Here I go...

Finding magic under the stars of the Camino Santiago de Compostela

Monday, March 07, 2016

Buying a Backpack for the Camino

Buying a backpack for the Camino can sometimes cause anxiety in a new pilgrim.  How large of a pack will you need? What features should the pack have? What makes a good fitting pack?

Here are some of my own thoughts on the matter.

Capacity:  Unless you are doing a winter Camino, you do not need a pack with more than a 32L Capacity.  For a summer Camino, or if you are not carrying a sleeping bag, a 28L or even smaller will work fine. I've walked all of my Caminos using an Arcteryx 30L bag and it has been perfect.  This year, I've purchased a new 28L to try out for 2 months. I'll be walking the Madrid Route, the Camino Frances, and then 2 weeks on the Via de la Plata or southern Spain, I haven't yet decided.  But I'm thinking this 28L pack will be perfect!

If you are walking in winter, you are going to need heavier clothes and a heavier sleeping bag. In this case, you may want to go as high as 35L.

When you are shopping, these are called "weekend" packs or "overnight" packs or even "day packs."  Don't let a salesperson talk you into a bigger pack! We'll talk about that below.


Internal Frame.  Today, the best packs in my opinion are internal frame packs. These packs hug your body and when you look at them from the side, often have a gentle "C" curve. They help stabilize you while you walk, and in my opinion are the best choice. The internal frame is often adjustable to better fit your body, so be sure to ask. On my pack, I can simply bend the frame into the shape I want.

External Frame: These packs are more for mountaineering or if you're carrying a kayak. You don't need this in my opinion, thought there are some lighterweight external frame packs that would work for the Camino. Again, you can often adjust the frame.

Frameless. If you are young (21-25) and strong and fearless, you could get away with a minimalist pack in the summer months. But honestly, I don't think they're comfortable for the amount of walking you'll be doing.

Top Lid. All 3 types of pack will usually have a top lid. The lid usually has a zippered compartment both on the top and underneath, where you can store items you want to get to quickly during the day. This is where I put my lunch and my rain gear (on top) and I put my shower/first aid stuff in the compartment under the lid.

Ventilation. That curved look in an internal frame pack allows the pack to set a few inches off your back. This is great for ventilation and will keep you from sweating too much and soaking your clothes and your pack.  There are a few different ways this is achieved. One is "tension mesh suspension" and that is what my new pack has. My Arcteryx, that I used for 10 years, also had it, and it sure was nice on those REALLY hot Spanish days.

This Osprey pack has a mesh back with space for air flow.

Hydration Pack Sleeve. Whether or not you use a hydration pack (Camelbak, etc.) is really up to you. When I walk the Camino Frances, I just carry an 8 ounce water bottle and fill it up at each fountain. If you're a big water drinker, you may want to carry 2 bottles, or if you're walking in the hot summer, a bit more. However if you DO like hydration packs, it's great to have a place to put it. And if you are NOT taking a hydration pack, it'll just mean a bit of extra space, so you really can't go wrong. I did not have a hydration pack space on my Arcteryx, and I did use a hydration pack on the Via de la Plata. I just slipped it down into the back of my pack, but a sleeve would have been nice. When I walk the Madrid route this spring, I will take a Camelbak as fountains are fewer and far between. It just depends on the route you will be walking. Hydration packs are a whole other blog.
Hydration sleeve in a Granite Gear pack.

Loading.  Some packs load only from the top. Some have all kinds of pockets and zippers.  Personally, I prefer a top-loading pack for the Camino for many reasons.

One reason is ease of loading. In my Arcteryx, I use a compression stuff-sack for my sleeping bag. Then I stuff it down into the bottom of the pack. I layer the rest of my things on top. To me, it's easier to get everything into the pack if I don't have to fiddle with opening/closing zippers, getting them stuck, etc. I'm a Leo and I want things done yesterday, not tomorrow. I'm the same with packing. I want it to be done so I can be on the road.  Joe has a zippered pack and I watch him trying to hold things in with one hand while he zips with the other hand. It just looks like too much work for me!

Another reason is security.  A panel-access pack usually has one or more long zippers that open up the pack. Easier access yes, not just for YOU but for a thief. No zippers on the outside means someone either has to sit and unpack my backpack to get to what's inside, or they have to cut it open. Chances are, in a busy albergue, they'll go to the next guy's pack and leave mine sitting. Thieves choose targets that are quick to access and quick to leave. My top-loading pack would just take too much time for a thief to get into! I like that security.

By the way, those zippered packs with locks at the top that give people such a sense of security are easy to get into in about 10 seconds with nothing more than a ball-point pen or other pointy object. Just stick the point between the teeth and pull the zipper apart. Thieves can do their pilfering, then rezip it and nobody knows they've been there. Don't believe me? Try it.

When I say top-loading, I'm not talking about the sleeve on the sides or a compartment for a raincoat. I'm talking about the main compartment of the pack.

Front-Loading.  or Panel Access Bag.
To me, this is too much "business!"
Top loader.
This person used the hydration sleeve for their laptop/ipad.

Pockets. Pockets on the sides and/or back are convenient for putting a water bottle or stuffing rain gear into. Things you'll need TODAY on your walk. I've used mine for a loaf of bread (they're long and slender - we'd call it a baguette), fruit, cheese, a can of tuna or sardines, etc.  Easy to access without digging through the pack, but nothing you couldn't afford to lose. NOTE:  More than one pilgrim has lost a pair of expensive sunglasses that were attached to a pack left outside a restaurant. Never leave your phone, sunglasses, or electronics in your pack if you aren't watching it.

Sleeping Bag Compartment. The size pack we're talking about usually does not have this, and to me, it's extra weight I do not want to carry.

Attachment Points are little loops on the pack where you can attach your walking sticks when you aren't using them, or your umbrella, or bread, or your jacket or ???

Padded Belt.  I would never walk the Camino with a pack that did NOT have a padded belt. You are going to be carrying this weight for 6 weeks and your hips will need to be protected.  And by the way, you carry the weight of the pack on your HIPS, not your waist and certainly not your shoulders. Practice adjusting the straps until the pack sits comfortably on your hipbones.  A skinny little waist belt is not sufficient, not even on a summer daypack. You'll thank me later if you buy a pack with a padded waist belt.

A padded lumbar pad is also essential with the amount of walking you will be doing. A pack that swings around is going to give you blisters on your back in a very short time.

Padded Shoulder Straps.  You WANT padded shoulder straps. Ten percent of your body weight for 6 weeks will wear you down quickly if you don't protect your shoulders. Blisters under unpadded straps could mean the end of your Camino.

WHISTLE!  Do you know that many packs have a built in emergency whistle on the chest buckle?   This is important, and many people aren't aware of this, so here are a few photos. Go check out your pack!:

Raincover. Most packs today have a built in raincover, but you don't 'really need it if you're going to take an ALTUS or other type of pack-covering poncho or coat.   If you're walking in summer, a raincover might be handy for short periods of summer rain when it's warm and you don't really need an ALTUS.


All packs are not created equal.  I suggest you find a sporting goods store and try packs on.  Then, if you find something you like that fits, you can scour the internet for a better price. But just buying off the net without trying it on is asking for trouble, in my opinion.  Packs come in different sizes.

First there is torso length.  I am only 5'3" but I have a long torso and short legs. A short torso pack rides too high on me; it doesn't sit on my hips correctly. On the other hand, if you have a short torso, a long pack is going to ride up next to the back of your head and knock you on the head with every step!
There is a range of torso lengths available in most better-quality packs, so be sure to check.

Next is waist size. If you are extra tiny or extra large, you may have difficulty finding a waist belt that fits properly. Be sure your waist belt will either fit, or is equipped to handle an extender if you are large. If you are tiny, be sure you can swap out the belt easy (that it is not permanently attached).

There are also gender-specific packs. A woman's pack will usually be shorter and narrower. The shoulder straps will curve in a way that fits better and the sternum strap will be adjustable to fit above the breasts.  A woman can wear a man's pack, but she probably would have wider shoulders and should be sure the sternum strap is adjustable.

My pack has load-lifting straps. These are straps on the padded shoulder straps that I can pull or release to adjust my load and where the weight sits. I would not buy a pack without these.  The sternum strap is usually attached to the same configuration and is a strap that you can tighten and release to pull the shoulder straps in snug or to loosen them. It fits across the chest and above the breast in a woman. It should slide up and down so you can put it in the correct position across your chest so as to be comfortable.

Criteria for a good pack fit are:

1. Hip belt centered over hip-bone.

2. Back panel makes contact with the entire surface of the back

3. Shoulder straps make contact with the entire surface of the shoulder and do not "tent" where the load lifters attached.

For load lifters to work properly, the frame needs to extend above your shoulders enough to allow the lifter straps to have at least a 40-45 degree angle. That way, tightening the straps shortens the distance between the shoulders and the frame, creating the 'lift.'

Another thing to look at is the fabric that the pack is made of.

Nysil. While nysil is lightweight, it may not be sturdy enough to last 6 weeks on the Camino. I purchased a nysil shopping bag one year that was suggested by a friend. I wore a hole in the bottom in less than 3 weeks.

Here is a great article on pack materials:
Fabric Guide for Backpacks


A search on Amazon for ultralight stuff sacks will give you lots of choices. I usually pack my clothes like this:

Stuffsack #1:  underwear, bras
Stuffsack #2: tops
Stuffsack #3: bottoms
Stuffsack #4: shower and sundries, first aid
Stuffsack (compression sack) #5: sleeping bag.

I label the outside of the stuffsack with a laundry pen so I can quickly find the sack I'm looking for.

To pack, my sleeping bag goes in the bottom with the other bags on top.
That's it.
I'm packed.

Here is my packing for a 3 month trip. I shave it down for shorter Caminos.

Well, that's about all I can tell you.
I hope this blogpost has been helpful.

Remember, the two most important items you will purchase 
for your Camino are 
1) your shoes and 
2) your pack.  

Choose wisely, for both will keep you healthy and walking strong!

I'll do a blog when I pack for this year,
as things change a little each time I walk.
Until then,

Buen Camino!

* * *

Need help planning your Camino? 
Don't want to walk alone? 
Don't want to race for a bed?
Walk with us in a small group or alone.
Booked lodging!

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments are moderated.