There is perhaps nothing more essential to a successful backpacking trip than a good backpack, it seems obvious right? Well, I had to learn this the hard way when I first began backpacking a few years ago. The idea to spend days out in the woods, escaping into nature, sounded like a grand adventure to me. As a teenager though, the idea of buying all the seemingly expensive equipment I needed was a daunting prospect and a major obstacle to getting out there. No sixteen year old has a hundred dollars to drop on hiking shoes. I had to find another way to get everything I needed.
Luckily my mother instilled in me a love for second-hand stores from an early age. I began buying everything I needed pre-owned. Everything I bought would have to be ten dollars or less to meet my discerning standards. These were very fine products as well, like hiking shoes that left strange brown marks on my socks after I took them off, athletic shirts with sweat stains all over them, and a bright red plaid jacket that you could see from space. Needless to say I was the fashionista on the trail, easily the most prepared guy in the woods.
My backpack, however, was easily the best and worst thing I bought for my adventures. I always heard that it was essential that your pack was of high quality. Sparing no expense and spent a whopping seven dollars on mine. I was so happy when I found it, my new traveling companion, the one that I will have forever. It was a beauty, a forty-year-old Sears catalog giant yellow rectangle bag with two metal bars protruding from the back. No cushions or comfort to be seen just two straps and a thin styrofoam back piece clipped on to the bars.
I was enamored with it, the bag seemed to represent everything I romanticized about outdoor adventure. It looked to me like something 1800s explorers would wear, charting the arctic or diving into deep jungle. I pictured all the fine trips I would take with it into uncharted territory.
Of course, I did all this fantasizing before I actually ever used the bag. When the day came to put it through its paces, all my respect for it started to fall apart. I was incredibly excited to start my first backpacking trip. It was a modest distance of eight miles to my destination. I was confident in my ability to make it there without a sweat, wasn’t worried in the slightest about our trip. Filling my new pack with probably about thirty pounds of various stuff. I didn’t really need all of it but I wanted to test my ability and impress my girlfriend who was coming with her own pack.
This was my first mistake, I’m not a big guy and frankly, thirty pounds is probably a lot for me even with a great backpack. So after stuffing my neon yellow knapsack to the brim with useless crap, I proceed to carry it to the car over my shoulder. All this time, by the way, I never actually tried to wear the backpack with the weight. I wouldn’t try until we drove all the way to the park.
This was my second mistake. I opened the trunk when we got there and tried the bag on. I knew from the minute I put the bag on that the next eight miles were going to be painful ones. The bag was horrible for comfort. The metal bars pushed into my back and the straps dug into my shoulders dragging me down to earth. It was not the wondrous experience I was expecting. I let my girlfriend know of my situation and she began laughing hysterically as she had told me the whole time there that the backpack would kill me. However, I wasn’t gonna give up on my seven dollar pack just yet. I figured maybe if I broke into it and walked a while, the relief would come. So we started out on the trail.
My shoulders started feeling intense pain about two miles in. The love that I had for this bag was slipping away and frustration was filling in. I adjusted the straps tightening them and loosening them a million times in a vain attempt to make the bag work. I was convinced that there was a secret combination of strap pressure and shoulder placement that would make this bag work. But my efforts never saw fruition, the bag was easily the most uncomfortable thing that I have ever worn.
There was still a few miles to go and my backpack was trying to kill me. I wasn’t sure what I was gonna do. So I did what any self-respecting tough guy would do and gave half of everything in my bag to my girlfriend. All the weight went to her new and nice bag. She was reveling in my discomfort the whole time and found my attempts to fix it hilarious. I really should have listened to her in the first place when she told me that my precious bag was not gonna work for a real hike. We eventually made it to our campsite much to my delight. I proceeded to lay in our hammock recovering from my battle scars for the rest of that day.
I regret to say that I ended up putting my precious 70s hiking backpack into the closet, never to be seen again. Although I will always appreciate it for its aesthetic. After that trip I started to use a new bag for every hike I went on. My experience ended up being much better. If I can give you any lesson from this article it’s this – don’t ever cheap out on a hiking backpack. You will not regret spending some coin on a backpack that fits you well and is comfortable ten miles in.