A backpack is a personal thing. If it is to do its job properly, it must be fitted to your body as carefully as a suit of clothes. The most important measurement to consider is the length of your back from shoulder to hip. The pack’s waistband should rest comfortable on your hips and the straps must be high enough to hold the frame securely to your back without putting weight on the shoulders.
The human backbone is an amazing but troublesome part of our anatomy. We stand usually erect without issue, but to hang weight on it that pulls it backwards, or even to apply very much weight pushing straight down, is to treat it with disrespect. The best you can hope for is quick exhaustion — the worst is a disabling back problem. That is why pack frames were invented, to transfer as much weight as possible from the shoulders to the hips and to hold the rest as close as possible to the line of the spine.
Organizing Gear Inside Your Backpack
Equally important and almost as personal is the method of organizing gear inside the pack. Some people are happiest with a pack that is divided into several compartments; others prefer a single large bag. In either case, the load must be well-balanced with the bulk of the weight held close to the body and fairly high in the pack. Never select a pack based on how it fits empty, the addition of a 50-pound load will change things considerable. One good way to find the right pack for yourself is to rent a few different kinds from specialty shops so you can make comparisons in the field.
Organize your backpack so everything has its place and stick to your system. As you place dense, heavy objects high in the pack and closest to the spine, make sure sharp corners are padded. Once you balance all the weight, keep things separated with plastic bags, coding the bags by color can help in identification. Use outer pockets for trail food, first aid kit, toilet paper, and other potentially urgent items. Lash sleeping bag in stuff sack to lower part of the frame. In some soft packs the waistband doubles as a stuff sack.
After you load your backpack for comfort, try on the pack. The average weight for an adult pack is approximately 30 to 50 pounds. Tighten the waistband, it should fit snugly around the top of the hipbone and relieve weight from the shoulders. Then adjust the straps so you can slip two fingers easily between them and the shoulders. Make sure all the buckles are secure and that the waistband can be released quickly in case of emergency.
Easing the Weight On and Off
Getting a backpack on and off can be more of a strain than carrying it. You will be doing a lot of this activity during your hike no matter how long your trip is. Using a proper method will help keep your back healthy and strong, ready for more hiking. When taking a short break on the trail, leave your pack on, just lean back against a convenient tree or rock as a natural bench. When you are ready to take it off, put it down gently — lightweight frames can damage easily.
Two common techniques for putting on a heavy pack are lifting from the ground up or using the knee. From the ground up, start by sitting on the ground with your back against your pack. Strap and buckle your pack securely while in this sitting position. Then rock forward onto your knees and hands. Using your arms and hands against the ground, help your legs push up until you are able to straight up. You can use a rock or tree as support as you stand up. To use the knee, lift your pack from the front using the back straps midway as you hoist it to your right knee. Slip the right arm into the strap and swing the pack carefully around to your back, slipping the other arm into its strap. Position your pack and strap securely into place.
Equipment – The Lighter The Better
The best rule to follow in selecting your backpacking equipment is to see just how light one can go without causing discomfort on the trail. First make a list of everything you might need, noting the weight of each item; then eliminate, ounce by ounce and item by item, until the list has been honed down only to the essentials. Other supplies and equipment, such as stove, fuel, tent, lantern, repair supplies, and first aid kit, are generally shared by the group as a whole. Your pack, sleeping bag, clothing and food also needs to be added into the weight total, if you add too many extra items, you’ll have a load worthy of a healthy mule. Find items that might be redundant, for example, a cook kit is an alternative to a frying pan, billy pots, and cup. Ultralight backpacking is a method where the base weight is 30 lbs or less, carrying only the lightest and simplest gear possible.
Getting in Shape
Hiking in the wilderness with a backpack is a demanding sport, and your life may depend on your strength and endurance. You can build endurance by running long distance with your boots on. Running up and down in an empty high school stadium is a popular exercise among backpacking college students, most everyone has a high school accessible in their community. Include a daily exercise regimen of sit-ups, push-ups, and pull-ups to strengthen your arms and upper body. Climbing a 15-foot rope wearing a full pack is another recommended exercise — albeit not for everyone (including me!). For the torso, try the trunk-twister. Stand with your feet apart, arms out, and knees straight; pivot to grasp the right ankle with the left hand; pull a little, release, stand straight, and repeat on the other side. Work up to 50 of these per day. To stretch your leg muscles and get them in shape, stand on the edge of a thick book. Rise up on the toes, then touch your heels to the floor. Repeat 40 – 50 times. Break out your walking sticks (you’ll want to include them on your hike), and start taking some neighborhood walks, working your legs as well as your upper body.
Hope for the Best and Prepare for the Worst
The best way to cope with an emergency is to anticipate and prevent it; the best time to do that is before you leave on your backpacking trip. Talk over every detail of the trip with your companions and reach agreements about your route, how fast to travel, what you will eat (meal by meal), what pieces of equipment are worth carrying and which are not, how early you intend to get started, how late in the day to stop. Decide on an equitable division of labor and who is the best path finder, who leads on a rough trail, who has what talent or limitation that may be important later on.
Learn all you can about the area where you will be hiking. If it is a place with which you are unfamiliar, talk to people who have been there. Research the region. Study topographical maps and use them to plan your route, selecting a place for each night’s campsite. You may not be able to stick to your plans, but they will provide a framework to keep track of your progress. Check the climate and the upcoming weather conditions so you will be outfitted properly. Finally, make a copy of your itinerary, including a map, and leave it with someone dependable so that if you fail to show up when and where you should, people will have some idea where to start looking. If hiking in a national park, file your arrangements with the ranger.
Enjoy Your Trip
The key to hiking with a backpack long distances is advanced preparation. Follow these simple guidelines and only carry the gear you need for a happy and safe adventure. You might even want to pick up this handy book, “Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips: 153 Amazing & Inexpensive Tips For Extremely Lightweight Camping” to help make sure that your pack won’t weigh you down. My hiking experiences have made me a big proponent for carrying only lightweight packs. Here’s to having a memorable hiking trip!