Adjustable Frame Backpacks

Pants Too Small

Forty percent of hikers buy a backpack that is the wrong size. Incredible, huh? It’s no wonder that so many hikers suffer from ill-fitting backpacks, especially beginner day hikers and backpackers who get the wrong pack at the start of their hiking careers.

The main reasons hikers buy the wrong size pack are as follows:

  • They don’t understand how to measure their torso length (see how to fit a backpack)
  • They buy packs that are “on sale” because they think they’re getting a bargain.
  • They buy a backpack based on its features, volume, or color instead of fit. 
  • They believe (or want to believe) that their body is a different size than it really is. 

As an American consumer, I can understand why people many of these mistakes when buying a backpack because they’re the same mistakes I’ve made when buying personal apparel. But there is a way to minimize the heartache of buying the wrong backpack if you stick to buying backpacks with adjustable frames that can be easily sized to fit your exact measurements.

I recommend adjustable frame backpacks to all of the new day hikers and backpackers I teach because it’s such a simple way to ensure that they have a good experience with their first backpack.

Backpacks with Adjustable Torso Sizes

There are two kinds of backpacks you can buy – ones with fixed torso lengths and one with adjustable torso lengths. Fixed torso length packs tend to be a little lighter weight than packs with adjustable torso lengths, but they either fit you or they don’t. Backpacks with adjustable frame systems can be sized to fit your exact torso length. They also make it possible for people with two different torso sizes to share the same backpack because they can be re-adjusted for each person.

Framesheet and Adjustable Torso Length System

Framesheet with Adjustable Torso Length System – Granite Gear Blaze AC 60

When you adjust the torso length of an adjustable frame backpack, you’re increasing or descreasing the distance between the shoulder harness from the hip belt, so that most of the weight in the pack is carried by your hips and not your shoulders. If the distance between your shoulder straps and your hip belt is too short, you’ll feel the weight on your shoulders, it will be uncomfortable, and it will quickly fatigue you. If the distance between your shoulder straps and your hip belt is too long, your backpack will pull you backwards and off-balance. Ideally, your shoulder straps should be touching the tops of your shoulders and back to provide better lateral control and load transfer to your hip belt.

Different backpack manufacturers have different adjustable frame systems but they all do the same thing.  For example, Granite Gear uses the slots in the plastic framesheet (above) to raise or lower the point where the shoulder straps connect to the backpack’s frame behind your shoulders. Other backpack manufacturers like Osprey (below), use a velcro-based “rip and stick” system that let’s you slide the shoulder straps up or down the backpanel of your pack, but is slightly easier to adjust.

Adjustable Osprey Airscape Frame

Adjustable Osprey Airscape Frame on a Kestrel 28

Best Backpacks with Adjustable Frames

Most backpack manufacturers make backpacks that have adjustable frame systems, but the manufacturer with the best selection of adjustable internal frame backpacks based on volume, features, pack weght, and price is by far Osprey Packs. They have at least a dozen men’s and women’s backpack models with adjustable backpack frames including the Kestrel, Kyte, Aura, Atmos, Volt, Viva, Aether, Arial, Xenith, Xena and Talon, including the Ace and the Jib which are sized for kids and very small adults. Deuter, REI, Gregory, and Granite Gear also make excellent backpacks with adjustable internal frames.

Another popular option, especially for kids, scouts, and small adults, is to buy a backpack with an adjustable external frame. Kelty has the best selection available for this style of pack.

Adjustable Frame Backpacks: Pros and Cons

If you are new to day hiking or backpacking, buying an adjustable frame backpack is a safe way to ensure that you get a backpack that fits you and is comfortable. These packs are very reliable, durable, and can carry heavy loads if you need them to. The only downside to adjustable frame backpacks is that they can be a bit on the heavy side (over 3.5 pounds) if you need a higher volume model over 50L in capacity. If you need a backpack bigger than 50L , I’d advise you to find the lightest weight backpack that will fit your body type and size. Some adjustable frame  backpacks are unnecessarily heavy (7-8 pounds) and there are lighter weight alternatives available that will likely meet your needs.

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16 Responses to Adjustable Frame Backpacks

  1. Andrew July 17, 2013 at 11:55 am #

    ULA’s packs with the removable hipbelts are also adjustable in frame size. The belts are held on by velcro, so they can be moved around a few inches to adjust the overall size. They’re only adjustable within the torso size purchased, but it’s still more flexible than packs with fixed hip belts.

    • Philip Werner July 17, 2013 at 12:24 pm #

      Trying to adjust torso size by moving a velcro attached hip belt up and down is a substandard solution – more of a HACK to be honest – and not part of the pack’s intended design. Most UL companies including ULA, don’t offer adjustable frame packs because they add to much weight to their backpacks. The one exception I can remember is the Six Moon Designs Starlight – which was my first UL backpack, incidentally.

      • Walter Underwood July 17, 2013 at 7:50 pm #

        I have two big packs, the Starlite and my old Lowe Expedition. They have the same suspension (two stays) and the same adjustment system (ladder of webbing).

        I think the ladder system was invented by Lowe Alpine Systems.

        This site has a number of scans from Lowe ads and catalogs. Here is how to adjust the torso length: http://www.inov8.au.com/compass/pictures/image679.jpg

        And the index to all the scans: http://www.inov8.au.com/compass/loweimages.html

        • Philip Werner July 17, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

          Double plus good on those links Walter! Thanks.

          My Startlite gave up the ghost about a year ago from wear and tear. Just couldn’t patch the mesh anymore and the pad zipper died. But the ladder of webbing adjustable torso system was great and kept the pack light. Thanks for explaining the history of its origins. Lowe Alpine still makes great packs BTW. Too bad they’re not better known in the US.

          • Walter Underwood July 20, 2013 at 12:08 am #

            That archive also shows that Lowe was making packs for women as early as 1981.

            I still love how my Lowe Expedition carries and it isn’t really all that heavy for a pack that size, but I really don’t want to load up a 97 liter pack (6000 c. in.). For demonstration purposes, I did put a fully-loaded SMD Starlite inside, close it up, and have people try it on. Then I pulled out the pack I really use.

  2. Glenn July 18, 2013 at 12:24 pm #

    My experience is that most of the inexpensive backpacks that scouts show up with for hikes are adjustable but either have not been adjusted or were not specifically adjusted for the person currently wearing the pack. The second issue is that if the pack is not sized for a youth it may not have sufficent adjustment to fit a smaller scout.

    • Philip Werner July 18, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

      Glenn – sounds like an educational issue. Where’s the problem – with the scouts or their parents?

      • Glenn July 20, 2013 at 3:24 pm #

        It has more to do with practice and experience. At least once a year an older scout provides instruction on pack fitting/adjustment. The newer scouts show up for a subsequent hike with packs stuffed with gear and clothes that they have never tried on. A mile or two in we take a break and then there is a higher interest in pack fitting. The older scouts generally can adjust their packs and they also carry lighter loads.

        I try to talk to parents before they buy backpacks but usually the scouts show up a yard sale special or something from a big box store. When I bought my son’s pack to take to Philmont I was susprised when it had barely enough adjustment to fit his 28″ waist. I was looking strictly at torso length assuming the belt adjustment would not be a problem.

  3. DaveC July 18, 2013 at 5:03 pm #

    I do think manufacturers and the shockingly widespread mis-statement of sizing (inc. Osprey) has a lot to do with this problem.

    • Philip Werner July 18, 2013 at 9:23 pm #

      Do say more about Osprey.

      I’ve heard about the same problems (sizing returns) from other manufacturers that do provide accurate sizing info.

      • DaveC July 19, 2013 at 12:04 am #

        The large Hornet 46, for instance, is listed as recommended for 20+ inch torsos. Effective torso length (middle of belt to midpoint between straps) on that pack is around 18 inches.

        • Philip Werner July 19, 2013 at 8:43 am #

          But the hornet is one of their few fixed frame packs and a relatively isolated case. Most of the models they make now are all adjustable frames, which probably explains their complete market dominance.

          What irks me about Osprey though are the fixed length hip belts and the fact that you can’t mix and match torso and hip sizes. For example, shorter rounder people can’t get a small sized torso length with a medium or large hip belt.

  4. OCDemon July 19, 2013 at 5:20 pm #

    I find it rather annoying that most pack manufacturers carry larger sizes, but not smaller ones. Scrawny people will often be horribly uncomfortable as a result. Plus I’ve noticed a trend toward thinner and thinner shoulder straps, particularly on daypacks or overnighters, which only work if you’ve got extra fleshy padding on your shoulders, which most small people don’t. It’s a tough life we live.

  5. Karen LB February 12, 2014 at 4:05 pm #

    Having worked for a big retailer (and trained to fit packs — at which point I’d discovered I had a too large pack), I can say that too many people will go shopping for packs and not even let the staff help them fit it properly, which includes the exercise of loading up some weight into it and seeing how it looks and feels then. Some folks know what they’re doing, but many don’t. We sold many Deuter women’s adjustables to boy scouts (after a very secretive removal of the yellow flower they put on it.. it’s a pretty unisex pack without the flower!)

    When I got a pack that fit it truly made a difference, I had much higher endurance. However I’ll echo OCDemon that us scrawny folk (skinny and short-waisted) have fewer options. My pack is not light because the extra padding makes up for what I don’t have on my body. Even then, I come back with pressure point pains on my iliac crests. Shoulder straps and hip belts.

    • Philip Werner February 12, 2014 at 7:06 pm #

      The Deuter SL packs fit women well, but they’re meant to be unisex. A little known fact, not that it really matters. The SL stands for slim.

  6. Elle February 12, 2014 at 5:44 pm #

    I love it when you post old posts on your FB page, it is always a good article that I missed the first time around!

    I was recently buying an overnight pack for a trip. I thought EMS would be helpful, but I was wrong. The kid spent about 5 minutes with me, and after I got the pack home, loaded it up and wore it around my house for a while I realized it was totally the wrong size (torso to long and hip belt too big.) I then did some online research and went to REI with an idea of what I wanted. The guy there measured my torso and helped me try on about 4 packs. The one he thought would fit best they didn’t have, so I ended up having to return to EMS. It was almost like the 3 stooges there. I’m 5’9″ and fairly curvy and one guy was trying to cram an XS Gregory onto me, then another had something else equally inappropriate. They weren’t even putting the sand bags in them. I finally had to ask them to stop and I found the pack I needed (Osprey Aura) With some adjusting, it fit. I have worn it a bunch of times now with about 20 pounds in it and it is so comfortable.

    After wearing it, I wore a smaller day pack I have that I bought 10 years ago because it was cheap and I needed something. It was such a shock to realize that the day pack didn’t actually fit me well – the shoulder straps dug into my arm pits and it was too short. It was so uncomfortable to hike in after wearing something that fit.

    So, yes, a well fitting pack is a dream, and the guys at REI are awesome.

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