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The backpack : your ultimate hiking companion

A backpack is a key companion when hiking, skiing or snowshoeing, and comes in many shapes and sizes depending on the desired use. Here are some tips for finding one that is right for you.

BUYING

There is more to buying a backpack than a simple suitcase. The following must be taken into account:

  • the type of activity in which the backpack will be used (recreational, moderate, intense);
  • the average time for this activity (a few hours, a day, several days);
  • the weight and quantity of items to be carried;
  • the type of terrain on which the activity will take place (uneven, flat, mountainous);
  • distinctive characteristics of the activities (winter, summer, inclement weather);
  • the size of the user.

It might also be necessary to think about the following:

  • resistance to bad weather (waterproofness);
  • resistance to abrasions (for harsh environments);
  • ventilation;
  • quick access to compartments;
  • capacity for supporting heavy loads;
  • overall stability;
  • adjustments.

You can then choose your backpack based on one of the following categories:

Day or trail packs (15- 35 litres)

As its name indicates, this type of bag is used for outings lasting a day or less that do not require a lot of energy. With limited capacity, this backpack generally does not have a frame, and can be easily carried on the shoulders with simple straps given the low amount of weight carried. Ideally, there should be a hip belt to maintain stability, and padding on the back for more comfort. Some day packs however have a reinforced frame and mesh against the back to allow sweat to escape.

Alpine Backpacks (30- 55 litres)

Designed for more intense activities, this backpack can carry the equipment needed for skiing, mountaineering or hiking when at least one night outdoors is involved. In general, it has a frame and a hip belt to stabilize the additional weight that may be added to the bag.

Hiking Backpacks (55- 75 litres) or Expedition Backpacks (75- 100 litres)

These types of bags are used for an excursion of several days. With a light loading capacity, they also come with integrated frames that balance the weight between the back/shoulders and the hips.

Travel Packs

Light, versatile and available in many models, a travel pack can generally support light loads, although some models are similar to expedition backpacks. With its pockets in front instead of on top, it provides easy access to its contents. It can come with straps or belts (or both, if they are removable) and sometimes is a detachable part of a larger bag.

Suspension and adjustments

Once you have decided on a type of backpack, you have a choice of one that is adjustable or not. Since the backpack is first and foremost chosen based on back length, make sure you do not skip this step.

Adjustable backpacks have a harness that can be adapted to the length of the users back, whereas made- to- measure backpacks offer several back lengths for the same volume in litres. In these cases, straps and hip belts are also adjustable.

Although the weight of the daypack is mainly supported by the straps, alpine, hiking and expedition packs must also have a good suspension system, made up of the hip belt, shoulder straps and back support provided by the frame.

Frames

Average-sized or larger backpacks come with a frame to help better distribute the weight of the back and protect the back. Depending on the model, this frame can be either external or internal.

External frames are generally made of strong enough components to distribute up to 80% of the packs weight on the hips. In order to reduce back fatigue, the centre of gravity is placed as close to the hips as possible, which results in a less arched posture. As well, the pack is kept at a certain distance from the back to provide better ventilation. Although backpacks with external frames are stable, they can lose their stability if the user performs intense activities that involve sudden and demanding physical movements. Therefore, these backpacks are not recommended for excursions over uneven terrain.

In this case, a pack with an internal frame is better and will provide optimal performance. In general, this backpack comes with aluminum stays parallel to the backpack, which provides greater flexibility during activities. The centre of gravity is lower and closer to the back, and, since the pack is carried close to the body, ventilation is not as good.

To ensure that you pick the right pack for you, it is recommended that you try it on in the store, ideally filling it as you would for an excursion. Once filled, adjust the compression straps, hip belt and shoulder straps. After doing so, walk around the store to evaluate the level of comfort and check whether the pack performs as it should. It is a good idea to do this while in the store rather than on your way up Kilimanjaro!

For loading, choose a bag with top access for a more weather- proof pack. If it is important for you to quickly and easily access different parts of the pack, one with front or multiple openings would be better. However, the higher number of zippers means more weak links on the packs surface, which is remedied by using the compression straps.

Construction

Since we rarely take backpacks to five- star hotels, you should pay particular attention to its construction. The material used (often Cordura or hyper- resistant nylon) must be able to withstand perforations and tears, especially at the support points (such as the back of the bag).

The seams must be reinforced, especially at strategic areas, and waterproofing (generally urethane) should be applied to the packs outer surface. Some backpacks come with a removable rain cover.

Lastly, the hip belt and back of large packs must ideally be padded.

USE

Fill your backpack, starting with the sleeping bag or any other bulky item right at the bottom. Continue by adding heavier items, such as a hot plate, mess kit, cans, etc., putting them as close as possible to the centre of the back. Finish with clothing, which should be placed on top and around, in the empty spaces between other items. Then adjust the compression straps to bring the load closer to the back, which will stabilize the pack and balance the centre of gravity.

After having released all belts and straps, put on the backpack. First adjust the compression straps (normally at the side of the pack) so that the zippers remain securely zipped. Then, put on the straps and adjust the hip belt so that the pack comfortably sits on the hips. The belt must be adequately padded and offer a comfortable contour.

Next adjust the shoulder straps. These, as well as the shoulder yoke, are not used so much to support the load, but rather to stabilize the pack. Finally, adjust the chest strap (in front of the sternum or upper chest) to prevent the shoulders from being pulled back by the pack load.

Whether hiking or at rest, avoid leaving the backpack too long in the sun, which will affect the urethane coating in the long run, making it less waterproof.

As much as possible, put the pack on a smooth, dry surface to prevent tears from forming and humidity from entering the pack.

MAINTENANCE

Always let your bag dry in open air before storing it in a dry place away from the sun.

Never clean a backpack in the clothes washer; instead use a cloth or sponge soaked in warm, slightly soapy water.

Rinse with water or using a wet cloth or sponge.

Hang to dry in open air.