Backpacks – Make a Plan

When I bought my new backback years ago, I never imagined that one day I’d be taking it for a 2,000 mile jaunt along the Appalachian Trail. In retrospect, I really should have put more thought into that pack. It’s fairly thick cordura nylon, so it’s not lightweight. It doesn’t dry fast. I’m not even sure that it fits right, considering the scars on my shoulders and hips from the straps and belt. But, at the time I bought it, it sure seemed awesome. I mean hey, it was high-tech! It was a North Face! Much better than the little Jansport I had picked up at Target! Yes, with this backpack I was now a pro-hiker.

I should have known better from the moment I stepped on the train, headed for Georgia. I think that pack was closing in on 50 lbs. I could barely maneuver it up and down the Amtrak steps – how was I going to carry it on my back for 6 months? Pro-hiker I was not, but over that summer, I at least learned a thing or two to get me on the right track.

Don’t buy bigger than you need
You don’t need a monster pack if you’re hiking spring through fall and care at all about keeping pack weight down. The larger the backpack, the more space you’ll be tempted to fill with non-essential items. Also, common sense tells us: Larger Pack = More Material = More Weight

Consider the weight of the backpack itself
Is your pack made of suede and steel buckles or ripstop nylon and titanium? An extreme example for sure, but when shopping for a new pack, consider what type of trip it will be used for, and for what length of time. Are you willing to sacrifice a pound or two for durability and/or comfort? Weigh all your options carefully. Remember, while you can drop weight by shedding the contents of your pack, the bag itself is mostly to have and to hold ‘til death do you part. Or until you want to shell out another couple of hundred bucks.

Fit the pack properly
Swallow your pride and admit the fact that you may not be an expert hiker – yet. Shop somewhere that knows packs. They will have knowledgeable people that will help you choose the correct size and type, and then they’ll show you how to fit it properly. You might even get to throw a few sandbags in and show off over in the next department. Speaking of which, why not take a hike over to the shoe department and try on those new Asolos you’ve been coveting? 35 lbs on your back will make for a good dress rehearsal.

Plastic bags are your friends
Raincovers for your backpack can often be more trouble than they’re worth. An improper fit can cause water to pool at the bottom of your pack or drip down your back, or the cover can fly off in windy conditions unbeknownst to you. However, they do a good job at keeping at least one layer of damp off of your pack. If you want to be sure your stuff isn’t getting wet though, use plastic bags. Put your sleeping bag, your dry clothes, and your food in a plastic garbage bag. Especially anything that sits at the bottom of your backpack. Also, when I hike, pretty much everything small and loose goes into a Ziploc.

Don’t overfill/pack properly
I’m not going to go into details here, but there is a proper way to pack your pack, according to weight, etc. It helps your backpack to balance and sit properly on your hips, back, and shoulders, alleviating pressure where necessary. The other part of that equation – it can be hard to pack properly when your bag is stuffed to its absolute limits.

Ditch the “brain”
Somewhere on the A.T. I started hearing the top section of the backpack that flops over the main compartment and buckles down referred to as the “brain.” I think most A.T. thru-hikers ditch their brains at Neel’s Gap (their first opportunity to mail anything home.) You might lose a pound from your carrying weight and still stay just as dry with the plastic bags and raincover. Me, I was silly enough to keep my brain for the whole hike. I just found it useful, I guess.

Let it dry
Anyone who’s hiked for any length of time (and that can even be a short length, depending on conditions) knows it doesn’t take long for things to get a little, even a lot, rank. On long trips, clean out your pack whenever you get a chance. Let it air- and sun-dry. Thoroughly. Of course, on a REALLY long trip, you will reach a point of no return, no matter what you do to try to avoid it. Don’t worry – you won’t mind. Just stand downwind when you cross paths with the public.

Contact the manufacturer about worn/damaged parts
Hipbelt break? Strap snap? Before you rush out to buy a new pack, contact the manufacturer of your backpack. Most places will be happy to help. By the way, this goes for most any hiking gear, especially for long-distance hikers. If you’re on the A.T., stop by Damascus, VA in the spring for Trail Days. Many gear manufacturers have representatives there, ready to help. On a personal note, I’d like to thank Mountain Hardwear and Gregory for doing just that!

Well, I still have that North Face pack, and I still love it regardless. If I were to buy a new one, I’d probably go for something a bit lighter, smaller, and more aerodynamic. I’d ask more questions, do more research. But hey, it’s not going to make or break you either way. You’ve got the trail to do that.