Nowadays there are an abundance of awesome options when it comes to choosing an ultralight backpack made by a cottage company. With so many packs to choose from, the challenge becomes knowing … which is the right pack for you and your unique needs.
It's important to note that there are no hard and fast rules to pack-fitting and selection. Since everyone has a unique body and personal preferences that vary, the tips and tricks below are simply meant to serve as a guideline to assist you along on your pack-selection journey.
How Do You Choose Your Pack Size?
Torso Length Measurement
Most online gear retailers and pack manufacturers provide sizing charts on their websites that use torso length as the key measurement for selecting pack size. This standard measurement is taken along your spine, from your iliac crest, at the top of your hip bone, to your C7 vertebrae, at the base of your neck.
A pro tip from veteran outdoor equipment employee and GGG’s Logistics Coordinator, Katya Underwood, is that once you find your C7 vertebrae, make sure you straighten your neck and look forward to get your measurement. Failure to do so can throw off your torso length number.
Once you have your torso length, you can begin the pack selection process. It’s best not to assume that you are a ‘large’ pack size just because you are a ‘large sized t-shirt’. Torso length varies drastically, even between those who wear the same size clothing.
If your torso length measurement falls in-between, or outside of, a gear maker's size options, you can sometimes find a recommendation on their website about whether to size up or down. There is no ‘general rule’ for this, as it ultimately depends on the particulars of the pack itself.
If you’re feeling confused about how your torso measurement lines up with the size options, don’t be afraid to reach out to the gear makers or retailer directly for answers. Everyone wants you to be happy with your purchase and get the right pack on your back.
For the majority of people, you can trust that your torso measurement will lead to you choosing a pack that fits correctly.
“Some people will want their bag to ride a bit higher, some people will want their bag to ride lower,” said Dan Dodman, Founder of Dandee Packs. “But for most people, if you go with the standard torso measurement, you're gonna be able to reach your water bottle pockets and your bag is going to be comfortable.”
Matt Evans, Founder and Maker at Red Paw Packs, notes that torso length is more important when sizing a pack with a frame and hip belt; whereas other sizing considerations might take priority when purchasing a frameless pack with no hip belt.
Hip Belt Measurement
Another important consideration when fitting a pack is hip belt size; that is, if you choose to use a hip belt at all (more on this later). Wrap a soft measuring tape around your waist at the top of your hips, which is where most people are comfortable having their hip belt rest. This will give you your hip circumference, which is your hip belt measurement.
Keep in mind that when it comes to selecting a hip belt size, you’ll want to be able to cinch the hip belt tighter and also be able to loosen it off, so having some room for play is important. Many pack manufacturers allow you to select your torso length and hip belt size separately to fit your body's unique needs.
Shoulder Strap Considerations
For most people, the standard shoulder straps that come on cottage made packs allow for good adjustability that generally-speaking, will fit a wide variety of body types. However, if you have exceptionally broad or narrow shoulders, you might want to consider something like The Cutaway from Nashville Packs.
What makes The Cutaway unique is the ability to shift the strap angle at the top of the shoulder straps by using three small webbing cords. These micro adjustments help relieve pressure points and allow people with broader or narrower shoulders to adjust accordingly. It’s also possible to swap out the shoulder straps altogether, a feature that is great for smaller or larger framed people who need to mix and match their options.
“Some people needed a taller pack with smaller straps and vice versa” explains Levi ‘Bedhead’ Morton, Co-founder of Nashville Pack and Equipment Company, “rather than making a pack specific to each person, we decided being able to swap out straps and add different options was more desirable.”
Try Before You Buy
While gaining experience overtime is really the best way to figure out what your personal pack preferences are, there are some creative ways to understand your wants and needs before making a purchase.
Since many cottage makers only offer their packs online, it can be hard to try before you buy.
If you live in or around the Twin Cities in Minnesota, count yourself among the lucky few; GGG offers the option of 'in-person pickup' at checkout, allowing you to swing by their Saint Paul office to try your new pack 'right after you buy' ... and make an exchange on the spot, if needed. (Note: GGG's ever-rotating cadre of in-stock packs can be found here.)
Otherwise, Katya suggests making your way to a brick and mortar store to try on a few different bags in order to get an idea of how they fit and what you’re in the market for.
“Even if the packs are nothing like what you are looking for,” says Katya Underwood. “It is super helpful to understand how all the straps should be adjusted and how things feel. A poorly fitting pack can tell you a lot more about your preferences than a decent fitting pack.”
(Editor’s Note: if you end up making your way to a mom-and-pop brick and mortar, be sure to pick up some odds and ends, like sunscreen and snacks, or even a bigger item. These local establishments need our dollars to thrive and offer quality in-person customer service.)
How Do You Choose Pack Volume?
Now that you know what size of pack you are looking for, Levi ‘Bedhead’ Morton suggests a few tips and tricks for how to figure out what volume of pack you will need. Volume refers to the amount of space available within the pack and also including the outside pockets, where you will stash gear and food.
“As far as pack volume goes, you always want to select your pack last,” says Levi, whose advice echoes that of many cottage makers. “You want to make sure you have your kit selected and built out, or know roughly how much volume your gear and food takes up.” That way, you know that all your gear will fit in your bag.
An easy way to figure out what volume of pack you will need is to take a cardboard box, fill it with your gear kit and then draw a line on the box to where it fills. Measure the length by width by height on the box up to your line, and multiply it out. This will give you a pretty good indication of what pack volume you will need. Make sure to take food supplies into consideration as well.
You can also weigh your gear while it is in the box, and then subtract the weight of the box when it’s empty. Again, don’t forget about food and water weight. Knowing how much weight you intend to carry plays a role in which pack you select, and most pack descriptions will let you know what each bag is capable of handling.
Once you know roughly what volume you need and have an idea of how much weight you’ll be carrying, you can start to think about whether or not you’ll need a framed pack, a frameless pack with a solid hip belt, or a frameless pack without a hip belt.
How Do You Choose What Type of Pack to Get?
Three big considerations after pack size and volume, are fabric, frames and features. A great way to figure out what your needs are, is to make a list of what you are looking for in a pack, and then use the process of elimination to weed out whatever doesn’t fit the bill.
“I wish there was a clear cut way to tell someone, ‘this is exactly what you need’,” Levi said. “But everyone has different needs and different preferences, so that can make things tricky.”
Fabric Used to Make Pack
While there are a few staple fabrics within the world of ultralight pack making, every manufacturer selects and assembles them differently. The fabric of a pack will affect its overall weight, water-resistance, durability, cost and, of course, aesthetics.
Pull out that piece of paper and write down what’s most important to you in a pack, and where your adventures might take you. Are you planning to hike in the rainforest or dry scorching heat? Do you like to use your bag as a chair or are you gentle with your gear? Does your pack need to match your shoes or will any color do? Can you handle a bit more weight for added durability and cost savings or are you on a mission to shave ounces?
Once you know what you want and need, eliminate what doesn’t tick your boxes!
Framed vs Frameless Packs
While we aren’t going to delve too deep into framed vs frameless bags in this piece, here are a couple of basic considerations to get you started.
Choosing between a framed and a frameless bag has a lot to do with how much weight you are planning to carry, and how you want that weight distributed on your body. If you plan to carry a heavier load, and prefer to use your hips to support that weight, then a framed pack with a hip belt is likely the best choice for you.
If you are carrying a lighter load, are capable of supporting it more from your shoulders, and want more hip mobility, you might want to choose a frameless bag without a hip belt. Some frameless pack makers also offer a thin, removable webbing strap in lieu of a hip belt, to help with weight transfer and keep the load closer to your body.
While many packs share similar features, like external stretch pockets and water bottle pouches, there are also unique details that set each pack apart. Bottom pockets, mesh pockets, straps on pockets, vest style or traditional sternum straps, removable hip belts … the list of options goes on and on.
This is another place where that ‘dream pack’ list comes in handy. Ask yourself what you need and what you want. Then ask yourself what you don’t need and want. Pair away from there.
How Do You Know You Picked the Right Pack For You?
Once your new pack arrives, you’ll be eager to try it on and see how it fits and feels.
It’s good to be extra careful with your new pack, and only ‘test it out’ inside your house with clean hands and clean gear, until you decide you want to keep it. Most cottage companies and retailers with a great return/ exchange policy (like GGG) only accept returns on new, unused gear.
According to Dan Dodman, in order to get an idea of true fit, you want to load your bag up at home with the weight you plan to carry. “Don’t just load it up with some quilts or pillows or something light,” advises Dan. “You really want to see how it fits and sits on your body.”
Once it’s loaded up, put it on and adjust the hip belt (if you have one), shoulder straps, load lifters (if you have them) and sternum straps.
“People have different preferences for pack fit,” says Matt Evans. “For me, I know a pack fits me when I cinch/ tighten everything down and the straps are perfectly lined up to fit my shoulders and the waist belt has mostly padding covering my hips.”
While you can expect it to feel a bit ‘out of the box’ and take some time to get used to, walking around the house with your loaded bag will let you know if there are any major pressure points or other glaring issues.
Final Thoughts on Buying an Ultralight, Cottage-Made Pack
Many people will be able to select a standard, cottage made pack that will fit comfortably and take them on grand adventures. Other people, however, whose body shapes fall ‘outside of the bell curve’ may need to consider more custom options, or packs with more adjustability.
According to Katya Underwood, there is room for a cottage gear brand to emerge that caters more specifically to what she refers to as ‘the outliers’ like herself. “Despite many people's efforts, the backpacking world is largely white, male, able-body dominated and that absolutely shows in pack sizing options,” she said.
As Levi ‘Bedhead’ Morton reminds us, “Don’t feel bad just because something that works for someone else, doesn’t work for you.”
Ali Becker is a freelance adventure writer and narrative storyteller who shares compelling conversations about personal transformations, overcoming limitations, wellness education and adventurous situations. You can follow her rambling adventures on social at @thisisalibecker or at her blog thisisalibecker.com.