Buying A Backpack – Construction

The evolution of a shoulder-slung sack has given way to a complex composite of foam, aluminum and plastics conceived to minimize the effort of hauling essentials. These contemporary packs came in all shapes and sizes, from ungainly expedition models to slimmed-down day versions, but the elements that distinguish the better ones are consistent across the board. Let’s take a look inside.

The Framework
Any pack could be made reasonably comfortable if we could put a large percentage of its weight on the hips. The bones of the pelvis can bear a far heavier load that our relatively wimpy shoulders. The obvious solution is to add a hipbelt.

Now, how do you transfer the weight onto the belt The standard approach is one or more aluminum stays, curved to fit the bend of the spine. The stays extend from the top of the pack down to the hipbelt, typically two stays in a V-shape that meets near the center, i.e., the small of the back. The stays transfer weight effectively, yet the pack remains flexible.

Weight transfer is for naught unless the hipbelt, the receiver of this load, is up to the task. That means one that fits and has just enough stiffness to support a load without sagging. A soft-foam hipbelt may feel great in the store, but after a few miles down the trail it will bottom out and your hips will feel the pressure of the load. One that is too firm can bruise your hips. The best hipbelts are a sandwich of different grade foams. A good hipbelt will compress progressively, like the shocks on your mountain bike. Look for one that cups over your hipbones to maximize the amount of weight-bearing surface area.

Shoulder Straps
You want to avoid too-soft foam. Another bad sign: puckers in the foam or in the sheath covering it. These will turn into hot spots against your skin out on the trail. The best pack makers have mastered the art of bending, curvingand covering foam without these dreaded creases. Of course, you have to pay for such craftsmanship.

Back Panel
A sweaty back is an unavoidable consequence of carrying a load, but a good back panel can mitigate the soggy-back syndrome. Some use firm, compression-molded foam with grooves built in to permit a cooling airflow. Others use a swatch of soft, reticulated foam (it looks highly perforated) that does a decent job of dispersing sweat.

Every major maker of packs uses quality materials and stitches them with all the required backstitching and bar-tacks that a quality pack is very unlikely to fall apart over years of normal use. Of more concern is the design of the pack bag and this is largely a matter of personal preference.

Most packs, designed for more than a weekend on the trail, are top-loaders. Most packs offer a bottom sleeping bag compartment, so you can access your bag without having to empty everything else in the process. If you really want convenient access to your belongings, get a pack with a zipper on the main panel either a side zipper or full horseshoe.

Don’t think external pockets make for a better pack than a clean, nearly pocketless design. The multitude of compartments may help you stay organized, but they add weight and complexity. They also tempt you to add weight around the perimeter of your pack, instead of inside and close to the back where it is least likely to impede movement. I prefer a simple, single front pocket, big enough to hold a rain jacket. Add a couple of water bottle holsters and/or a sleeve inside to hold a hydration bladderand you have all you really need.

Up top, it’s handy if the aforementioned floating top pocket removes and converts to a fanny pack for day hiking or a summit push. Most packs have this feature. Fine touches to look for if you think you might need them: Ice ax loops, crampon patchesand lash points so you can strap on weird bulky things like snowshoes.

As for capacity, the 5,000-cubic-inch neighborhood should suffice for most of us that’s generally enough for a long weekend to a week-long excursion. Figure on spending $200 to $420 for a quality internal-frame pack.

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