourself in a situation where the TSA needs to check your backpack, they will be able to open the lock without breaking it.

Trekking Pole / Ice Axe Loops

This feature is a no brainer. Loops are likely a necessity if you are into climbing and mountaineering. They can be useful even if you don’t need an ice axe or trekking pole.

Pro tip: these loops can easily hold a baguette. Check our “DIY Camping Hacks” if you want to discover more fun tips and tricks.

Sleeping Pad Straps

If you have a large, comfy closed-cell foam sleeping pad or a self-inflating air mattress, you don’t really want to store it inside your bag. It will take up too much space.

Avoid backpacks that come with limited lashing options. Try to find a backpack that comes with sleeping pad straps.

Extra Pockets

When it comes to camping backpacks, there’s no such thing as too many pockets. Ideally, you should be able to access most pockets without having to open the pack and shift around your gear.

A lid pocket is such a useful feature that you will probably end up stuffing most of your essentials in it. You can use it to stow your phone, camera, compass, snacks, or sunglasses.

In addition to a water bottle pocket, your pack should have a big stretchy external pocket. This is arguably the most underrated backpack feature. It is the perfect place to stash snacks for the day or even an extra layer.

Just be careful not to put too much stuff inside it. You don’t want to throw off your backpack’s stability.

Many 3-season backpacks have a shovel pocket. Basically, a shovel pocket is just a flap with a buckle closure at the top.

These pockets are designs to hold snow shovels, but most backpackers use them to stash loose lightweight items such as jackets.

So that you can safely store small items, such as sunscreen, lip balm, or a power bank, many backpacks include hip-belt pockets.

Removable Daypack

Can’t decide between a daypack and a multi-day backpack? You may not have to. There are many 60+ L bags that include a detachable daypack. A removable daypack is great for supply runs during a thru-hike or shorter trips from the camp.

Generally, this feature is designed into the reservoir pocket or the top lid of a large, overnight backpack. You can convert it into a lightweight backpack or a hip-belt pack.

Backpack Accessories

So, you’ve found a great backpack but it lacks an important feature that you need? Don’t worry; you may be able to upgrade it. It’s time to take a look at a few accessories that will make your backpacking adventure even better.

Rain Cover

No matter where you are on planet earth, rain is always a possibility. Even the driest place in the world, the Atacama Desert, averages 0.06 inches of precipitation every year.

If your backpack has a DWR coating, a bit of rain won’t do any harm to your gear. But you want the added precaution of a rain cover in a decent downpour.

Hydration Bladder

As mentioned, many backpacks have a sleeve for a hydration reservoir. However, you will have a hard time finding a model that comes with a hydration bladder.

Capacity is the most important consideration when buying a hydration reservoir. For instance, you shouldn’t get a bladder larger than 2L if you have a small day pack.

Although it’s an option, it’s best not to mix and match backpack and hydration bladder brands. For example, if you have a Gregory pack, you should get a Gregory hydration bladder.

Storage Bags

The only boring part of backpacking is the actual packing. Still, you can’t just throw stuff into your backpack and zip it up. Internal backpack organisation is key to proper weight management.

You will have a much easier time packing your backpack if you get a few ultra-sil sacks for your gear, clothes, and food. On top of offering additional protection from rain, these sacks will help you find whatever it is that you’re looking for very quickly.

Ultra-sil dry sacks are designed to slide around easily for easy backpack packing. To keep the sacks in place and conserve space, you can put additional items in the dead space between sacks.

How to Pack a Backpack

One does not simply buy a new backpack and go on a big camping or backpacking adventure. You should learn how to pack it and then break it in.

A pack can swallow an amazing array of gear, and remain comfortable, provided that you pack it efficiently. A well-loaded backpack won’t sway or shift as you walk with it. It will stay balanced when resting on your hips.

There are more ways you can pack a backpack. But the simplest way to do it is to break down the bulk of your load into three zones. Leave the smaller essentials and the oversized items for peripheral storage.

Bottom-of-Pack Items

The bottom zone is great for bulky items and gear that you won’t need before setting up camp. These items may include:

  • Layers that you plan to sleep in, such as long underwear
  • Sleeping bag
  • Down booties or camp shoes

You can create an internal shock-absorption system by packing soft and squishy items at the bottom.

Core-of-Pack Items

It’s best to put heavier items on top of the aforementioned bulkier items. These items may include:

  • Bear canister
  • Stove
  • Cooking gear
  • Food stash (entrees)

You will create a stable centre of gravity by packing heavy items here. Your pack may sag if you palace the heavy gear too low. If you place it too high, it will make the backpack feel tippy.

To prevent shifting, you can wrap soft items around larger gear. You can use the following items to create a buffer between the water bladder and larger items:

  • Extra clothing
  • Rainfly
  • Tent footprint
  • Tent body

Tip: If you plan on using a hydration bladder, don’t try to slip it into a full backpack. Fill it up with water and put it into your backpack first, even if it has a separate compartment. 

Top-of-Pack Items

It’s best to put the bulkier essentials you might need on the trail in the top zone. Items that work well here may include:

  • Water filter or purifier
  • First-aid kit
  • Rain jacket
  • Fleece jacket and pants
  • Insulated jacket
  • Toilet supplies (TP bag, TP, and trowel).

Accessory Pockets

Use smaller external or internal pockets to stash smaller essentials such as:

  • Cash
  • Raincover
  • Water bottles
  • Snacks
  • Bug spray
  • Headlamp
  • Lip balm
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • GPS
  • Compass
  • Map

Lash-On Points and Tool Loops

Items that you can strap onto the outside of your backpack include:

How to Hoist a Loaded Pack

  • To make the back easier to slip on, loosen all of your straps a bit
  • Make sure your backpack is sitting upright on the ground
  • With your legs well apart and your knees bent, stand next to the back panel
  • Grab the haul loop with one hand
  • Lift the backpack and slide it onto your knee
  • Slip the opposite arm through one of the shoulder straps
  • Keep pushing your shoulder in until it’s cradled by the padding
  • Without any jerking or abrupt motions, lean forward and smoothly shift the backpack onto your back.
  • As you are shifting the backpack, slip the other arm through the other shoulder strap
  • Now stand upright and buckle up

Don’t wait for your next big outdoor challenge to put your backpack to the test. Instead, start out with short day hikes to get the feel of the fit and weight, as well as to see whether you can expect issues such as chafing.

Takeaway

When finding the best hiking backpack for you, there are a lot of additional features available. There are a number of useful pockets and storage units. Some bigger bags even come with removable day-packs. These small packs can be extremely practical and provide you with much greater functionality.

There are a number of cool features to choose from. However, the very best place to start is getting through the first three steps. Make sure you have enough room, the right size and the right fit. A well fitted and functional backpack that improves your hike, not hinders is what you're after. All else is bonus territory.

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