My wife recently went on a 45 minute diatribe about how hard it is to get a properly fitted bra; she threw around a lot of big words, most of which I have no clue what they mean, but she did get across the point that an ill fitting bra was as near to hell on earth that you could get. While I’ve never had the misfortune of having an ill fitting bra, I have had a few ill fitting packs which is probably close to the same thing. Nothing is worse than loading up for a weekend of backpacking with your shiny new pack just to have your neck raw, your shoulders wrecked, and your armpits chafing only 2 hours into your trek. Instead of wrapping your socks around the shoulder straps and soldiering on, maybe you should look at getting your pack properly fitted.
For this article I’m going to be addressing internal frame packs only; if you own an external frame pack and love it dearly, more power to you but they are going the way of the rotary phone. Internal frame packs are what 99% of the outdoor industry produces, in a myriad of styles, materials, and suspension options. “Internal frame” means that the structure that transfers the weight inside the pack to your body is located within the pack itself; external frame packs are essentially aluminum squares with straps and a sack hanging off it. The benefit of internal frame packs is that they transfer weight more efficiently which allows you to carry burdens more easily; the trade off is since the internal frame packs ride against your back they are much hotter and give you a sweat patch the size of Lake Superior. Some companies though have designed internal frames that have a stiff mesh panel which is raised off the center of your back to allow more airflow through for those humid Southern hikes.
Instead of jumping straight to adjustments and sizing, the most important thing in a pack wearing comfortably is making sure the weight is distributed correctly inside. Ideally, you want the heaviest items in your pack nearest your back in the dead center of the pack. In the case of, say, a tent or a cooking system, you’d want that inline with your spine, and if possible sitting on top of something so it is near the center of the pack. I often use something like a sleeping bag in the bottom of my pack since it takes up room, but isn’t very heavy, so it lifts the heavier items to the center of the pack. Just remember you don’t want the weight sitting in the pack off axis so it throws you off-balance; too high, too low, and too far away from your back will wear you out twice as quick from having to make adjustments to not fall over.
To fit the pack, put it on empty with all of the straps completely loose and the first thing you should adjust is the hip belt; the majority of the weight on your back should be transferred to your hips and not your shoulders. The belt should center on your iliac crest, which is a fancy word for the pokey bone sticking out of your hip, and not have any rubbing or discomfort while walking around. Some hip belts have only a short length of padding and in certain hip types it can hurt more than help. My wife for example has to have a very long padded hip belt to wrap around to where the buckles don’t rub against her hip.Once the belt is tightened and secure, if your hip belt has them, tighten the straps at the rear of the belt that pull the pack tighter to your back; this helps tremendously to push the weight onto your pelvis instead of hanging off your shoulders.
The shoulder straps are the area most likely to drive you crazy with poor adjustment so let’s spend some time on how to get fitted to that Goldilocks “just right” level. The first factor to consider is your torso length; some packs come sized, others have an adjustable torso length, while some are one size fits almost no-one. You measure your torso length by measuring from your iliac crest (pointy hipbone) to your C7 vertebrae (if you tuck your chin to your chest its the bone that protrudes the most from the back of your neck). This length gives you an idea for what size pack to look at according to the manufacturer's recommended lengths, but don’t take it as gospel. My wife seems to fit best in a size larger than her torso actually calls for, while my 22” torso is spot on for most size Large packs.
With the hipbelt adjusted and secure, you want the top of the straps to be just a bit above your shoulders and be almost perpendicular; don’t let it hang or sag like a 2nd grader's school bag. If the pack has an adjustable torso adjust the size till you get it near perfect; if you’re buying a new pack, try on different sizes to find the one the closest to perfect. Once you have that in place, tighten down the straps so theres a bit of play but they are securely transferring the weight to your shoulders, but also pulling the top of the pack parallel to your spine so it loads your hip belt properly. Next, reach to where the top of the straps are sewn into the pack and you’ll find the load lifter straps; as you pull these tight you’ll feel the weight further center over your back, hips, and shoulders. Don’t pull them too tight as it becomes uncomfortable in a hurry.
Once your shoulder straps are in place, connect the sternum strap that connects the two shoulder straps together; contrary to popular thought, don’t crank that down as tight as humanly possible; it only stops you from breathing easily. Sternum straps are there just to make sure that the shoulder straps don’t work their way off your shoulders, not actually bear a part of the load. For women there is an additional concern for the mammaries, as some packs seem to do their best to get in the way. Some women specific packs are specifically contoured to avoid that area and prevent the dreaded “uni-boob” that’s been inevitable for so long.
Once you have all of this adjusted fairly close, take off the pack and load it up with some weight. Most outdoor stores have weighted bags that you can fill the pack with, and I like doing 20-30lbs in the proper distribution like we discussed earlier when performing the final fitting. With the weight properly loaded, put the pack on and see how your original set of adjustments hold up; most likely, you’ll need to adjust everything a little here and there, but it should be fairly close. Walk around the store, go up and down some stairs, test drive it for about as long as you’d test drive a new car. Even after you buy it, if you’re wanting to make sure it’s the pack for you but still need to make sure you can return it in A+ condition take it to the gym for a run through on the stair climber and treadmill. After 30 minutes on either of those machines with a weighted pack, you’ll get a great workout and you’ll know for sure whether that pack is fitting as well as you need it to.
When it doubt, always grab the stores staff and ask them to help you fit a pack. They love doing this kind of thing because it means they’re selling you a piece of equipment you’re going to use to go explore, adventure, and do something that you love. So don’t disappoint; go grab your properly fitted pack and hit a trail.
Amish in the sense that, at one point, my family helped others raise barns.
Now I build websites to help others build their businesses.