What To Carry Your Stuff In

This is part 6 of a multi-part series on backpacking equipment

  1. Portable Backcountry Shelters
  2. Staying Warm At Night In the Woods
  3. Fueling the Furnace
  4. Dressing Appropriately
  5. All the Other Stuff We Like To Pack
  6. And, Finally, What To Put It All In
  7. An Example Gear List
So now you have a pile of stuff that you will be taking on your backcountry trip and it is time to determine what you will put it all into.
Gear Weight & Volume
Backpacks are a big part of the back country experience, and the temptation is to go out and buy one early on in the outfitting process.  And while your local outfitter might like that approach, I would recommend that you delay purchase of a backpack until you have most everything else.  Why?  Because then you know how big a bag you should be looking at.  Otherwise you might end up with a bag that is either too big or too small.The more stuff you take along, and the heavier it is, the bigger your pack needs to be and the more important the suspension becomes.  If you are not taking as much stuff, or your stuff is small and/or lighter, then a smaller and lighter bag is more appropriate.  Remember that the weight of your backpack is added to the rest of the load you need to carry.  The difference between a 2 pound and 6 pound backpack is substantial if you are going to be carrying it very far.  Work toward the lightest backpack that will comfortably carry the load you will be hauling.

To estimate the proper size for your backpack, put all your stuff into a large cardboard box, including your food and water  Be sure to include enough food to cover the length of trip you are expecting to take.  Now weigh the box and determine the volume of the box with everything compressed or packaged the way it would be in your pack.  You can get a rough estimate of the volume by measuring the width and length of the box in inches as well as the depth of your stuff in the box.  Multiply all three numbers together and you will have the volume of your stuff as packaged in the box.  This won’t be quite the same as when it is in your bag because of the differences in shaping and packing ability, but it will get you close.

Now you can go looking for backpacks with a volume that is appropriate to your stuff, and with a suspension that can carry the load easily.  There are other things to take into account, but I believe this is the most important.

Internal, External or Frameless
Most backpacks that are designed to carry more than about 15 pounds will contain a frame that helps to support the load.  The frame gives the backpack some rigidity and keeps the hip belt and shoulder straps a fixed distance apart.  The intent of this is to allow a significant portion of the pack weight to ride on your hips rather than hanging on your shoulders.

Internal framed backs hide the frame inside the pack itself and it may or may not be directly attached to the hip belt and shoulder straps.  An internal frame pack will generally hug your back closer than an external frame, providing more stability but less breathability.  Internal framed backs are the most commonly used backpacking packs today.

External framed backpacks have a metal, generally aluminum, frame that the hip belt, shoulder straps and bag all attach to.  An external frame pack will generally stand further away from your back, providing better ventilation to your back but also less stability if you will be scrambling.  External frames are also generally easier to attach other stuff to if that is important to you.

Frameless packs are just a bag with shoulder straps, and maybe a hip belt, attached.  Since there is no frame this pack is lighter, but it also will put more of the load on your shoulders.  These packs are favored by those whose load is below about 15 pounds.


Some packs are simply a big bag; you stuff everything into it from the top and then close it up.  Other bags have lots of compartments, pockets and attachment points for stuff.  And there are an endless variety between those extremes.   Which you get depends on how important it is to you to be able to easily get at all your stuff during the day.  My current pack, a ULA Circuit (at right), has a big main compartment, a wet stuff compartment on the back, a pair of side pockets for water bottles and a couple of small compartments built into the hip belt.

Belly Bag
I usually take along a small belly bag to hold some of the smaller stuff that I like to be able to access while walking, as well as to serve as a trail wallet.  My belly bag is pretty lightweight, has no padding and three compartments.  In the small back pocket I keep my drivers license, a credit card, a $20 bill, a check and any keys that I might need to a vehicle or house.  The small front pocket holds a whistle, chap stick and nail clippers.  The larger middle pocket holds my reading glasses and a couple hours of snacks.  All that stuff does not really need to always be handy, but it is nice to have it always with me, even if the pack is dropped somewhere, or I’m wandering away from camp.
ARN Bodypacks

ARN Bodypacks are an interesting twist to the traditional backpack.  In addition to a main bag at your back, it also includes a pair of smaller bags attached in front of the pack, between the shoulder strap and hip belt.  There is a gap between the two front bags to allow you to see your feet.  The theory is that it more evenly distributes the load, reducing back and shoulder issues caused by the use of regular packs, eliminating most of the weight from your shoulders.  Those who use them seem to like them a lot.  They come in a variety of sizes and configurations.

Dixon Roller Pack

The Dixon Roller Pack looks similar to a wheel barrow that you pull rather than push.  It has a long narrow frame that fastens to a hip belt at one end with a big wheel at the other.  Your load is then placed on the frame and you pull it along behind you.  Seems like a challenge trying to get over fallen trees, rocky trails or swollen creeks, but they do have a small following.

How to Choose
Choosing the right backpack can be challenging, and you may ultimately end up with several of them before you find one that really works for you.  Or you may have several that you use depending on how long you will be out and the conditions you will face.  If you are buying a big name brand pack you might be able to go into an REI or some similar store and actually have one loaded up with some weight and carry it around the store.  This will help you to know if it is comfortable carrying the load you expect to carry.

One thing to be careful of regardless the style of pack you pick is that you get one that actually fits your body.  I have a fairly long torso and many pack manufacturers do not make a pack that is long enough for me.  It took me a long time to actually figure that out and realize that there was really no way to get the straps off my shoulders if the pack was too short.

Determine what is important to you in a pack.  Do you want light and simple, heavy load carrying capability, the ability to get to everything easily, lots of attachment points, super rugged construction, etc.  Packs are generally not cheap, so ask around, read a Backpacker gear guide, borrow a friend’s pack, make sure the store you buy from has a good return policy.  You will spend a lot of time strapped into your pack so make sure it will work for you, the way you hike.  The trail is much better when your pack is a good friend rather than an evil necessity.

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