Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Pick A Pile Of Perfect Packs

OK, this will be fun. Useless (maybe) but fun.

I'll cover what makes a good pack.

First let's define pack. I'm talking about backpacks only, not day packs, fanny packs, book bags or any of the rest. That narrows things down but is still too broad a category to be useful. Too bad for me. I'll have to live with it.

And within backpacks let's assume that the packs we're considering could be used for anything from a one-nighter to a week long trip. In my experience that isn't a problem. If you can use a given pack for a week long trip then you can use the same pack for up to two weeks, for a trip with no resupply. You will have to fudge but you can make it work.

So we're really talking about maybe 95 per cent of all backpacking.

Oddly enough (you might think) the main criterion is comfort. That seems like kind of a sissy approach but it's realistic. If you use an uncomfortable pack that means right off that you have a serious problem, and it isn't a comfort problem. Tough guys may think that they can take it. They can't. We're all bags of meat with a few odd bones added for fun. No one is tough. Being tough means only that you can fake it for a while. Faking it is not what we're after. If you have to fake it you're already a loser. Get lost already.

An uncomfortable pack is one that doesn't work. Period. This is not a matter of feeling sort of OK versus feeling almost sort of OK. That might be the case for an hour or two but multi-day trips don't work that way. Especially 10 to 14 day solo unsupported trips, when you are carrying everything you need and you are totally on your own.

In those conditions you have very little margin for error, and what bugs you in a minor way during a two hour day hike can become either a major annoyance or even a serious injury over the course of a two week trip.

What is comfort?

Comfort means that the pack fits your major dimensions. The pack bag should be long enough for your torso but not too long. Short enough but not too short. Etc.

Measure from the top of your hip bone (pelvic collar) to the base of your neck (the large vertebral knob where your neck meets your shoulders). That's the length.

The shoulder straps should be long enough, and adjustable. Same with the hip belt. Everything should fall into place. Try out the pack with a full load in it.

Maybe the pack does not feel right at first. Unfortunately only experience will tell you how your pack should feel. If you're missing that comfy feeling but you can adjust the pack into compliance then maybe that will work but maybe you should try another one, because you've just used up your fudge factor, and you may need that on the trail.

The shoulder straps should be wide enough but not too wide. This is a personal decision. They should be padded well enough (when in doubt, go for more). They should be long enough to accommodate you wearing all your clothes and then some, and you should be able to shorten them so far that they hurt while you're wearing only a T-shirt.

The straps should not feel comfortable around your neck because they shouldn't get close enough to your neck to make that an issue. They should conform to your rib cage where they make that twist down there, where they go from being flat against your shoulders to flat against your ribs.

Back to the bag. First you measure it against your torso size, then against the tasks you will assign it. If the bag is too long or too short for your body you will suffer, but it also has to be large enough to handle the loads you will be carrying. That pretty well translates into diameter. Diameter is variable. Smaller is generally better but it doesn't matter too much.

For lightweight backpacking many of these criteria will be less important than for heavy ("classic", "traditional", or "ordinary") backpacking. I've seen empty packs that weigh 10 pounds. Insane. That's an issue right there. With a light pack lightly loaded you have a lot more leeway because the pack will not be stressing any part of your body as much, and the load you carry will not be stressing the pack so much.

There is a large "but" here, and it's not me.

The but problem is that if you are out for seven to 14 days most of the weight you carry will be food and fuel. Mostly food. Depending on who you are and what you need, food weight will be one and a quarter to two pounds per day, and this begins adding up scary fast after about four day's worth.

For a 14 day trip you may have 10 pounds of gear and 28 pounds of food. That's still pretty light overall, but stuff it all into a frameless pack with a small comfort margin and you will experience hell for the first week. And your pack may fail if it's not up to the job. This is not good, especially if you are out alone and 20 miles from the nearest road.

Keep that in mind.

I also think that a hip belt is mandatory. Some packs have removable hip belts, but that sort of feature makes the pack heavier, more complex, and probably more expensive. You might be able to handle a pack that has a waist belt rather than a load-bearing hip belt. If so, I still recommend it.

Some kind of belt or strap around your midsection is priceless if you have to stabilize the pack. You can cinch that sucker down tight and not have to worry about your pack wobbling as you make some tricky maneuver. Personally I like real hip belts because they take almost all the weight off my shoulders, which get really cranky if they have to carry all the weight, or even a lot of it. If you are on your feet, walking, for eight or 10 or 12 hours, then a hip belt really does make a difference. If you decide you don't want one after all you can cut it off as a last resort, but it's ever so hard to add one later.
Added to all this, weight is important. Weight and durability go together. They don't have a one to one relationship but they play in the same sandbox. Greater weight, greater durability. Usually.

Unless you're dealing with one of the big manufacturers that believes any and every gimmick they can add is a good thing. Remember too that if you buy from a large company you're also buying a significant safety margin. Not for you but for them. They don't want their products to fail in any way because that's when they get sued, so they overbuild.

Small companies sell to savvy buyers, so they can significantly cut safety margins. Not eliminate them or sell crap, but find a practical balance point. Everyone wants a pack that will last forever but if you buy a six ounce pack and it lives through a couple of seasons of moderate use before wearing through somewhere, then you'll forgive it. You understand, or you wouldn't have bought it. You wouldn't even have known of it if you were clueless, so you cut the maker some slack. You know how to use real, light equipment wisely.

When we talk of a pack's durability we're usually thinking about its fabric. Most of the pack is made of fabric. Pay attention to that, and watch the seams. But don't forget that some significant parts aren't fabric. Eyeball the hardware -- all those buckles and cord locks and ladder locks -- all the plastic doodads that are essential for the pack to keep working.

Normally a pack's hardware will not be something you really need to think hard about. Most of it is pretty standard, but do take a look at it. Make sure you have what you will need and that it is in working order before you bet your life on the pack. Just because.

Some other important aspects of your pack are more subjective and require more experience to judge.

One of these is how easy the pack will be to load and unload. This isn't hugely important because normally you will load the pack once a day and unload it once a day, and both times you'll be in a pretty stable environment -- your camp. But it still matters.

One of my packs is a Moonbow Gearskin. I like it. A lot. But it can be a real booger to get loaded in the morning because unfolded, flat, for loading, it is only a piece of fabric. There is no place to stuff anything. Some days I feel like I need six hands to get my things into the pack and get on the road. This is especially true since I use a backpacking hammock and often camp on steep slopes. I keep laying things into (onto) the pack, in a pile, and then they slide off madly in all directions.

Use your imagination if you haven't done this. Lay out a piece of fabric, then pile all your gear and food onto half of it, and fold the other half the fabric over and cinch the two halves together. Now do this on a 45 degree slope.

Hard. Very hard. Damn near impossible some days.

That's one reason I've taken to designing and making my own packs. Another reason is that I don't normally need something as big as the Gearskin. The packs I design and make suit me because I build them based on what I've learned the hard way.

But I don't know what's right for you. Like everyone else, you have to learn what's right for you.

Besides loading and unloading you need to pay attention to another "soft" aspect of your proposed pack. That is how easy is it to get at things you need during the day, while you are hiking?

This is actually a pretty big deal. Not a life and death issue, but having the wrong pack can make your life annoying to you. I'm still working on this one.

The Gearskin can be good for access, if you cinch things in tightly and take a chance or two, because with its open sides you can reach inside from the top or either side and pull out what you need. If you need clothing, this is OK, but if you stuff a water or fuel bottle so it can be pulled out the side, then you have to be really careful, because it might sneak away when you aren't paying attention.

Here is where we start getting into minor issues.

External pockets. I'm a fan. Big time and hassle savers, but still not perfect. How many pockets, where they go, how deep they are, how they are closed off, and so on. No perfection. No right answer. But I like them.

Aside from pockets themselves there is the question of whether you want an extension collar at the top of the pack. Can be useful. Can be handy. Can lead you to take too much stuff and overload the pack just because there is a little extra room at the top of the pack. An open top, whether it has a drawstring closure or a roll top is also a potential entry point for water. Then again it is a potential exit point for your stuff, when you need to grab it fast.

Because of how I camp and how I travel I like a front loading pack. Sort of a cross between a Gearskin and a traditional front loader. No zipper though. I use a flap of fabric to close it off and then have compression straps to tighten the pack and keep things together. Because my packs are frameless compression turns the pack into one solid wad, and gives it rigidity. This lets me reach inside for some things. It works up to a point.

An expansion collar at the top tends to defeat rigidity by making the pack bag bigger and sloppier, but eliminating it severely limits the amount of stuff I can shove into the pack, and makes my gear harder to get at quickly, so it's another tradeoff.

Pockets help, but then again large pockets all over change the pack's balance, and filling a large pocket that's not tightly secured leaves it wobbly, a potential gear-loser.

One thing I do really like about the Gearskin and my own designs is the ability to reduce or expand the volume of the pack as needed, using compression. I'm still working on this in my own designs, but getting closer. The pack bag stays the same height all the time, and swells in diameter as I carry more, or shrinks during a trip as I use up food.

But because of compression straps running horizontally I can keep the pack cinched tightly together into a stiff cylinder that feels good against my back. I'm working on some ideas now to use an add-on supplemental pouch or two (maybe even one on front) to carry extra food, or to distribute weight. This would also help in carrying things like rain gear and extra clothing in cold or wet weather, but let me reduce the size and weight of the pack in the summer, by leaving the extra pouches home.


This is about the last thing to worry about. Some people like bright colors, some don't. I prefer dull colors of neutral density: medium gray, medium green, dull blue as a last choice. I almost always stealth camp and an inconspicuous pack helps. But this is totally a matter of personal preference, and maybe as good a reason as any to make your own gear, because you can use any color you can get your hands on.