How Should a Backpack Fit?

Does your backpack fit correctly? You may have used backpacks and rucksacks for years without realising that yours isn’t actually adjusted correctly. This could be a more serious issue than you think, as improperly fitting backpacks can cause discomfort, pain and even long-lasting back problems.

Whether you’re off on a hike, mountain climbing or just a camping holiday, your rucksack is one of the most important pieces of kit you’ll take with you. It’s crucial that it can carry everything you need, and that you can carry it safely and comfortably.

What problems do ill-fitting rucksacks cause?

At the minor end of the scale, poorly fitting backpacks can cause rubbing and chafing. They force you into uncomfortable positions (such as stooping or bending) that can harm your posture. Crucially, a bad backpack can also cost you more energy. Over a longer trek, mild discomfort can turn to real pain. And if you don’t adjust your rucksack, you could find you wake up with a seriously bad back in the morning.

Hiker walking across a bridge with a blue backpack on.

Hiker walking across a bridge with a blue backpack on.

How to adjust backpack straps

For starters, always choose a backpack that has hip straps. These come around the front of your body at hip level, sharing the load with your shoulders to give you more support.

To adjust your straps, start with this hip strap and follow these steps:

  1. Put the backpack on loosely and fasten the hip strap.
  2. The padding of the strap should rest just on top of your hip bones, although some people prefer to have it a little higher.
  3. Once the hip strap is in place, adjust the shoulder straps so that the backpack fits on the length of your back firmly, but not too tightly.
  4. Looking more closely at the shoulder straps, make sure they are tucked in just behind your shoulders and follow the natural contours of your back.
  5. Take the backpack off and measure the shoulder straps to make sure the length is even on each side, then pop the backpack on again to check the fit.
  6. Before your trip, load up the backpack and take it out for a practice walk. You can then iron out any issues or discomfort you encounter.
  7. Backpack straps can be easily adjusted by sliding the strap in or out of the adjustable buckle. 

You can also get additional straps and stabilisers for your rucksack if you feel you need them. For example, a sternum strap fits just below your collarbone to relieve stress on your shoulders and keep the shoulder straps in place. Other optional straps include load stabilisers, which further balance out the load by bringing the bag closer to the body. This should hopefully reduce movement as you walk, keeping you more stable and preventing chafing. 

What are the loops on backpacks for?

While straps may be the most crucial part of a rucksack for comfort, the loops also play an important role. Loops are used for carrying gear, such as climbing equipment or sharp poles that you don’t want to put or can’t fit inside the bag. You can use loops to attach sleeping bags and mats, wet or dirty equipment, or even smaller items such as maps, waterproof pouches, water bottles and snacks. 

Loops tend to be very simple to use. All you need to do is attach the item using webbing loops, carabiner, cords or clips.

How to carry a rucksack

Now that you know a little more about the parts of your rucksack and how to adjust it for comfort, it’s time to work on techniques for carrying rucksacks. You may think it’s as simple as putting it on your back and setting off, but there’s a little more to it. Bear in mind that if you aren’t carrying your rucksack properly and you have a day’s hiking ahead of you, it could soon become very uncomfortable. 

To start with, you should always wear both shoulder straps. It’s tempting to sling a strap over one shoulder and set off, but this bad habit can cause problems. Take a moment longer to put both straps on and make use of hip and sternum straps if you have them. It’s important to properly distribute the weight of the pack. 

Your rucksack should be high on your back and stable enough that it doesn’t move from side to side as you walk. The straps shouldn’t dig in or put too much weight on your shoulders. 

If you feel them start to hurt, tighten your hip or waist strap slightly and loosen your shoulder straps. This shifts the weight from shoulders to waist, giving your shoulders a breather. You can then switch back and continue to alternate as you need to. 

And remember to take your backpack off during rest periods, so you can stretch out your muscles and give your body a break.


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