5 questions before you buy

March 2004

[1]What’s the lowest temperature YOU’LL FACE?

This is where it pays to be a pessimist. Get a bag rated 5 to 10 degrees warmer than you think you’ll need.

[2]Which bag is warmer?

Temperature ratings are a good guide, but loft is better. Compare bags side-by-side; if the temp ratings are identical, put your faith in the fat one. If you sleep really cold, go 10 degrees warmer.

[3]Do you toss and turn, or sleep like a mummy?

Bags come in different shapes. Get the right balance between efficient insulating (less space) and comfortable wiggle room (more space). For restless sleepers, a few extra inches at the shoulders (girth) can make the difference between snoozing all night and feeling straight-jacketed. Likewise, if you need less elbowroom, you can get a narrower cut, saving weight.

[4]Down or synthetic?

Get down fill if low weight and low bulk are your priority. Tradeoff: If it gets soaked in the field, you’re shivering. Go for a synthetic fill if price is more important, or you expect to see a lot of wet weather.

[5]How many bags do you want in your closet?

For many hikers, nighttime lows can vary by as much as 60 degrees from season to season. You’ll save weight in the summer and prevent cold nights in the winter if you invest in more than one bag.

Buying A Better Pack

There’s no single piece of equipment more crucial to your backwoods enjoyment. Here’s how to make the right choice.

  1. Measure your torso. To get a proper fit, you must know your torso length. To find out, drape a soft tape measure from the seventh vertebra (the bony protrusion at the base of your neck) down along the contour of your spine to the low point between your hipbones.
  2. Check those hips. When trying on packs, make sure you get the hipbelt positioned properly-that is, directly on the crest of the hips, not around the waist. The majority of the load will be carried by the hipbelt, so make sure it’s comfortable and fits snugly, without slipping.
  3. Practice patience. Your backpack may be your most important piece of gear, so take your time with the selection process. Before you leave for the store, toss all your usual backpacking gear into a duffel bag. Once you narrow down the options, load the packs and walk around the store for 20 minutes to make sure that the gear all fits inside and that the pack carries the load comfortably.
  4. Treat yourself. Buy the best pack you can afford-as long as it fits. Durability and quality rank right behind fit as important considerations.
  5. Know your load. Determine what and how much you’ll be carrying. Are you planning to spend, at most, 1 or 2 nights out at a time? Will you be hiking in the winter? For short outings in the summer, you can get by with a smaller pack, but snowy trips require more capacity, plus external gear-lashing options.
  6. Consider your trails. If you plan to hike mostly on well-maintained backcountry trails, you might find an external frame pack more comfortable. If your hiking will take you off-trail or into rough, rising terrain where balance is crucial, an internal frame will offer greater stability and comfort.
  7. Think versatility. If you like to go for an evening scramble after you set up camp, look for a pack with a daypack conversion option.
  8. Respect your idiosyncrasies. Packs are like spouses: You shouldn’t get one hoping it will change your bad habits. If your personal motto is “A place for everything and everything in its place,” look for an external frame style with lots of pockets. If you want to grab your water bottle on the go, don’t frustrate yourself by falling for that nifty new pack with pockets that are just out of reach.
  9. Plan with your partner. If you are hiking with a partner or group, figure out how much community gear (tents, stoves, food, etc.) you’ll be carrying. Then buy the smallest pack that’ll work so you don’t have room to carry all the excess junk that usually shows up at the trailhead.
  10. Think drink. If you favor a hydration tube for your fluid needs, find a pack ready-made to handle a bladder. If not, look for deep water-bottle pockets that can hold a quart-size bottle.
Craige Paul

The author Craige Paul

Paul Sternman has written numerous amateur how-to articles and is now bringing his free knowledge and skill set to the general public. A long time endearing love of the outdoors combined with almost 20 years outdoors experience in camping, hunting, fishing, and wilderness survival adventures. He has a strong desire to share the outdoor gear knowledge he gained through many years of experience.

Leave a Response