How to fit and load a backpack for a pain-free hike

I’ve done a handful of long hikes in the past few years, like the four-day Laugavegur trek in Iceland and a full-day 14er hike on Quandary Peak in Colorado. No matter which pack I use or how I load it up, however, my back seems to ache.

Or my shoulders. Or my neck.

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For a correct fit, measure from the C7 vertebra down to the hip bone (aka the iliac shelf). Photo: Courtesy of Osprey Packs

These hotspots don’t necessarily ruin my trek, but even minute pain adds only anguish and annoyance to a hike. Instead of focusing on how to adjust your straps on the go or wishing you had less weight while walking, focus on starting correctly from the beginning.

We spoke with Chris Horton, product line manager for Osprey Packs, about how to properly fit and load a backpack.

Measure your torso

The best feeling ever: no back pain. Photo: Chris Hyashi/Unsplash

A correct-fitting backpack has nothing to do with your height or weight. Rather, it is based on your torso length, which is decided by your upper torso’s anatomy, says Horton. “There are two places we target to get the length: your iliac crest, which is basically the top of your hip bone, and your C7 vertebra,” he says.

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The C7 vertebra is the knobby bone on the base of your neck that sticks out if you tuck your chin to your chest. For ideal measurements, head to an outdoor-gear shop. If you are going to measure at home, start by dragging your fingers from your armpits down to the hip bone or iliac shelf; put a belt around that area. Next, measure from the C7 vertebra to the belt around your waist. Make sure to stand up straight and keep your chin untucked when measuring.

Adjust the hip belt

“The ideal scenario is that when you put on a pack, you are using your hips as a shelf on your body,” Horton says. Tighten the hip belt so it is half above and half below that crest, so that the hip belt cups it. This is the same place on your lower back where the vertebrae start to curve out, so most of the weight of the backpack is resting on the hips or iliac shelf.

Fix the yoke

Mattie and her hiking buddy adjusting their packs in Colorado’s Flat Tops Wilderness, a three-day trek. Photo: Courtesy ofLingyu Xie

The yoke is where the two shoulder straps come together behind you on the backpack. The C7 vertebra should be about 2 inches above the yoke for a perfect fit.

Buy adjustable

Versatile backpacks are key. Photo: Christopher Burns/Unsplash

If you are going to carry 30 or more pounds, an adjustable pack is ideal; it lets you move the harness and yoke up or down so that it rests 2 inches below the C7 vertebra. “You’ll have a solid fit,” Horton says. “If you are carrying a bunch of weight, you know the pack is connecting all the parts of your body that you need it to.”

When you are carrying 40-plus pounds or doing a thru-hike, look for a pack that has multiple torso sizes, an adjustable torso and also an interchangeable hip belt, like the Aether AG or women’s Xena line from Osprey.

Load it up

Properly loading your pack is an art. Photo: Austin Ban/Unsplash

“There are two types of criteria for packing: how much does that gear weigh and when you are going to need the gear,” Horton says. For example, food and water are heavy, clothes are not; some items you’ll need on the hike, whereas others you’ll need once you get to camp.

Begin by organizing your gear with what you’ll need at camp, lightest to heaviest. Place your sleeping bag in the bottom bag compartment and your tent (in a stuff sack with the poles outside of the pack) right above your sleeping bag. Your water reservoir should be in the compartment made for the bladder right next to your back.

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Then pack your heaviest items in the center of your pack, closest to your back — heavy food followed by your stove and other hard gear. Continue to pack outward and around with extra layers of clothing and other lightweight gear.

Keep on-trail items closest to the top or outside of your bag, such as your lunch, snacks, first-aid kit, headlamp and water filter.

Tighten up

Keep your pack tight. Photo: Vitaly/Unsplash

Once the pack is loaded, it’s time to tighten up. Get the pack on the hip bone and cinch the hip belt so that the ends are 3 to 6 inches apart from each other. Tighten the harness straps by pulling them toward your back pockets, as if you were grabbing your wallet. The padded part of the shoulder straps should end 2 to 3 inches below your armpits.

For the sternum strap, pinch the end with two fingers and tighten until the strap slips out of your fingers to ensure the strap isn’t too tight; it should fit about 2 inches below the collarbone. For the load lifters (the small straps resting on top of your shoulders), grab the straps and pull harder than you did for the sternum strap to bring the pack forward and get the weight off of your shoulders.