I've been testing and reviewing a lot of backpacks this winter, mainly from Osprey. Although I personally use 3 season backpacks that weigh half or even a third of what these mainstream backpacks weigh, I decided that I needed to understand how they're designed and why people buy them if I want to be an effective ambassador for lightweight hiking and backpacking. So instead of posting yet another Osprey backpack review today (the one pictured above is an Osprey Kestrel 58), I thought I'd explain how I test a backpack.
Don't get me wrong. There are a lot of reasons to buy and use a mainstream backpack from manufacturers like Osprey, Deuter, Gregory, and Golite. For one, they're incredibly tough and long lasting. Most are designed to be multi-purpose and can be used for different kinds of adventures, they often have all the bells and whistles and can enhance the comfort of your trip, and they come with excellent guarantees.
The Testing Process
Backpack testing is a skill and I've been lucky to hook up with a few people, who do it professionally. They're been teaching me the kinds of things to look for and test in order to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a particular pack design.
I thought I'd pass along what I've learned so far, in case you want to use these techniques to evaluate a new backpack for purchase, or take it to the next level and write a backpack review. That's a whole different topic and requires a different set of skills. Regardless, you need to test a backpack before you can write about it, so first things first.
The purpose of backpack testing is to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a pack's design and the experience of carrying different loads with it, in real world conditions. This requires a mix of "indoor" work and experience using the product outdoors with different gear assortments, in a wide variety of hiking conditions.
No pack is perfect, and a tester's job is to understand what a pack's limits are for different types of users and different applications, such as 3 season hiking, winter backpacking, expedition backpacking, climbing, etc.
Before you test a backpack, you should think about who will be using it, what they know about hiking or backpacking, the type of terrain or conditions they'll use the pack in, and what kind of gear they're likely to carry.
For example, are they likely to be ultralight gear junkies, former boy scouts, parents with young children, or retirees who are just getting started? Deciding this will effect what gear you use to test the pack and where you take it for field testing.
While there are an estimated 36 million hikers in the US, I don't test backpacks with expert hikers and backpackers in mind. They're not the people that mainstream backpack manufacturers target when they design products.
For example, when I test Osprey, Deuter, Gregory, or REI backpacks, I try to put myself in the shoes of the people I see trying on backpacks at my local REI. They're aged 30-60, in moderately good shape, and they probably go on a half dozen hikes and 2-3 overnight camping trips per year. They probably carry a 30-45 lb load for an overnight trip, including a multi-person tent, comfy sleeping pad, a synthetic-fill sleeping bag, and a hydration reservoir. Many are very experienced backpackers who have been hiking for years, and many are novices.
Once you've decided which users you are testing for, you need to assemble loads that represent the kinds of gear they are likely to carry. This may differ considerably from what you carry on a trip. Luckily, I own a lot of different sleeping bags, tents, stoves, pads, different reservoirs and bottles, filters, etc, so it's pretty easy for me to assemble gear lists that span the spectrum in terms of weight and volume.
If you don't have all this gear, it's going to a challenge for you to run through enough gear list variations to get a sense of the experience someone would have if they own a big tent, a bulky sleeping pad, or a huge synthetic sleeping bag. If you can borrow gear, your best bet is to concentrate of getting hold of a couple of tents in different sizes and shapes, different sleeping pads, and a winter and 3 season sleeping bag. You can simulate most of other the gear that people are likely to carry using stuff sacks filled with clothing or food.
The key is however is variety, because as a tester, you need to assess the pack's performance with a large number of gear combinations. All kinds of different people, with different incomes, experience, and physical capabilities, are going to consider buying the pack, and your job is to help them understand whether it will work for them and why it might be a good or bad purchase.
Pocket and Compartment Stress Testing
Once I've assembled the gear list variations I want to test, I start packing and unpacking the backpack with them. This is a tedious process, but it helps me understand what happens to the peripheral pockets on the pack when I fill the main compartment to bursting with gear, water, fuel and food.
As an example, take the REI Flash 50 backpack I reviewed a few months ago. By stuffing the main compartment of the pack full of gear, I found that I would be difficult to get water bottles into the side pockets. I also found that the pack had to be packed a certain way, with a bulky food bag higher up in the main compartment, to make the side pockets usable.
This is important information to convey if you decide to write a product review, because it gives hikers more insight into how the pack will perform in the field, and the range of uses it is good for.
Attachment Point Testing
After I've figured out how the closed storage on the backpack works, I move to the external attachment points and start to stress them. This involves lashing all kinds of external gear to the outside of the pack to identify what it is easy to carry and what is not.
For 3 season use, it's common for campers and hikers to lash tents and sleeping pads to the outside of their backpacks. So, I cycle though the different products I own to see whether you can attach them and whether it's a natural thing to do with the pack or not. If there's any chance that the pack can be used for 4 season backpacking, I'll also try to add snowshoes, ice axes, crampons, and a second sleeping pad to the outside of the pack, to see what its limitations are.
You can tell a lot about a backpack by it's external attachment system. For example, sometimes the compression straps on a pack are too short to attach gear on the side, or there are no loops around the perimeter of the pack to rig up custom lash points, or the straps on the floating lid are too short to carry an extra sleeping pad (see top picture.) All this information is worth cataloging and capturing in a test report.
Market Driven Features
Pushing the pack to its limits like this, while using plausible loads, is a great way to understand the strength and weakness of a particular pack design. It's also very useful in helping differentiate features on the pack that make sense from a usage perspective, and those which have been added on for marketing reasons, irrespective of whether they are helpful or not.
You find this a lot on backpacks that are sold by online retailers and in stores. Many mainstream products incorporate certain capabilities that don't work all that well, but are perceived to be market requirements; things like super heavy duty fabric, flimsy sternum strap whistles, kangaroo pockets, compression straps on small volume packs, separate sleeping bag compartments, hiking pole holders, gel pack pockets, MP3 player pockets, mesh hip belt pockets, built-in rain covers, and so on.
When I figure out which features make sense and which don't, I go out of my way to point them out. I believe that function is beauty and the reason I test backpacks is to help steer the industry (in my own small way) or readers, to products that reflect that aesthetic.
The fit of a backpack is determined by torso length, hip belt size, and shoulder strap shape. There are other factors, naturally, but those are the big three. If someone can't get a decent fit with these three variables, load lifters, sternum straps, hip belt control straps, etc. aren't going to incrementally improve things much.
As a gear tester, you need to look very carefully at the sizes offered for a pack by a manufacturer. With careful analysis, you may determine that people with certain body shapes or sizes won't be able to get a good fit with every backpack model. This is a really important fact to call out.
Take Osprey Packs, for instance. Many of their packs only come with non-replaceable, fixed-length hip belts. I've found that some of their packs won't work for people with certain physical measurements. For example, the Osprey Talon 44 comes in two sizes, an S/M and an M/L. The S/M size fits users with <19" torso height and a 27"-32" waist, while the M/L size fits users with 19"> torso size and a 33" or larger waist. Conclusion: people, like me, with 18" torsos and >32" waists just can't get a good fit with this pack.
Finally, we come to field testing. This is where the rubber meets the road and you get to validate or refute all of the observations about the pack's design that you've collected indoors.
Common sense should prevail here.You need to load up the pack again and take it out hiking with a variety of loads, in different terrain, and in different weather conditions.
The hard part of this process is learning how to perceive what you are experiencing without pre-judging it. I guess I'm good at it because I spend a lot of time hiking alone and observing my own physical experience,as part of my hiking-buddhism mojo.
In addition, I also find it helpful to vary the type of clothing and footware I wear during this process, so I can assess comfort in hot and cold temperatures, and the trade-offs between footwear type and load control. It's a subtle point, but one that interests me, particularly as you dial up pack weight.
Testing a backpack is incredibly labor intensive, but it can be a very rewarding process if you are interested in learning how to design backpacks or help non-experts understand what the properties of a "good" backpack are, for their intended use.
While, I've provided an overview of the testing process that I use to evaluate backpacks for gear manufacturers and as input to the gear reviews I write on sectiohiker, I'm sure that there are other aspects and nuances of backpack testing that I still need to incorporate into my testing process. If you've done any backpack testing or have an opinion about other aspects of the test process that I haven't covered, please leave a comment below.
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