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  • Writer's pictureJeannette McGill

Summit Steps: “I do not pray for a lighter load, but a stronger back” Phillip Brooks

Updated: Jun 23, 2020

With comfy boots or trainers on your feet you are ready to head off into the hills, the only catch is sometimes you want to take more with you than a cell phone, keys and/or a water bottle. Welcome to the world of backpacks...

The backpacks post will be in two parts: choosing your backpack (this blog) and then packing your backpack (see next blog post). A previous shoes blog considered 1) how far am I walking, how much am I carrying and what terrain will I be walking on . . . Well, what type of backpack has a very similar considerations: how far do I have to carry my stuff and how much stuff do I actually have to carry. Ultimately we want to be comfortable and not feel like we are dying under the weight. The bigger the backpack the more you can carry – but only up to a point because then things simply get too heavy, and this is when hiking becomes are laborious chore.

The good people of REI in the USA have this Rule of thumb: A loaded overnight back pack should not weigh more than about 20 percent of your body weight. (e.g. If you weigh 80kg, your pack should not exceed 16 kg for backpacking.) A loaded daypack should not weigh more than about 10 percent of your body weight. (8kg in the above example) – but, once again (like everything else) we are all different and have different personal preferences, requirements (think training requirements vs recovering from injury) and over-riding health conditions.

So, if you are going for a day or a multi-day trek where your main duffel is transported for you (think Kilimanjaro or EBC) then a comfortable day pack is fine. For a few hours of wandering, a hydration pack with a few additional storage pockets might work. Otherwise a larger bag containing the 10 essentials (next week’s post will tell you what these are!). These may or may not have a waist belt and are generally between 10 litres and 35 litres.

If you are going for an overnight hike then your bag will become around 40 litres all the way up to a staggering 100 litres. But bear in mind that rule of thumb. If you should only be carrying around 16-20kg max then get a bag to constrain you to this target weight. Women should generally consider around 55-65l for general hiking use, but the rise of ultra-light weight hiking means that maybe 45l can work for small sleeping bags.

Hiking bag vs climbing bag = Pockets or no pockets. Do you like easy access to your water bottle, chewy sweets or camera? If this is you, some external pockets can be good, also having a pocket on the hip belt can make for easy access, alternatively an additional hip bag. Climbing bags tend to be narrower so that you have full arm movement, or can put on additional things like sleeping mats on the outside. So decide what your main activity is going to be and what your own preferences are. Hiking bags tend to have internal partitions to help organisation, while climbing bags are a single sac, meaning you generally take everything out every night.

Back support or none = hiking bags often tend to have additional support, frames or mesh to help with the airflow and comfort; while climbing bags will be more snug on your back. One’ use and preference need to be considered always. If you are starting out, borrow a few for testing before making the investment or try them out in store before making the purchase. Be aware that trying them out in store for a short period without the required load may not always give you the right indication. Remember that new bags offer female and male frame bags, see what works for you and don’t let the labels define your experience.

Important to note is that pockets and support systems also add weight to the bag, so know that unfilled base starting weight of your bag – if that 3kg then for the above example that only leaves you 13kg to your 20% cut-off. In a nutshell, the heavier your empty bag, the less you will have to play with….

Go online – browse a few brands, know what brands are going to be available at your favourite shop or don’t be afraid to shop around as different stores will supply different brands. A shop that has different weighted inserts available so you can assess how the bag will feel fully loaded is always a good store. Once again, don’t be in a rush and don’t allow sales people to rush you either. If you are unsure think some more, and what works for your friend might not work for you so be okay making your own decision for yourself. We climb/hike in teams but step alone and carry in our solace.

Jeannette currently uses both a climbing-style daypack (30litre) and overnight backpack (65l), meaning she has no external pockets, and the lid of the larger bag can be removed if necessary to save additional weight in the higher mountains she climbs. She has got pretty good at removing sweets on the go from the lid of the daypack while on the go (important not to slow groups down); while for longer trudges she will keep her chewy sweets in pockets on her clothes and drinking from her bottle at longer intervals (fuelling will also come up in another post!)

Saray’s preference for a daypack is dependent on whether it’s during an expedition or it’s a day in and out. For day hikes locally, she carries a 25-35litres backpack with a hydration pocket, two external bottle pockets and side pockets for fuels on the go. This allows her to walk for hours without necessarily putting the bag down unless if she chooses to do so during scheduled breaks.

For daypacks during the expedition, Saray uses the 65-75litres and adjusts the belts to fit the required load of the day. This helps her turn her bags into multipurpose bags as much as possible. She loads the large bag to capacity when required for multiple days hikes during a trek. The bag should have space to hook hiking poles, solar panel if needed and the axe when required without affecting her movement. For climbing Saray prefers a lighter and narrower backpack to allow for manoeuvring up and down through narrow spaces when required.

Once you have bought your bag, learn your way around it before your first hike! We have often seen people who aren’t even aware of some of the sneaky features the bag they are carrying has - Like that hideaway pack cover?! Secondly, practice how best to put your load on your back without too much strain on your back or requiring too much help from others.

Enjoy bag shopping and next week we will talk about packing it!

Note: Saray and Jeannette remain brand agnostic for these posts. We will not promote or compare brands by name in our posts. The brands you see us wearing in the photographs are provided as examples only. We are not sponsored by any companies –but would always welcome that opportunity 🙂

Pop your questions and tips in the comments below and happy Summit Steps . . .

Co-authored by Dr Jeannette McGill and Saray N. Khumalo

Summit Steps: As part of Summits with a Purpose (check out the FB page) Saray Khumalo and Jeannette McGill are collaborating to share knowledge around hiking and mountaineering with the aim of making a positive and inclusive impact allowing more African woman to dream big and reach their outdoor goals.

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