(Note: I previously published this article as “Six Essential Features of Quality Backpacks” on February 3, 2019)
There are six features of quality backpacks. A great backpack is an invaluable piece of gear. An outdoor adventure will not be enjoyable if one’s pack breaks down in the field. It is essential to be able to assess if a backpack will hold up to the rigors of outdoor use. The market is flooded with varying styles and types of packs in a multitude of price ranges. Therefore, it is essential to know what to look for when seeking to purchase a great backpack.
1. The Fabric Material
The first feature to look for when considering a quality backpack is the quality of the fabric material. There are two primary areas of the backpack of which the fabric will identify it as worthy of purchase: the main compartment and the strapping. Most packs that are manufactured for the outdoors will have straps that function as lashing points (daisy chains), grab handles, gear security, adjustment or compression. The material that comprises the strapping is as important as that which makes up the pack compartments. The denier rating of the fabric is a key to understanding the durability of the material.
There are two favorite fabrics that manufacturers use for backpacks: nylon and Cordura® fabric. Technically, Cordura® also is nylon. The difference is that Cordura® fabric is a patented and trademarked type of nylon fabric from the Invista Company in Wichita, Kansas. By contrast, denier is not a type of nylon fabric. Instead, the word, denier, is a measurement of fabric density. For example, the Osprey Xenith 88 backpack uses nylon while the current military rucksacks use the Cordura® fabric. Sometimes the nylon fabric is treated so that it is water resistant. The type and density rating of the material that makes up the backpack is what one needs to look for when looking for a quality backpack.
A. Pack-Grade Nylon Fabric
Nylon fabric that is characteristic of backpacks from Osprey® or Kelty® is sometimes advertised as “pack nylon” or “bag nylon.” It is the same type of fabric common in luggage, gym bags, and ultra-light backpacks, gear bags, and stuff sacks. This kind of material has a more smooth texture than Cordura®. Pack-grade nylon fabric can be treated to be water resistant. Some of the nylon that has a higher denier rating has a feel more like furniture upholstery. Pack-grade nylon can be milled to feature a diamond, hexagon, or checkered rip-stop texture. The one weakness with pack-grade nylon is that is less tear and wear resistant.
B. Cordura® Fabric
Cordura® fabric is a popular material that is characteristic of quality backpacks. Backpacks that are for tactical or rugged outdoor use tend to use this material. The primary indicator that a backpack is using Cordura® fabric is that the manufacturer will stitch a small tag somewhere in an inconspicuous place on the pack that says, “Cordura® fabric” on it. Cordura fabric has the texture of the legacy cotton canvas. It has a more rough feel to it than regular nylon and requires stronger industrial stitching to make products out of it.
Cordura® manufactures several types of their fabric. The most common material in use with military and tactical backpacks is fabric from their Ballistic Fabric line. The company describes Ballistic fabric as, “Based on the original ballistic woven nylon developed for military body armor, dense, rugged Cordura® Ballistic fabrics are made with high tenacity nylon 6,6 filament yarns and offer enhanced tear and abrasion resistance.” Ballistic fabric has high abrasion resistance and a high toughness for tearing. It can be treated to be water repellant.
C. Straps, and PALS Webbing
An additional consideration concerning materials integrated on a quality backpack is the strap material. There are three basic kinds of straps or strapping used on a backpack: shoulder straps, compression straps, and PALS webbing. Grab handles and daisy chain straps are also part of non-military backpack construction.
There are two kinds of material manufacturers use for strappings on quality backpacks: MIL-W-43668 Type III nylon webbing (1” wide) and MIL-W-4088 nylon webbing (1-2.25” wide). The knock-off U.S. military backpacks manufactured overseas tend to use lower quality strapping. An example of this type of backpack is the Outdoor Products Quest Backpack sold at Walmart. The U. S. Army MOLLE 3-Day Assault and Medium Rucksack are examples of packs that use higher quality materials.
Another important characteristic to look for in a quality backpack is the stitching used to construct the backpack. The best thread material for sewing is Kevlar thread or heavy-duty industrial strength nylon thread such as that which is in parachute harnesses. It is essential to look for the use of double stitching of the seams. The stitching that connects shoulder straps to the main body of the pack is critical to the pack’s durability in the field. Most backpacks utilize either a reinforced zig-zag stitching pattern or double-stitched boxed-X pattern as is common in parachute harnesses.
A third critical feature to look for in a quality backpack is the closures such as zippers, buckles, and snaps. The most common zipper used on tactical and military packs is YKK VISLON® Fin-Type. The most common fasteners used on tactical and military backpacks are Duraflex® squeeze-type quick-release buckles by the National Molding Company®. These buckles are made of high-impact plastic. Closure manufacturers also make buckles, snaps, and zippers of stainless steel, aircraft grade aluminum, or titanium. However, these materials are less common due to the need to reduce the cost of manufacturing which keeps quality backpacks within fair retail pricing.
A fourth consideration when looking to purchase a quality backpack is the ease of access it allows to your gear. There are many opinions about accessing the contents within a pack. Some prefer top access. Others prefer a clamshell or draw-bridge type access. Still, other people desire multiple ways to access the contents of their backpack. There does not seem to be a consensus about preference on accessing the contents of a pack.
Thus, a quality backpack gives the user easy access to their gear as the outdoorsman perceives it. Gear accessibility is important. Preppers, survivalists, outdoorsman, and bushcrafters will not continue to use a backpack that is more frustrating to use in the field than it is worth. There is nothing more aggravating when you are in the outdoors and getting to your gear becomes problematic. Therefore, how you pack your backpack also determines ease of access and not just the construction characteristics of the pack itself.
The next critical feature that characterizes quality backpacks is the capability called, modularity. Modularity in a pack allows the user to configure their pack for specific situations. For example, the Alps Outdoor Z Commander X backpack is a pack that features modularity which addresses the needs of big game hunters. Another backpack that offers modularity features is the 5.11 Rush™ series of tactical backpacks that offer the PALS (Pouch Attachment Ladder System) webbing that allows the pack to be configured for military or law enforcement missions.
A final consideration for purchasing a quality backpack is wear. Is the backpack comfortable to wear for long periods? Some backpacks offer the user the ability to adjust the torso length. Other packs have load adjustment straps that connect the shoulder strap with the main compartment or frame. These allow the user to pull the pack closer to their body to shift pack weight off of the hips and onto the frame, whether the frame is internal or external to the pack.
It is essential to purchase a quality backpack if you are heading out for an outdoor adventure. These six characteristics of quality backpacks are a starting point for assessing a backpack that meets your outdoor considerations. No pack features all of these characteristics at once. Thus, it is critical that you shop around. The best way to determine if a backpack is a quality pack is to physically examine some packs at your local Cabela’s®, Bass Pro Shop®, REI®, Academy Sports®, or a military surplus store. Take your time and make an informed purchase to ensure years of great use out of your next backpack.