People have always needed to carry more items on their person than a few pockets and a couple of hands will allow...
Behind every great adventurer there’s a great pack to haul their gear. It’s a statement that’s as true today as it was thousands of years ago, and that’s simply because people have always needed to carry more items on their person than a few pockets and a couple of hands will allow. And like many other items used in outdoor leisure, packs have been with us since time immemorial – but only recently have they exploded in terms of variety and application.
New materials technology and new types of adventure have seen the canvas traveller’s pack redesigned again and again, each time producing lighter and more technical products. The end result is a range of products that allow their owners a true taste of freedom – limited only by the food, clothing and gear we carry on our backs (or, more specifically, hips). As far as gear goes, there’s almost no other item that appears so consistently in every journey, trip or weekender than your trusty bag. There’s also few other items that can so easily ruin an outing if it doesn’t quite meet your needs. Whether you need a simple bag to store the day’s picnic, or an alpine pack that will see you to Everest base camp, there’s a type of bag to suit everyone.
TYPES OF BACKPACKS
Manufacturers understand the importance of packs when it comes to living an active, outdoor lifestyle. Yet the challenge of catering to such a varied number of activities presents a challenge. Luckily, brands tend to specialise and cater for certain groups of activities. The overall result is that there’s an ideal product for every user if they’re willing to consider different brands.The first step to narrowing down that search is to figure out which type of pack you’ll need. The following list provides a top-level breakdown of the broadest types of packs you’ll see, but be aware that there can be a lot of variety within each.
Daypacks: A bag for the day? This simple question has a wide variety of answers, as daypacks come in many shapes and styles. Capacities range from 10 to 30-plus litres, with the more ‘heavy-duty’ models featuring shoulder straps, hipbelt and multiple compartments and pockets. Specialised designs for watersports, climbing, trailrunning and other outdoor activities are also available in this category (see notes on activity-specific design).Tip: In essence, there’s a daypack for all occasions, and this can mean choosing between a product that covers one activity really well, or one that covers a range of activities not quite as successfully (the old generalist versus specialist quandary).
Trekking packs: Trekking packs are designed to support your adventure for its full duration, and so the capacity of the pack is much more important than it is in a daypack. As a result, there is a wide variety of capacities available. Most trekking packs will include a frame of some description, padded shoulder and hipbelt and multiple compartments and pockets. Generally speaking, hiking packs are top-loading, however some models may feature multiple access points.
Travel Packs: Much like the anatomy of Trekking Packs, Travel packs include a frame/harness system with padded shoulder straps and hip belt. Travel packs are designed for commuting through airports as much as they are for commuting on foot. In most cases, the harness and strapping system on a travel pack can be tucked away and hidden behind the back panel in a zippered compartment which makes them ideal for the adventurer who moves around a lot. Most also feature a separate removable daypack for short excursions, or as a carry-on bag for the plane.
Hybrid Wheeled Luggage: For those trips where the adventurer needs versatility as well as convenience, Hybrid wheeled bags are the ideal choice. Hybrid luggage bags derive from travel packs, but have the added convenience of wheels and a retractable grab handle for ease of use in urban areas, airports and hotels. Similar to travel packs, many models come with a removable daypack. Hybrid luggage bags give all of the features of a travel pack, and the versatility to wheel instead of carry. Their harness systems are usually much more basic than a travel/trekking pack.
Hydration Packs: For most of human history, carrying a waterskin made from cured animal hide has been common practice. Luckily, materials science has allowed us to update this humble vessel, resulting in the variety of hydration bladders and packs available today. A hydration pack usually refers to the combination of a bladder along with the straps and webbing required to carry it on the back or waist. The combination of a hose and nozzle complete the form factor, but the specifics of each component’s design can vary.
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A discussion of packs wouldn’t be complete without some understanding of the humble duffel.
While a backpack is designed for consistent, daily use, many people still find they need something with a larger capacity to store and haul gear. As in, what happens to all your family’s gear when it needs to fly halfway around the world, or shipped across the country, or simply kept aside in the garage?In those situations, it’s better to have a bag designed for maximum capacity a less of the mobility features.
The duffel, at its simplest, is a basic tube, zip and shoulder strap, but there are a number of variations and special features you can expect to find while exploring the Rays range.
The most notable variation is in size, and this will usually be noted by the duffel’s carrying capacity in litres. Some brands may also provide external dimensions. The larger the duffel, the more you can carry, with some housing well over 100 litres.
The construction of your duffel is also important, with a variety of materials offered, varying on their ruggedness and waterproofing. Just like a pack, you’ll need to consider the environment you’re taking a duffel bag into in order to ensure you choose a product that’s fit for service.
Some duffels are also designed with multiple strap configurations in mind so that they can be carried over the shoulder, in hand or as a simple backpack. They also may include a number of internal and external pockets depending on the model, so be sure to look over a product inside and out before making a final decision. There are also duffels with wheels at one end to cart heavier gear with ease.
ANATOMY OF A PACK
Understanding the most common design elements of a backpack will provide you with a clearer picture of how to find the best option for you when you’re next headed into the great outdoors. The following list is a general overview only.
Frame: The frame, framesheet or stays incorporated into a pack act as its internal support structure. A sturdy but lightweight frame is critical to ensuring load balance, and ultimately making the pack easier to carry. It achieves this in tandem with suspension system, when the pack is properly fitted. Stays tend to be constructed from aluminium, whereas a framesheet is typically high-density plastic.
Suspension system: All those padded straps and webbing aims to perch the heavy weight of your pack in just the right position on your back. While the hips should bear the brunt of the load, a sternum strap and load-lifter straps are also important for stabilising and positioning your load. In some products, the entire suspension system can be adjusted to allow for a better fit.
Ventilation: A pack’s design may cause it to hug the body, while others are designed to allow maximum airflow between the back and your back. Contemporary pack designs tend to incorporate a number of features to ensure good ventilation, while some heritage designs may not. Generally speaking, even in cool weather, being well ventilated is preferable.
Top lid: The enclosure at the top of a pack will often include one or more pockets, enabling access to small items you may need in a hurry. Some packs are designed so the top lid can detach and act as a separate carry bag.
Hydration storage: While there is a whole category of packs that are purposely designed to carry a water bladder, many other packs also include one or more pockets or compartments for the same purpose. If so, they will usually also include a hole for the drinking tube to run through. Water bladders are usually sold as a separate product. Hiking packs also feature mesh side pockets that can be used to hold bottles.
Compression straps: Unlike load-bearing and stabiliser straps, a hiking pack may also include a host of other straps that are designed for compressing the pack and its load. This can also have a significant impact on the wearer by altering the load’s balance and stability, despite the fact that these compression straps are not part of the suspension system. They also help to minimise the pack’s volume when it is not filled to capacity, thereby making the pack more streamlined and manoeuvrable.
Attachment points: Many packs will include loops and straps that enable the attachment of gear to the back of the pack. Such gear may include walking poles, ice-axes, crampons or skis. The more technical the pack, the more likely it will include activity-specific attachment points. For your general hiking purposes, a place to hang a trowel, walking poles or wet clothing will always come in handy.
Rain cover: Many packs feature some kind of waterproofing, but if you get caught in a storm you’ll appreciate the extra assurance offered by a rain cover (may or may not be sold separately, depending on model/brand). These rain covers pack down to a very small volume and are often stored in a dedicated compartment in the base or lid of the pack. They usually include a pull-cord to tighten them over the pack, leaving the suspension system and body-facing side of the pack free.
GETTING THE RIGHT FIT
Even if you’re just out for a day walk, a heavy and poorly fitted pack is going to make the experience uncomfortable and potentially hazardous. It should come as no surprise that ill-fitted packs can contribute to back fatigue or even injury.
Determining size: The first step to achieving the right fit is to ensure you have the correct pack size. This is a separate (but not unrelated) concern to pack capacity, which has more relevance for the type and length of journey you’re embarking on. Rather than relating to your height, getting the right pack length is actually all about ascertaining your torso length, which can be done by measuring (or, in fact, asking a friend to measure) from your C7 vertebra (neck) to the spot where the top of your pelvis reaches on your spine (the height of your hips).This measurement can be used as a guide for choosing your pack’s size, usually given in S/M/L, but may differ from brand to brand. Check the brand’s sizing guide to ensure you’re choosing correctly according to your measurements, or ask a Rays staff member for advice.
Some brands now produce a range of packs designed specifically for the ultimate-fit for women. Women often have a shorter torso, broader hips and narrower shoulders, so women’s fit designs take this all into account with more angular hip belts, slimline pack shape and narrower sternum strap. Ask a friendly Rays staff member to show you the women’s fit range.
Making adjustments: Once you think you have the right size, the next step to achieving an ideal fit is to load up and adjust the pack. It’s ideal to use a reasonable weight for your load, and this means something that best approximates what you’d be packing on a trip. Your Rays staff member can provide weight sacks that can be used to simulate your load when trying on packs instore.
Lift the pack by taking a wide stance, bending from the knees and lifting the pack onto one knee. Slide on one shoulder strap before swinging the pack (carefully) around your back, allowing you to slide your other shoulder into the corresponding strap.
Hipbelt: To begin adjusting the pack, start by securing the hip belt, which should sit firmly on top of your hip bones, cupping the hips. Ideally, between 80 and 90 percent of your load should be carried by your hips.
Shoulder straps: From there, begin adjusting the shoulder straps to pull the pack towards your body. This is more about positioning, as the shoulder straps should not be tightened to the point that they begin bearing a significant portion of the load.
Load-lifters: The load-lifters connect to the suspension system near your shoulder and attach to the pack itself, just above the top of the shoulder straps. Pulling on these should pull the top of the pack up and towards your head, ideally alleviating further pressure from the shoulders.
Sternum stabiliser: Secure this strap across your chest and adjust until comfortable. This strap gives you greater freedom of movement by keeping the shoulder straps together and stabilising the pack across your body.
Once you’re able to stand and walk comfortably under the load, without feeling unbalanced or feeling any pinching or chafing, you’re most of the way to achieving the perfect fit. The final step comes when you actually load up your pack and take it out for the first time.
Until that time, we recommend asking an experienced Rays staff member to provide their personal assessment of your fit and how the pack is sitting. This, combined with your own sense of comfort will ensure you have selected the correct pack size.
Offering a wide variety of capacities gives you the freedom of choice, but that choice must meet the realities of your intended activity. To complicate things further, the needs of your intended activity is likely to change on a seasonal basis, as well as whether you’re travelling with family or friends.
This is because the capacity of your pack should directly relate to the amount of gear you intend to carry. As a result, you’re not only considering packed weight of your gear, but also the volume of space it takes up. In winter or in generally cold environments, you may need heavier, bulkier clothing and a warmer sleeping bag, which likely means you’ll need to budget for more space and weight.
Your body size may also impact the capacity of pack you’re capable of carrying, with most people recommending your pack should weigh no more than 25 percent of your bodyweight. There’s not much point getting an extra-large capacity pack if you can’t safely carry the weight of all that gear!
The following table offers a rough guide for capacity versus trip length, with a range of capacities given to account for bodyweight and seasonal variables. You’ll note just how wide a range of capacities could be applicable, which highlights the importance of purchasing a pack for its intended use. If the pack’s capacity is unsuitable for your new outdoor pastime, then it’s time to consider a new pack.
The evolution of the backpack has largely followed the practical needs of those wearing them, occasionally revolutionised by new products and materials along the way.
The following is a short list of the types of activities you might need a pack for and what specific features may be useful in those scenarios.
Hiking: Generalist pack design, but should include attachment points, rain cover, general hydration storage and multiple capacity options.
Ultralight: Lightweight packs may include alternative or novel frame designs, minimal capacity and specialised hydration storage. These packs generally cover activities like cycling and running.
Paddlesports: Speciality roll-top packs and other waterproofing features are to be considered when selecting a pack for paddling with. It also either needs to sit comfortable if worn while paddling, or be stowed safely in or on top of your boat or board.
Climbing: Climbing-specific packs blend the needs of an ultralight or daypack with mountaineering specialties, such as gear attachments. Some may be designed to be worn while climbing, while others are more suited as an ‘approach’ bag.
Mountaineering: Mountaineering bags need to be hard-wearing, waterproof and have plenty of capacity and attachment points. These packs tend to feature ‘daisy chain’ loops for this very purpose.
Cross-country skiing: Similar to many other alpine-specific bags, you may find some are designed specifically for the rigours of cross-country and telemark skiing. They offer a range of capacities and attachment points.
Whether purchasing a pack, duffel or even a travel wallet, you may need to consider what available security features are included in the product. If you’re intending to leave your gear unattended in any place that it may be subject to theft, you should consider how the item might be locked and secured to a fixed point.
Many hiking packs have specialised zips or other features to create lockable compartments, but few advertise ‘slash-proof’ loops and textiles. If you’re a serious traveller, it may be worth investing in something that does offer the latter. There’s also the issue of modern technology, which unfortunately allows unscrupulous people to steal money or information from bank cards, regardless of whether or not they’re inside a wallet or daypack.
The good news is, many luggage companies are producing RFID-blocking (radio frequency identification) gear that prevents this occurring. Again, if you’re planning on travelling through well-populated areas where theft may be an issue, you could stand to save a lot of money by investing in RFID-blocking gear.