Choosing a Backpack
Choosing a new backpack for a Scout backpacker is a critical and expensive decision so spend some time making it. Visit some stores and try on a few packs. See what your friends have and how they like it. Ask the trek leaders what they recommend. Then find (and buy) what you need.
In the meantime, borrow or rent a pack for your first few practice hikes or summer camp. There are tens of thousand of unused backpacks sitting in closets, basements, and garages for you to borrow. Just look for them. However, if you borrow a pack, make sure it gets re-adjusted it to fit your body. Otherwise you will have a bad experience.
There are two traditional types of backpacks for hikers: the external frame and the internal frame. Everyone has their own preference and its best if you try them both and make a decision on what is most comfortable for you. Ultralight packs are emerging as a popular third category, but they are very similar to internal frame backpacks.
Internal Frame Backpacks incorporate a plastic or metal frame into the fabric or interior of the backpack. They are more complicated to pack (often having only one large cavity) but sit closer to the body (shoulders) creating better balance and easier clearance on overgrown trails. Internal frame packs are now the most common pack you will see on the trail, partly because they can be lighter than external frame packs. For extended treks the internal frame pack should have a volume over 50 liters but less than 70 liters. (The larger the pack, the greater the tendency to fill it with heavy nonessentials.)
External Frame Backpacks were introduced decades ago using a metal tube frame upon which a fabric pack was attached. External frames are easy to pack, last a long time, and allow good weight disbursement over the hips and legs which means they allow young backpackers to handle awkward loads on most terrain. It is simple to tie things onto the outside of an external frame pack but that often means snagging the pack on trees and bushes. External frame backpacks can be heavier but cheaper than internal frame backpacks. They generally weight more than five pounds and are increasingly rare among younger hikers. Many stores don’t sell them anymore.
Ultralight Backpacks are a variation on internal frame backpacks. They are made of light material and are generally just a large cavity wrapped around a very basic frame (or no frame at all). Ultralight backpacks come in all sizes. While the largest ones might carry up to 40 lbs, they are generally designed to carry 25 pounds or less. Ultralight packs usually weigh less than two pounds empty.
When buying a pack, try on a “fully” loaded pack at the store. Take your time to insure proper fit. Be certain to work all of the pocket zippers. Make sure the hip strap fits and can be adjusted. Be sure the pack allows sufficient space and tie-downs to accommodate a sleeping bag, pad, and bear canister. Ask if the pack can be repaired by the manufacturer.
Your purchase should consider multiple adjustments to handle the expected growth of a young hiker. Also, a backpack should be refitted prior to any major trek because bodies change over time.
A Waterproof Pack Cover is a common accessory, especially if you live in areas where it rains a lot. A waterproof pack cover needs to be large enough to protect items strapped to the exterior of the pack. A couple of large garbage bags may be suitable for summer hiking, but if multiple rainy days are anticipated (like at Philmont) a real pack cover is better. They cost up to $40, but are much more durable than garbage bags.
Some backpacks claim to be waterproof, but like tents, the seams need to be sealed and checked regularly. Lining the inside of a Scout backpack with a light-colored trash compactor bag helps keep everything dry and easy to find.
Many hikers work too hard because they have not adjusted the straps on their backpack correctly. Watch this video to see how a pack should fit.
Here is some good information from REI about backpacks. Some of it is “tongue in check” and some of it is too general for Boy Scout backpacking. However, a lot of it is useful aqnd interesting.
Check out REI’s backpacks next time you head outdoors!