It’s time for your first backpacking trip, and you need something to carry all your gear in! Can you use your school backpack and just tie a sleeping bag underneath it? The answer is no, probably not, unless the hike is very short and easy enough to carry in a bunch of stuff by hand. For one thing, your school daypack will simply not be large enough to hold everything you need to bring, and you want to keep your hands free if at all possible. For another thing, most daypacks have no frame system to stabilize the contents of your pack and prevent them from digging into your back. What you really need is a frame backpack.
There are two primary categories of frame backpacks, external and internal. An external frame pack will have a visible framework of aluminum tubing to which the straps, waistbelt, and
fabric portion of the pack are attached. External packs tend to be favored by non-technical backpackers (people who stay on the trail and don't deal with much snow, rock or ice) and are generally lower in cost than internal packs. They also tend to be somewhat cooler, since the load is suspended away from your body by a system of mesh webbing. Most external packs have a number of zippered pockets sewn to the outside of the pack which offer easy access to commonly-needed items like sunglasses, bug repellent, maps and the like.
Internal frame packs, on the other hand, are usually favored by technical backpackers and climbers, since the pack rides closer to your body and "moves" with you better.
This allows for more stability and safety in dangerous or exposed terrain or while navigating rocky or snowy passages. Internals are more streamlined (they are supported by aluminum stays or plastic sheeting inserted into sleeves in the pack) and lack hard metal corners or posts – they are less likely to snag on branches and if you drop the pack on your foot by accident, it probably won’t break any bones. The lack of protruding aluminum parts also makes it easier to bring your pack into the tent without poking holes in the tent fabric. On the minus side, they usually cost quite a bit more, tend to be sweaty because the pack rides right next to your back, and usually have few accessible side or back pockets. Most modern internal packs have a compartment for your sleeping bag – you don’t need to use your stuffsack, just cram the bag into the pack and zip it up.
The debate about which is better goes on and on, but either style will work fine for you provided it fits properly and is not overloaded. For basic scout hikes and even extended hikes, the external style is perfectly adequate. The most important thing is to look at several models in your size range, and try them on with weight in them (try about 25% of your body weight). Make sure the straps are adjusted to your torso and shoulders, load them up, and walk around for ten minutes or so to see how it feels. The pack department at REI is ideally suited to this, since they have an assortment of 5, 10 and 20 pound weight bags around and very knowledgeable help. Some quality brands to look at include Kelty, Jansport, Lowe Alpine, Gregory, North Face, Arc'Teryx and REI. (Be aware that many high-end packs are sold in sizes to fit a specific torso length – you must buy the correct size as there is a minimum of adjustment. These models are probably not a good idea for the growing scout). Online sources include www.rei.com, www.rei-outlet.com, www.sierratradingpost.com, www.backcountrystore.com, and www.campmor.com. Many of these outlets offer sale pricing year-round.
Parents should be advised that a pack that fits the torso of a new scout of 10 or 11 years of age will likely not be large enough for that same scout once they hit 12 or 13, even if the pack has an adjustable suspension system. You may want to consider renting for a while, or check out some of the used equipment venues like Play it Again Sports. It also doesn’t hurt to ask the parents of older scouts in the troop (or other troops); they often will have used stuff sitting around the house. Scouts aged 13 to 15 will often do best with packs sized for women (shorter torsos and slightly narrower stays). Look for a pack that has at least 3500 to 4200 cubic inches of volume, even for first-time backpackers – remember, they will be bringing along tents, cooking utensils and stoves, and water along with their personal belongings. If the pack manufacturer uses liter designations to describe volume, this will translate to approximately 60 to 70 liters. (Note: If you choose an external frame pack, reduce this by roughly 10 liters/600 cubic inches, since your sleeping bag will be OUTSIDE the pack, strapped to the frame). Many modern packs are equipped with or are compatible with Camelback® hydration systems, which is a huge convenience since you can get a drink of water at any time along the trail without stopping to take your pack off. If you go with an external pack, make sure you get decent nylon pack straps with ladder locks or other mechanical fasteners (bungee cords will work, but you need to apply a fair amount of tension or your stuff will bounce as you walk and possibly fall out) to tie your sleeping bag on.
Once you’ve made a selection, bring the pack home and figure out how you’re going to put all the stuff you need in it. Do this well before the day of the hike. General backpacking lore calls for packing heavy items high in the pack for long-distance comfort and low and close to your body for stability in technical terrain, but in reality few things (except for your sleeping bag and your water) are that much lighter or heavier than others. The important thing is to get it all in the pack neatly and securely (you don’t want your tent poles bouncing off down the mountain after slipping out of your loose straps, for example).
It’s also important to develop a routine for packing your gear and to put things in the same place each time you pack so you’ll know where they are in an emergency or in the dark. Do the packing yourself (as opposed to having your parents do it for you) so you know what went in and where it is! Make sure things you might need in a hurry (first aid kit, bug repellent, sunglasses, map, water) are near the top or in easily accessed side pockets. It's a good idea to keep a "campbox" – a plastic storage box with all of the stuff you need to go camping in it. When you get home from a trip, all of the stuff in your pack gets cleaned and dried and goes into the box. When you need to pack for a trip, all the stuff in the box goes into your pack – when the box is empty, you can be pretty sure you've got everything.
Unless you are very strong or have significant backpacking experience, try to keep the total weight of your pack at around 25% of your body weight. This might be difficult for scouts weighing under 100 lbs., since tents, stoves, water and the like weigh the same for them as for an adult, but do your best. A good target weight for an overnight backpack trip is 28 to 29 pounds without food. Remember that two scouts will normally share a tent and stove/pot/fuel, so you don't have to carry both. Use your Backpack Check List and Ten Essentials list to make sure you aren’t forgetting anything, and be sure you and your tent partner are in agreement as to who is bringing what.
Some ways to save weight include: using a small AA or AAA flashlight with two batteries instead of a larger one with C or D cells (the new LED lights and headlamps by Princeton Tec, Black Diamond, and Petzl are terrific and give you a burn time of up to 150 hours on one set of batteries), packing thin, efficient polypro layered clothing rather than bulkier and heavier cotton, taking only enough camp fuel for your trip (a 750 ml bottle is probably enough for a week – you don’t need it for an overnight), carrying one liter of water and a mechanical purifier rather than carrying two or three liters, bringing just a cook pot, mug and spoon rather than an entire mess kit (it's not a bad idea to bring 2 spoons, just in case) and bringing lightweight sandals or water shoes rather than skateboard-type shoes for your camp shoes. Try to stay away from the bulky 3-4 person tent your family already owns and use a lightweight 2 person tent for just you and your buddy. Leave the Walkman and video games at home. When buying food, keep canned foods and other fully-hydrated foods to a minimum. You can usually find most of your dried meal items (oatmeal, Gatorade, nuts & fruits, noodles and instant potato products) at the grocery store or Costco and splurge for a few expensive freeze-dried dinners at REI, thus keeping the cost down. Camp chairs, saws, binoculars and books are luxuries; you may want to hold off on bringing them until you’ve been on a few hikes and are sure you have energy to spare.
When you have all the stuff in the pack, put it on and have someone else who has backpacking experience check the ride height, strap adjustment, and suspension system adjustment. Be sure to use the waistbelt correctly – heft the weight of the pack up high on your back, and tighten the belt snugly over the top part of your hip bones. This is designed to take a portion of the weight off your shoulders and support it over your hips. Experiment with the shoulder strap length and angle of the suspension straps, and see what feels best. Put on the boots you intend to hike in and go for walk around your neighborhood. See how the pack rides and if all the gear is securely fastened and quiet while you hike. If you want to see how you fare carrying this much weight uphill (and you should), you can walk up Perkins Lane a couple of times and back down. If you’re planning a more ambitious backpacking trip, it’s a good idea to try your pack out on Mt. Si like all the Seattle-area expedition people do – it’s good conditioning, too.
Backpacking is a physical sport that requires fitness and careful planning but the rewards can be unmatched in our modern life. Getting the right pack is a big step toward making the experience more enjoyable, so take the time to figure it out now, well in advance of your first trip.