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Whether you're going on a day walk or a week-long expedition, our guide shows you how to pick the pack that'll work for you.
Whatever your reasons for going into the great outdoors, you're going to need a pack. There are many options and even more things you should know before buying. We explain what's available, what to look for and provide helpful packing tips.
Note: This is a guide only and does not provide test results or brand-specific recommendations.
Choosing a pack
Ask yourself what you need a pack for. Dave Stewart from Mountain Designs says there are many factors in selecting the right pack, such as "the time of year, whether tents are needed ... and how much food you'll be carrying". A tall person may need more storage space because their clothes and sleeping bag will take up more room.
Be cautious about packs with an abundance of special pockets and straps to attach tent poles, sleeping mats, ice axes, and other equipment. Chris Tews from the Mountain Safety Council says that these "often add to the cost without adding value for your particular needs". The items in external pockets are likely to get wet before those protected by your pack liner.
Pack types and sizes
Packs are measured by their carrying capacity (in litres). The following packs are best suited to different activities and types of trampers, so make sure you get a pack that suits what you'll be doing. As Chris Tews points out: "people tend to fill a pack, whatever size it is, so a careful choice of size is the first step in keeping your load light".
Day packs (15 to 35 litres)
Lucy is a vigorous day walker. She needs a pack that combines small size with the support and comfort of larger models.
- Day packs generally include padded harnesses or moulded foam, to make sure your back stays comfortable.
- Hip belts are common - they take off some of the load.
- There may be pockets for extra storage space.
- Prices range from $50 to $200.
Overnight packs (35 to 50 litres)
Jesse goes for short weekend expeditions. A small overnight pack keeps down his carrying weight.
- Packs in this size range tend to be streamlined, targeted at those who like to travel light and also alpine climbers.
- Make sure the fabric is tough and water-resistant.
- Some will have a fixed harness, so make sure it fits properly before buying - you won't have much flexibility in fitting later on.
- Prices range from $120 to $500.
Larger (multi-day) packs (50 to 90 litres)
Theresa does short weekenders but also longer multi-day tramps. Like many people with a mix of needs, she's bought a pack with a capacity of 70 to 80 litres.
- These packs should have an adjustable harness, allowing a better fit to your back (see "Adjusting your pack").
- The frame and straps should be well padded for maximum comfort.
- Some packs will have separate compartments at the base, but we recommend keeping everything within one space - that way your pack liner covers all your gear.
- Prices range from $400 to $600.
Travel packs (50 to 95 litres)
Emmett likes to travel but also enjoys the odd tramp. He wanted something that could double for both activities.
- Travel packs tend to be shorter and squatter than dedicated tramping packs.
- Many are designed as a hybrid pack/suitcase, and while they can be useful and versatile, they're not recommended for serious tramping.
- They tend to have more compartments, straps, and zips, as well as a detachable backpack.
- Prices range from $180 to $500.
Adjusting your pack
No two backs are the same. So it's vital your tramping pack is adjusted to fit against your back as much as possible.
If you're buying from a shop, make sure the assistant helps adjust the pack to fit better. This includes:
- Adjusting the length of the main straps, making them snug against your front.
- Changing the position of the whole strap frame based on your height, so the hip belt rests snugly around your pelvis.
- Pulling the top of the pack in so it's closer to your head.
- Working out a good length for the horizontal chest strap - it should take some of the weight, but not make it hard to breathe.
- Putting heavy items into the pack, so you can get a better idea of how it will feel.
Dave Stewart from Mountain Designs comments that "new packs come with a fitting DVD and are easier than ever to fit". And Chris Tews from the Mountain Safety Council recommends that you "take someone with experience with you when you're purchasing a pack".
While all tramping packs have a water-resistant outer layer - a coating placed over anything from canvas to cotton polyester - you should never assume that they're totally waterproof. Water can always find a way in, particularly if you need to do river crossings - swollen streams are easy to fall over in. Always pack assuming your gear is going to get drenched.
Stuffing everything into your pack can be difficult. But there are a few important tips to know before putting your food in with your socks.
- Always start by putting a liner inside your pack. You can buy one for a few dollars at any tramping store or on the Mountain Safety Council website - they're generally tougher and last longer than the alternatives. (And they can be used as a bivouac if you get caught out in the bush.) If you can't get to a store, use a rubbish bag.
- Pack everything into individual waterproof bags. As Chris Tews points out, "it's hard to believe your best efforts are sometimes not enough to keep your load dry. Prolonged heavy rain will soon teach you to be more careful".
- Have a bag for the clothes you'll wear at the hut or around the tent. Have another for your dinner food. But most importantly, stick your sleeping bag in at least two waterproof bags - it's one of the most important things to keep dry!
- Place heavy objects higher up and closer to your back - to stop you getting dragged backwards by your pack.
- Put anything you might need during the day close to the top. This might include a waterproof jacket, snacks and lunch food, and hats or gloves.
- Try not to put anything on the outside of your pack. Walking sticks, billies, or sleeping mats might get wet, caught on branches, or simply fall off.
- A good indication of a well-packed pack is that it either sits upright on its own, or falls in the direction of the harness. If it falls the other way, you may feel more of a strain on your back when wearing it.
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Report by Tristan Clark