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Choosing the Right Backpack for You

Posted by Michael J on

Choosing the Right Backpack for You

Backpacks and Modular Pouches

(And All the Details You Didn't Need to Know)

In my last blog, I gave an introduction to the concept of emergency bags. FYI, these are also known as Bug Out Bags, INCH (I'm Not Coming Home) Bags, GOOD (Get Out of Dodge) Bags, Get Home Bags, etc. There are a lot of different names for them, all with perhaps slightly different intentions in mind, but the concept overall is identical -- to help you survive in an unexpected turn of events. It only makes sense to follow up that blog with "Choosing the Right Backpack for You."

I'm openly and admittedly a Backpackaholic (being an avid backpacker, hiker, and hobbyist prepper will do that). The market for them is huge, and each year manufacturers become more innovative -- creating lighter-weight, stronger, and more comfortable backpacks. They're designed with all sorts of activities and purposes in mind, so there's no shortage of choices out there. Because I've owned so many backpacks, I've had the pleasure of testing a wide spectrum of styles, sizes, materials, and brands. I haven't tried everything (yet) but I'm getting pretty close.

When you go backpacking/hiking, the three priorities of your pack are (in order of importance): Comfort, Weight, and Durability. Manufacturers of backpacking packs are constantly researching better strength-to-weight fabrics, determining stress points on backpacks to use heavier fabrics in those areas and lighter fabrics in low stress points to save weight. They also constantly research comfort aspects of their packs, innovating new suspension systems for better custom fits and breathability. Because most backpackers are so weight-conscience, manufacturers are constantly battling the weight vs. durability war. And because they are always riding the fine line of innovation, most reputable companies offer a lifetime warranty for repairs and defects in an indirect exchange for their customer-driven R&D. The idea is to give you the best experience possible with the peace of mind that when the pack is compromised, you send it in to get repaired hassle free.

Why did I just bother explaining all that? Well, this phenomenal lifetime guarantee works great when you can deal with a bag covered in duct tape till you get off the trail, get home, take pictures, and e-mail them to the manufacturer for a replacement/repair. But this got me thinking... In a disaster scenario, there is no warranty!

My mother used a simplistically designed backpack through most of her education in the 1960's, then stored it away till I started going to school and used it too. Although people gave me new backpacks as gifts over the years, I always came back to this same bag. This backpack (only about 25 liters in volume) carried 40+ pounds of books with sharp edges for decades, and was tossed around, dropped, and abused in every which way possible. Unfortunately, a number of years ago, some type of adhesive got into the zippers and ruined them. It was going to cost way too much to repair it (about $125.00), so I had to retire it. The material however, didn't have a single scratch, tear, or rip.

When I needed to replace the backpack, I assumed that all backpacks could hold up like the last one did, so I ended up getting a more contemporary backpack constructed from mostly thin, ripstop nylon. While it was ever-so-slightly lighter, the bag lasted about 3 months before my keys punctured the fabric and started noticing some serious wear that was quickly getting worse.

If you're not a knowledge junkie like me, skip this next paragraph:

Like any curious monkey, this little experience got me curious about fabrics (I have to research and test everything to death). I came to learn that the old hand-me-down pack was made from 1000D Nylon. The "D" stands for Denier, which is a measurement of weight for a single 9,000-yard strand of the material. 1000D weighs 1,000 grams -- simple. When 1000D nylon is woven into fabric, it is regarded as one of the strongest materials available with its durability in extreme conditions, abrasion resistance, and mold/rot resistance. It is also somewhat water repellent, and dries quickly when saturated. Traditional cotton canvas (perhaps one of the oldest materials used for backpacks) is still regarded as one of the strongest materials as well, but the problem is that the material is heavy by itself, and needs to be waxed (adding more weight) to provide any sort of weather resistance. If the wax should wear off, or if the material is not coated, it will saturate, triple in weight, and take forever to dry (same reason you never wear cotton when hiking, camping, etc.). This is why nylon took over a big portion of the backpack market. Also, many manufacturers are moving over to (or giving the option for) 500D nylon to save some weight. It's logical to think that 500D is half the weight, but because the stands are thinner, there are more strands being used to create the fabric (not woven any more or less tightly), so it ends up being about 70% of the weight of 1000D and has just a little more water repellent properties due to the smaller "pores" in the fabric. The trade off is that 500D has about 60% of the grab strength, and about 40% of the tear strength as 1000D (think of grab strength as pulling on each end of the fabric, and tear strength like ripping a piece of paper). However, because 500D is still so strong, it is still sufficient for most military applications and some of the best manufacturers use it exclusively. The 500D vs. 1000D is another endless debate, but personally, I stick with what I know because it helps me sleep at night. Keep in mind that a large portion of the weight of packs is from the frame, stays, zippers, webbing, padding, buckles, and stitching -- so the fabric substitution alone will not get you that ~30% weight reduction. Either way, 1000D or 500D should be just fine, but I would not use anything less for an emergency bag purpose. I've learned that although lighter fabrics can be deceptively stronger than you think with technological advancements, you can pretty much make an educated guess on how fabric will perform by simply touching it.

Okay, enough nerd talk. Point is, if you're going to be choosing a backpack for an emergency situation, consider it to be the only pack you'll ever have. Anyone who's either in armed forces or a serious backpacker will tell you that your backpack can be your life. I'll preach all day and night about being weight-conscience, but in a disaster, there are no retailers, no online orders, and no warranty repairs. Better choose wisely for a pack that will last. For backpacking and hiking, I do follow the trend of lighter bags to make the experience more comfortable, mostly because I have the luxury of generally knowing what lays ahead. I know roughly how long I will be gone for, and can take relatively good care of my pack to the best of my ability within those circumstances. But still having accidentally ripped, torn, and near destroyed lighter-weight bags in mild-to-moderate conditions, it scares me to think about relying on these for disaster scenarios.

In an emergency situation, who knows exactly what you're going up against! If I'm in the woods, I can picture myself dropping the bag of a cliff, pushing through thick sharp brush, butt-sliding down sharp rocks, etc. If I'm in the city, I can picture trying to push through crowds, dragging it across the sidewalk, having people try to grab it off my back, getting run over by a car, etc. Either way, I want a bag that can carry a heavy load and withstand a bomb. This is why I suggest sticking to the 1000D or 500D nylon backpacks. These are generally tactical/military bags -- typically because they are the only manufacturers that use this material while the backpacking manufacturers stay far way from it because of its weight. Yes, you probably gain about 2 lbs in weight, but a heavier bag is better than a useless bag. There are many tactical backpack manufacturers that use these fabrics, but be sure you buy them from a reputable company, because if the bag is poorly stitched, the material used is irrelevant. Also, lighter material bags tend to use smaller buckles for further weight reduction, which are more susceptible to breakage, especially in cold weather when they become more brittle -- just another thing to consider when searching for your bag.

The next step is making sure you have the right capacity to hold your items. As a general rule of thumb, always have your contents before choosing your pack, and get a pack that is just a tiny bit smaller than you need so you're forced to prioritize your items. Excuse me if I've repeated myself by saying this in other blogs, but not having a fairly solid idea of your contents can lead to a lot of wasted money on the wrong packs. Been there, done that. In my opinion, you should need about 30-40 liters of space if you do not carry a sleeping bag and sleep system, and about 55-65 liters if you do (another option is to get the former and attach the sleeping items on the outside).

Organizational features are another factor to consider. Some packs are almost "too organized", meaning they contain compartments and pouches to hold very specific items, and if you don't have those items, they don't really help and just add weight. You should pick a pack with moderate organization to gain quick access to items, but don't over do it. At the very least, you want to make sure you have at least one large compartment in the bag to throw larger items in, or to be able to toss things into when in a hurry. You can always get packing cubes, bags, and sacks to provide additional organization.

Next, you want to make sure that your pack has reasonable means to compress. Most bags, no matter what style, have some compression straps on them. It is necessary to keep the load as close to your back as possible (see my previous blog on "How to Pack Your Backpack") to avoid throwing you off-balance, and compression helps achieve this. Another important reason for this is that your contents will shrink as you consume and/or ditch items along the way. Compression allows you to adapt your backpack to a suitable size, and being less bulky helps you maneuver around.

Lastly, but certainly not least importantly, you need to make sure your bag is comfortable. Different backpacks fit different people differently. Try on your bag, load it up with some weight, and wear it for a while (like, totally more than 5 minutes). You may find that it fits like a glove, or you may find bruising, chafing, and severe back pain. Many packs come in different sizes and/or have many adjustment points, so make sure it's the right size and a proper fit before judging it. Some people have also utilized a large duffel bag that converts into a backpack. While they tend not to be quite as comfortable, it does give you more versatility and carrying options. As any survival expert will tell you that you need to be prepared to move on foot, so consider the fact that tossing it in your trunk and driving into the sunset may not be an option.

Complimenting comfort, there should be some moderate ventilation in your pack, which is often achieved simply by having mesh padding on the back. It makes a world of difference, especially in warmer environments. There's nothing worse than going on a long trip with a sweaty back, and every time you take off your pack and a gust of wind hits, you freeze in your own cold sweat -- trust me, not pleasant.

All being said, my personal theory on this whole thing is: Go heavy and durable on the pack, and go thin and light on the contents . A durable backpack will provide adequate protection for your contents, but you'll need to offset some weight. I've said this too many times, but you probably won't get it perfect on your first try. Much of the above information is just my personal opinion based on my own personal experience, but like all opinionated articles, I exercise my right to the disclaimer of: Your experience may differ.

Every backpack suits everyone differently, and it is important to choose the best one for you. As always, thank you for reading and I hope this helps. Stay safe!

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