I’m looking for: A Back Pack

OER provides a seller’s guide to back packs

Few bits of outdoor kit vary as much as the humble back pack. They vary in capacity from less than 10L to around 100L. They’re built to suit both men and women, and even to fit different back lengths, and they’re designed for activities as diverse as climbing, skiing, mountain biking, hiking, running and even wandering around town.

So when a customer wanders into your store and utters the words ‘I’m looking for… a back pack,’ you’re hardly likely to be able to point them at the right one straight away and walk happily up to the till to take their hard earned cash.

What it’s for?
The first question is by far the most important. What are they going to use it for mostly? Real enthusiasts usually go for a pack designed for their specific activity – say running or biking – and then make do with it for other activities. But many of your customers may be seeking one pack to do it all.

If it’s for a specific activity, great! Go to packs designed for the activity and go straight to the next question. If it’s not, it’s probably best to find out what they’ll do mostly and aim towards that. Remember to check what other uses it may be put to, just to make sure you don’t recommend something that definitely isn’t suitable.

Lightweight walking packs will generally cover most activities in the smaller capacity bracket.

What are you going to carry in it?
This is so easy in some activities, such as mountaineering – and you’ll know the kind of kit they’re likely to be carrying and roughly how much of it. Although knowing where they’re planning on climbing may help – requirements for the greater ranges will differ from the Lake District in winter. That said, folk operating at this level probably know what pack they want anyway.

But other activities vary much more, with walkers varying from lightweight weekend hikers, to kitchen-sink carrying multiday backpackers, to someone who’ll never be out for more than half a day and just wants to carry a spare layer and some sarnies.

What they should be looking for?
Having got this far, you’ll be beginning to understand your customers’ needs quite well. Now it’s your chance to explain the differences in the packs you stock, and hopefully advise them on the best choice for them.

Back system
This is perhaps the engine of a pack and worth taking some time on. The main factors are comfort versus weight versus stability. The best of the concave, mesh-style back systems work brilliantly, allowing the back to breathe and keeping any sharp and awkwardly shaped objects well out of harm’s way. But they rely upon thick padding at the points of contact, and this plus the weight of the frame and any reinforcement can make the pack heavy. They also move the centre of gravity away from the wearer slightly, so don’t feel that stable.

At the other end of the scale, the most basic back systems are very light. And providing they’ve got a decent harness, they can be tightened up around the back to become almost part of the body. But because they’re actually pressed up against your back, they’re hot, and they prevent moisture from escaping – even the most breathable waterproof can’t function when it’s covered by a layer of cordura. And if their sandwich box isn’t packed properly, it’s going to be digging into their back for the whole walk.

Compromises can be had. Grooved padding encourages some airflow, without altering the centre of gravity too much. But you still need padding and reinforcement if you don’t want things digging in.

Other features
Pockets are always useful, as anyone who’s ever spent a few very cold and uncomfortable minutes searching for a lost mitt in the bottom of their pack will tell you. And axe/pole attachments make things a lot easier if tools need to be carried. Compression straps make loads stable, but remember webbing can actually be accountable for a lot of a pack’s overall weight.

Weight
It used to be said that the actual pack weight should never exceed 10% of the total weight of the load. But with modern lightweight gear, this is no longer that realistic – it’s not hard to get a night out in the hills with well less than 10kg, yet a sub 1kg pack to carry it may be lacking in a few useful features. Nevertheless, it’s good to keep this number in mind and encourage customers not to carry too much pack.

Fit
Having gone through all this, and hopefully chosen the right pack, it still has to feel comfortable. Many shops will present a pack full of polystyrene to a customer to try on. It’s a good way of making all packs feel good, but if it doesn’t fit with real weight in it, they probably won’t be shopping with you again. Try and load the pack realistically – if you have a climbing rope in the store, this is a great way to add a few kilograms easily.

And then help the customer adjust the harness. Explain the importance of both the hip and chest belt and make sure they’re carrying a good percentage of the weight on their hips, rather than through their shoulders.

Offer a few tips for after sale care and wish them a great trip. If they’re pleased with their purchase and the service, they’ll almost certainly be back to let you help them fill it…