How to Fit a Backpack

If you routinely experience back pain, shoulder pain, or hip pain when you carry a backpack, there’s a good chance that your backpack doesn’t fit you or that you’re not wearing it properly. This is surprisingly common among backpackers, and one of the main reasons why people don’t go hiking more often.

The Biggest Mistakes that People Make

The number #1 reason why backpacks don’t fit is because people buy packs with the wrong torso size. Before you buy a pack, measure your torso (click for directions). Backpacks with adjustable torso lengths can ameliorate this problem, but they are heavier.

The number #2 reason why backpacks don’t fit is because the hip belt is too big or too small. Many manufacturers only make hipbelts in one size for their backpacks, and that size might not fit you. Come to terms with this and find a backpack that fits your waist, as it is today. Some manufacturers also offer replaceable hipbelts that can be switched out on backpacks, ensuring a perfect fit.

Don’t be tempted to buy a pack because it’s on sale, unless it fits your torso and hip size. Doing that is a mistake and you’ll suffer needlessly for it.

Here are a few things to check to make sure your pack is properly fitted:

Hip Belt

  1. Does the hip belt cover your hip bones (illiac crest) or has it slid below them?
  2. If you can’t tighten your hip belt enough and it keeps falling below your hips, it may be too long.
  3. If your hip belt rests on your lower back and not the sides of your hips, it may be too short.
  4. Is your hip belt snug, but not so tight that it causes back pain?
  5. If you loosen your shoulder straps completely, can you feel the pack resting on your hips?
  6. Drop your arms so they hang along your sides. If your hip belts pocket are behind your arms, your hip belt is probably too short.

Torso Length

  1. Do you know the length of your torso and does it match the torso size of your backpack?
  2. If there is space between the tops of your shoulders and your shoulder straps, your pack’s torso length is too long. If your pack is adjustable, make the torso length shorter. Otherwise, return your backpack and get one with a shorter torso length.
  3. If you are carrying all of the weight of your pack on your shoulders, your torso length is too short. If your pack is adjustable, make the torso length longer, so most of the weight rests on your hip belt. Otherwise, return your backpack and get one with a longer torso length.

Shoulder Straps

  1. If the front of your shoulder get very sore when your backpack, make sure that most of the weight is on your hips and not your shoulders. If the cause of the pain is because your pack is too heavy, get a new pack with wider or more padded shoulder straps, or lighten your load.
  2. If the shoulder straps on your pack rub against your neck, loosen the sternum strap. If this doesn’t work, your pack may have a harness that is too narrow for you and you should exchange it.

Sternum Strap

  1. If you can feel your sternum strap on your neck, try lowering it. It is too high. If that still doesn’t work, try getting a pack with a larger torso size.
  2. If tightening the sternum strap doesn’t keep the shoulder pads on your shoulders, you probably need a backpack with a narrower shoulder harness.

Load Lifters

If your backpack doesn’t come with load lifters, don’t panic. They are often provided on higher volume packs where you need to carry heavy loads, but not on smaller volume or ultralight backpacks.

  1. If your backpack has load lifters and the back of your head hits the top of your pack, try loosening the load lifters.
  2. If there is a gap between the tops of your shoulders and your load lifters, loosen them.
  3. If you can feel your pack pulling you backwards, tighten them. This will narrow the gap between your back and the pack and tilt the pack forward, so more of the load is carried by your hips. Also make sure that the heaviest items in your pack, such as water, are located as close to your back or sides as possible and not in the back of your pack.

Try on Lots of Backpacks

Buying a backpack should never be an impulse decision. Try on lots of different packs and test them fully loaded on a long day hike before you commit to keep them. Come to grips with the fact that some packs will never fit you because you are too tall, too short, too round, too skinny, or you have no hips. Backpacks are just like business suits (men’s and women’s): some fit and some don’t.

Manufacturer and retailer return policies are also flexible enough these days, that you can try lots of backpacks before committing to one, guilt free. Backpack makers want you to enjoy your backpack and tell your friends how much you love it. Buying a backpack is one of the most important decisions you can make if you like hiking, so take your time in making a decision.

If you have any questions, please leave a comment and I’ll try to answer them.

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38 Responses to How to Fit a Backpack

  1. John Abela December 17, 2012 at 4:49 am #

    Hey Phil,

    Good little article.

    I spent most of last year learning as much as I could about the center of gravity as a hiker to help me determine better ways to load your backpack. While I do not fully agree with this video and his views, this is a great video to get you thinking about your CoG as a hiker: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wuwNnRfrG4

    I have come across way to many hikers out on the trail who did not have proper sized backpacks, which was causing them pain in different areas of their bodies.

    Without a doubt I think one of the biggest issues is overloading a backpack beyond is recommended base weight.

    Next would be backpacks that are either too short or too tall (usually too short) when it comes to torso height.

    Agreed with your comments on the hipbelt not being the right size. I have had a couple of backpacks recently that the padding did not go far enough around the IC, so when I did need to tighten up my hip belt it caused improper alignment of the top of my backpack.

    Something not addressed is that often times, rather than going with load lifters (which cause stress on the shoulders if not used properly or your load is to heavy), is to simply buy a backpack with another two or three inches of height on the top of it. Obviously this is something that only custom backpack makers are able to do, but it has been a trick well used for a long time.

  2. Will Ferullo December 17, 2012 at 5:26 am #

    I often end up with a sore neck while hiking and I believe that when wearing my pack I feel like if I stand up straight it puts a lot of pressure on my lower back, so therefor I compensate by leaning forward and arching my neck upward. I feel sort of like a turtle sticking his head out of his shell, if that makes any sense. I believe I load the weight in the pack correctly, could it be a pack size/fit problem. I had it fitted at EMS, and I have taken this pack on 3 trips so far (pack is the EMS Longtrail 70). I want to try the Pacer Poles you have talked about to help with my posture. Thanks for any information.

    • Earlylite December 17, 2012 at 8:02 am #

      What’s your packweight? You shouldn’t be leaning forward. Pacer poles will definite help.

      • Will Ferullo December 22, 2012 at 10:40 am #

        My pack weight is typically around 40-45 lbs. Which I would like to shave down some I believe I distribute the weight properly in the pack.

    • Glenn December 17, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

      I have experienced a sore neck while backpacking due to my hat. This is a long shot and I know it sounds goofy but when I wore a boonie style hat the brim would hit the pack behind my head periodically. SubconsciouslyI would correct for this by leaning my head forward to clear the pack.

      At the end of the day my neck would be killing me. Switching to a ball cap eliminated the problem.

      Proper posture is even more important when carrying a pack.

  3. Marco December 17, 2012 at 9:56 am #

    There are a lot of reasonsing and philosophies about what fits with backpacks. Pehaps the strongest point made is “Try on Lots of Backpacks.” If still in doubt, choose the tallest size between two equivalnly comfortable packs…it will put more of the load on your hips/legs directly, bypassing the spine and shoulders.

    Different people will also advocate different framed packs. No frame, internal frame and external frames. All fit a bit differently. Raw measurements do not take this into account. The shape of a frame and harness system can also influence fit. Straight frames are never fully comfortable. Curved frame sheets tend to hug your back better, with less additional weight in padding. Stiff, tubular frames can restrict hip movement while hiking, important for comfort while walking.

    Width of a backpack makes a big difference. Tall and narrow, vs, short and wide. Often these are chosen for a more specific purpose. Narrow packs seem to be better for climbing, and bushwhacking. Wider packs (and more compact loadings) can be better on flatter, open trails. You should pay attention to the size of the pockets (if any) and how vulnerable they are to snagging. I find narrow 11″-12″ pack-body width comfortable. Wider 13″-14″ pack-bodies can catch on all sorts of things on narrow trails.

    The overall use of load lifters is a rather controversial subject. Like belt stabilizers, they are designed for keeping the loaded pack near your center of gravity. Lets face it. All the load goes on your feet and legs. There is no such thing as a magical “load” lifter. (Hydrogen filled ballons and bags do not count, these are add-ons.) Putting them at 45 degrees “above” your shoulders, or straight across your shoulders, or at 70 degrees above your shoulders doesn’t do a da*n for carrying the loads. They DO help manage any “overload,” though. Keeping the weight close to your body will reduce any “pulling back” with the loaded pack.

    Compression straps can help by keeping a load more stable and “rattle” free. Also, they help keep the center of gravity closer to your body. They also keep the pack stiff and nearly self supporting, resulting in a better carry, generally.

    Center of gravity seems to be in two major types with packs. The first is the overall COG. It will force you to lean forward to balance a load while walking. This will ALWAYS happen with any load on your back. The second COG is forcing the pack to pivot on the wast belt. This will put stress on your shoulder harness. The two combined, can be quite uncomfortable. This has more to do with loading, than fit, though.

    The packs COG, load lifters, torso strap, and shoulder straps can all combine to put a lot of stress on your chest. Women pick up early on this with any pressure on the breasts becoming quite uncomfortable. These all conspire to reduce breathing. In high exertion activities, such as hiking or climbing, this is bad. You should NEVER feel like the pack is restricting your breathing. Often this is just a matter of adjustment, Sometimes, these things can conspire and will do this, regardless of the adjustments. Aarn front packs, indeed most front pack arrangements, fail in this regard. Your chest will move up and out while breathing. Any pressure on your breathing will cost you energy or pain on the trail. Reduce as much as possible the weight on the shoulder harness. In the video, he mentions 65% of the weight should be on the hips. I would rather say “as much as is possible.” The shoulder harness should never have more than 3-5 pounds of load on each strap…enough to stabilize the pack while walking, climbing, or twisting between trees on a bushwhack. Taller packs will twist and turn against you, putting additional strain on your chest. A deeper 7-8″ thick pack will change the COG and pull against your chest. Overly tight load lifters will pull weight agaist you shoulders, putting more weight and more pressure on your chest. We all need to breathe. With a 20 pound pack load and a good waist belt, as much as 80-90% of any of my pack load is on my hips. Indeed, my shoulder harness/torso strap is just tight enough to stabilize the pack against the load. Wow! I can breath!

    Keep the heaviest items low in your pack. This will move the packs COG closer to the waist belt and reduce the need for loading on the shoulder straps. The next heaviest items should be loaded close to your back. and as low as possible. ready items (lunch, sweaters, jackets) should be placed on top. This also makes them readily available. If your tent is the heaviest single item, it should be placed where? In the pack and on the bottom of course. Or, get a lighter tent, so you can put it next up, in the pack,ready to be used in wet weather. If you have trouble with pack collapse, try rolling it tightly and placing it upright, next to your back. There are tricks you can play with gear to help the pack be more comfortable. But there is no fix for an ill-fitting pack. If you do not have the correct size pack, then all the tricks in the world will not make the pack fit better. I would avoid the weighted bags at REI or EMS when checking the load ballance of a pack. These are usually very dense pushing the weight and COG very low. You would do better to simply take all your gear, and laod it to get a good idea of how the pack will carry. They will not usually complain, but tell them you are looking to buy a new pack. Often they will help!

    • NancyP April 2, 2014 at 11:42 am #

      Hikers with heavy camera gear have a problem, in that the lenses and other heavy camera gear should be packed at the bottom, with the camping gear on top. This is problematic in a traditional top-loading pack. Furthermore, one often wants to stop, shuck off the pack, set up the tripod and camera, and maybe swap lenses. The thought of having to completely unpack and repack a top loader is just gruesome. The alternative is to put the less dense tent, inflatable pad, food, water, clothes, etc at the bottom and the camera gear near the top of the top loader. Unfortunately I haven’t found a good large side-access or back-access pack with adjustable/ multiple torso sizes and with adjustable/interchangeable belts and shoulder straps. .

  4. Gerry Brucia December 18, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

    One of the things I have found confusing is that to determine your “torso size” some manufacturers want you to measure ALONG your spine and some manufacturers instruct you to measure VERTICALLY from the C7 to the Iliac Crest. Measuring along your spine can add as much as 2″.

    • Earlylite December 18, 2012 at 8:26 pm #

      That is pretty odd. Who asks for this?

      • Gerry Brucia December 19, 2012 at 8:29 am #

        Philip,
        I thought Gossamer Gear did but looking on their website I could not find any information regarding how to measure your torso so I may be mistaken. Same for MLD. Zpacks’s description could be interpreted as meaning measuring vertically:

        “To measure for your torso:
        Stand up straight. Measure in a straight line from just below where you want the belt to ride on your body to the top of your shoulder.”

        • Kaet January 27, 2013 at 6:18 pm #

          I just watched the REI video you point to for instructions on measuring torso length and they indeed tell you to ”measure along the contours of your back”. The text says to use a flexible tape measure.

  5. Evie May 15, 2013 at 1:41 pm #

    I recently went on a practice Duke of Edinburgh expedition for a weekend, my hip strap was around my waist the whole time (25km) and I came back with really bruised hips. Could someone let me know if there’s any padding or anything that I can put on my hips for my next expedition? also, is it supposed to be around the waist or the hips?

  6. Melinda May 29, 2013 at 9:33 am #

    My hip belt keeps creeping up while I am hiking. REI recently switched out my hip belt so that it is longer, but I’ve encountered the same problem with the longer belt. Any suggestions?

    • Earlylite May 30, 2013 at 5:51 am #

      Sounds like the torso is too short or you’re pulling the shoulder straps too short.
      Bottom line. If it doesn’t fit, and not all packs fit all people, return it and get something else.

  7. John Roseman June 27, 2013 at 11:29 am #

    If I have the hipbelt around my hips it seems to interfere with the medius gluteus muscle, constricting it and making it harder when going up inclines. When going up inclined trails I’ve tried moving the belt more into my waist area, unfastening the hipbelt (which defeats the whole purpose), and holding it away from my hips and supporting it with my hands to get the pressure off my side hip muscles. I have a Buttermilk 55 pack and it “fits” the torso measurement criteria. Thanks for your help!

  8. Philip Werner June 27, 2013 at 11:38 am #

    It should be higher than your butt and cover your hip bone (illiac creast). Try positioning the hip belt over your belly button and sliding it down a wee bit.

  9. John Roseman June 29, 2013 at 9:20 am #

    That reduced the constriction on the medius Phillip, appreciate your help.

  10. Christopher August 27, 2013 at 12:50 am #

    My ongoing fit problmem is that I am a big, barrel-chested guy who cannot keep the shoulder straps from making a short curve around by shoulders, and then digging it with a lot of discomfort. It seems all shoulder straps attach at the pack bottom too far in which keeps them from being a wider geometry.
    Does this explanation make sense? I have tried highly-regarded packs from Kelty, Dana Design, Gregory, etc. over the years, and always work hard to insure the torso lenghth, etc. is set correctly. Regardless, I HATE the way the shoulder straps fit. What the heck am I missing?

  11. Brian October 18, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

    What is too high above the head for a pack. Mine is about a foot taller than the top of my head. I also heard to carry heavy items on the top?

  12. Elton O'Brien October 18, 2013 at 1:41 pm #

    I dont think it matters so much how ‘high’ the pack is but packing it properly is a key skill. Ideally heavier items should be closer to your back and not too high up. Lighter items i.e. spare clothes, bivy, lightweight shelter, sleeping pad should be placed in the bottom, with your sleeping bag/quilt midway up with food and stove/fuel etc on top but close to your back. Of course it depends on the individual weights. But heavier stuff not too far down but not on top either but as close to you as you can get it.

  13. Penny October 25, 2013 at 10:53 am #

    Thanks for your post. I have been having a problem finding a pack to fit width wise. I am a thin women, torso length is 18″. The shoulder straps rub my neck even with the hip belt tightened. Also the buckle that tightens the shoulder straps tends to restrict free range of motion with my arms as it rubs them. I have tried several packs. My old external frame pack had places to adjust the width of where shoulder straps attached, are there any internal backs with that do that?

    • Philip Werner October 25, 2013 at 10:56 am #

      Unfortunately not. You’re justg oing to have to try on a lot of backpacks unti you find something that works. When you do, buy two. Try looking at packs intended for climbing as they tend to be less broad.

  14. Pascal October 28, 2013 at 7:36 am #

    hi everyone, I got a Columbia 40l backpack as a gift. I have been using it for a while and sometimes felt my shoulders aching. i did not know about torso measurement at that time, but now realised that the bag is too small for me. If i want the hip belt to be a hip height then i have to let go on the shoulder strap, but if i pull on the shoulder strap, then the hip strap goes above my hips. also the lift loaders are not the position recommended because they are either the top of the bag is at my shoulder level or below, or almost useless.

    can anyone suggest what should be the best position to use this bag, hip level or raise up on shoulder, because the person giving it to me would have spent some money to buy this for me (and not his fault for not knowing about torso length). I can still use it at least as my daily office bag.

    thanks for your advice.

    regards
    pascal

    • Philip Werner October 28, 2013 at 7:56 am #

      If you cut off all of the straps, you might be able to use it as a hat. Seriously, this bike does fit man.try a bigger one.

  15. Mark May 9, 2014 at 8:57 pm #

    Hey Philip, just reading this past post. Do you have any insight to why I get pain between my shoulder blades (upper back but below neck) after backpacking for a few hours? The only thing I can think of is maybe my straps are too wide and they are pulling my shoulders back, thus activating those muscles more. Any insight would be great.

    • Philip Werner May 10, 2014 at 4:30 pm #

      It the top of your pack below the tops of your shoulders? What about weight distribution..are you carrying most o fthe weight on your hips or your shoulders?

      • Mark May 11, 2014 at 11:46 am #

        Hey Philip maybe you are right. I don’t put much thought into where the load is. I try to get most of the weight on my hips though.

  16. Skylar May 26, 2014 at 12:20 pm #

    For some reason on all of the packs I have tried I feel like I have to arch my back to support the weight. What could be causing this?

    • Philip Werner May 26, 2014 at 12:24 pm #

      They may be too small. The weight should mostly be on your hips.

      1) Did you measure your torso size and match it to the pack? (Yes or No)

      2) Have you tried buying a pack with an adjustable frame and setting it to your toso length? (Yes or No)

  17. Tad July 27, 2014 at 7:29 pm #

    I have no hips, well, i have them but I am very slim. When I was fitted for my pack (Kelty Lakota 85) if felt fine in the store the half hour (+) I had it on with weight. When I am out on the trail the hip belt eventually slides over my IT’s and I am have to bounce the pack up and tighten the belt time and again. (You can imagine how this eventually feels). The torso length was measured and feels right, the hip belt is the right size, but other than getting artificial hips implanted is there anything I can do or should look for in a new pack? Thanks!

    • Philip Werner July 27, 2014 at 7:31 pm #

      Minimal hip belt padding. If you can downsize, I highly recommend a Gossamer Gear Mariposa. it has 69 liters of capacity.

  18. Candace August 29, 2014 at 6:17 pm #

    Hi. I did a backpacking trip for 3 months in Europe with a 65litre. Now I am going to Indonesia for 4 months and I bought a new osprey 50 litre.
    My question is why is the strap hurting my right side collar bone and the muscle under the collar bone ?
    I went to the store to ask and show them but all the other backpacks are kinda big for me as I am 5’1 and 97 pounds. Is the answer I’m just too thin
    And that’s why it’s rubbing so much?

    • Philip Werner August 29, 2014 at 6:33 pm #

      It’s hard to say why without knowing what size your torso is, what pack you bought and the size you got, what size your waist is and what the waist size of your pack is. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that your collarbone is hurting because you have to much weight in the pack and you’re not wearing it correctly on your hips, or the torso is too short, causing more weight to ride on your shoulders.

  19. Sarah September 1, 2014 at 10:33 pm #

    Hi, I just stumbled across your site here and have a question. I likely know the answer after reading your post and all the comments, but I will ask anyway. :) I recently bought an Osprey Mira 34. I don’t need to carry a whole lot – extra layer, rain jacket, lunch/snacks, water, sunscreen, etc. (stuff for a day). No tents or sleeping bags. Anyway, my torso is apparently 16″ which puts me in the XS/S category. I was kind of surprised as I am 5’10” (female). A few years ago, I had a pack for the Grand Canyon rim to rim and returned it because it didn’t seem to fit – the very tops of my hip bones were bruised/tender by the end of the day. Now with the Osprey Mira 34, I can’t seem to keep the dang thing on my hips – it rides up. If I really clamp down on the waist belt, it’s either over my belly button/almost to my natural waist, which seems uncomfortably high and seems to put all the weight on my shoulders, or I have to almost stick my tummy out to keep it to stay down. I’ve adjusted all the other straps (shoulder and the other top ones), and while it feels fine at first, within a few minutes of walking, it’s ridden up again. I am going to try the next largest size in this pack – do you have any other recommendations? Thanks.

    • Philip Werner September 1, 2014 at 10:36 pm #

      I think you’ve already diagnosed the problem. The torso length of your pack is probably too short. Before you try another size, measure you torso. Torso length has nothing to do with height and varies widely between people.

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