How to Choose the Right Backpack for You

October 26, 2015
How to Choose the Right Backpack for You

So you're planning a hiking trip? Or you’ve decided to start walking or cycling into work now it’s not so cold? Yes? Great.

Maybe you haven’t planned anything just yet, or you’re not sure what you might use a backpack for? Get planning, this could help you in a big way when the time comes to finding a backpack.

It might be commuting to work, it might be going on a 10 day epic in the wilds of New Zealand; one thing is for sure, no matter what your adventure, if you don’t have the right backpack to carry your gear it can range from a first world problem right through to life threatening.

In this article, I’m going to tell you how you can take some of the pain out of getting the right backpack regardless of what your pursuit is.

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But first a little story.

My main motivation for writing this article is to hopefully pass on some of the knowledge I’ve learnt from observing how people shop, the regular obstacles customers come up against and the passion I have for trying to get the job done better. If we are honest with ourselves buying stuff is fun, but on the other hand, many people past a certain point will avoid it or become frustrated by it. Have you ever heard yourself say, ‘why does this have to be so hard?’ Well of course, nothing ever comes easy, but there’s definitely a way to shop and find what you’re after better.

I’ve made plenty of bad calls when it comes to buying gear for myself in the past. This has been due to not being clear about my own objectives, not getting the right service and above all not taking the time to execute some simple steps. After years of helping customers, I’ve seen first-hand and heard of many more ‘bad calls’ that other people have made when it comes to buying the right backpack. For me, in my line of work it all boils down to helping out my customers not make those same simple mistakes and to go out and enjoy their chosen pursuit as much as possible.

One thing I’m sure of is that the way we shop these days has changed radically since I started in retail in high school and I’m sure you have noticed this also. With the advent of online shopping, user reviews, forums and a seemingly endless amount of information out there on the web, what’s the point going into a store anymore? I know it might seem a bit cliche coming from a salesperson, but trust me on this, after you have done all your research, digested all there is to know on the internet there is still every reason to visit an outdoor retail store.

There is a world of outdoors out there to explore and a reliable backpack is your most important tool for adventure – so don’t get it wrong! Getting the right gear (and using it) for your chosen activity is one of the most satisfying things. Over my time working in retail I have regularly witnessed customers coming back to the store to tell me about a recent trip, to tell me how their new backpack was perfect and about how much they enjoyed their adventure. When you see this happen enough it’s hard not to want the same for everyone. So do yourself a favour and read ahead for my 5 tips on buying the right backpack for you!

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Why do you need a new backpack?

No one can tell you this and you can’t find it on the internet! You have to come up with the reasons you need a backpack for things you want to do. If you can’t come up with some solid reasons maybe save that cash for something more useful?

Usually, the best place to start is to think of some features you really liked or didn’t on your last backpack. Maybe that old backpack of yours was uncomfortable on your shoulders or there was nowhere to put your laptop on the way to work.

Think of ways to get the best ‘CPG’ (cost per go). Maybe you want to use your work commuter to take to the hills for day-hiking? Think of trying to make your dollar go further by choosing a backpack that has more than one purpose for you. The exception to this rule can be gear that is needed for extended backcountry use or a situation where specific functionality is mission critical.

Research which backpacks are suitable for you

Much like buying anything in life, there will be some terminology to learn and buying backpacks is no exception. We do live in a world where we expect things to happen quicker than ever, but it's going to be worth spending the time to get to know what the market has to offer you and to learn the lingo.

Ensure you cross reference the manufacturer supplied marketing speak with what user reviews are out there and information that can be found on local forums. It’s worth treating the marketing speak a company supplies to you as a suggestion, not as gospel.

It’s a pretty magic thing we have so much information at our fingertips when it comes to third party users testing backpacks. Take note of the difference of how a product shapes up to the promises and claims of its respective manufacturer. Above all, it’s best to remember user reviews are user reviews. Everyone’s experience with outdoor gear can vary widely based on the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘why’ of their experience.

While it is crucial to get to know your product through research, accept that the learning doesn’t stop there. There is no substitute for observing good workmanship first hand and being able to touch and feel the product.

It’s time to go into your local outdoor retailer and shop for a new backpack.

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Working with the salesperson

‘Can’t deal with ‘em, can’t deal without ‘em!’ I hear you say? I know it’s a bit daunting first coming into a store and it’s a bit much having a salesperson demanding you buy something straight away. The best approach is to politely ask them to let you look and settle into this strange new place, OR get them to work!

Remember, it’s all about you. Finding a product that best suits you is a partnership (sometimes a group effort). Salespeople are paid to help you, if you’re not feeling like they are much help, then politely say so. Fail that, you are there to do a job, that is, to get the most awesome backpack ever (for you!)

Give and you will get back. Give your sales person something to go on. Share your story and have those 3 reasons ready. Be prepared to volunteer some information that is relevant to your visit.

It’s not uncommon to feel a bit of pressure to buy after spending some quality time with a salesperson, but just remember it’s not a crime to look around. The salesperson will understand this, and if they don’t, don’t bother wasting your time with them anymore.

Do not underestimate your salesperson. We’ve all had unsatisfactory service, but when you find someone helpful and genuine you’ll probably find out a lot you can’t read on the internet. A great salesperson can be a rich source of information that is relevant to you!

Finding a backpack that fits

The fact is without a great fit your backpack might be a waste of your money. Regardless of how good a backpack might seem to be or how well it’s been marketed, nothing is more crucial than trying on a backpack before you buy. If you have spent the quality time to set out the reasons to buy and have done the research then you can spend more time on the most important part: trying backpacks on.

After sharing a little information with your salesperson and have found some backpacks that might be suitable, then insist on getting your salesperson to give you a professional pack fit. Make sure there is at least some weight in the backpack. This will give you a better idea about how the pack will feel.

Backpacks are designed to carry weight, so put them to the test. It’s not such a bad idea to try on more than 1 model to get a differential. If you are new to backpacks or have never used them much it will pay dividends to try on at least 4-5 packs in different brands and stores before buying.

When you are in the fancy air conditioned retail store it’s easy to get emotionally attached to the product. Try to stay it objective and be picky. If something is niggling you and something doesn’t feel right, speak up. Often a little niggle in the store could be a major pain out on the trail.

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Take your time and be a smart shopper

If you have time to drop in on your lunch break to check out your local shop, great idea, do it. Just because you’re not a ‘serious buyer’ doesn’t mean you can’t get awesome service. Reconnaissance is the key.

“We have, in short, somehow become convinced that we need to tackle the whole problem, all at once. But the truth is that we don’t. We only need to find the stickiness Tipping Points,” Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point.

It was only last year that I was faced with buying ski gear for the first time (skis, boots and bindings). It was great to see how feels to be on the other side as a ‘customer’. As I mentioned in my point regarding research, there is a language to learn with each category of product you buy. Don’t get too jaded about not knowing it all, just stick to the plan and keep plugging away and it will all make sense soon enough. The ‘tipping point’ will come to you.

Accept that you probably won’t find what you’re after on your first shop. You may walk away empty handed, but if you take heed of the next point then this won’t be so. Come with a list or notes. Trust me, when your planned 1 hour visit turns into an epic and you forgot to eat lunch it’ll be hard to remember anything. If you make sure to write down what you have tried on and all the relevant information you will be able to pick up where you left off on your next visit.

There will be choice paralysis. It’s all about keeping it objective so list your favourite packs and/or features and give them a rating out of 10.

The really fun part is getting outside and using your new backpack so don’t fret too much comparing one backpack to the next. I think of someone like Eric Shipton and his adventures in the Himalayas back in the 1930’s and it’s clear that ‘a lot more has been done with a lot less’. The technology on offer in this day and age is mind boggling but it’s best to keep it simple. Too much information in the buying process can be bad thing and it can stop the fun.


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