One of the most important pieces of equipment for any traveller heading slightly off the beaten track is a backpack. Not everyone wants or needs to carry their own gear, but a backpack is certainly a great way to maximise independence and mobility.
Buying a backpack can be quite a confusing experience. There are so many brands on the market with so many actual and hypothetical features, it can be a real challenge choosing a pack that best meets your needs.
Based on my own experience, here are some tips to help you sort through the maze…
- Size Does Matter (or Litre Capacity): Consider how many days you will be travelling and the likelihood that you will not be able to ‘resupply’ or wash etc. If you are truly going cross-country, you may need to carry large amounts of food and water as well as a sleeping bag, cooking gear and tent etc.
When it comes to packs, bigger is NOT necessarily better. If you buy a pack that is larger than you actually need, you may be tempted to fill it with all sorts of ‘bits’ and ‘bobs’ that you pack for ‘just in case’. While I applaud your forethought and preparedness, all those ‘incredibly important’ items can add up to a lot of additional weight which, in turn, adds to the pressure on your back and your knees. It may all be manageable at the beginning of the day when you are fresh, but by the end of the day those additional kilograms become doubly heavy.
Size is very much a personal preference. I have walked three caminos with a 42 litre pack and met many people along the way who walked quite happily with a 20 litre pack! It’s totally up to you, but I suggest that in this instance, less is more!
Size – Length: It is possible to buy backpacks off-the-shelf or online, however I would recommend that you take the time to visit a number of outdoor stores and try the packs on. Yes, you may pay a little more for your pack, but consider it an investment in your enjoyment of the backpacking experience.
The most important thing is to get the length of your pack correct. When it sits on your back, the waist belt must secure low down on your hips so that the bulk of the weight is carried on your hips, NOT on your shoulders.
If the belt does not do up on the hips, check if the pack has the capacity to extend (some packs have adjustable strap systems) or choose a completely different pack.
Do not scrimp on this!
- Pockets and Storage: This is where personal preference really kicks in and I can only share my own experience.
Internal: My pack has two large internal sections or pockets that can be unzipped to become one large one if I choose. I find the two pockets are useful as I store the less used items in the bottom section and the more frequently used items in the larger top section.
After a couple of days, you will quickly become a packing expert and know exactly where every item is tucked away.
Water Bladder: I consume a lot of water as I walk, so having storage space to hold and connect a two litre Camelbak (or similar) water bladder is very important to me. The pocket for the water bladder is designed to sit at the back of the pack and therefore closest to my back and centre of gravity.
External: I would recommend you choose a pack with a good range of external pockets including side ones to carry additional water bottles if required. The smaller pockets are handy for holding snacks, sunscreen and other items that you want to access quickly and easily.
I would also recommend to check if the pack has a pocket built into the hip/waist belt. They are ideal for holding your phone/camera, lip balm, muesli bar etc and eliminates the need to take your pack off all the time.
Rain Cover: Check if the pack has a built-in rain cover. If not, I recommend you buy one. They are not expensive and will quickly pay for themselves if the weather turns wet. Built-in rain covers often only tightly fit the pack itself, so if you have various things hanging off the pack, these may need to be removed or you won’t achieve 100% coverage.
Air Circulation: My pack has a design called Air Comfort Variflex. It is made of firm mesh that holds the pack slightly way from my back, allowing the air to circulate. This is fantastic in hot weather or if you tend to feel the heat like me. (I have a Deuter 42 litre Futura Pro similar to the pack shown on the Deuter website.)
All of this is written from my own experience of three caminos and about 2 500km. The important thing is to choose the pack that feels the most comfortable to you, not what the sales person is trying to sell you.
There are plenty of other backpack-buying resources on the internet and I suggest you check them out before you hit the shops.
Do you have any tips or tricks for buying a backpack?