trips into the backcountry, there's no getting around the fact that you'll have to carry life-sustaining
supplies on your back. Here are some things to keep in mind when shopping for a backpack:
Up until late 1970's, external frame
packs--which consist of an exposed, lightweight metal frame attached to a fabric pack-bag--were the
only thing going. In recent years, though, packs that place the support structure of the pack inside
the pack, known as internal frame packs, have boomed in popularity.
The good news about internal frame
packs is that they hold the weight of your load close to your body, making it easier to maintain your balance
on uneven terrain. Meanwhile, internals provide stiffness and support, but they are not completely rigid,
which makes them more flexible when you're doing active sports. With the added flexibility comes a high degree
of compressibility, meaning you can use the pack's compression straps to cinch down your load and keep items
from shifting and throwing you off balance. Internals also sport slimmer shapes that allow for more arm movement
in all directions--another big plus for off-trail bushwhackers, skiers and climbers. Last but not least,
internal frame packs offer a greater range of adjustability in the shoulder harness and hip-belt than external
There are some negatives for internals. First, once packed, it can be difficult to grab needed
items out of them quickly. And because internal frame packs consolidate the load into a single, body-hugging
unit, proper packing is very important. To distribute the weight properly, you should pack your heaviest items
close to your back and in the middle portion of the pack-bag. Plan on getting a sweaty back with an internal,
too, given the fact that they are pressed right against you. Finally, internal frame packs are priced higher
than external models.
External frame packs are very good at focusing the weight of a load directly to
the right place: your load-loving hips. While internals, when properly packed, do this effectively, too, you
can always rest assured that an external will distribute the load evenly, no matter how unevenly packed it
may be. Externals also offer easy access to your gear via multiple, easily-accessible compartments. Plus,
because externals don't situate the load directly against your back, you'll enjoy far more air flow. Finally,
if you're on a budget, or you're buying for a growing child, externals are more affordable.
If you plan
on hiking on easy to moderate trails and you don't need a lot of body movement, you'll probably be fine with
an external. But because externals are so rigid and inflexible, challenging trails or any kind of off-trail
pursuit can become painful and frustrating. Also know that your balance is far more compromised with an external
frame pack during activities like stream crossings and hops through talus fields.
In addition to
backpacks designed for overnight trips, rucksacks are great for day-trips, warm-weather one-nighters,
single-day ski trips, or fast alpine assaults. Some rucksacks blur the line between backpack and
rucksack with integrated internal supports and sophisticated hip belts and shoulder harnesses.
Choose a pack in this category based on your intended use. Short day hikers don't need an internal frame,
while climbers and skiers with heavier loads likely do.
Packs in the
3,000 cubic inches and lower category are good for day hikes or overnighters in warm weather
with minimal gear. Packs in the 3,000 to 4,000 cubic inch range are good for one- or two-night
trips in colder weather. If you're going to be out for up to three days, look for a pack in the
sub-4,000 cubic inch range. Choose a pack with 5,000-6,000 cubic inches for week-long outings.
And finally, for trips lasting a week or more, you'll need something in the 6,000-plus cubic
inch category. Keep in mind, though, that bigger packs weigh more, and since every ounce counts,
you'll want to choose a pack that offers just enough space for your outings and no more.