Packs and Load Bearing

Packs can be the source of most acrimonious debate among hikers. I can't imagine why - after all packs come in all sorts of pretty colors with all sorts of bits dangling off them. Not to mention the hype from manufacturers and advertisers. It's hard to believe but some of them can even hold stuff for a hiker to carry, just as some smartphones can actually make phone calls.

Packs can range from the golite-philosophy home-made simple sac. They are light but not overly strong if you need to carry heavy sharp-cornered things. I hiked with a guy who had developed a GOLITE philosophy - worked nice and light and gracefully. Unfortunately the pack couldn't handle the heavy bulky stuff, so his girlfriend (standard pack) ended up carrying everything. This extreme ranges to the relatively light frameless packs, through to framed packs and the relatively heavy army-style packs designed to hold lots of ammunition, radio batteries, amongst other sharp angular metal sundries. They also occasionally get thrown out of Hercules aircraft. Often - but not always - attached to a soldier.

Selecting a pack is a good time to exercise the “Select to task” philosophy. What do you need it for, and what options are available? As a caution... pack manufacturers are in an 'arms race' for your dollar. There is a tendency to add bits and pieces that may be completely useless for your needs, but look colorful and hardcore. If you don't know what some random bits of shockcord or webbing loops are for then you probably don't need them. There is also a bit of 'volume envy'. Pack volumes (ie. how much water they can hold) is only a broad measure of capacity. A pack that is too small won't hold everything you need, but one that is too big just contains unused volume. Bigger is not always better. The 110 liter Bergen is a great pack, but do you really need that volume? Don't be blown away by big words and obfuscation (scientifically, ergonomically, peripatetically, designed...). Just view the (potentially purchasable) pack on its ability to work to task. On the opposite side of the dayglo brigade is the military surplus route. Another word of warning. As soon as camping gear comes in army green or camouflage colours of some kind, or has the word "tactical" in its name – you are probably paying 3 times too much for it. My gear is, admittedly, Auscam colored and Military Specification (Milspec).I do feel like a bit of a dickhead sometimes in it when hiking in the civilian world. But if I happened to find a dayglo pack with Dora the Explorer on it that fitted the bill, I would use it.

Well, maybe...

So, what are the considerations?

I'll pick a few models to illustrate some of the points. These are not endorsements, but I've checked out and played with all the models in the shop - although simply fitting it in an outdoors store while looking at how sexy the dayglo colors make you look in the mirror is not a substitute for carrying a load under task conditions. I own and use an ALICE pack from Combat Clothing Australia - not the lightest or most comfortable, but it's my friend. As with any piece of gear, check out any online reviews you can find (and treat them with caution!).

Osprey Atmos 65
1.98kg, $USD260
Osprey Atmos hiking pack
Osprey Zenith 88
2.48kg, $USD360
Osprey Zenith hiking pack

ALICE hiking pack
Deuter Aircontact 65+10

Deuter Aircontact hiking pack
Blacks Alpine Aqua II 60+10

Blacks Alpine Aqua hiking pack
Markhor 55+10
2.46kg, $NZD340

Markhor Zion hiking pack


There are two potential ways to deal with pack sizes. Pick a pack that seems OK, then modify the amount of equipment you can fit into it. Alternatively, line up the stuff you will need to carry and work out what size of pack you will typically need. Of course there is a certain amount of give-and-take. What size pack will you need for a day walk? What do you need to carry? Water, wet and/or cold weather gear, food, first aid kit plus other sundries. A 30 liter rucksack or thereabouts should suffice. What if you are camping? Add a sleeping bag and shelter, food, cooking gear and utensils plus other sundries. 60 liter would be a minimum. Be wary of choosing a pack with too high a capacity though - there is always the temptation to carry stuff you don't need (= extra weight). Specific tasks require different considerations. Rock climbers will carry a bare minimum of comfort items as they are carrying hardware, slings, ropes, and possibly a shelter for a multi-day climb. For ice-climbing, add fuel, a more sturdy shelter - and so on. Again, select equipment for the task.

Consider the Osprey 65 and 88 Liter packs above. They are of similar style and construction (with patented names for just about every part of the pack - mentally block them out or your head will spin), however the Zenith has a few spare bits in the harness fitting and it's more robust, leading to it being 0.5kg heavier. It's also $USD100 more expensive (prices from REI). Is it worth the extra capacity? They both have lots of pockets (potentially good) but most of them seem a bit flat and small (not so good). Picture what you need to fit into where. Personally, I would go for the larger pack although I would try to find a comparable but lighter one. Compression straps can always shrink a pack, but you can't make it bigger without tying stuff to the outside.


Prior to the 1970's external H-frame packs were popular. Basically a material sac was tied or buckled to a rigid frame, which was attached to the hapless hiker. They were sturdy, but a bit heavy and not always that comfortable. The ALICE pack is a prime example of this. These were largely replaced by internal frame packs. This type has flexible metal bands within the pack that can be flexed to your back shape, and most have the ability to change both the width and length of the attachment points so the pack can fit scrawny and tubby, short and tall folks alike. Consequently they can be quite comfortable. A modification of this is to remove the frame altogether in favour of some padding. Frameless packs are among the lightest, similar in harness type to internal frame packs, but offer limited protection from the pointy hard bits of equipment that might be loaded into a pack.


Packs come in a range of materials with different weight and waterproofness characteristics. Canvas is robust and durable, reasonably waterproof, but heavy and increasingly harder to find. My first real pack used for hiking, hunting, and basically disappearing into the bush for a month at a time for work was a canvas/cordura pack by Macpac and it served well. Most modern packs come in a range of synthetic fabrics and weights of variable quality. It is worth researching and shopping around. More expensive packs are made of other fabrics such as cordura which are reasonably strong, reasonably waterproof, and relatively durable. If you can afford them, it is worth exploring whether they fit your needs.

Pay particular attention to stitching, especially connecting straps to the pack, and hardware such as buckles. Make sure they are secure and, in the case of buckles, robust enough. I saw recently buckles on a very well known brand I won't name that were so flimsy a sparrow fart would probably break them. You don't want your pack disintegrating halfway along the track.

Single or double compartment?

Larger (60+ liters) packs can come in single or double compartments. Typically the smaller lower compartment is intended for sleeping gear, while the larger upper compartment contains the rest. There are pros and cons for each. If you have the leisure time to take everything out of the pack to get to the bottom, the single compartment is often easier to waterproof as there are fewer zips, and it may be possible to make the pack more compact as you can scrunch stuff into all spaces.
Closely examine the storage capacity of the sleeping compartment in your potential pack. Consider the Osprey 65 above. There is no way my sleeping bag will fit in there. I would have to undo the internal zip, which kind of defeats the the purpose. In contrast the Deuter, Markhor and ALICE pack have more reasonable sizes.

Having to rummage around to get something from the bottom of your pack can be annoying in the middle of a downpour. I personally use a 2-compartment out of habit. Army reasoning - have as few things out of your pack at a time. My small compartment contains sleeping bag, bivy bag, and shelter i.e. things that by necessity need to be used together. With a double compartment pack, try to get one with compression straps on the bottom to help scrunch your sleeping bag up. If you are carrying bulky items (climbing ropes, for example) a single compartment is de rigeur. If you use and think of equipment in task-oriented compartments, then maybe subdivisions in the pack are better for you. Borrow and use both types before buying one.

As a final comment on waterproofing. It's possible to get ponchos for your pack. I kind of view them as more of psychological than physical value. Between water getting in, and condensation building up from inside, I don't see the use of them. It's more effective to waterproof your spare socks and undies in their own little plastic bags.

Harness straps

Let's consider the bits that connect the pack to the hapless hiker who has realised they've packed too much stuff. Fortunately, these are reasonably standard variants on a theme. The shoulder straps are generally reasonably well padded, with adjustment buckles to regulate the height at which the pack sits on your back, usually with some smaller topper straps to bring the pack closer to the top of your back. This helps with balancing the load. Hip straps and chest straps are usually standard. Hip straps are intended to shift some of the load from the shoulders to the hips, whereas the chest straps are intended to centralize some of the load to your centreline, so your shoulders don't feel like they are being pulled apart. Hip straps do make a difference, so experiment with them. Chest straps however have a major bad point - they restrict your chest and hence your breathing. This is not a good thing. My personal choice? I don't use a chest strap at all, and I don't use a waist strap. I receive enough load-relief from my belt webbing. If you were to choose a more conventional pack, I would recommend using the waist belt.

Sizing can be important. For One-Size packs your adjustment possibilities are restricted to whatever you can do with the harness. Many packs allow for attachment points to be shortened if you have a short torso, and narrowed or widened depending on whether you have shoulders like Twiggy or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Failing that, many models such as the Osprey and Deuter ranges have Small, Medium and Large variants on a range - usually with a loss or gain of a few liters capacity with size.

Be careful when selecting a size. Remember you could be wearing anything from a t-shirt, to a shirt/fleece/salopette/overcoat combination. Many folks on 'Comments' pages rue selecting too-snug a fit and, unlike a fully adjustable harness, there's nothing you can do about it once you've bought it. Except maybe pawn it off to a short-ass friend.

Dangly bits

What do you have tied to the outside of your pack? Pack manufacturers add all sorts of bits and pieces on their packs to attach things to. Do you need them? How many times have we seen dreadlocked backpackers in bus terminals and airports looking like walking kitchens, with the occasional sleeping bag and spare Birkenstocks dangling from carabiners? You know who you are...

There are a few issues to balance. First - streamlining. If you are walking through heavy bush anything on the outside of your pack is likely to get snagged. In Australian tropical rainforest there is a vine called "wait-a-while" (Acacia cuspidofolia) Wait a while bush. It has recurved spines, and if you happen to get caught in it, you will indeed have to wait-a -while to free yourself gently, If you aren't gentle, the whole plant can crash onto your head. In addition, dangling bits that move, and extra weight on the back of the pack alter the centre of gravity. The aim is to get most of the weight as close to your back as possible. Water bottles on the outside of the pack don't help in this regard.

On the other hand external pouches and water bottles help make important things more accessible. This is good practice so that you don't haul everything out of your pack to locate one frequently used item and potentially leave something behind or, just as bad, sacrifice the dryness of your pack contents by grabbing that little piece that could have quite happily lived in a not-so-dry pouch. Additionally - putting things inside your pack that could live outside takes up space for items that should be protected. 8 litres of water, say, takes up slightly more than 8 litres pack volume.

Personally, I like having secured or securable external pouches, because I like having all my gear compartmentalized according to need, and some things need to be more frequently and rapidly accessed than others. On the down-side, they can add to the risk of getting tangled on bushes. You can generally find a need for most zippable pouches built into packs. Other less useful pouches such as the mesh ones on the side of some packs which are ostensibly intended to carry water bottles for easy access often end up donating plastic bottles to the forest in rough country. All equipment should be secured. Some packs also have a web of shockcord across the back. Why? I guess because it looks 'hard-core hiker'. In reality, I have yet to find a salesperson who can give me a sound reason. There are, in fact, uses for them (when rigged properly). They help secure your snow shoes or crampons to your pack when you are in places when you may end up walking or climbing snow or ice.

Compression straps are useful - they reduce the chance of the pack getting caught on vegetation, and help centralize the load on your back, rather than flapping loosely in the breeze.

Load bearing equipment

Other load-bearing equipment deserves a mention.Belt webbing, Combat Clothing Australia ( I wear military style belt webbing. This basically holds 2-3 days survival supplies, takes some of the weight out of the pack and transfers the weight to my hips, gives quick access to water, navigation stuff amongst other things. It also serves as an unattached hip belt for my pack, which rests comfortably on my rear pouches. It also effectively serves the role of a day pack if I'm doing a day hike from a base camp. Down side? You feel like a bit of a rambo-wannabe dickhead. I wouldn't bother with chest webbing unless you want to look like a total tosser, instead of just a dickhead. It's designed for ammunition and battle task-oriented stuff. Great if you are fighting in urban areas or jumping in and out of APC's - not so useful for casual hiking. Belt webbing is a general hold-all. As a comment, a lot of people in hiking forums have mixed opinions about webbing options. There is a real cringe factor associated with the image and, in certain places where too many people have too many firearms and are convinced the government is out to get them, it could be dangerous. Honestly, some folks need to get a passport and leave the country sometimes. However, for those who are used to using it (eg. ex-military) we feel naked without it.

Hiking hip belt

It is worth considering building a civilian equivalent of a webbing belt. Even if so you don't have to take your pack off just to have a sip of water. A standard, sturdy bum-pack with 2x 1 liter water bottle pouches will reduce the need to tear all the stuff out of your pack or day pack every 5 minutes.

So... what to choose? I personally use an army-style pack with an ALICE frame. Reason? Partly because it is what I am used to. I can modify it as necessary to get as good a fit as possible (I'm close to an off-the-rack size), and I know where everything is in it. The frame provides air space between my back and the pack, giving some cooling in hot climates, or space for a mattress in cold climates. It also fits with my other load bearing equipment. If I was offered a shopping spree by some benevolent sponsor (hint, hint), I would probably pick a 2-compartment internal frame pack. They provide a combination of comfort and support. If you can, borrow different types and carry them for a few days with a normal load. Simply fitting it in an outdoors store while looking at how sexy the dayglo colors make you look in the mirror is not a substitute for carrying a load under your task conditions.

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