How To Adjust a Backpack

Ever been pained by uncomfortable backpacks? Camping & Hiking Expert Micah D. explains the 5 steps of adjusting a backpack to make it easier to wear.

A man sits on a log and adjusts his backpack.

Photo courtesy of Deuter

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For an avid backpacker, there is no more important piece of gear than the backpack! Imagine that? The root word of “backpacker” is in fact “backpack”! And without one, you are simply walking, my friend!

All jokes aside, there is in fact no other single piece of gear that you will spend as much time with when you are backpacking than your backpack! It not only holds all of your gear and helps to keep it safe and dry, but it also rides snug to your body and can either be a friend or a foe throughout your hikes. You’ll likely sleep with it, walk with it, bathe with it, and rest with it. So making sure that you can properly adjust it is paramount to your success.

When backpacking, comfort is of the utmost importance, and let me tell you for sure that the term “comfort” is entirely relative on the trail. Therefore, it is absolutely key to adjust your backpack in a manner that properly distributes weight, avoids unnecessary rubbing, and helps minimize wear and tear on your body, rather than be a hassle that you are battling with throughout your entire outdoor adventure.

One sure-fire way to ensure that you get started in a positive direction with your backpack is to take the time to properly pack and adjust your backpack so that the bulk of the weight is carried in the lower part of your body throughout your hike and not in your shoulders and lower back. Though this article does not address packing your backpack, you can read more about properly packing up here. It is of utmost importance that you start your packing with something soft and light, and then pack around that based on personal preference but paying close eye to keep the heaviest items against your back and keep the bulk of the weight centrally located.

Though the backpack will require adjusting throughout your hike, and I’d be lying if I told you it feels fantastic the entire time, there are certain steps that you can undertake before commencing your hike that will make it a more enjoyable hiking experience.

Specifically, closely adhere to the following steps to ensure your pack is adjusted properly: 1. Find a stable surface or friend to help load the pack 2. Fasten and adjust the hip belt 3. Adjust the shoulder straps 4. Adjust the chest strap 5. Adjust the load lifters

Find a Stable Surface or Find a Friend to Help

The author sits perpendicular to the camera on a table and pulls his backpack onto him.

Photo by Micah D.

After you have properly packed your backpack and you are ready to begin your adventure, take the time upfront to ensure your safety is well-maintained both before, throughout, and after the hike. You don’t want to throw your back out or pull any muscles the first time you lift the pack up to put it on. Instead, safely lift your backpack to a stable surface or find a friend to help support the load while you adjust the backpack. In the picture above, I used a table, however, in the wild I’ve used tree stumps, blowdowns, rocks, and more.

Now is also a great time to ensure that you have what you need for your hike but have not overpacked. Think about it and think lightweight! Do you need that extra set of batteries even though you just changed your headlight out and you are only going to be gone for one night? Exercise good pack discipline! There is a saying in backpacking that “ounces equal pounds, and pounds equal pain,” and it's 100% accurate! Always double-check your load and ensure that you are packing only what you need and will use and that you are not packing your fears!

Fasten and Adjust the Hip Belt

The author holds the hip belt on his backpack and holds the clips straight out.

Photo by Micah D.

The author holds the straps of the buckled hip belt and pulls them across each other.

Photo by Micah D.

Your backpack comes complete with a variety of clips, buckles, fasteners, and belts, but none is more important than the hip belt. In a properly fitted backpack suited for your respective torso length, once properly fastened, the hip belt is responsible for carrying most of the weight of your backpack. So, once you have either found a stable surface or a friend to help support the load, place your arms into the shoulder straps, stand straight up and extend your torso and hips, and lift the backpack up to tightly secure it with the hip belt just above the glutes and the iliac crest (top of your hip bones). This is your first defense against back pain and fatigue. With the backpack properly secured on your hipbones, you should feel the bulk of the weight of the pack in your legs and pelvis. You should not feel any stress in your lower back, vertebra, or shoulders at this point.

Adjust the Shoulder Straps

The author demonstrates how to tighten the shoulder straps on a backpack.

Photo by Micah D.

Next, let’s move to the shoulder straps. This is where I really like to cinch down on my packs! With the weight in your legs, pull the shoulder straps down and behind your hips to tighten them until the weight feels comfortably nestled between your upper and lower back. In spite of the weight of your pack (as long as it's reasonable), at this point, you should be pleasantly surprised at how the weight has spread out. Though it will not feel 100% ready to go, you should absolutely feel a level of comfort at this point if you have packed correctly.

Adjust the Chest Strap

The author demonstrates how to tighten a chest strap on a backpack.

Photo by Micah D.

With the shoulder straps and the hip belt tightened, move to the chest strap. The chest strap, or sternum strap as it can be referred to, is most often attached in a perpendicular fashion to the shoulder straps on modern backpacks and attached with a single buckle in the middle of the chest. Once secured, the chest strap should be positioned and tightened down as high on the chest as possible. You should tighten it so that it is secure and snug, but not restricting your breathing.

Adjust the Load Lifters

Finally, your backpack is most likely equipped with two small straps located on top of your shoulders, just even with the collarbones, known as “load lifters” or load lifter straps. To tighten these, grab the tips of the load lifters and pull them away from your body. You should feel the resulting closeness of the backpack to your body as well as increased stability in your load.

Enjoy Your Hike!

Now that the backpack is properly adjusted, you are just about ready to go. You can take the pack off now and secure anything you can on the outside of the pack within the compression pockets or mesh pockets to help the pack’s stability. Once everything is good to go, safely lift the backpack back onto that stable surface, fine-tune your adjustments, and hit the trail!

Note: you can adjust your pack as needed throughout the day but if you ever feel that your load is unstable, or something else isn't quite right, simply start your adjustments over in the order outlined in this article and you’ll be back on your way in no time!

If you have any questions about this process or want to get a specific backpack recommendation, reach out to me or another Camping & Hiking Expert here on Curated.

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Written By
Micah D.
Micah D.
Camping & Hiking Expert
What is up! My name is Micah and I am a highly experienced camper, backpacker and outdoorsman. I currently reside in the megalopolis of Huntsville, AL and have been camping, backpacking, and travelling since about the time I could confidently walk. I have recently been hiking mostly in the southeast...
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