Hiking for Beginners

How to Choose and Adjust a Hiking Backpack the Right Way! Your Step-by-Step Guide

How complicated can a hiking backpack be? I mean...it’s JUST a backpack, right?

When I first started getting serious about hiking, I knew absolutely nothing about how technical a hiking backpack was and the importance of the fit. But after a few hikes, I soon realized that the way the backpack fits your body will literally make or break your hiking experience! 

I bought my first pack online without ever being properly fitted. Even worse, I didn’t know how to adjust the backpack straps properly for a comfortable fit. 

On my first backpacking trip to Havasu Falls, I threw that bad boy over my shoulders, “strapped in” and set off. Within the first hour my shoulders were KILLING me. I tried to alleviate the pain by tightening random straps on the pack, but nothing worked. Finally, my hiking partner walked me step-by-step on how to adjust the backpack for proper weight distribution. I immediately felt the difference in the way my body carried the load of the pack and how much more comfortable I was...TOO-DA-LOO shoulder aches!

I learned first-hand that there is no such thing as “the best hiking backpack” if you don’t know how to fit and adjust it properly.

In this step-by-step guide, you'll learn:

  • how a backpack for hiking should fit
  • how to choose to the right size hiking backpack for your body
  • how to adjust your hiking backpack straps properly
  • how to carry a heavy backpack comfortably

Once you find the right size hiking backpack and learn how to fit it correctly to your body, you'll hike more comfortably and minimize injuries on the trail so you can hike longer!

How to choose and adjust your hiking backpack

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How to choose the right size hiking backpack for your body

It’s important to realize that the best pack doesn’t depend on the brand name or how expensive it is -- it’s the one that fits YOUR body the best. So exactly how do you choose the right size hiking backpack for you?

Contrary to popular belief, backpack size (small, medium, large, etc.) is dependent on your torso length, not your height! So, what is torso length? It’s the distance from the top of your hip bone to the base of your neck (at the C7 vertebra).

How to measure torso length:

  1. Locate the top of your hip bones - put your hands on your hips. Use your fingers to find the top of your hip bones on each side of your body. 
  2. Locate your C7 vertebra - tilt your head down and look at the ground. Use your fingers to find the bumpy part of your spine that sticks out at the base of your neck. That’s your C7.
  3. Measure your torso length - use a measuring tape to figure out length between the top of your hip bones and C7 vertebra.

Use your torso length to find the right backpack size. Before purchasing, I recommend going to an outdoor store to try on the bag and feel how it fits. Many of these stores even provide personalized backpack fitting services. At REI, you can even load sand bags into the backpack to see how the pack feels with weight in it.

Torso length is the distance between your C7 vertebra and your illiac crest.

How to fit and adjust your hiking backpack properly

“How can I carry a heavy backpack more easily?”

This comes down to not only the fit of the pack, but how the backpack straps are adjusted when there is weight in the pack. The number of straps may be confusing and overwhelming at first, but each strap allows you to customize how the weight of the pack is distributed on your body. I’ll walk you step-by-step on how to properly adjust your backpack straps for a comfortable hike.

Most hiking backpacks have a variety of straps that allow you to customize the way your pack fits. Each strap has it's own function for the way it distributes the packs load onto your body.

Step 1 - Adjust the hip belt

The primary purpose of your hip belt is to transfer the weight of your backpack from your shoulders to your hips. Because your legs are the strongest part of your body, you’ll want to carry 80% of the load on your hips and the other 20% on your shoulders. Here’s how to adjust the hip belt for proper weight distribution:

  • Find where your hip bones are.
  • Put your backpack on and position the belt padding around your hips.
  • Make sure the backpack hip belt sits on top of your hip bones. If the belt sits too low or too high, tighten or loosen the shoulder straps to move the hip belt. 
  • Fasten the hip belt and tighten the straps so it’s comfortable and snug.
The backpack hip belt should sit on top of your hip bones in order to transfer weight off your shoulders and onto your hips.

Step 2 - Adjust the shoulder straps

  • Fine-tune your shoulder straps by pulling the straps downward to tighten so that they are sitting comfortably on your shoulders. 
  • Don’t over tighten the shoulder straps! You’ll end up transferring the weight of your backpack from your hips to your shoulders, causing aches and strains.
  • If there is a large gap between your shoulder and shoulder straps, your backpack may be too big (the torso length of the backpack is incorrect). If you don’t have an adjustable torso backpack, you may need a smaller backpack.
The shoulders straps should only be tightened enough to where the straps sit on your shoulders. Overtightening can strain your shoulders.

Step 3 - Adjust the load-lifters (stabilizing straps)

Load-lifting straps are used to keep the top of your backpack from falling away from your back. which can cause improper weight distribution on your back during your hike.

  • Gently tighten the straps so that they form a 45-degree angle with your shoulder strap.
  • Avoid over tightening. This can cause pinching of your shoulders and discomfort.
The load-lifting straps also help lift some of the pack's weight off your shoulders.

Step 4 - Adjust the chest strap

The purpose of the sternum strap is to keep your shoulder straps in place and to transfer additional weight off your shoulders.

  • Position your sternum strap about an inch below your collarbone. 
  • Buckle the straps and tighten enough so that your arms can move freely.
  • Don’t over tighten! This can cause discomfort around your neck and shoulders and compress your chest muscles. It can even restrict breathing if you went really crazy with the tightening!
Make sure the chest strap sits about 1-inch below your collarbone and is not overtightened to prevent your arms from moving freely.

Conclusion

Understanding how to properly fit and adjust your hiking backpack to your body is not only critical for a comfortable hike, but also for your health & safety. The way you carry your pack affects its weight distribution on your body and the amount of strain you can feel. Avoid the aches, pains and discomfort by finding the backpack that fits YOUR body and learning how to adjust the backpack straps correctly. A proper fit will allow you to carry 80% of the weight on your hips and 20% on your shoulders, making your hike much more comfortable!

Do you have any other tips for fitting your backpack properly?

I only recommend products that I have used myself and genuinely love. All opinions expressed are honest and mine. This post contains some affiliate links, which means that I receive a small compensation at no additional cost to you if you make a purchase. Since The Adventure Diet is reader-supported, any purchases you make will help keep this blog alive! As always, thank you for your never-ending support.

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about the author
Molly Chhiv
What's up! This Cambodian kid is an outdoor addict, adventure blogger, & your personal HYPE GIRL. Through the outdoors, I've learned self-confidence, independence, & mental strength. My mission through The Adventure Diet is to share the power of the outdoors with you. I want to empower you with tips, tools and inspiration to get outside with confidence and find yourself.

So if you're ready, let's get out there and do this sh*t!

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