This is the third part of a series.
If you have been out of backpacking or hiking for several years, when you think of a backpack, you probably think of the ones with the external metal frame. Times have drastically changed. The majority of the backpacks sold today have internal frames. The backpack is one of the items called the “Big Four.” The “Big Four” refers to the largest expense and weight items overall in your backpacking system. The “Big Four” items are: shelter, sleep system, cook system, and backpack. While we talk about backpacks, two things need to be addressed. How big of a backpack do you need and how to pack it.
The volume of your backpack depends on your gear and how long/when you will be backpacking. For example, a down sleeping bag will pack down much smaller than a synthetic bag. Of course, a down sleeping bag is much more expensive than a synthetic bag. Another example influencing the size required is that more (bulkier) gear is needed in the winter than during the summer. I would suggest the opposite of what most people do. I would buy a cheaper backpack until I purchase the rest of my gear and then buy an appropriate size backpack. This comes from experience. I purchased one backpack and then after I upgraded most of my gear, it was way too large and had to get a smaller size of the same brand. Backpacks can be one of the more expensive pieces of gear so choose wisely. There are many great vendors selling quality products. I personally use the ULA Ohm 2.0 and love it, but packs are a personal choice and there are many great choices. Find what works for you.
Most of the internal frame backpacks have a suggested load of around 25-30 pounds or less. I would try – through experience – to get into the 15-20 pound range excluding food and water. This is known as your base weight. It will differ on the season and environment, but carrying less makes hiking more enjoyable and camping possibly less “comfortable.” This is why determining your priority is important. While you can hike with 35 plus pounds, it is not as fun as hiking with 20 pounds.
Some backpacks have integrated rain covers or you may purchase one separately. They do not protect from water running down your back and soaking the contents during a rainy day. I prefer to keep everything that needs to stay dry in a trash compactor bag on the inside of my pack.
So how do I pack my backpack? There are several different ways to think about this, but this is my way. I first put the trash compactor bag inside my backpack and insert everything that needs to stay dry. This will be the last things I pull out at camp. The last thing I would need are dry clothes, so they go in first, next would be my quilts (or sleeping bag), my hammock, possibly jacket depending on the weather, and anything else that needed to stay dry. I roll the top and fold it over so water cannot get inside the trash compactor bag.
What goes on top of the trash compactor bag depends on the conditions, but it is generally things that can get wet and I’ll need shortly after reaching camp. This could be my camp chair (If I’m “camping”), tarp, food, stove, or possibly jacket depending on the weather. The outside pockets hold water bottles, water filter, map and compass, sit pad, stakes, snacks, and anything else I may need while I’m hiking. This way I can get to things I need without ever opening my pack during the day. The food for that day (not including snacks) sit on the very top near my First Aid Kit.
As I’m packing and unpacking my backpack, what I will use last goes in first and what I need first goes in last or fits in one of the outside pockets. This process is refined over time but just makes sense to me. I don’t use many stuff sacks. I have found that having everything in a stuff sacks is like packing little bubbles. There is a lot of wasted space between all the little stuff sacks, I only use a few and that allows me to compress everything in my pack together. The secret is learning what works for you and packing exactly the same way every trip so you know where something is without having to empty every pocket and part of your pack to find something. My pack pet peeve is dangling things. Everything is tucked in or put away so it doesn’t swing, bounce, or get caught on branches as I walk by.
Backpacks are a lot like shoes. An ill fitting backpack can make the difference between enjoying your trip and being miserable. I would suggest when you want to shop for a backpack, go to an outfitter and try a bunch on and walk around while wearing them. Some outfitters even have store models that you can drop a 20 pound weight in so you can feel what it feels like under a load. Get the staff to show the correct way to adjust the backpack for your body. Even if you don’t buy that model, most backpacks adjust in very similar ways. You have to find one that not only meets your needs, but fits you well.