How to Fit a Hiking Backpack
The first step to any hiking trip is picking a backpack that’s the right size and fit for you. This is critical so that you not only avoid potential back strain, but also increase your balance and confidence navigating uneven trail surfaces. Besides properly fitted and supportive hiking boots, your backpack is a key component that will help you have an enjoyable hike.
In terms of capacity, daypacks are usually 10-25L, whereas multi-day hiking trips will require packs anywhere from 30-80L depending on the type of trip and the number of nights you’ll be away. Whatever pack you choose, there are a few simple steps to fit it properly.
1) Measure Your Torso Length
You’ll need a friend and a tape measure to help you with this step. Find the most prominent bump on the back of your neck near the level of your shoulders (your 7th cervical vertebrae), then find the top of your hip bones, or the “shelf” where you can sink your fingers in below your rib cage (your iliac crest), and trace a horizontal line around to your back bone. Have your friend measure the distance between these two points; this is your torso length. Many overnight packs will have an adjustable torso length, while others will be set. Either way, this is the most important measure, so make sure you select the right size.
2) Measure Your Hip Size
You may not need to worry about this step as most backpacks that fit torso length will have the right corresponding waist belt length. However, in the case that you don’t fit an “average” size, it’s helpful to know this measure since most of the weight will be carried on your hips. Wrap a tape measure around the top of your hips (just below that shelf where your fingers sink in). This line will be between “waist” and “hip” level if you were measuring for pant size.
3) Adjust the Straps
Once you are confident that you have the right pack, you will need to customize the fit. Before beginning, loosen all the straps and put some weight in your pack—10kg should do it. It helps if you distribute the weight to simulate how you would normally pack your bag (rather than simply placing a dumbbell in the bottom).
There are 4 to 5 main adjustment straps:
- The waist belt
- The shoulder straps
- The load-lifter straps
- The sternum strap
- The waist belt stabilizer straps
Put the pack on so the waist belt is resting on your hip bones, then tighten the straps so that the buckle is centered. The top of your waist belt should be 2-3cm above your iliac crest (the “shelf”). The belt should be snug so that it doesn’t slip down, but not pinching. You should also have about 2-3cm of clearance on each side of the buckle. If you don’t, you may need a longer or shorter waist belt.
Snug the shoulder straps just enough so that the weight of the pack still sits on your hips while the pack is flush against your back. There should be no gaps at the top of your shoulders, and the straps should not touch the sides of your neck.
Load Lifter Straps
Load lifter straps are the ones on top of your shoulder straps. These should angle back toward the pack at about 30-45 degrees. Gently tightening these straps will bring the pack forward over your hips to help balance the load. You’ll know you’ve tightened these too much if your shoulder straps lift off your shoulders or start to dig in. You may need to play with this a bit to find the most comfortable position.
Many packs have a moveable sternum strap that gently stabilizes and pulls the shoulder straps inward leaving your arms are free to move without rubbing. This should sit around armpit height.
Waist Belt Stabilizer Straps
Not all packs have adjustable straps over the waist belt, however if your pack does, this is the last strap to be tightened. They bring the bottom of the pack toward your hips to help stabilize and prevent the pack from moving around while you’re walking.
Lastly, double check and make sure the weight is sitting on your hips. If not, loosen the shoulder straps slightly. Make sure the pack is nice and snug by having someone try to move the pack around—you should move with the pack rather than it shifting independently.
Now that you’re properly fitted, you’ll feel a big difference with not being burdened by an awkward backpack that will put strain on your back. Get out and enjoy the trails this summer!
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