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How Should a Backpack Hip Belt Fit?

The hip belt of your backpack should cover front of your illiac crest
The hip belt of your backpack should cover front of your hip bones as well as the back.

When buying a backpack you want to make sure that the hip belt is long enough so that it transfers most of your pack weight off your shoulders and onto your hips so that you can use the biggest muscles in your body, your legs, to carry most of the weight.

It sounds obvious, but I see many hikers and backpackers who wear hip belts that are far too short to properly cover back and front of their hip bones. If you have a hip belt that is too short and doesn’t cover the front of your hip bones, you won’t experience full load transfer from your shoulders to your hips and it won’t be as comfortable. The pack won’t move with you as well and you’ll probably feel like it’s pulling you backwards a bit because the weight is concentrated on the back of your hip bones, not all the way around.

Unfortunately the hip belt length is non-adjustable. Note how the pockets and padded part of the hip belt are behind the centerline of my profile, and don't wrap all the way around the iliac crest (hip bones).
Osprey Packs Exos 58: Unfortunately the hip belt length is non-adjustable. Note how the pockets (and the padding under them) are behind the centerline of my profile, and don’t wrap all the way around the front of the hip bones.

The Problem with Fixed Length Hip Belts

While many backpack manufacturers sell adjustable backpacks where you can adjust the length of the torso, few make adjustable hip belts that can be shortened or lengthened to fit around your tummy (if you have one) and your hips. All to often, there’s only one hip belt size available for a given torso length and no way to replace the hip belt with one that’s shorter or longer to fit your needs. If the hip belt doesn’t fit, return the backpack and find one that does fit you.

The Granite Gear Lutsen 55L backpack features the adjustable length Refit hipbelt system.
The Granite Gear Lutsen 55L backpack features the adjustable length Refit hip belt system.

Several manufacturers sell packs with replaceable hip belts in multiple sizes including: Granite Gear, ULA, ZPacks.com, and Granite Gear also has a new pack called the Lutsen (35L, 45L, and 55L) which has an excellent adjustable hip belt system – the best I’ve ever tried. Osprey Packs also has a few backpacks with adjustable hip belts including the Atmos AG (50L, 65L) and the Volt (60L, 75L).

Backpack Hip Belt Construction

Haze 50 Hipbelt
The Mountainsmith Haze 50 Hip belt has padded wings, webbing, and a buckle.

Backpack hip belts have three components:

  • padded wings designed to cover your hip bones
  • webbing straps that begin at the end of the padded wings
  • buckle

The padded wings should fit over the bony part of your hips. You can find the bony part of your hips next dropping your arms along your sides, and digging your finger into your side next to the inside crease of your elbow. The hip bone, often referred to as the iliac crest, is a bony ledge, that starts near your spine and runs around your side to the front of your body.

The front end of your hip bones is located below your collar bones and the rear end is located towards the rear of body.
The front end of your hip bones is located below your collar bones and the rear end is located towards the rear of your body.

You can usually find the front of your hip bones, by running a finger down the front of your body, between your collar bone and shoulders (narrower on men, often a bit wider on women). The front edge of your hip bones will be located above the middle of your thighs, approximately 2 inches lower than your belly button.

When fitting a hip belt, you want the padded wings to cover your front hip bones completely. It’s ok if they extend and inch or so beyond the inside edge of your hip bones toward your belly button, but you definitely don’t want the pads touching each other or too close together. That introduces too much slack into the fit and limits the extent to which you tighten or loosen the webbing, as you remove or add clothing layers under the hip belt.

Antomical view of the hip bones. You want the padded wings of the hip belt to fit over the top of the hip bone highlighted in red
Anatomical view of the hip bones. You want the padded wings of the hip belt to fit over the top of the hip bone highlighted in red

Anatomically, the top edge or shelf of your hip bones is about 2 inches higher in the back than in the front, which is why most hip belt pads are at least two inches wide. You can see this is the diagram above, where the iliac crest is highlighted in red.

When adjusting your hip belt, make sure the front hip bones are centered on the hip belt padding, while the top of the rear hip bones are covered with the upper half of the padding. This will give you maximum load transfer to the hips and a proper fit.

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32 comments

  1. Thanks for this very useful post, would you be able to do a follow up piece about shoulder straps… for example, whether shoulder straps should curve directly over the shoulder (and slightly down your back) or should they rise more diagonally up from your collar bone (without pressing down on the top of your shoulder)? Also commenting on load lifter straps and how these change how the pack carries?

  2. I’m not sure that the iliac crest is below the collarbone for women-it isn’t for me. This is an area where women and men certainly differ.

  3. Good catch. A little wider on ladies, under your shoulders. I’ll update when I have a computer connection. Just verified on my partner. :-)

  4. Thanks for the info. I’m going to try all my packs and check the fit to see if I’m hip. By the way, from your photos, that last guy has more problems than hip belt fit…

  5. I’ve seen so many people refer to these as “waist belts.” Of course they are not supposed to be on the waist, as your diagram clearly shows!

  6. I bought the Osprey Volt 75 a few weeks ago and used for the first time this weekend on a snowshoe trip. It’s a little heavy, but it’s a fantastic pack that had adjustments for torso length as well as the hip belt. And I got it on sale for $169 Canadian, which is about five bucks US right now!

  7. thanks for this post i think have a better understanding now of how the hip belt should fit, i have the talon 44 but since i have the “tummy” i was using the extended hip belt clip with the 2 buckles on them , haven’t taken it out on a test hike yet, but just loaded it up w/ my gear and tried on in my apt. have a feeling the shoulder straps are too thin and now i see how since the hip belt doesn’t really extend past my front hip bone how this might be a problem, with carrying the load,so i went ahead and pre-ordered the lutsen 45 from REI , hoping to get it in about 2 weeks, can’t wait to try it, good advice!

    • Good call. I really liked the Lutsen 55 when I tested/reviewed it over the summer. The hip belt is really great, he gushed.

      When you have a tummy, it’s normal for men to wear the hip belt a wee bit lower. However, you don’t want to go too low because the hip belt will impinge your upper thighs (you can tell this is happening if they get sore from hiking under load) and you still do want the hip pads over your front hip bones as much as you can manage.

  8. i read your review and I was wondering do you know if they made any changes especially in the comfort of the lumbar pad before there final production run? Do any of the companies let you know if they make any changes after you sample there products?

  9. good tips, I will fiddle with my setup. got back problems so I will take any hints I can at relieving the issue.

  10. After years of backpacking, I was very excited to get my superlight Osprey Exos 58, but my first trip with it was disastrous. I am female, and the Exos is unisex, which made it fit all wrong, giving me severe pain in my hips and calves. Could not walk properly at all, not matter how I adjusted the fit. As soon as I undid the hip belt and took all the weight of the pack on my shoulders all the pain disappeared. Needless to say I have replaced this with a better fitting pack.

  11. I put the info in this article to use on my last hike. Really made a difference. Thanks for another great article!

  12. *enter your own sassy or witty name here*

    How do you deal with any abrasions on the hips?

  13. One reason I love my Gossamer Gear Kumo is that you can adjust the belt at the front, but also at the back where it attaches. If the belt is long enough, you can adjust exactly where the pads hit. I’m a bigger guy, ~38 waist, and it can be hard to find packs that have padding far enough along the belt to really fit properly. There are a few things about the Kumo I’m not as fond of, but the adjustability is really nice.

  14. See, I do not personally consider a hip belt to be a ‘hip belt’ if it’s only 2 inches (or so) wide. Most of those I’ve used have been between 4 and 6 inches in width, some padded heavily, some not very much. In my reasoning, if it’s a 2 inch wide belt, it’s not for bearing a load, but more for stopping your pack from shifting or flopping around if you’re on the move.

  15. I’m having a hard time balancing torso fit with hip belt fit. Which is more important if I have to decide one is more important than the other? I’m a short female (5’1″) but I’m a “well-padded” girl. I’ve tried female specific packs to accommodate my short torso, but the padded portions of the hip belts aren’t going as far around my hips as you are recommending. If I move up to a larger pack, unisex pack, or men’s pack I won’t get such a good torso fit. I might have to pick the lesser of the two evils so which is more important? I should note that I’m looking for a pack in the 28-34 L range with a hydration sleeve so it won’t have a super heavy load which makes me think torso fit is most important. I was “fit” at my local EMS and they didn’t seem to have a good option or recommendation either. (I think the salesperson was uncomfortable after he gave me a small women’s Osprey pack and I could barely buckle it. I tried to lighten the mood by smiling and said Osprey should know big people like to hike too but it was uncomfortable for both of us so I’m thinking of ordering a bunch of packs online and just trying them all on at home to decide).

    • You just haven’t found the right backpack maker yet. Both torso length and hip belt fit are important (vital) if you carry anything over 20-25 pounds for an overnight trip. If you get too short a torso length, the load will rest on your shoulders instead of your hips. If the torso length is way to long, you won’t be able to control the weight and it will throw you off-balance. If the hip belt is too small – the load will also ride on your shoulders.

      I suggest you ditch Osprey and try a UL backpack that has different hip belt size options for the same torso length. Try Gossamer Gear or ULA. You might also want to try the new Granite Gear Lutsen 55 or 45 which has an adjustable torso length and adjustable hip belt. EMS and REI tend to have a pretty poor selection of packs in the store. I suggest you buy these packs online and use the return policies if they don’t fit. It’s really worth it.

    • KJC,

      I have a Gregory Deva 70 (womens specific pack) which sounds too big for your needs but they have torso sizes and adjustable shoulder belt heights and you can order a larger size hip belt. I gave the small to my son (the Gregory Baltoro is the mens version) and bought a medium size hip belt for myself and it is wonderful!

      Gregory may have smaller volume sized packs with the same interchangeable parts.

  16. Hello, I had not been on an extended trip in some time and I am slightly overweight. I got myself an Arcteryx Bora 80 and took that on a four month trip all over Greece. Because I did lot’s of hiking and photography the pack was very, very heavy with gear. I found that however I adjusted the hip belt it continued to dig into my sides and made walking for more then twenty minutes with this weight extremely difficult. It was easier to simply decouple the hip belt and let all the weight lay on my shoulders. I am wondering if this is due to my being out of shape, the construction of this particular pack, having so much weight in it or some adjustment I did incorrectly. I am leaving now on another similar trip and I am thinking to buy an Osprey zenith 88. I would hate to spend all that money on a new pack however and have the same problem yet again. Would appreciate your advice.

    • It’s hard to say exactly what is going on from your description. It could well be that you are simply carrying way to heavy a load. I suggest you try an external frame pack if that’s the case because they are designed for this. I’d recommend the Seek Outside Divide Backpack which also has what I consider the best hip belt available today.

      • Also, what you need with a very heavy load is a very rigid frame. That’s what an external frame gives you. The pack I recommended also has an adjustable torso and load lifters so you can really dual in a custom fit. I use that companies packs religiously when I go heavy.

      • Thanks, I will look into your recommendation. What would you consider heavy? The Acteryx Bora is supposed to handle 50-70 and I had about 65lb most of the time. Is this enough to make walking with the hip belt cumbersome? I keep thinking I did not adjust it correctly but I tried riding it higher on my hip and the same result occurred.

      • this might be useful.
        http://sectionhiker.com/seek-outside-divide-external-frame-backpack-review/
        http://sectionhiker.com/seek-outside-unaweep-4800-backpack-for-winter-use/
        http://sectionhiker.com/paradox-packs-unaweep-3900-backpack-review/

        I consider anything over 50 pounds to be monstrously heavy. These guys make packs where that’s considered on the lightweight side. You really want to get the weight onto your hip belt with those kinds of loads. If you have pain on the upper part of your quadriceps or you feel the hip belt is impinging on your stride, you’re still wearing the hip belt too low. Your best bet is to try one of these guy’s hip belts, which are very wide and don’t slip down. The external frame frame will also help keep your torso erect for the best mechanical advantage. I don’t get any commissions from these guys – they make awesome gear for this kind of application and problem.

  17. I’m a larger woman and am having a really hard time finding a pack with a long enough hip belt. Any recommendations?

  18. Interesting and very helpful post. I have the Osprey Exos 58 is a size small and I’ve been quite happy with it. After reading this post I tried it on again and note that the hip belt just barely reaches the end of my hip bones in front. If I were male, they probably wouldn’t reach. After reading this I feel better prepared to judge fit, should I ever decide to change my pack.

  19. If you have to have one of the major companies, unless you are really short in the torso, or narrow in the shoulders, ignore the women’s version. Backpack manufacturers all think that the only women that are active outdoors are tiny little things. But, Gossamer Gear and Zpacks both give you the ability to choose the hip belt size.

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