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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Fitting and the detailing on climbing packs?

If you look around the Internet for so called "climbing packs" the prices might well run between $30 and darn near $1000.  Yep..a $1000!   Of those listed damn few actually will fulfill the hype as real "climbing packs" in my opinion.

This will be the first of a several part discussion on climbing packs.

If you were paying $200 for a pair of shoes would you accept a pair of size 11s for your size 9 feet?  Of course not.  "Dumb Ass" question isn't it?  How about a $25 pair of flip flops?  Would you take a size 6 for your size 11s?  Likely same answer..."dumb ass" question. Why bother to ask or answer?

There are a few things in the out door industry that really bug me.   They bug me because over the years they have gotten worse instead of better.   Climbing is generally a sport that people grow out of.  The rare exceptions are Fred Becky, a few of the great Alpinists that are still alive and likely the majority of the the crew over at Supertopo :)

From my perspective boot technology hasn't made any huge advances in 30 years.  Climbing packs...nothing there either.  Crampons....sheesh don't get me started on crampons!

But today the topic is packs.  More specifically climbing packs, their build quality and how to fit one so it does what is should for you in the mountains.

Any climbing pack is going to be a soft frame.  Generally a really soft frame as in only a foam pad stuffed in some manner into the  inside the pack.  The frame doesn't mean a lot (but it is important) but what does mean a lot is the length of the back panel.  That back panel must fit your physical measurements or the pack will be pretty useless.

In turn the correctly fit pack and your own anatomy will define how big the pack is.   When you are talking climbing packs don't expect a 18L pack to fit you well if you are 6'3" or a 45L pack to be any better if you are 5'2".

Most of us will be best served with packs in the 30 (1800) to 40 (2500) Liter range for actual climbing while still having something useful for getting back and forth from the climbs.  Why those sizes?  Because most backs will fit between those pack volume sizes.

John Bouchard:
"To get an idea of how important each pound is when you’re climbing hard climbs where you can’t afford to haul the pack, try doing pullups with weights around your waist. Start with 5 lbs. and keep increasing in 5 lb. increments. For me, each 5 lbs. decreases my performance by 20%!"

If you want to actually climb difficult technical ground, limit the weight in your pack and clothing to 20% of you actual body weight.  For me that is 38# total or less.  38# for boots, clothing, water, food and the technical gear!   If you climb with me and you weigh 50# less we don't carry equal loads.  If your total body weight is 125 pounds your entire kit from sleeping bag to boots will be smaller and lighter.   That will make up for some of what you carry but not all.   Your total load's weight should be 25 pounds!   It is much much easier in the alpine to have a partner of similar size physically for a number of good reasons.  This is just one of them.   If you want to climb hard, climb smart first.

Sure you can climb with more weight.  But you will want to know how to haul a pack if you do. Or get your partner to climb in a pack and just take one pack.  Here are a couple of tips for fitting a  pack.  First fill the pack up.  Not overly stuffed just "full".  I tend to use ropes for this.  Ropes run 6 to 8 pounds for a 60m rope.  With these size packs 3 or 4 ropes max will fill one up and give a soft but firm pack with an appropriate amount of weight to try them on for sizing.

With the straps loose the thing should sit on the top of your butt.  You should have full range of motion with your head and neck with a helmet on.  Can you look up and not touch the pack?  You need to be able to.

This is a good fit length wise on the back.  The pack is sitting on the top of the butt.

Hip belt is too high here and way too wide for the weight it will carry
It only takes an inch or too either way on th back panel length to make a pack almost totally useless.

Bounce the pack up a bit and suck in the hip belt.  It is a climbing pack so ditch the damn padded hip/waist belts that are 3 inches or wider.  They are worthless with any weight you can actually climb in.   Quick wayt to tell if the pack designer has a clue about climbing in fact.    A simple 1 1/2" or 2" webbing waist belt is enough for anything you'll want to carry up to 3 days or so.  Less will do as well if the pack actually fits.  You don't want to constrict your hips or abs when you tighten the waist belt.  Use soem common sense and let your body tell you if the pack fits.
I get called a "girl" on occasion.  But from what I have seen a woman's climbing pack should be fitted no different than a man's.  The ladies are more difficult to fit in the shoulders but the fit should be the same imo.   Start with the correct pack length and then go from there.  I am not a woman so I can't say that with any certainty.  And one of my partners has yet to be convinced she can wear a hip belt of that size and in that position.   Her worry is keeping the freedom of her hip joints.  She has a new pack coming that is being built on the ideas I have posted here.  As are all of my custom made packs.  The experience from that new pack should tell us a lot.   So there will be a woman's insight following up on packs and pack fitting in the near future.   Ladies, if you disagree with what I am writing here please tell me and why? 

Once you have tighened the waist belt let it settle down where it is the most comfortable for you.  That is generally on your hip bones...and a inch or two below your Iliac crest and setting on the top of your ass for support.  Yes, both boys and girls have enough ass to support a climbing pack's weight.

My finger indicates the top of my Iliac crest.  My hip belt is most comfortable and able to carry a majority of the pack's weight if it is located several inches below the Iliac crest.

This should be a comfortable position on your hips as it is where most of the weight will be, or should be anyway.   Carried by your hips not your shoulders...even with just 20% or LESS of your body weight involved.   Then pull in the shoulder straps.   Take about 40% (or less) of the pack's weight on to your shoulders now.  But not too tight.  Don't lift the pack off your hips.   Do you still have full head clearance with a helmet?  If the answer is no...ditch the sucks for climbing.

This is OK but getting a little high on the likely too long of back panel and we shouldn't be seeing air between pack and back.

This is a better fit, note the curve on the shoulder straps going up and then over the shoulders.
My body position here sucks for the picture as I am bent over and my head down so the pack looks short.  It isn't.

Make sure the pack straps come out of the pack narrow enough that they will stay on your shoulders.
I am 6'1" and 185.  And I can still find shoulder straps that are way to wide for my shoulders and how they have developed.  I don't have tiny shoulders but I have a hard time getting a tank top to stay on them unless it is tight.  My shoulders aren't flat on top.  If the pack straps are too wide coming out of the pack they are simply unusable for me.  I need 2" between them, but prefer no more.  You might need more or less.

If you are still good, with a 60/40 split on the weight now,  check your sternum strap.  It is the last adjustment.  Too high or low and too tight will cut your breathing.  Pay attention here.  Get it adjusted right.  Big chested men and women will have a problem with this one if the shoulder straps and sternum strap aren't able to be moved and adjusted right.  The sternum strap will really aid in how secure the pack feels on your back and your balance because of it.  Get it right and a decent size pack is easy too climb and ski in.  You'll seldom notice it if you limit yourself to that 20% over all weight  number.

Too short of shoulder straps and too high of sternum strap

Correctly fit shoulder straps and a better position on me for the sternum strap

Depending on how a woman is built the sternum strap might have to be located much higher than on a man.

Make sure your shoulder straps come out of the back, go up a tiny bit and then over the shoulder and down.  Too much up on the shoulder strap and the pack is too small in the back length.  No curve there or worse yet the shoulder straps going down over your shoulder and the pack is too big in the back length.

Classic case of too small of back panel for my physical size and too short of pack straps.
There is no way to make this pack fit me.  I'd be much better off with a longer pack instead of longer shoulder straps.  But note that the waist belt and bottom of the pack is in the right position.

I am actually climbing here in the same pack.  The problem would seem obvious although the pack is reasonably comfortable because I am not carrying a lot of weight.  (although I carried 3 days worth of food/gear on this trip) But really no matter how cool I think this pack is, for me this one sucks because of the limited back panel and shoulder strap sizing.  A 17.5" back panel is never going to fit my 21" back.

Even with the lid off this is a much bigger pack than the green 27L pictured but more importantly a much better fitting pack for my body size.  It is also much easier to climb technical ground with or ski in.  A better picture of my personal  pack fit.  It may not be perfect but it is very close.  The waist belt is not buckled which allows me to play with the pack's fit and shoulder straps in this picture.

Don't try to put you size 11 feet in a size 6 shoe!

More importantly don't let some lame ass salesperson or pack maker do it for you!
This isn't rocket science folks.  But neither is it easy to get a really good fit.  Packs have been used for millennium, the more simple they are generally the easier they are to carry.  Find the packs that fit you the best and then make side by side comparisons to others of similar back panel size.

Only your boots should take more fitting than you climbing pack.   Both will make the difference between relative comfort and an unpleasant trip.

In the day of technology and a "app" or every application you are FUBARed if you think of climbing packs in that contact.  The weight in any pack is best carried as close to your back as possible for comfort and balance.  Modern ice tools and crampons can easily go inside these packs.   I do it all the time with Nomics and Dartwins and have yet to damage a pack in the last 3 or 4 years.  I seldom use a lid on a pack but like the option of adding one at will.  

Super light and super tough fabrics are cool.  Most of my packs are made from one form or another.  But it saves mere ounces on even the lightest packs.  It is the suspension and foam pad that are the biggest percentages of weight.  Start adding whistles and bells and the actual  pack material will have an even smaller effect on the over all weight of the pack. 

Soft frame climbing packs have a big margin of error for sizing.  If you are within the norm you should easily be able to find a decent pack in this size range that will fit you.  If not make sure your pack maker or the production pack you want actually fits.  I am  6'1"  but I have a really long back for my body size.  I am 21" from base of neck to top of my hips.  It is not the norm.  I also have a 44" chest when I am in decent shape.  That makes a long pack back with longer shoulder straps fit me better.   Having a good range of travel for my sternum strap makes it more usable as well.

Common sizing info..this from CCW:

"Back sizes are determined by measuring from the tip of the hip bone to the prominent cervical bone near the base of the neck. This is the standard measurement used throughout the industry. Figures given next to each model on the product page correspond to this approximate measurement, not the actual dimensions of the pack. In general, though, our size medium/regular fits people 5'7" to 5' 10" while a large fits those over 5' 10". This varies, as torso lengths vary from person to person. Our packs have non-adjustable harnesses. "

this from Wild Things:

Finding Your Pack Size (Torso Length)

Finding the right pack size for you relies on your torso length, not your height. To find your torso length have a friend measure your spine, using the steps below:

  • Find the most prominent vertebrae (C-7) at the back of your neck (tilting your head forward helps). It’s the large bump at about the same level as the top of your shoulders.
  • Find the top of your hipbone (the iliac crest). Follow this point around in a straight line to your spine.
  • Stand up straight and lay a flexible measuring tape directly against your spine. Measure the distance between points 1 & 2.

Pack Sizing Information

Torso Length 18 19 1/2 21

Measurements refer to body size, not pack dimensions, and are in inches.

The single most important thing you need to know on your climbing pack is DOES IT FIT? 

                       PART TWO and Three of Climbing Packs

For part two and three of this series I'll discuss quality of manufacture, the required accessories, fabric choices and over all pack weight.

Pictured here are the same packs cut from different fabrics.


Anonymous said...

Well written article found it both informative and helpful.

Kai said...

Great post. I came to pretty much these same conclusions by trial and error and suffering through a number of ill-fitting packs. It was Dan McHale who finally set me straight and made my first well-fitting climbing pack for me. What a difference.

I actually like my packs fitted just a little bit longer than you show in your picture, with just a tiny bit of "wrap" over the shoulder. For my body, the most comfortable fit is achieved when the shoulder straps are about 1/2 inch lower than the tops of my shoulders.

Bruno Schull said...

Good stuff Dane. Packs are a big fit problem for me: 6' 4" with a very long torso. Basically, nothing fits. After a few tries with Cold Cold World, we arrived at the perfect dimensions for me. As you say, even loaded, it's almost like not wearing a pack. I have two different packs (volume) with the same dimensions. I also appreciate your mention of the other things that make a difference: shoulder strap width, shoulder strap height on the pack, shoulder strap length, sternum strap placement, and so on. Anyway, looking forward to the next post, and for anybody looking for a pack, I simply can not recommend Cold Cold World highly enough.


Ryan said...

Hey Dane, I've enjoyed your series on packs, I'm currently researching downsizing from my 60L to a 40L, and have been primarily looking at CiloGear, HMG's Ice Pack, and the CCW Ozone. I am not sold on any one in particular at this point. I was wondering if you could delve into the soft frame support a little more and any specifics on the foam backpad used (does it matter?), and whether aluminum stays would be worthwhile?

Dane said...

Hi Ryan, the Ozone will be too small I suspect unless you have Randy make a custom one for you.

I have been using just the foam pads for years with no other support. If the pack fits right and you learn how to pack them the pad is more than enough imo.

Ryan said...

Thanks, appreciate the feedback. I have a couple frameless packs (Mountain Laurel Designs) for backpacking, and in the winter I have added the foam pad from my CiloGear, mostly for use as a sit pad at camp. But I haven't yet gone to just a pad for my climbing pack--but so long as the weight is kept down, I could go definitely see myself going that route. Not really sure that even having a pad sleeve would be necessary.