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How to Buy a Backpack

For many people, buying a backpack is a pretty straightforward proposition: you go into a store, find one that will fit all your stuff, pick your favorite color, and check out. Very few considerations are given to the shape, purpose, size, and weight of a backpack when people consider how to buy a backpack, when in reality, those items should be foremost on your mind.

Think of your backpack as a close, personal friend. You’ll most likely travel to exotic locations with it, eat with it, sleep next to it, so you’ll need to put some thought into which one to buy. After all, who wants to be four thousand feet up the side of a mountain when one of their main straps breaks?

Before You Even Pick Up a Backpack to Consider, Ask Yourself What You’ll Be Using It For

First things first. If you’re reading this article, it’s most likely because you are needing a backpack for a specific purpose, whether that’s hiking, traveling, school, or something else. Have that purpose clear in your mind before you even begin. While you may be able to use a school backpack for traveling through Holland, it can end up being a disastrous choice, whether because it won’t provide the functionality you need or will end up being a hassle to keep everything organized.

A hiking backpack, for instance, is a far cry from a traveling backpack. Hiking backpacks have straps that brace it against your body to keep from swaying on those long, several–mile-per-day hikes. It has a slot for water bottles, a holder for your bedroll, and several tiny compartments that make it easy to reach for something specific in a hurry.

A school backpack usually has one gigantic compartment that you throw everything in. It serves its specific purpose, but not much else.

Understand what you’re looking for before you step foot inside a shop – online or otherwise.

Got it? Good. Let’s keep Going

Four Major Decision Points To Consider

Once you’ve clearly defined your purpose for having a backpack, it’s time to get down to business and start to find some filters that you can narrow down your choices. Here are three things you need to consider

1. How Much Does it Cost?

It should go without saying, but we’ll repeat it here: you cannot buy a backpack that you can’t afford. Period. It doesn’t matter how much you want it or think you need it, a backpack that is too pricey will generally drain your budget and keep you from buying other important things you will need, like food, for instance.

How much you spend on a backpack will also depend on your experience level and purpose. If you’re a hiker and only plan to do short, relatively tame hikes, you won’t need all the add-ons that more expensive packs have. Don’t overbuy; keep your expectations specific to your intended purpose.

It’s foolish to think that every expensive backpack you find has to be made of better quality than others; in fact, there are some really good all-purpose packs that can be found for less than $100. With a little research, you can end up finding a bag that is right for both your experience level and budget.

2. How Much Does It Weigh?

This may not sound like a big deal now, but it definitely will once you’re lugging it around on your back. For quick math, a loaded backpack should not weigh more than 15-20 percent of your body weight, so if you weigh 175 pounds, it should not exceed 35 pounds. This is specifically true for hiking packs, but is a good rule of thumb no matter what purpose you’re using it for.

3. How Big Is It?

There are two considerations with this one: overall size and how the weight is distributed. It’s important to find a backpack that doesn’t swallow up your body by towering a few feet above your head, but you should also look for one that has an equal balance of compartments on either side. It’s harder to get away from this if you’re planning on using it for long periods at a stretch, but the smaller it is, the better it’ll fit into compartments on trains, trunks, etc.

Another consideration has to do with its functionality. Is the bag collapsible or does it have a hard frame that keeps it rigid? Can you fold compartments in when you’re not using them? Finally, is it big enough to hold everything you’ll need to carry in it?

4. How Comfortable Is It?

Try the backpack on and see how it feels on your shoulders. Does it sag to one side? Is it easy to load on your back? Does it feel top-heavy?

A good backpack not only feels right when it’s fully loaded and in place, but also makes it convenient to reach for things, such as protein bars and cameras while you’re on the move. Even better, look for packs that have ventiliation areas to keep your back cool and a spot for a hydration pack that you can drink from. Also, consider buying a weatherproof covering that you can drape over the backpack to protect the bag (and you) in case of rain.

Find a Bag That Provides the Right Fit

Comfort is all about finding a bag that suits your individual taste, regardless of function. To do this, you’ll need to take some measurements of your torso and match those numbers with a bag that has the same dimensions. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to do just that, and here’s a video that will help you do the same thing.

1. Find Your Seventh Vertabrae. Feel along the base of your neck and look for the bony bump that sits at the top of your spine where your neck meets the shoulders. This is your seventh vertabrae and will be used as the starting point for your measurements.

2. Find the Iliac Crest. Put your hands on your hips with your fingers behind your back and your hands pointing forward (just like you’re mad at someone). Your iliac crest is at the top of your hip bones and is where the pack will be strapped around your waist. Find the top of the hip bones and run your fingers directly behind it.

3. Measure the Distance Between the Iliac Crest and Your Seventh Vertebrae. Have your partner measure the distance between these two points and write it down. If you already have a pack before you made these measurements, you might be able to adjust the straps to where the top of your back meets the vertebrae and the waist straps around your iliac crest, but it’s not ideal. Try to find the back that most closely matches these two points and adjust from there as needed.

4. Add Some Weight. Put about 15-20 pounds of anything that you have on hand (ropes, drinks, rocks, etc) and make sure the load is evenly distributed throughout the pack. You want to make sure that you size the backpack to you while it’s loaded rather than unloaded since the weight distribution will affect how it sits on your back.

5. Tighten the Straps. Once the pack is on, tighten the shoulder straps to bring the pack just a little higher on your hips, and tighten the waist belt to where it sits nice and snug. Don’t overtighten: doing so could cut off circulation to your legs.

6. Test the Strap Positions. The waist belt should sit about an inch above your iliac crest and the shoulder straps should sit flush against your shoulders. If there’s too much room in the shoulder area, you’ll need to adjust the straps to shorten them up. If the waist belt isn’t high enough, increase the distance between the waist and shoulder straps. While these can be adjusted slightly, it’s best to aim for a model that fits as close as possible to your body frame.

7. Test the Fit. Ideally, the pack should sit most of the weight on your hips instead of your shoulders, which is better supported by your strong legs. Too much weight on the shoulders can cause slouching or bad posture. If everything checks out, you’ll have a winner on your hands!

A Note About Travel and School Backpacks: Even though the measurements above are tailored to hiking packs, the same could be done for both school and travel packs as well, since many of them have waist straps. If they don’t, make sure the top of the backpack sits flush with the seventh vertabrae and not several inches below which can put pressure on the spine. As with any backpack, a backpack that fits properly will encourage good posture and feel more comfortable overall.

Final Tips to Consider When Buying a Backpack

From here, it’s pretty much personal preference and intent when deciding on a backpack, but there are a still loose ends that are worth mentioning.

Aim For Comfort. No matter whether you’re using your pack for school, travel, or a long hike on the Appalachian Trail, finding the right fit will help ensure that your pack and your back are comfortable.

When You Can, Go Light. While you never want to leave the house unprepared, you also don’t want to add so many things that you can’t move easily. Look for things like sleeping bags and water bottles that are advertised as “lightweight” to help.

Load Safely. If you’re unfamiliar with how to properly lift the bag onto your frame, ask an associate to help you get comfortable with the process. Lift from your legs, sling the pack around on your back, and buckle the straps into place. Stand up straight and try not to bend over too much when walking.

Look For Weather-Resistant Options. While a rain-resistant cover can be your best friend in the event of a downpour, sometimes weather events can happen unexpectedly, or you could fall into a stream as you’re trying to cross it. If so, and your pack isn’t weather-resistant, some of the electronic items inside your pack could be ruined. Consider a weatherproof option to help eliminate this issue.

Understanding how to buy a backpack is one of the first steps to a long journey of exploration and adventure. Don’t let bravado or laziness get in the way of asking for help at this crucial juncture, or you could end up in a situation that is both painful and potentially dangerous. Find the backpack that fits you properly, ask about a few special considerations, and settle on one that’s right for you. If you do that, you’ll end up with a much more enjoyable trip wherever life takes you.