Selecting a Backpack

For trips that stay at or near a fixed base camp, most Scouts should only need a small daypack for carrying essential gear, such as water, rain gear, and sunscreen. For Scouts going on backpacking or long-distance hiking trips, a frame backpack with a waistbelt is essential. These backpacks allow Scouts to comfortably carry heavy loads over long distances. A frame backpack is a significant purchase, and Scouts will grow out of them over several years, so don’t buy one until you need one. The Troop also has a few frame backpacks that can be loaned for campouts on a first-come, first-served basis.

The three characteristics that separate a frame pack from a standard day pack or knapsack are:

  • Size. A frame pack is much larger than a knapsack. Typical external frame packs are 3500 cubic inches or larger, typical internal frame packs are 5000 cubic inches or larger.
  • Waistbelt/Hipbelt. A frame pack has a large, heavily padded hipbelt lets the wearer carry most of the pack’s weight on the hips, not on the shoulders.
  • Rigid frame. A frame pack has a rigid frame which fits along the wearer’s back and helps transfer the load to the waistbelt.

Types of Backpacks

There are two major types of frame backpacks: internal frame packs and external frame packs. Internal frame packs have the rigid frame inside the pack where it cannot be seen. External frame packs have the rigid frame on the outside of the pack. Both types have their advantages and disadvantages, and choosing between the two depends on the nature of the trip.

Internal frame backpacks are currently (2009) somewhat more popular, and are easier to find in stores. Internal frame backpacks fit close to the body, and the frame can usually be adjusted to match the contours of the wearer. This makes them easier to handle on steep or narrow trails, and very comfortable when fully adjusted. Unfortunately, this close fit also cuts down on airflow between the pack and the wearer’s back, making them hotter to carry. Internal frame backpacks are also less adjustable than external frame backpacks, so Scouts may grow out of them more quickly. Finally, internal frame backpacks typically have few attachment points for gear, so most equipment (including sleeping bags) must fit into the pack.

External frame backpacks don’t fit as closely to the body, and cannot be adjusted as much to the contours of the wearer. For strenuous mountain trails (not typical Ohio trails), this looser fit makes it more difficult to hike narrow paths. The tradeoff is that external frame packs are typically more adjustable in height, so a growing Scout may be able to wear one for longer than an internal frame. External frame packs also allow more airflow between the pack and the wearer, making for a cooler hike in summer. Finally, external frame packs are designed to have bulky gear strapped to the outside of the pack. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage – you can carry as much gear with an external frame pack as you can physically lift, but you will need to make sure external bundles are securely attached with pack straps or rope.

Fitting a Pack

No matter what type of pack you choose, fit is crucial. Packs are sized by torso length, which is the distance from the bony ridge of the shoulder (clavicle) to the bony point at the top of your hips (liliac crest). Note that torso length does not always match height – Scouts with short legs may need a pack with a long torso, and Scouts who have most of their height in the legs may need a pack with a short torso. Often, packs will say that they adjust to a certain range of torso lengths. If you are buying a pack for a growing Scout, try to find a pack which gives them some adjustment room for the next several years.

In addition to torso length, you may also want to know the distance around the top of your hips. This is the hip measurement, and is used to size the waistbelts of packs. The hip measurement is somewhat less critical than torso length, since many waistbelts are either very adjustable or can be replaced with one of a different size. Younger or thinner scouts should pay special attention to this measurement, since many standard pack waistbelts cannot be adjusted small enough to provide a good fit.

No matter what the pack measurements say, the most important thing is to see how the pack feels while there is weight in it. All of the following checks should be done with at least 20 lbs. of weight in the pack. A bundle of camping gear, a pair of tents, or a small bag of softener salt works well for this. You may want to ask a store clerk before putting weight in a pack. Most will be glad to help you — if you find a store that doesn’t let you try a pack with some weight in it, you may want to consider shopping elsewhere.

  • Put the pack on and cinch the waistbelt tight. Does most of the weight ride on the shoulders (bad) or the waistbelt (good)? If the weight is riding on your shoulders, try adjusting the shoulder straps upward or cinching the waistbelt tighter. You should be able to easily shrug your shoulders without lifting the pack.
  • Have someone else pull down on the pack. The pack should fit securely and should not slip – you should be ready to fall over well before the pack lets go.
  • Walk with the pack. Do any parts of the pack frame dig into your legs, shoulders, or back? Try adjusting the frame to get a good fit. Does the wasitbelt loosen or slip? Try tightening it or seeing if a smaller waistbelt is available. Does the waistbelt have enough padding?
  • Hop up and down with the pack. If the pack shifts greatly, try lowering and cinching the shoulder straps and tightening the sternum strap. The pack should be loose enough on the shoulders so you can walk easily, but snug enough so the load doesn’t shift as you walk.

In all of these checks, a knowledgeable store clerk (ideally one who is a backpacker) or a companion who is an experienced backpacker will be an invaluable help. If you need assistance in picking a pack, Troop adults and senior Scouts will be glad to assist and provide advice.

Traps to Avoid

There are a few common pitfalls you may encounter when buying a pack. The most common pitfall is buying a pack that doesn’t fit well – see above – but these are some other issues which deserve special note.

  • Fit matters more than features. Most backpacking the Troop does requires a fairly low-end backpack – something with good construction, a comfortable fit, a well-padded waist belt, and not a whole lot else. Things like map pockets are handy, but they’re not worth blowing your budget. Other advertised features, like ice axe loops, just aren’t relevant for Ohio backpacking.
  • Beware of military surplus. Some military surplus gear is wonderful. However, many military surplus backpacks are not. Military backpack frames are frequently designed to fit over a layer of body armor, which Scouts aren’t typically wearing. Because of these, these packs ride well away from the body and often have unpadded surfaces which rub against the hips and shoulders. Apply the same fit rules above to any military surplus equipment.
  • Get a pack cover. Backpacks are “water resistant,” not waterproof. After a rainy hike, the difference between the two is a wet sleeping bag and a soaking set of clothes. If you’re buying a pack, you may want to get a waterproof pack cover that you can fit over the pack to help keep the contents dry. You can also use a small tarp and ropes or a heavy-weight garbage bag to improvise a pack cover cheaply. Whatever cover you use, just make sure it fits before getting on the trail.
  • Don’t use bungee cords. If you get an external frame pack, you’ll need a way to strap your sleeping gear and tent onto the outside of the pack. It may be tempting to use short bungee cords, but this is a decision you’ll regret on the trail. Bungee cords let the load bounce up and down, sucking up energy every step of the way. Bungee cords also have a nasty habit of slipping and working loose on the trail. Instead, either use nylon pack straps with a plastic buckle or use a length of lightweight rope and practice your knots.