Getting Start Tips: Backpack Basics

Backpack Basics

As you begin your hiking journey one of the first things that you will realize you need is a backpack. Backpacks are vital for any long hike and literally carry the load. From water to snacks and extra layers of clothes to hats and gloves, a good backpack can be the difference between a happy hiker and cold, hungry, and angry hiker. But with so many options of packs out there, where do you begin on what you might need? I had the same questions and was able to get some answers for you about backpack basics. I spoke with Lauren, who is a product professional with Osprey. Lauren loves the outdoors especially when it comes to skiing and I was able to ask her some of the questions I had that will hopefully be helpful for you as well.

Who is Osprey

Osprey was founded in 1974 and to this day each design has passed through the hands of owner Mike Pfotenhauer. Mike created his first pack when he was 16 and has been going strong making one of the most recognizable brands of hiker and backpacker packs ever since. Osprey Values of Innovation, Integrity, Quality, Respect, and Stewardship can be found in each piece that they design and with their drive for sustainability in production. Osprey also has a strong philanthropic drive in giving back to nature and the love of the outdoors. You can learn more about Osprey here.

Disclaimer: I have an affiliate advertising relationship with Osprey. If you make purchases by following links on this page I may receive a small commission.

Pick a Pack

Fatman:  Thank you so much for joining me today, Lauren. The first step of backpack basics has to be picking a pack. Finding a pack can be a little intimidating though.  There are different packs for different activities and they all have different functions.  Could you give me a basic rundown of what one should look for in a pack and what the numbers mean on a pack  (i.e. the 18 in Hikelite 18 pack)

Lauren from Osprey: Sure thing. You can start to figure out which backpack is right for you by paying close attention to the size. The number you sometimes see associated with a pack (e.g. Hikelite 18) refers to the liter capacity of the pack. So, 18 means the pack has an 18-liter capacity. The larger the number, the larger the pack and the more you can fit in it. Other considerations when choosing a backpack are features, like a raincover and a removeable daypack, and ventilated suspension, which keeps your back free from sweat. 

Me standing looking over a peak with my Osprey Manta 24L backpack on.  Fit is an important part of backpack basics.
Picking and fitting a pack are keys elements of backpack basics.

Fit

Fatman: How should a pick fit? Should it be high on the shoulders? Should it be low on the back to keep the center of gravity balanced?

Osprey: Fit is very important, but what feels best can vary from person to person so you should experiment with what feels best on your body. Adjustable packs with Fit-on-the-Fly® hipbelts and Fit-on-the-Fly® shoulder straps allow you to fine-tune the fit even more.

Carrying the weight higher, above your center of gravity actually keeps it more in balance and makes it easier to carry the load with your legs.  That said, having the weight too high makes the load tippy and hard to balance.  It’s a literal balancing act to find the right position for the load and it depends on how the pack is loaded, the shape of the pack, and how it fits on your body. It’s one of the key lessons to learn for a backpacker.

Adjusting the Pack

It is also really important to adjust your pack before your hike, with weight in it. These are the steps we recommend taking to adjust your pack before every hike.

  • Start by loosening the pack’s hipbelt, harness and load-lifter straps. 
  • Position the pack so the hipbelt is centered and rests over your hipbone (iliac crest). 
  • Buckle and tighten the hipbelt by using the cross-body Ergo-Pull.
  • Tighten the shoulder straps by pulling them down and back.
  • Tightening the load lifters will pull the pack close to the body and help stabilize the load. If the torso length on the pack is adjusted correctly, the load lifters will sit between a 30- to 60-degree angle and align naturally with the shoulder straps.
  • Locate the harness yoke—this is where the harness straps come together near the base of the neck. Locate the C7 vertebra—the large protruding bone at the base of the neck. The yoke should be 1 in./2.5 cm. to 2 in./5 cm. below the C7 vertebra.
  • Adjust the sternum strap to approximately 2 in./5 cm. below the collarbone. The sternum strap should not feel tight when you take a deep breath. 

There is also a guide to fitting your pack on the Opsrey site that includes helpful pictures.

Chest Straps and Hipbelts

Fatman:  Do all packs come with chest and waist straps?  What is the purpose of these straps?

Osprey: Chest (sternum) and waist (hipbelt) straps are on all of our hiking backpacks but the style of the hipbelt does vary between packs. If you’re looking for a hiking pack, or a pack to carry heavy loads around town, both of those straps are important for spreading the pressure of the load out and reducing pressure on any one area.

Whatever load you are carrying in your pack will be distributed over the contact surfaces that the pack offers.  A single sling (as on a messenger bag) puts all the load on one shoulder (uncomfortable if it’s a heavy bag) or across your shoulder, chest and neck if you wear it cross body (maybe more comfortable, but the neck may find it to be a problem after a time).  When you build out a pack with well-shaped, padded shoulder straps, hipbelt, and backpanel, you spread the load out and reduce pressure on any one area.  That’s where good fit comes in, eliminating pressure points and discomfort.

The chest strap (sternum strap) is important to balance and relieve pressure from shoulder straps by spreading load across the upper ribcage, which is a strong stable area.  Shoulder straps, press on active shoulder and chest muscles used in arm swing, so they tend to tire you our more if they are pressing hard. The sternum strap brings that pressure in to a more static zone and helps reduce fatigue.

Me looking over a gorge with my backpack on.  You can see the base section of my hipbelt, and important part of the backpack basics.
Backpack Basics: The importance of chest straps and hipbelts.

Packing the Pack

Fatman:  OK I found a pack that is right for my activity, I got it to fit properly.  Is there a certain way that I should pack my items in the pack to make the pack more or less effective?

Osprey: You definitely want to consider how you pack your pack, especially when you’re carrying a heavier load. Generally, you want to pack the heaviest items in the center of your pack, close to your body. Then you want to stuff the lighter items around the heavier items for stability. You can use the hipbelt pockets or stash pockets on the front of the pack to store gear you want to access easily during a hike.

Here is a good guide for backpacking packs: 

Top lid – smaller, lightweight items you need to access throughout the day/night (sunglasses, sunblock, headlamp, GPS, toiletries, etc.)

Side pockets – Items you need access to without removing your pack (water bottle, water filter, map, etc.). You can also use the side compression straps to hold your tent poles.

Hipbelt pocket – frequently needed essential trail gear (lip balm, snacks, phone, compass, knife, etc.)

Main compartment, top – lighter items you need infrequent access to throughout the day (first aid, rain jacket, puffy jacket, etc.)

Main compartment, middle – heaviest items centered in the pack close to your spine, with lighter gear stuffed around for stability (hydration reservoir, food bag, bear canister, tent, etc.)

Main compartment, base – gear you need after reaching camp (sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove, long underwear, etc.)

Front pocket – provides easy gear access when skies are blue, great for drying tents.

Waterproofing?

Fatman:  Are all backpacks weather and waterproof?  Will my gear stay dry in a rainstorm?

Osprey: Most backpacks are not fully waterproof, but they usually have light weather resistance. If the fabric description mentions DWR, that means the fabric has a durable water repellent treatment which causes water to bead up and roll off the fabric. This treatment protects your gear in a light rainfall, but in a heavy rainfall the water will penetrate the fabric and could get your gear wet. If you hike in rainy conditions, you will want to make sure you have a raincover ready to use. Some packs include a raincover in a dedicated raincover pocket, but you can also buy a raincover separately if your pack does not have one included.

My Manta covered in a green waterproof raincover.  Most backpacks are not waterproof and raincovers are an important lesson in backpack basics.
Backpack Basics: Having a waterproof cover like this one will protect your pack and gear.

Inside or Out?

Fatman: Should everything fit inside the pack or can I attach things to outside?  Does attaching something to the outside affect the fit or function of the pack?

Osprey: It is best to fit as much as you can in your pack. Strapping items to the outside of your pack (even if it seems secure) has a much greater chance of falling off and getting lost than stuff inside of your pack. It’s a pretty big deal when your comfort/survival can depend on the gear you are carrying. Losing your jacket or water filter can really put a crimp on your trip. I actually lost a shoe once when I was confident it was securely strapped to the outside of my pack. That was really disappointing so I make sure everything is secure inside of my pack now. 

Stuff that’s swinging around loose back there is even worse, as it throws your balance off and increases the amount of energy you use while hiking. A neat, tidy, secure pack is both a safety and efficiency play

Kid Carriers

Fatman:  What about carrying the kiddos?  If people want to take the youngsters on a hike what is something they should look for in kid carriers?

Osprey: Consider what type of trips you will use the child carrier for and look for something that will fit your needs. If you are planning on doing shorter hikes, you can consider a lighter option that could be easier to store or be versatile to use at farmer’s markets or airports. If you are planning to do long hikes or overnight trips, you might want to consider a pack with more pockets so you can fit extra gear or one that has more padding on the hipbelt and shoulder straps, even if it is the heavier option.

Fatman:  What should someone look for in a fit for a child carrier?

Osprey:  You want a child carrier to fit well so it comfortably distributes the weight of your child and gear. Osprey child carriers have an adjustable torso length so parents can share one child carrier. When you switch who is wearing the child carrier, it is really important to adjust the torso length and also adjust the hipbelt, shoulder straps, and load lifters to make sure the weight is distributed properly.

Fatman:  Do child carriers allow room to carry snacks, water, diapers?

Osprey: Yes, they do! Different child carriers have a different number of pockets and types of pockets. Some have mesh hipbelt pockets or zippered hipbelt pockets for quick access to phones or snacks. They also have a larger zippered compartment where you can carry diapers, extra layers or a water bottle. Our child carriers also have external hydration sleeves so you can comfortably carry more water in a hydration reservoir with an easy to access hose.

Durability

Fatman:  How long should a pack last?  Is this a new one each year or should they last several season?

Osprey: It depends on how you treat it. A pack should definitely last longer than one year and should last you many years, but how many years will last depend on how often you use the pack and how rough you are on your gear. Osprey does offer an All Mighty Guarantee that our repair team in Colorado will repair any damage or defect for any reason, free of charge. So, you can use your gear as often as you can while knowing you won’t have to buy a new pack every year.

Me walking down a trail with my Osprey Manta 24L backpack.  Picking the right pack and then caring for it is an important part of backpack basics.
Backpack Basics: Caring for your pack.

Care

Fatman:  After a bunch of hikes my pack starts to get a little funky and dirty.  What is the best way to wash a pack?

Osprey: You can see our full guide to caring for your pack on the Osprey website, but standard backpack maintenance includes cleaning your pack out after every trip. Use mild soap like Nikwax Tech Wash, warm water and a soft brush to clean zippers often to prevent them from failing. If your pack gets wet, hang it to dry. Loosen all of the straps after each trip and wash it if dirt, sweat and stains have worked their way into the fabrics, webbing or mesh. 

The best way to wash your pack is to brush out and remove gear, food, dirt or spilled items. If your pack has a removeable harness and hipbelt, remove them before washing. Don’t put your pack in a washing machine, instead use a bathtub or large sink with a mild soap and warm water. Osprey recommends Nikwax Tech Wash for a mild soap. Agitate the pack gently and scrub inside and out all compartment and pockets with a soft brush. Brush clean all zippers and flush clean the buckles. Drain the soapy and dirty water from the bathtub or sink and refill with clean water. Rinse the pack thoroughly and then hang it outdoors or in a well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight.

Final Thoughts on Backpack Basics

Fatman:  Is there anything else that you would like to pass on to the readers?

Osprey: There is not one correct way to enjoy the outdoors. There are many ways to enjoy being outside and the best thing to do is to get out there and learn what works best for you!

More Getting Started Tips

I have compiled a few other “Getting Started Tips” guides to help you on your journey. I have topics such as clothing, weather, and shoes for the hike. For the pre-hike prep I have articles about snacks, diet, and exercises. These can all be found on the Getting Started Tips section of the website.

If you have any questions, comments or have a topic you would like me to cover you can email me at Fatmanlittletrails@gmail.com. Or you can follow along at the below social media platforms. Happy Hiking!

5 thoughts on “Getting Start Tips: Backpack Basics”

  1. Bewildered Brown Eyes

    I appreciate the write up! Love my Osprey Mira 32, a good friend recommended the brand. I use it for multi-night camping trips primarily and it has plenty of room for all the essentials. When it’s lightly packed it cinches down, however I’m thinking of getting a smaller size for shorter hikes.

    1. I hike mostly with the Manta 24l and I love it. It is good for long day hikes and maybe could pull off an overnight. I’m thinking about something even smaller soon for the shorter hikes. Really like the Osprey brand though and they were so nice to take the time to answer the questions for this post!

  2. A lot of fantastic information! My first ever day pack was a pink Osprey kids pack that was on clearance and happened to fit me. I have since upgraded to an adult version, haha, but I love both of them!

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