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How to Test a Backpack

Osprey Kestral 58

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.

User Models

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.

Gear Combinations

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.

Gear Combinations

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.

Osprey Variant 52

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.

Fit Testing

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.

Field Testing

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.

Summary

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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10 comments

  1. Very interesting post. I like Osprey packs – I have found them to be extremely comfortable and robust despite their reasonably lightweight credentials. Sadly, Osprey seem to have an addiction to straps and buckles which seem to serve no appreciable purpose – you're right when you say that some features on a pack "…have been added on for marketing reasons, irrespective of whether they are helpful or not." I find that this can often be true of Osprey packs (although you don't single out any one pack manufacturer) – the Talon 44 is a good example – great pack but so many unnecessary zips, buckles and straps – compare it to the OMM Villain MSC which is just as comfortable a carry, more robust (210D dyneema), and every feature is removable if undesired.

    One thing I should mention – I have butchered my OMM Villain to shorten straps – this is an easy process which I'll describe if it helps. Cut the strap to the desired length (this can be ascertained by working out the maximum play you'll actually need for the strap, then adding a small amount (3-4" is enough). I then cut the remaining off, and with a lighter, heat the ends of the strap by running the lighter over it. You'll get a sense of how close the lighter needs to be and who quickly this happens as you do it. The material will melt (do this in a ventilated area as it may be smoky and remember fire risks) and this process will seal the end of the strap once it cools and prevent it fraying. DO NOT TOUCH IT UNTIL IT IS COOL AND SOLID!! Bend the strap over and sew back in place with a sewing machine. I use a square with a cross pattern within it to ensure a secure stitch.

    Very good post, Philip – the mentality of a gear tester (especially one as assiduous as you are) is a valuable insight.

  2. Maz,

    Like you, I prefer packs where everything is optional, and you can take off components you don't need or don't like, and even reconfigure the external attachments the way you like them or need them to work. Still the mass market has yet to discover these, and I doubt they'd be successful because they require retailers to educate consumers more and there'd probably be too high a breakage and return rate to make it very profitable. It's a sad paradox, that the best packs are likely to be the least commercially successful.

    Of all the mass market brands, I think Golite has done a good job of satisfying the "function=beauty" trade-off for mass market packs, still I wish they'd add more external mesh pockets to their packs.

  3. You know my views on the Gossamer Gear Gorilla – not mass-produced but very close to the perfect pack. I do like Golite – not their packs necessarily, but as a manufacturer of good, UL kit, they do a very good job.

  4. I love mine too and it's the best pack of the ones that I own, and have tested. Naturally, you can takes features off of it you don't want and customize the compression lashing.

  5. Not biased ehhh? Did it occur to you that by making the sweeping generalization that "inexperienced" hikers buy certain brands that you may just have lost a good chunk of your audience? It was hard for me to continue reading after that. My favorite pack is an osprey, I own a golite, have used a homemade and I still go back to my osprey. While assuming good intent, I realize you are giving the perspective of a gear tester. It may help your audience if they felt you weren't judging them based on a brand choice.

    This post disappointed me. It read to me like this; if you choose mainstream gear and refuse to be ultra light you are inexperienced and wrong.

  6. Ouch – but spot on. My aim is not to turn people off, so I'll make a few edits to soften the tone. Thanks for catching me out on this one. You are right, people don't buy Osprey packs because they are inexperienced hikers. That was an erroneous value judgment on my part. Thanks for calling me on the carpet.

  7. I know you had good intent! Besides there are a lot of folks out there that don't have a lot of cash to spend on a piece of gear they cant put their hands on. Or maybe they only buy used; and the majority of used gear is main stream (I know I watch for the scouts). Or they are my husband who is all about lighter if it doesnt compromise on comfort (for him maybe luxury) and is better than what he has. In fact sometimes he will carry a larger Gregory pack just in case he needs to take some weight off me, or help rescue a distressed hiker(true story).

    So it is always good to keep in mind that we all hike our own hike and that is the beauty of the trail!!!!

  8. Again thank you for the criticism. I made a few edits to bring out my true intent, which was not to criticize people who buy mainstream packs or the quality of those packs.

    As it happens, the #1 criticism that ultralight backpack manufacturers receive about their packs is that they are not durable enough, like mainstream packs. This has led to fabric innovation flowing back into the cottage manufacturers, so there are lessons to be learned about mainstream pack design for everyone.

    A great example of this is the Gossamer Gear Gorilla that Maz and are discussing above. It was made with a much tougher fabric than it's predecessor, to address this consumer objection.

  9. Very interesting post. Great pack

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