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How to Fit a Backpack

After water and a good pair of hiking shoes, a well-fitted backpack is the next most essential item you need when you embark on a multi-day backpacking trip. Backcountry Expert Gearhead Emily Jenson has a few tips for getting the ideal pack fit:

If the pack you’re carrying on a backpacking trip isn’t right for you, you’ll know it. A poorly fitted pack can bounce around on rough terrain, dig into your shoulders, bruise your hips, or rub your lower back raw after just a few miles. That’s why getting the right sized backpack and adjusting it properly is so important.

Selecting the Right Size

Backpacking packs are sized according to torso length, not your overall height. Having a pack with the right size suspension enables the hip-belt to rest squarely on your hips, putting a large portion of the weight on your hips and taking it off your back and shoulders.

You’ll need a friend to help you determine your torso length. He or she will be measuring the distance from your C7 vertebra (the most visible protrusion on your upper spine) to the top of your hips, also known as the illiac crest. Find this spot by putting your hands on your hips. Your thumbs will then naturally point to the illiac crest. With a flexible tape measure, have your friend measure the line running between the C7 and the illiac crest. This is the number you will use to find your backpack size. Keep in mind that sizing may vary between manufacturers, so always check the size chart to be sure.

Gregory Pack Fit from Gregory Packs on Vimeo.

If you’re a backpacker whose torso length falls between sizes, there are some packs that have shoulder harnesses that can be repositioned and fine-tuned to fit your exact needs. These are a ladder system of adjustable points; different manufacturers use different mechanisms (like the Deuter VariQuick system, right), but the idea’s the same.

Keep in mind that men and women’s packs are cut differently. While getting a woman’s pack is not absolutely necessary, you may find it far more comfortable to carry on extended trips. Women’s packs have shorter torso lengths, shoulder straps may be narrower and curved, and hip belts may be canted (angled) to accommodate a women’s pelvic angles.

Fine-Tuning the Fit

Once you have the right size pack, you will want to adjust the fit to make it as comfortable and efficient as possible. Before adjusting the pack, put some weight into the pack (ideally, as much as you’ll be carrying, but if that’s not possible, at least 20 pounds).

The weight of your backpack (more than 75%) should be carried primarily in your hips First, you’ll want to get the hip-belt fastened snugly around your hips, not above them. The weight is now transferred to your hips. Second, pull on the shoulder straps to get the straps lying flat against your shoulders. Now, you can adjust the following straps.

Load lifter straps are stitched to your shoulder straps and are connected to the pack slightly above shoulder level. Once you adjust them to a 45 degree angle, your load will be closer to your back and will not sag on your lower lumbar. If the straps’ angle is greater than 60 or less than 30 degrees, the pack is not an ideal fit for your torso length.

The stabilizing straps are attached to the hipbelt and the lower portion of the backpack. They can be adjusted to bring the load closer to your hips and improve balance.

The sternum strap is a mid-chest strap attached to the shoulder straps. It provides added balance in case your pack shifts abruptly in varied terrain, helps distribute the load, and holds the shoulder straps in place.

Keep in mind that you may never settle on the “perfect” fit, as the amount in your pack will vary, as will the way the load is distributed inside. Try making minor adjustments over the course of a day’s hike, just to relieve pressure on one particular area for a little while.

Carrying a heavy load is tiring and there is no way around it, but you can absolutely make your trip more enjoyable with a pack that’s right for you. If you have further questions on fitting a backpack or choosing your backpack, feel free to contact me.


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