How to Choose a Backpacking or Hiking Backpack

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Buying an Internal Frame Pack for Hiking and Backpacking

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Backpacking is more enjoyable with an internal frame pack that comfortably carries the load while hiking. Here are the essentials every hiking backpack should posses.

When choosing a backpacking or hiking backpack, the hiker needs to consider a few major components every backpack worth considering will possess. While there are daypacks and even larger backpacking backpacks that lack one or more of these components, the backpacker looking for his or her first back pack should buy one that has an internal frame, a well-fitted hip belt and adjustable shoulder straps.

An Internal Frame Backpack Transfers the Weight of the Load to the Backpacker’s Hips

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The backpack’s frame is critical to the comfort and the overall effectiveness of the backpack. Internal frame packs are definitely the way to go as they provide a level of flexibility that enhances both balance and comfort.

What is the purpose of the frame? The purpose of the frame is to help transfer the load onto the parts of the backpacker’s body that are best able to handle the load: the hips. Internal frame packs generally possess a couple of metal (usually aluminum) stays that are fitted into sleeves within the pack. These metal stays contour to the curvature of the hiker’s back and, frequently, can be removed from their sleeves and fine-tuned for the perfect fit.

A Broad Hip Belt positions the Backpack’s Load over the Hip Bones

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Because the purpose of the frame is to transfer the load to the hips, the backpack must have a broad hip belt that distributes the weight evenly onto the hips. Most hip belts will fasten in the front with a large plastic buckle and will allow the hiker to adjust the waist size as needed. Because the hip belt takes the majority of the load, it should be well-constructed and fitted to the hiker’s body type. For example, women have a different hip shape than men, and it follows that most women will benefit from a hip belt designed for a woman.

While the most padded hip belt may seem like the best hip belt in the store, once out on the trail, many ultra padded (albeit comfortable-looking) hip belts are poorly made and will collapse onto the pelvis. This results in discomfort at best, but it can also lead to bruising and even muscular-skeletal injuries. The best hip belt is actually reasonably stiff and will present lots of surface area specific to the hiker’s pelvic shape.

Adjustable Shoulder Straps Keep the Backpack in Place When Hiking

A hiking backpack with only a frame and a hip belt would be fairy ineffective unless the hiker was bent uncomfortably forward all day. Enter the shoulder straps. Shoulder straps fit over the shoulders and usually attach in the front with a sternum strap. While the shoulder straps do take a small percentage of the load, they are far more important in terms of keeping the load in place and helping the hiker maintain balance, especially in technical terrain. Like the hip belt, the backpacker should avoid comfortable-looking, “puffy” shoulder straps. Instead look for a good combination of padding, stiffness and, perhaps most importantly, ease of adjustment.

Most Quality Backpacks Come in Many Sizes

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Most of the quality backpacking backpacks on the market come in several sizes. The hiker should look for a backpack size that best matches his or her torso length and which has a hip belt suited for his or her pelvic profile. It is possible with some backpacks to mix and match various torso sizes with various hip belt designs to achieve the ultimate fit. While some backpacks boast a “one-size-fits-all” design, these packs seldom offer the comfort of a backpack that is built for specific body shape and size.

There are many other considerations when selecting a backpack, but, at the bare minimum, it is essential the hiker purchases a backpack that has a well-designed internal frame, a hip belt that matches the hiker’s pelvic profile and adjustable shoulder straps that will keep the load in place mile after mile.

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