Guide to Buying a Backpack

The backpack is our essential and personal travel companion, the little piece of home that each traveler carries along, the storage space for your belongings. Naturally, they must be comfortable and functional to best serve their purposes. It’s time to completely discard the schoolbags, for they will only ruin your back, as the weight distribution is too unbalanced (kids at school should instead carry 25-30 lt mountain backpack). I saw backpacks of above 25 lt. load on the back of guys who exclaimed “I don’t even feel it on my back.”, but it’s because they were so used to the inconvenience of that schoolbag. There are backpacks for all needs and of all capacities, from 25 litres of backpacks for mountain climbing/mountaineering to 80-90 litres of trekking backpacks for fuller capacities. For a hiking tour within one or two days, the ideal capacity ranges from 35-40 to 50-55 liters, but obviously it also depends what you carry (note that the face value is merely indicative: two backpacks of equal nominal capacity from two different companies may not be exactly as roomy as each other). Indicatively as first purchase, it’s okay to pick one backpack of  40/45 lt, (not too small and not too big). To cope with all the needs, you may then possibly buy backpacks of other sizes. An almost complete option might look like the picture below:

Guide to Buying a Backpack

  • 20/25 lt backpack for quick trips (half day rides or so) and possibly (if appropriate) climbing;
  • 30/35 lt backpack for day trips
  • 40/45 lt backpack for day trips or two days with accommodation at a camping site;
  • 55/60/65 lt backpack for trips of two or more days, two days in the camp where you need to bring a lot of material, camping excursions, etc.

Backpacks over 65 lt (you get up to 80-100 lt!) are designated primarily for travel by train or plane (to put them on your shoulder in short trips on foot out of train station, etc.) or long treks are secured by means of animals (mules, camels), in each case with differences in content. The maximum weight advice I found on the internet is not to exceed 15-20% of body weight (10-15% for overweight people). To measure the weight of a backpack you can buy a special scale in stores that sell outdoor clothing and equipment, but also simple scales are available in hardware stores and DIY stores (include hanging scales up to 20kg and over, which are useful if you want to weigh a whole bike, for a backpack or duffel bags it can be enough for 10-15kg). There are also 10 backpack-20 lt suitable for short walks, daily life or hiking for kids and teens.

What is curious is the system used by manufacturers to assess the volume of a backpack by filling it completely (including pockets) with small balls of plastic or similar, non-collapsible materials, and then pour them out into a specially sized container, which could be cylindrical or similar, with scale providing the volume as it remains filled.

The backpack material is typically the cordura nylon, usually showy and colorful (for walkers to be visible even from a distance) or more discreet and camouflage (appreciated more by naturalists, hunters, etc.). I would recommend you give a good feel on the canvas texture and discard the ones that give the impression that it is too thin. Although in recent years, some types of “light” backpack are gaining popularity and becoming prevalent, I don’t know if I should have too much faith them. Personally my skepticism remains a little strong, since they are as expensive as the not so light ones, but they do not come with large capacity (maximum 35 lt).

The shape of the backpack may be different depending on the use: those for mountaineering typically have side pockets and straps so they do not protrude beyond the outline or don’t have it at all, Those used purely among hikers usually have more narrow sections and straps to fit picozza, crampons or helmet. This is to avoid getting stuck in narrow passages (just try to walk down the aisle between the seats of a bus, while shouldering an outdoor backpack with side mesh pockets well filled and you will understand what I mean). Those for trips almost always have comfortable side pockets, sometimes one is insulated to keep water bottle or food, sometimes mesh pockets (more common in small packs but have the defect that eventually tear and break, even if they set in the years following 2003 approximately, from 2013 they are beginning to disappear from catalogues) sometimes the pockets are internal with swell filling in them (very widespread from 2012 onwards) top and bottom straps to accommodate outdoor tent, mattress or sleeping bag, fleece sweater, when you remove and unfold them. In all cases, there must be comfortable shoulder straps and padded back with areas specifically fill to cushion the body, also shaped to detach the bag from the back to avoid excessive sweating, as well as rigid (sometimes there is a metal structure inside the backpack). Many backpacks have “air” (or similar, every company calls it with a proper term), which is a structure with elastic bands and network that always keeps the backpack detached from the back to avoid excessive sweating (suitable for those who sweat a lot), they are heavier and more expensive packs of equal dimensions as traditional backpacks, if the person does not have a tendency to sweat excessively, it would not be so indispensable. Areas where the backpack rests on the body are essentially two shoulder blades and lower back (in the middle of the back the bag detaches from the body) and therefore should be the most cushioned.

The waist strap must be as wide as possible. In big backpacks, often there is a large sideway range that rests on the kidney area, sometimes incorporating zipper pockets for small items, and it should not rub on the sides (remember that we often wear only a shirt) and there must be also a strap at height of the clavicles to prevent the shoulder straps tend to open up and slide off your shoulders, especially when going downhill or when you need to drop from a rope. Useful accessories can be rings on the shoulder straps of the same material of the straps to hang (via carabiners) extra materials or plastic rings on the shoulder straps. Some mountaineering backpacks have straps to tie neoprene mat o rings and lanyards to attach carabiners and climbing equipment.
Usually, you access the backpack from above. But over 40 lt., it is good to have a side access via zipper that runs through the backpack across its width at the bottom section. The two sections are separated, but the internal division may be unzipped to get one compartment (the zipper halfway is not very useful if the bag has interior partition, when removing the material at the bottom, usually a jacket or fleece, the rest slips down by gravity). The hinges must all be protected (in fact you don’t see the central one in the photos ) to avoid water leaks when it rains.

A good backpack, well maintained although used frequently, lasts 10 years and more quietly (this unbranded, noble and inexpensive backpack has been accompanying me since 2003, now we are in 2016, and I only occasionally alternate it with other backpacks). Consider, however, that a backpack can be useful for hiking activities in the strict sense, as well as in trips by train, car, boat, etc. and replace bags or suitcases (the latter becoming less used). Many small hiking backpacks are used in everyday life (school, work, university, etc.) instead of backpacks from the city, even in places of messenger bags (not recommended) or even shopping bags or computer bag. I also remember that there are backpacks for notebook computer which in practice are backpacks with padded interior pocket to tuck the notebook. And we have camera backpacks, within which there are different compartments for machines and accessories, which are used by professional photographers.

The arrangement of materials inside the backpack should include the most important objects in the upper part, because they must lie on the shoulder blades, and do not unbalance the person’s back. Lower compartment should be stuffed with jacket or fleece (both if available) that have a smaller burden and can be reached quickly if you need from the halfway zipper. In the center, place things that can be served less urgently (food, are also more protected from the Sun, kitchenware, heavier material). Side pockets hold one or two bottles or a canteen and a thermos, while not to unbalance the whole. The camera is held or hang from neck (inconvenient in rock climbing) or for cameras that don’t pose much hindrance (for compact camera kept in small enclosures, it can be attached to the rings of the backpack with a carabiner, or hold over the shoulder or on the belt of pants). Useful objects in the windshield that aren’t in your pocket, like the compass, altimeter, sunglasses or eyeglasses, batteries and memory cards, cellphone (attention, when you flip open the bag, do not let it slam on the rocks), absolutely not chocolates, and the medical kit should be accessible quickly (the habit of having it in the top pocket also serves in case you need to look for it in someone else’s backpack).

Typically in the backpack the heavy weight is the bottles with water from the tent, and sleeping bag if present, while the higher volume is occupied by jackets, sleeping bag and batteries. Use a light jacket, such as a shell or a lightweight jacket or fleece for low altitude, for it saves space and make the use of backpacks of lower capacity possible. Similarly, for children and teens, the backpack doesn’t have to be too large, to match the body weight, and because their clothes take up less space.

Some backpacks for mountaineering use are designed for use with the “camel-bag”, which is a flexible plastic bag shaped container with a tube to drink directly from, used primarily by mountain climbers. The container is positioned inside the backpack in a backside hard mail bag and the water tube comes out on the front (usually bent and fastened to the shoulder strap, handy for reaching the mouth) from a hole protected by plastic slots or carried out directly in cordura fabric of the backpack. In buying camel-bag (which is usually sold separately) be sure to check that it works with the backpack, so you’ve gotta try it.

The backpack must become one with the body, balance the weight (e.g., try thermos flasks right and left) and shoulder straps to prevent good coil to nicely prevent back pain. It’s good when items from the bag do not protrude, so as not to get caught with branches or poles. Do not hang objects outside backpack bouncing while riding, beating against each other on the same carabiners that engage the backpack (boy scout-style cups). Look for useful external pockets for storing wet clothing, too. Typically, the outer fabric of the backpack is not waterproof, which means it’s only resistant to drops of rain, not a downpour. Instead of having to lay out all the contents to dry after reaching your destination in the heavy rain, it is better to have a backpack cover (a tarp works just as fine, just tie it to the backpack with a rubber band that surrounds it, leaving out the straps to wear, although some backpacks have incorporated removable tarps from the bottom) or a cape that covers the backpack as well as ourselves. Another useful thing would be to have some spare buckle, as modern backpacks buckles are all plastic and can be broken. It is advisable to keep spare clothing, papers and objects that may be damaged by water in plastic bags or special waterproofing cover because a thunderstorm can dig into that backpack, even with rainproof cover.

There are also those generally called “outdoor” backpacks with lower volume compared to hiking backpacks, but do not cover all the typical characteristics of the latter. In particular, they are less robust and have no hard back (result: If too full, they transform into a ball and hurt your back.). They are not suitable for real trips, but are used in leisure and for short walks, not for heavy load, either. There are also backpacks for bike/MTB/touring bike with helmet compartments (usually 20-25 litres).

Maintenance of the Backpack

Also for backpackers, as with all our equipment, we need to take some care of our backpacks. The backpack gets dirty with use: sweat, dirt, dust, resin, etc. so it is a good idea to occasionally wash it. If it is not very dirty, at least wash it once every 1-2 years if it is used frequently (the backpack absorbs body perspiration anyway). Special precautions are not needed when washing, just don’t make the cleaning processive aggressive . Although some wash the bag in the washing machine, admittedly a choice that make our life easier, the manufacturers generally recommend hand washing with soap or mild detergents, and water shouldn’t be too hot (maximum 30°).

To wash the bag, remove metal stiffeners, if possible, and empty all the pockets. Personally I hand wash with mild detergent or, in the absence of other, soap, hot water (use the bathtub or a large tub), leaving it a bit to soak, rubbing stains that are more difficult to melt (e.g. resin), with the hinges open and embedded pack cover retrieved. After that, you must rinse thoroughly, especially long squeeze the sponge pads to prevent coli foam at the first drops of rain.

During drying, a useful practice is repeatedly poke the upholstered parts fender and the shoulder pads with your fingers, every now and then, even when it’s seemingly already dry, so that the water contained within comes up to the surface in contact with air. It is better to leave a backpack dry within a day, or to wash when there is no rain, because a washed backpack takes time to dry. You don’t need to dry them in the shade, so it’s best to dry quickly in order not to damage the hinges and other metal parts, which means a day of Sun and wind is ideal. If possible, turn pockets inside out, especially the one on the upper shield, to dry the inside.

A good habit is washing at the end of the season, before you take it back for the winter, or if you will not use the backpack for a long time. In any case, it is recommended to store not only backpacks, but also other nylon bags (purses, fanny packs, etc.) and technical clothing in dry, not damp environment to avoid the annoying and long lasting musty and damp smell. Therefore, basements and garages are not always the most suitable places.


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