Trying on bathing suits in ill-lit dressing rooms no longer bruised my ego because I had finally achieved acceptance of my body as it is, or so I thought.  Then I tried to get fitted for a backpack and came to the crushing realization that I’m apparently a freak according to backpack manufacturer standards. Two months of searching, multiple stores, and random employees telling me the pack “looked fine so how could it possibly be killing my back?” and I was ready to give up.  After an evening of ice cream and gin, I finally called my local outdoor store almost in tears and explained the situation, so they set me up their most experienced person.  Luckily she was able to solve the issue and get me in a pack that I’m still using two years later.  So why was this so hard? Well, it turns out fitting someone in a pack is more an art than an objective task that can be taught. Quite honestly, most people just aren’t good at it.  Unless you’ve struggled to find pack, it’s difficult to understand the nuances of fit.    

The truth:

Most anyone that is average height and build will be able to easily find a pack that fits.  The truth is that most packs are built for the average male.  This means the majority of men can focus on features and just need to make sure they’re getting the right frame size. Men with broader chest or shoulders may be harder to fit and these poor souls could also find themselves having a night of soul searching and alcoholic beverages.  Women’s packs are generally men’s packs with slightly different arm straps, a smaller frame, and shorter waist belt.  While some companies are making strides in designing packs from the bottom up for women, these are still in their beginning stages. 

For both men and women, height and width matter.  The shorter you are and the less narrow, the more difficult it is to find a pack.  While some people will say to just make do, comfort is key to enjoying yourself and I’m not spending $200-$600 on something that “kinda” fits. 

Being your own expert:

There are options and having someone who knows the different packs and understands fit can make a big difference in finding a pack that works and having it adjusted appropriately.  If you’re hard to fit, it’s helpful to become a bit of an expert on your own. 

Key points when at the store:

  1. Know the volume you need.  Most weekend backpackers can get everything they need in 50-60 liters. 
    • Volume capacity often changes with size.  Most brands base the stated volume on a size medium.  As an example, my pack says it’s 55 liters, but since I have an extra small it’s really 52 liters.  Not all brands do this, but make sure to check. 
    • If the store only has your size in a volume you don’t need (example 70 liters) but try to convince you it’s more “adaptable”, “flexible”, “it’s what you really need” – walk away.  There’s no reason they can’t order the pack you want in the correct volume. 
  2. When you try on a pack, the store should measure you.  Like any sizing, this is to narrow the options.  Always try one size up or down to see if it’s more comfortable. 
  3. Have the store load at least 30 pounds in the pack when you try it on.  Any pack will feel fine at 15 pounds.  You’ll only be testing it for 20-30 minutes so weight matters. 
    • Keep in mind that they’re putting in weighted pillows so distributing the weight as you would normally isn’t as easy.  The pack may pull in the arms a bit in the store, but not at home.
  4. Walk around the store for at least 20 minutes unless it’s an instant no go.  It takes time for the pack to settle and you to determine if there are any areas that rub or pinch.  Adjust the pack and see what happens. 
  5. If you encounter any pain, such as your back is hurting, your knees are hurting, your neck feels pinched, take it off and try another one.  While you may feel pressure, you should not be feeling any pain.
  6. If the staff can’t tell you why it’s uncomfortable or they don’t measure you, or seem to be forcing you in a pack because it’s the only one they have in your size — walk away.

How do you know if a pack doesn’t fit or if you just need to adjust it? 

No pack will automatically feel comfortable.  Your body isn’t accustomed to 30 pounds clinging to it and probably won’t like it.  However, the pack should not be painful, or feel like you can’t hike while wearing it.  If it’s chaffing in areas, or feels painful, try playing with it before you rule it out. 

  1. Check the waist belt first.  The waist belt should create a roll in your stomach.  I don’t care if you’re a super model prepping for fashion week, there should be a roll or you need to tighten it. 
  2. Next check the harness.  There should be a small gap in the back of the straps right before it curves over your shoulders.  You can tighten or loosen the arm straps, and also adjust the level loaders.  There is often a balance between the level loaders and arm straps.  Tighten one and loosen the other to see what feels right. 
    • Note:  Some backpackers like to have the harness and arm strap hug their body without the gap.  This can create pressure on the top of the shoulder.  Since fit is personal though, it is an option and you can test it out to see if it works better for you.
  3. Lastly, take a look at the chest strap. The strap should be above the chest, on or close to the clavicle.  The purpose is to pull the straps away from your underarms and prevent chaffing. Where it’s most comfortable is personal preference. 

It’s all about the angles:

Most people tend to think about tightening the straps as pulling a pack towards you or away from you in a front to back motion.  I’ve found it’s more complex than that. Pack adjustment tends to be more about angles and the best way to solve a fit issue is often counter-intuitive.  For example, if you feel pressure from the straps right at your clavicle, the tendency is to tighten the straps and pull the pack closer to you.  While this may work, I’ve found it usually makes the issue worse.  Most often, the best thing to do is loosen either the arm straps or the level loaders.  Loosening tends to align the pack in a straighter position and lower the point on the body where the strap is putting pressure.  The chest muscle can generally take more weight comfortably compared to the shoulder or clavicle.  Think of tilting the pack at a 10 degree angle away from you and how the pressure on the straps would adjust with that change.  When you pull the straps tighter, you are pulling the pack at a 10 degree angle towards you.  It will take a little tinkering to find out what works, but don’t be afraid to try both tightening and loosening. 

This seems complicated:

If this is your first pack, I’d recommend sticking with a purchase from a store with a good return policy.  Until you get it packed with your items and really give it a whirl on a trip, it’s hard to tell what will be the best option for you.  As you continue to grow and evolve, your gear will change and you’ll gain experience on who you are as a backpacker.  Once you know what features you prefer, what you can live with, and your deal breakers, the next pack will be a lot easier to find. 

If you want to try purchasing from a cottage industry business, go for it.  Make sure you understand the return policy and really try the pack out at home loaded with all your gear.  Walk around your house for hours.  Often once the pack leaves the house it’s yours, so be sure it’s “the one” before you take it on its inaugural trip.  All is not lost if it doesn’t work for you out in the wild.  There’s a great second hand marketplace out there and someone will buy it from you. 

Final words:

Finding a pack can be difficult and daunting, but don’t let it get to you.  A lot of packs will begin to mold to you as they are worn.  Also, as you adjust your packing technique and equipment, the pack may also fit differently. 

Some people put on a pack and it’s great from day one.  Others fiddle for months on trail until they finally feel comfortable.  Once you settle in and enjoy the trip, you’ll probably forget about your pack.  You’ll hit a point where you can’t fathom wanting a new pack, that is until someone comes by with the latest and greatest technology and your gear envy kicks in. 

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