Buying a backpack

We’ve learned a few lessons along the way from our own adventure racing and multi-day staged running adventures. As many of our AR Desert Gaiter customers participate in staged races; and the AR Adventure Gaiters wearers are into multi-day adventure races, we’ve compiled some backpack-buying advice for you. 

runner bag

Cape Union Mart, Outdoor Freedom, Drifters, DueSouth, Outdoor Warehouse, Sportsmans Warehouse, Trappers Trading and other independent stores have backpacks that may suit your needs.

  • There is no ‘best brand’. From First Ascent to Deuter, Osprey, Black Diamond, Camelbak, K-Way, Salomon, Columbia, North Face and everything in between, there are a lot of good products available.
  • With the cost of things these days, you’ll be spending upwards of R1,500 on a backpack. Take your time and choose carefully. If you take care of your pack you should get at least a decade of events out of it.
  • One size does not fit all! A pack that fits a 6′- tall guy nicely will not fit a 5’4″ woman. Backpacks come in different lengths, widths, weights so they need to fit your body shape/length (especially length) properly. And just because your best friend has an XYZ make of backpack it does not mean this is the right one for you.
  • Try on everything in the shop and go to as many stores as possible to try the different packs. It is really worth the effort. Do not be limited / restricted by the colours and price – just try them all on. The colour of the backpack will not make you go any faster and nor will an imported one.
  • Take a notebook with you to the shop. Note down the brand, model and price of the backpack. Note the things you liked about it and the things you don’t. Use this to compare later.
  • Take along a bag of items equivalent to the weight and volume of what you’ll be carrying at the event. Put your goodies in the backpack (don’t be shy!) so you can get an idea of how it fits on your body with the weight and fullness in it. For a multiday, self-sufficient, staged desert race you will start out with 10-12kg, including water.
  • Choose a backpack volume to fit the gear you plan to bring. 20l is a good all-purpose pack size but you may need bigger volume for cold-weather or self-sufficient events. Find the balance between eliminating unnecessary weight and including a few luxuries for comfort. Upgrading to new and lighter equipment will help keep weight and pack size down. Don’t plan to hang excess items on the outside of the backpack. This is not a great idea.
  • Fasten everything – on the pack and on your body. Pay attention to the following:
    • Adjust the shoulder, waist and chest compression straps until the fit feels secure.
    • Walk up and down the shop to see how it ‘sits’ on your lower back, shoulders, waist and hips. Jump up and down to see how it moves on your back.
    • Check for side-to-side movement of the body of the pack. Aim for minimal movement with everything tight. Compression straps on the outside of the pack are crucial. Remember that in a self-sufficient staged race, as you eat through your food your pack with get emptier. It’s the same when you drink all your water. That empty volume needs to be compressed.
    • Make sure the chest compression straps fit comfortably across the chest. Ladies: they should not squash your boobs; the strap should slide up and down on the shoulder straps for positioning above or below your breasts.
    • Check the chest compression strap (or shoulder strap) for a loop or such to secure the bite valve of your water reservoir.
    • Note the position and comfort of the shoulder straps. Consider where they sit over your shoulders and compare to other models.
    • Check the waist belt for pouches (size and number), which are useful for snacks, lipice and cameras.
    • Check the sides of the backpack for waterbottle / snack pouches. Does your bottle fit in there? Can you fit snacks into it? Can you get your hand into the pouches with the pack on your back?
    • How many compartments does the pack have? A large main compartment? Smaller compartment/s for easy-access to your goodies?
    • Can trekking poles be fastened to the pack?
  • Read the instructions that come with the pack on adjusting the straps to try different positions.
  • Play with the distribution of weight by changing how you pack your gear. Pack heavier items against your back (not to the outside of the pack) and position these heavier items on top of lighter kit and between your shoulder blades.
  • Take along a kitchen scale and weigh the pack (weight is not always on the swing tags)! What you’re looking for here is a low base weight. The more the pack weighs, the less you have left over for actual stuff.

Important considerations:

  • Are you going to use a water reservoir or water bottles. Does the pack come with a water reservoir?
  • What is the volume of the reservoir that comes with the pack? What size reservoir can the pack accommodate? Don’t go for less than two litres. Remember 1 litre water = 1kg weight.
  • If you use water bottles, how are you going to stow them? On the front shoulder straps on the backpack or in side pockets? Check the side pockets to see whether you can get your bottles out and put them back in without taking the pack off.

Do not let the shop assistant push you to buy something that is not quite what you’re looking for. Move on to the next store, try a few more and then decide. Backpacks are expensive so buy right, first time.

Image above from this ‘How to choose the best bag for running‘ post on Runner’s World UK.