How to fit a backpack to avoid back and neck pain

Heading out for a hike? It’s important to make sure your backpack fits properly.

A backpack is essential if you are planning on hiking. It carries everything you need for a day in the hills or mountains, so it can literally be a lifesaver if something goes wrong.

But a badly fitting rucksack can leave you with a sore back, bruised hips or rubbed skin on your shoudlers. It can also make you feel unstable as you walk.

A group of women with their backs to the camera all wearing backpacksCredit: Saga Exceptional

As a keen hillwalker, I confess that I have quite a backpack collection. This includes a huge one for multi-day hikes, my 44-litre backpack for winter snow hikes, a tiny 18-litre one for the summer and then my 33-litre rucksack that I use most of the time – often two or three times a week when I walk in my local hills and mountains.

The weight I carry on my back depends on what I’m doing. My hill and mountain rucksack normally weighs about 6kg (13lb 4oz), including food and drink. But when I head off for a multi-day walk, my pack can weigh up to 15kg (33lb 1oz) fully loaded. That’s a lot of weight to carry.

But even if your rucksack just contains the essentials, it’s important to get the fit right.


How to fit a backpack step-by-step

We spoke to Adam Alder-Cox, product specialist at Osprey, which produces the best-selling backpacks in the UK.

He told Saga Exceptional that it’s easy to adjust rucksacks, but important to get it right.

“The size and fit of your pack ensures optimal performance and comfort. From back length to harness shape and weight distribution, sizing and fit is an integral part of wearing your pack comfortably.

“Sizing and fit are also necessary to ensure that you use the full potential of your pack. Both allow your pack to distribute weight throughout the body and, in turn, provide the best possible comfort. The size affects the back length, harness and hip-belt of your pack, while the fit adjusts these aspects to meet the dimensions of your body.”

A group of walkers on a hillsideCredit:

Start by adding a little weight to your pack. It doesn’t have to weigh exactly what it would for your chosen activity, but the closer it is to real life, the better the fit. Carefully lift the pack on to your back from your knees, and then follow the steps below.

1. Adjust the torso length

Many rucksacks feature an adjustable torso length. These allow you to slide the harness up or down to perfectly fit your back length. You can guess the right length for your back to begin with.

Now check to see that there is no gap between your back and the pack. If there is a gap then tweak the back length.

Adjusting the torso length on a backpackCredit: Saga Exceptional

2. Fix and tighten the hip belt

Once the pack is comfortably on your back, the first attachment point is the hip belt strap. It is essential that this is adjusted first, as it distributes the weight evenly between the legs and lower lumbar rather than the weaker points like the shoulders and arms.

Try to position the hip-belt over the upper half of your pelvis bone for maximum comfort.

A close up of a woman adjusting the waist strap of a rucksackCredit: Saga Exceptional

3. Tighten the harness straps

Next, the harness straps need to be pulled downwards so that the webbing is comfortably tight, much like the laces on your shoes.

The harness should not impede breathing or be too tight around the collar bone area.

A woman adjusting the harness straps of a backpackCredit: Saga Exceptional

4. Adjust the load lifters

Load lifters (the straps that connect the upper part of the main pack to the shoulder straps) should be pulled forward so that the pack runs straight up and down your back. The close centre of gravity will allow weight to flow directly down to the ground.

The optimum angle for load lifters is around 45-degrees – this will ensure that the pack is straight down your back.

A woman adjusting the load lifters on her backpackCredit: Saga Exceptional

5. Clip and fix the chest strap

Lastly, fastening the strap across the chest (called the sternum strap) pulls the harness into the chest and away from areas containing lots of blood vessels and nerves. If the harness is too tight, it’ll restrict breathing, but if the sternum strap is too loose then you can end up with tingly or numb fingers.

A woman adjusting the chest strap on a backpackCredit: Saga Exceptional

Remember, each person’s body is different, so you might need to experiment with adjustments to find the most comfortable fit for you. Taking time to fit your backpack properly really makes a difference and if you aren’t sure, go to an outdoor shop – such as Cotswold Outdoor, Go Outdoors or Ellis Brigham – to get one fitted for you.

How to load your rucksack

Once you’ve mastered how to fit a backpack correctly, the next task is to make sure the weight inside the backpack is evenly distributed.

Points to think about include:

What to put where

Heavier items should be placed closer to your back, and lighter items should be towards the top and bottom. Keeping the weight closer to your body helps with balance.

Don’t forget the compression straps

Use the compression straps on the sides of the backpack to cinch down and stabilise the load. This prevents the contents from shifting while you’re moving.

Check mobility

After fitting the backpack, perform some arm and upper body movements to ensure the shoulder straps and hip-belt don’t hinder your mobility.

Test the fit

Take a short walk or hike with the loaded backpack to assess the fit. If you experience discomfort or notice any pressure points, readjust the straps and the distribution of the pack’s contents.

Which backpack is for you?

There is a huge range of hiking backpacks on offer, including ones to suit longer backs and those with a bigger build, as well as options specifically tailored to a woman’s frame.

Before buying one, it’s worth doing your research to find the one most suitable for you. Popular brands include Rab and Lowe Alpine, Gregory and Berghaus.

Why backpack fit matters

Catherine Quinn, president of the British Chiropractic Association, says a badly fitting backpack can cause issues.

She says: “Walking offers enormous benefits for physical and mental wellbeing, so feeling confident that you will enjoy that walk in comfort and then be able to repeat it is so important.

“The weight of a heavy backpack can cause a walker to lean forward to compensate for the backward pull. The posture is compromised as the neck is extended, and pressure is put on the hips and lower back, which can cause pain in all of these areas.

“That’s why it’s so important to correctly adjust your backpack.”

Phillipa Cherryson

Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her


Phillipa Cherryson is a senior digital editor for Saga Exceptional. Phillipa has been a journalist for 30 years, writing for local and national newspapers, UK magazines and reporting onscreen for ITV. In her spare time she loves the outdoors and is a trainee mountain leader and Ordnance Survey Champion.

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