How to use a Backpack

Table of Contents


How to use a backpack? How more simple could something be? Stick right arm in this strap, left arm in that strap, waddle off down the road in mild to excruciating agony. No, wrong, start again. You only need to stand and watch the backpackers stream past at any major european station (Amsterdam Centraal is a good choice) to realise how far from the mark people can get. A backpack is a relatively simple peice of kit, but like most equipment, with abit of thought, the right purchase, and the right use, you can really improve your enjoyment.

Choose the right pack

Frame or no Frame?

I will leave the debate on internal frame or external frame backpack for another time, but surfice it to say, for anything above an ultra light load, you want to be looking at a pack with some sort of frame.

The first step of using a backpack is to purchase the right pack in the first place. This might seem like a no brainer. But it is something many people don't quite get right.

Step one is to choose the right size bag for the job. There is no point going for a short day hike with a 100 litre berghaus vulcan, or trying to travel round europe with all your gear hanging off the side of a 30l day pack.

Pack sizes in europe are measured in litres, this tends to give you a rough idea of how much you can get in the pack. It is just a guide tho, you may find that due to shapes you can get more in one 60 litre pack than you can in another 70l pack. Have a play in the shop, load up with sleeping bags etc... to see what you can fit. Some packs are expandable,they either have a floating lid, or side pockets that expand to increase capacity, this can be useful. I find that coming back from a trip I have more stuff than I setout with, so having the extra space is useful. The following table gives you an idea of what each size can be used for.

<30 LitresDay packJust enough space for a packed lunch, a drink and some waterproofs
30-40 LitresWeekend pack/winter daypackAbit more space for what you need for a weekend away in hostels, or for a day in the hills in winter
45-65 LitresMultiday tripsAbove 45L and you enter the multiday range, big enough to carry what you need for an extended trip on the hill. At the upper limit of this range you can fit full camping gear and food for a week
65-80 LitresExtended multiday tripsAbove the 65L mark you start to look at packs for extended trips away, be it a week or more in the mountains, or 3 weeks interrailing round europe.
80+ LitresHeavyweight extended tripsAbove 80L you start to reach the limit of what a mortal can carry, fill a 100L backpack and you really know it, packweights at this level can top 80lb/36kg. This is for when you really have alot to carry for along period of time

Having worked out what size pack you want, next consider what features you need from the pack. Are you going to be using it in snowy conditions thus needing ice axe loops? Does it have a rain cover? What about fittings for a hydration system? Internal pockets? External Pockets? Look at all these and evaluate if you need them or if you can find a cheaper pack without. I would say however that atleast one external and one internal pocket are very useful to have, fortunatly you will struggle to find a pack that doesn't have these. Have a think about the colour of the pack, I personally like colours that are going to blend in on a mountain so you don't blight the landscape with visual polution. Each unto their own.

A feature I find useful on bigger packs is what they call a daisychain. This is a peice of webbing that has been sewn onto the pack such as to give you a number of ways to attach stuff to the outside of the pack, be it ropes for climbing, or just your sleep matt.

Finally, but perhaps the most important part of choosing your pack is getting one that fits you. This means having the straps in the right places so that the pack fits you perfectly and is comfortable to carry. The shop selling this to you should be able to help you with sizing properly. Many packs come with adjustable back systems so you can finely tune the straps for added comfort. Some manufacturers even make each model in both a long and a short version, this allows for a better fit if you are perhaps a 6ft 6" giant, or more petite. Ladies, do pay attention to the packs designed for women, they tend to have a shorter back for the smaller build, and more importantly straps that are designed to fit comfortably across the chest area. Don't however limit yourself to just looking at the womens packs, many of the "unisex" packs may prove to be comfortable for you.

A pack is a personal item, something you will be intermate with for long periods at a time, it needs to be fitted to you, and treated well. Spend as much time selecting your pack as you would selecting comfortable hiking boots

Pack your bag

Adjust the straps