How to Choose The Right Jacket for Winter Adventures

Whether it’s to keep us dry, help us stay warm, fend off the wind, or shed snow, we ask a lot of our jackets—this is why so many hikers, climbers, and skiers are obsessed with them. On any given trip, our hiking packs likely contain three to four coats, which allows us to adjust for the ever-changing weather found in the mountains. There’s a difference between pulling a coat from your pack and grabbing the “right” coat from your pack, especially when Mother Nature rears her ugly head. Here’s how to dial your outer layer setup this winter.

Insulation

Down puffies like EMS’s Feather Pack and synthetic puffies such as the EMS Primapack offer exceptional warmth for their (very light) weight, making them incredibly versatile jackets to have in your quiver. The EMS Feather Pack and Primapack are favorites for cold-weather activities like winter hiking, backcountry skiing and snowboarding, ice climbing, and mountaineering. Since these jackets take up minimal space in your pack and provide exceptional warmth, they’re common additions to three-season hiking packs for chilly summits or to use in the event of an emergency. Walk any city street and you’ll notice that puffies like the Feather Pack and Primapack are extremely popular for everyday wear as well.

A word of caution: the thin nylon face fabric used on many lightweight puffies—including the Feather Pack and Primapack—can rip when exposed to sharp stuff like ice tools, ski edges, and tough branches. Consequently, they’re best worn under a hardshell or softshell during tear-prone activities such as tree skiing or when used near the sharp picks and points of ice tools and crampons.

Down Insulation: The Feather Pack

The Feather Pack’s down insulation provides unrivaled warmth-to-weight—down is, pound for pound, the world’s best insulator. The Feather Pack, and jackets like it, are popular with a broad spectrum of users who covet their superior warmth, minimal weight, and small size when packed. However, down is susceptible to moisture (like snow and rain), and while some jackets, like the Feather Pack, are made with hydrophobic down to improve water resistance, there are better options for wet-weather activities.

Best Use: Insulating jacket on cold, dry days when aerobic output is low and weight and space are at a premium.  

Synthetic Insulation: The Prima Pack

Synthetic puffies like the EMS Primapack offer many of the same advantages as those of down puffies, namely, they’re light, packable, and warm. Synthetic insulation generally outperforms down in wet weather—it provides insulation even when wet and dries more quickly than its down counterparts. As a result, synthetic-insulation jackets, such as the EMS Primapack, are popular with those living in wet climates or participating in activities where moisture is inevitable. The downside of synthetic insulation is that it does not pack up quite as small as comparable down jackets.

Best Use: Daily driver on cold days and for outings where warmth is critical and the conditions are likely to be wet. 

Active Insulation: The Vortex

Active insulation, like that used in the EMS Vortex, is a must-have for on-the-move athletes in cold-weather—think heading uphill while backcountry skiing, cross-country skiing, and fast-paced hikes. Active insulation is designed to breathe during high-exertion activities and move moisture from the inside to the outside, making it an awesome part of any layering system. Active insulation pieces like the Vortex work great on their own, but what allows the insulation to breathe also allows the wind to penetrate through it. Consequently, they’re best paired with an outer layer, such as under a hardshell or softshell, in windy conditions.

Best Use: Higher-output aerobic activity in cold weather like hiking, climbing, or backcountry skiing. 

Hardshell: The NimbusFlex

Another key piece of the outerwear puzzle is a hardshell, such as the EMS NimbusFlex Rain Jacket. An outer layer like this has minimal insulating value itself but plays a critical role in your insulating system by keeping the elements (such as rain and snow) off the layers you’re wearing underneath. An added benefit of hardshells is that they do a great job blocking the wind.

Best Use: As an outer layer when it’s wet (resort skiing, ice climbing, hiking during a storm) or very windy (above-treeline travel).

The EMS Clipper

Softshell: The Clipper

Bridging the gap between true insulating layers (like the Feather Pack,  Primapack, and Vortex) and traditional hardshells, a softshell like the EMS Clipper is a great option for active pursuits. Typically worn over a base layer, the Clipper offers wind and water resistance in addition to providing some insulation. Breathable, stretchy, and rugged, you’ll see many folks wearing softshells while climbing, skiing, and hiking.

Best Use: Daily driver for aerobic activities on spring, fall, and mild winter days. 

Three-in-One: The Nor’easter

Where a softshell molds the best features of a hardshell and insulation together, a three-in-one jacket like the EMS Nor’easter zips them together. These jackets feature a burly hardshell with an insulating layer zipped inside, giving you the option to wear just the hardshell over a baselayer on a warm-but-wet day, just the insulation (in the case of the Nor’easter, it’s a fleece) when you need warmth and breathability but no weather protection, or zip them together to make a burly do-it-all coat.

Best Use: Skiing (especially at a resort), cold and/or poor weather aerobic activities in deep winter. 

Putting It All Together

The best jacket choice is often activity-dependent, and finding the right combination of layers for you involves many personal preferences. One common practice in the Northeast for hiking, backcountry skiing, and climbing is a base layer and softshell, with users donning a puffy (rest breaks, exposed ridgelines, and emergencies) and a hardshell (precip and high winds) at appropriate junctions. On colder days, consider swapping the softshell with an active insulator like the Vortex.


Why This Is The Year To Get A Real Backcountry Ski Education

With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing, skiing is different this winter. Whether you’re one of the many who’s bought a backcountry setup to discover what skiing is like away from the crowds at the resort or an experienced ski tourer who has explored much of what the Northeast has to offer, there’s always something in your skill set that can be improved. Before the winter is over, consider a backcountry-focused lesson with the EMS Climbing School to up your game.

Earning Your Turns

If you’re new to backcountry skiing this winter, getting comfortable with the gear and learning to skin uphill will be the steepest parts of your learning curve. Spending a day with an EMS guide is a sure way to accelerate the learning process.

According to Keith Moon, the Climbing School Manager, an introductory backcountry day focuses on the fundamentals of ski touring: skinning uphill, transitioning from the ascent to the descent, and managing terrain on the descent. Whether you have your own setup or borrow one from the school, at the end of the day you’ll feel much more confident traveling into the backcountry.

After your lesson, put that knowledge into action with a first tour of your own. Mount Cardigan, the Granite Backcountry Alliance glades in and around North Conway, and the Sherburne Trail on Mount Washington all make excellent first tours. Additionally, if the tide’s out in the backcountry, uphilling at the resort is a great way to get some vertical and earn your turns, all while minimizing the objective hazard.

Credit: Chris Bennett

Know Your Avalanche ABCs

Speaking of objective hazards, avalanche training is essential for anybody venturing into terrain where things might slide. One way to do this is to sign up for an AIARE Level 1 avalanche course, which Keith describes as one of the Climbing School’s most popular offerings. The three-day course provides a great foundation for the dos and don’ts of traveling in avalanche terrain, covering topics like tour planning, decision making in the field, rescue techniques, and basic snowpack tests. By the end of the course, students should have the knowledge necessary to have a successful (and, more importantly safe) day skiing something like Tuckerman Ravine.

If you’ve already taken a Level 1 course or can’t swing the whole course right now, spending a session with a guide reviewing avalanche fundamentals is another good option. A day focused on improving your knowledge is perfect for those just getting into avalanche terrain, providing a taste of what a full AIARE course is like while still scoring the backcountry goods.

Meanwhile, for more experienced folks, a day-long outing catered to your skill level is a perfect refresher. For those who are ready, a day spent “mock leading” a guide like Keith around the backcountry is invaluable, especially when they provide feedback about your tour planning, decision making, and backcountry techniques. For small groups with big post-pandemic ski touring plans, this is an ideal shakedown mission.

Credit: Tim Peck

Expand Your Bag of Tricks

There are ample other developmental-focused reasons to consider spending a day (or two) with a guide this winter. Here are three:

  1. Become more efficient on the uphill. Sure, fitness is a big part of uphill efficiency, but if you can’t do a kick turn, don’t know when to deploy your ski crampons, or default to an overly steep skin track, improving your skill level will go a long way toward scoring huge vertical on subsequent tours.
  2. Improve your mountaineering skills essential for bigger objectives. Topics on a day like this include skills such as when and where to transition from skinning to booting, ascending using crampons and an ice axe, using a rope to add a margin of safety, and building basic snow anchors using your touring equipment. More advanced options include training for glacier travel and crevasse rescue. All in all, a day practicing these skills with a professional like Keith is sure to improve your mountain savviness.
  3. Dial your personal ski touring kit. Everybody’s kit can always be improved and spending some one-on-one time with a guide reviewing the contents of your kit is a great way to get a second opinion about what you’ve been toting around the backcountry and ensure that you’re purchasing the best equipment for your individual objectives. An added bonus—you’ll get to see what the professionals are carrying on terrain that you frequent.
Courtesy: Backcountry Access

Ski Some Gnarly Terrain

Assuming the snow gods deliver, the Gulf of Slides, Oakes Gulf, and Raymond’s Cataract offer some of the most spectacular lines in the East. Scoring a descent of one of these prized ski lines is an achievement, and having a trained professional like Keith along to manage the risks and snap some pics ensures that you’ll send safely and in style.

To sign up for a session with the EMS Climbing School this winter, visit www.emsoutdoors.com or call 845–668-2030.


Video: The EMS Nor'easter 3-in-1 Jacket Review

New Englanders know just how unpredictable the weather can be in the Northeast. Sunny and warm in the morning – cold, windy and damp in the afternoon. This jacket is made for those days.


Video: The EMS Nimbusflex Jacket

EMS Guide Keith takes you through the new EMS Nimbusflex Winter Shell Jacket. Constructed from 85% Nylon/15% spandex bonded fabric, the NimbusFlex offers 10K/10K waterproofing and breathability, plus a (DWR) finish that sheds moisture to keep you dry.


Merino Wool: Our Tester Wore The Same Shirt for Over a Week Without Stinking

While I think we can all agree that this year hasn’t exactly shaped up to be anything fantastic, our super odd physically distant world does make for a great time to do gear testing that might… erm… stink?

After writing up a total nerd article last month about the science of merino wool, it only seemed to make sense to put all those cuticles, cortexes, and matrices to the test. How many days and sweaty activities did it take to make the EMS Merino Wool Crew Neck Base Layer stink?

Fortunately for me, I was already working remotely, my Thanksgiving plans were nonexistent, and my housemates (husband and two dogs) are tolerant of my quests in the name of science. Needless to say, scientific quests are rather common around here and usually involve more than just a potentially smelly shirt. Mud? Random plants? Moss and microscopes? Yep!

To start, I set some ground rules:
• I have to wear the shirt from the time I get up to the time I go to bed.
• There will be no washing, no odorizing sprays, etc. Just lay it out and let it be.
• There will be no avoiding sweaty activities just because I’m stuck in the same shirt for as long as this takes. If I’d workout in a clean shirt, I’d work out in the Merino.

So, how’d it go?

Day 1: Work followed by three hours of the messiest thing I could possibly do on the first day of wearing a shirt: glazing a big batch of pottery in a freezing cold studio. I somehow managed to keep all the glaze off me, which might have been the biggest accomplishment of the week.

Day 2: Errands. Boring.

Day 3: Mountain biking at Musquash (Londonderry, NH) as I chased my husband around the woods on his new fat bike. He’s just plain fast. Also, some wood stacking and around the house chores.

Day 4: Work. Boring.

Day 5: Mountain biking and trail work at Litchfield State Forest. ‘Tis the season for downed trees!

Day 6: Mountain biking at East Hampstead to tackle the long and hilly Skunk Skull. Felt like I was dragging, but eight Strava PRs (entirely fueled by gummy bears) proved otherwise. I promptly sat on my rear the rest of the day.

Day 7: I wanted to bike, but the weather had other ideas. So, I decided to organize the basement. Much sweat and dust were experienced but I made an abundance of food anyways.

Day 8: I ventured to Pine Hills (Plymouth, MA) for a physically distant group ride on an oddly warm day. I somehow managed to bike uphill both ways.

By the end of day eight, the stink was far from a full-blown locker-room smell. But just a faint whiff of “This experiment is over” had me tossing it in the wash.

Credit: Jillian Bejtlich

What did I learn while wearing the same shirt every day for 8 days?

First, merino wool actually does suck up moisture and odor. To help me sort of benchmark the performance, I spent the week prior to the test putting some of my other favorite shirts to the test:

  • Cotton long sleeve shirt: Obviously a terrible idea, but all in the name of science! Needless to say, it was a sweaty and miserable ride almost immediately. The shirt hit the dirty laundry bin right after.
  • Standard mountain biking jersey (all polyester): 1 day and 1 ride. While I didn’t stay too soggy, I had to change after the ride since I couldn’t deal with how I smelled.
  • EMS Active Wool Long Sleeve Shirt (84% Polyester / 11% Wool / 5% Spandex): 2 days and 1 ride. I probably could have pushed it one more ride, but I was starting to get a bit ripe.

Second, layering matters. With the exception of one day, it was a chilly week of testing meaning that the shirt alone wasn’t enough to keep me warm. And while the merino did an excellent job wicking, it can’t get rid of the moisture if trapped by other layers. After trying sweatshirts, vests, jackets, and fleece – I found it was best paired with vests and/or high-quality mid-layers made for moisture management, like the EMS Vortex Midlayer.

And last but not least, I am not one of those women who can work up a sweat and look (or smell) pretty after. Yet, the merino wool actually did pass every single pit sniff test. I just kept smelling like my deodorant, which was an improvement all around.

All in all, I’m super pleased with how the shirt performed. It’s already gone back into rotation for mountain biking, hiking, and more. And I think it will be the ideal shirt to bring on trips when I need to pack light. One shirt to rule them all? Looks like it.


Video: Check out the EMS Ice Talons

The perfect amount of traction when you don’t want to break out the big crampons.


How Can RECCO Save Your Life?

RECCO is a type of avalanche rescue technology, originally from Sweden, used by professional rescuers to locate buried avalanche victims. The idea behind RECCO was born after an avalanche accident in Sweden in 1973. Magnus Granhed, its future founder, was one of the rescuers involved in the accident response. He felt limited with the current technology and techniques at their disposal when they were unable to rescue the buried skiers. The avalanche rescue community needed something that could more effectively locate avalanche victims and, since nothing existed, Granhed took the innovation into his own hands with RECCO.

Over the next four and a half decades, there came several iterations of the RECCO detectors that are used today. From the first prototype phase in the late 1970s, to the first commercially available and clothing integrated reflectors in the ‘80s, to handheld tech and helicopter-mounted search capabilities in the 21st Century, RECCO technology has evolved into a valuable asset in search and rescue operations. 

How does it work?

RECCO detectors send out directional radar signals, which are then reflected back to the detector after hitting a special RECCO reflector. The return of the reflected signal cues the operator to close in on where the reflected signal is coming from. These reflectors are made to only be picked up by the detecting instruments, allowing them to be distinguished from other buried debris or objects that aren’t avalanche victims. 

It is important not to confuse a RECCO detector with an avalanche transceiver, or any other frequency device on the market. While the applications and technology are similar, transceivers and RECCO detectors are still very different tools, and should be treated as such. An avalanche transceiver will not locate a RECCO reflector. However, the more modern handheld RECCO detectors will pick up 457 kHz signals (the universal avalanche transceiver frequency) in addition to the normal operative frequencies, which adds another layer of search capabilities for the rescuer.

There are two varieties of RECCO detectors that you may see in use: a handheld device that is operated by a rescuer on the ground, and a larger, helicopter-carried detector for larger-scale search areas. These both work the same way, just on different scales.

Who uses RECCO?

RECCO systems were developed to be used by professional rescuers, primarily search and rescue and ski patrol teams. In fact, it’s impossible to get your hands on these systems unless you are a professional. In a way, anyone wearing a RECCO reflector is a user of the technology, however since the reflectors are passive it is not quite a fair comparison. 

Where we can find it?

We are most likely to encounter RECCO technology in clothing and other gear with sewn in RECCO reflectors. Seeing reflectors in outerwear is becoming more commonplace, although they been found in clothing and ski boots since the 1980s. EMS’s Nor’Easter Ski Jackets (men’s/women’s) and Squall Shell Pants (men’s/women’s) are the latest to include a built-in RECCO reflector. 

There are a couple of search and rescue organizations around New England that have handheld detectors, including Stowe Mountain Rescue, White Mountain National Forest, as well as the Lake Placid Forest Rangers. Mont Tremblant in Quebec also has RECCO search capabilities, but any other detectors in the US are found to the west of the Mississippi. For a full list and map of organizations with RECCO detectors around the world, go here.

Courtesy: RECCO

What can’t it do?

Being a two-part system, the RECCO detectors and reflectors are designed to work together, so without a RECCO reflector, you’ll be nearly impossible to find with the technology. While you will be harder to find, rescuers have noted instances where they have been able to pick up avalanche transceivers, cell phones, and other electronics, albeit with a much weaker signal. 

Whether or not a victim has RECCO reflectors, a detector still has a limits to the range that it can pick up a returning signal. The handheld detectors can pick up reflectors up to 120 meters away above ground, and can be limited to 10 meters through packed snow (Mount Washington averages 7 meters in a whole year), so that is less of a limitation around New England. Helicopter systems have a larger search area; RECCO touts the ability to search one square kilometer in six minutes.

And again, RECCO isn’t a viable solution for most backcountry skiers. It’s much more feasible for everyone in a backcountry group to carry a traditional avalanche transceiver than is it a handheld RECCO receiver. But in-bounds, where carrying an expensive transceiver isn’t typical, cheap RECCO reflectors embedded into jackets, pants, ski boots, helmets and more, can make skiers easy to find in the event of an avalanche.

Courtesy: RECCO

Bottom line.

So what do we know about RECCO? When it’s available, it can be a tremendous asset for rescuers to locate buried avalanche victims, although it cannot be counted on to save lives where detectors are sparse, and is certainly not a replacement for existing best practices in avalanche safety. RECCO is a supplement to current rescue techniques including transceiver searches, probe lines, and trained dog teams, and has been shown to improve victim location times. 

The avalanche community is still experiencing a lot of growth in the rescue tools available to professionals, and as RECCO technology improves with everything else hopefully we may see a shift from what is considered to be a body recovery tool to even more of a live rescue asset. 

It is worth researching where RECCO systems are in use, and maybe more importantly where they are unavailable, before traveling into a certain area. Additionally, with the infusion of clothing and gear with integrated RECCO reflectors into the larger outdoor market we have unprecedented access to cheap and simple tools that may increase our chances of being found if buried under snow.


goEast Approved: Top Finds in the EMS Gift Guide

Holiday shopping has officially started early(er) this year. This gave us a chance to do a deep dive into EMS.com and dig out some top tier gift ideas keeping category, price point, and activity in mind. Whether you’re shopping for a trail runner, car camper, backcountry skier, or an overall outdoor aficionado, you’ll find something for everyone on your list (and maybe a little something for yourself, too). Check out the full guide here and find a roundup of favorites below.

Top Tech

MPOWERD tops the lists of our favorite tech brands. Their Luci Lanterns use solar power and last way longer than you’d think on a single charge (some up to 24 hours). But it’s their String Lights that do it for me: Hidden inside the expandable unit, the lights pack 100 lumens into 10 nodes on an 18-foot cord. Along with mobile charging capabilities, it’s an easy take-along option for trips and a top notch gift for under $50.

The SUUNTO 9 GPS Sports Watch is our best-selling watch for good reason. It’s got up to 120 hours of continuous exercise tracking and, when paired with the Suunto App, keeps you on top of both your goals and incoming calls. A great ‘big gift’ for the multisport athlete.

PETZL’s NAO+ Performance Headlamp with Bluetooth Technology uses “reactive lighting” tech to adjust brightness depending on activity, making it an ideal companion for high-pace pursuits like trail running, alpine climbing, mountaineering and ski touring. And with the MyPetzl Light mobile app, athletes can consult in real time to check remaining burn time and adjust headlamp performance accordingly.

Under $25

The United by Blue Reusable Straw Kit checks off as both under $25 and eco-friendly. This kit comes with two stainless steel straws, a silicone tip and a bristled cleaning brush— all enclosed in a cool, recycled polyester ripstop case, which makes it perfect for gifting.  I’m personally a big fan of this brand, whose trademark is to remove one pound of trash from oceans and waterways with every product sold.

Who doesn’t love a pint glass? And maybe a pint to go with it? EMS’s new(ish) logo pint glass boasts the EMS logo on one side and the #goEast trademark on the reverse so you can represent in style. Ringing in at a whopping $12.99, it’s an easy gift choice.

It’s official, fanny packs are cool again— and have actually always been very helpful in the hiking department. A personal favorite is this 80’s inspired Mountainsmith Trippin’ Fanny Pack one, but a close second would have to be the Karrimor X Lite Waist Pack, mainly because of its lightness in weight and price ($11.99).

Travel

I’m a fan of Osprey’s travel gear—particularly of the new Arcane Pack Family, where minimal design meets utilitarian function. The Tote Pack is a win-win in the gift department as it covers a wide range of life’s needs on-the-go (and is made from 13.5 plastic bottles). Also check out the Osprey Fairview and Farpoint wheeled backpacks if you’re looking for something heftier.

The North Face Base Camp Duffel is a classic that would make anyone stoked for adventure this season. Built for the long hauls, it’s made with super durable material and offers an ample 132-liter volume.

Here’s something that someone probably wouldn’t buy themselves but would be pumped to get— The Eagle Creek Pack-It Cube Set offers up plenty of space for separating and compressing clothing so you can spend less time digging through your bags and more time adventuring. Eagle Creek also offers a Clean/Dirty Cube which is also a great gift/hint.

Snow

The Smith Mission is a great all-around helmet at a fair price point. Lightweight with 14 vents, an adjustable dial fit system, and Outdoor Tech audio capabilities, it’s a solid gift choice for someone looking to round out their kit without the bells and whistles.

The EMS Altitude 3-in-1 Gloves and Mittens are a mainstay in our winter gear collection. Featuring PrimaLoft Silver insulation, you’ve got a lightweight and packable mitt with a removable glove liner that will keep up with you when the temps go down. Notable features are the improved grip, safety leash, and reflective elements to help keep you seen in low-light conditions.

Climb

The Black Diamond Momentum Harness Package is the gift of all gifts. It’s the perfect starter kit for someone looking to get into climbing, featuring their most popular harness, an ATC-XP belay/rappel device, a rocklock screwgate locking carabiner, chalk bag, and chalk. We have 5 different styles including men’s and women’s sizing (while supplies last). Also check out the Corax Kit from Petzl.

Hike

The Salomon Men’s and Women’s Quest 4d 3 GTX Waterproof Hiking Boots are an awesome all-around shoe featuring Salomon’s signature running shoe-adapted tech, meaning it has a light and flexible feel with support sturdy enough for backpacking endeavors. Add the tall ankle and GORE-TEX outer and you’ve got a very dependable boot for any situation out there.

Speaking of dependable, Deuter is a brand that comes to mind (it’s been around since 1898). The Speed Lite 26 Technical Day Pack is the lightest in the Deuter hiking pack series. It’s small in size but doesn’t lack in the comfort department with a hip belt and padded shoulder straps, making it suitable for an array of outdoor activities.

Camp

Here’s a kickass camp gift: The MSR PocketRocket Stove Kit includes everything needed to cook and eat for two in the backcountry. The stove delivers quick boil times while the insulated dish sets (mugs, bowls, folding sporks) keep things warm at camp. Everything nests in a 2L aluminum pot for space-efficient transport.

The Big Agnes Torchlight series sleeping bags are just about as comfy as they get. There are some Ultralight options for backpackers but here we’ll focus on the Torchlight 20. This bag features 2 expandable panels from shoulders to footbox for up to 10 extra inches of sleep space and is insulated with DownTek water-repellent down with baffle construction—A great option for those seeking added comfort in a mummy bag.

Apparel

EMS Feather Pack Jackets are a longtime fan favorite, and this year’s update in design puts them at the top of the list. As always you’ve got hood options, internal pocket packability, and plenty of color choices (see Golden Yellow in Men’s and Sea Moss in Women’s).

Our Expedition Pant is a new arrival worth noting. Constructed from 100% recycled polyester, this 2-layer insulated shell features 10K/10K water resistance, a DWR finish and fully seam-sealed fabric to repel water.  Sourced with 100g Hi-Loft Thermore polyfil, the Expedition is fully lined and has soft brushed tricot to keep you warm and ready for whatever Mother Nature has in store.

Top Picks

The find of the day goes to the Tubbs Xplore Snowshoe Kits. This is the ultimate gift for someone interested in snowshoeing and comes with the trio of must-haves: shoes, poles, and gaiters. They are available in two varieties for men and women and ring in at just under $200.

Not sure? An EMS Gift Card is always a good option (keep in mind that redemption is currently limited to in-store only). You can also use these at Eastern Mountain Sports Schools. What better gift is there than the gift of adventure?

Finding any other gifting favorites? Let us know below.


How to Choose a Backpack

During a long day on the trail, your backpack should be your best friend. It should be easy to access the things you need, comfortable carrying however large a load you have, and easy to move the distance you need in. But backpacks are an extremely wide category, containing everything you might need for a half-day jaunt through the local park to massive packs for expeditions on the world’s tallest mountains. Knowing how you intend to use the pack is step one in deciding which is right for you, but understanding the differences in size, features, and structure will help guide you to the right option.

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Daypacks (Up to 35 liters)

Daypacks are the smaller bags used for day hikes. Since hikes vary greatly in length and intensity, even as day missions, they aren’t one size fits all. You’ll need to have one big enough to hold all of your hiking essentials, as well as food and appropriate clothing for the location and season, meaning day hiking bags during the winter are consistently larger than summer backpacks. Consider the terrain, too: Will you be above treeline and need to carry more layers for wind/storm protection?

Also, it’s worth noting there is a distinct difference between school/commuter bags and hiking packs. The latter typically have better shoulder support and waist belts that effectively transfer the load to your hips, making them more comfortable on longer hikes or carrying heavier loads.

20190726_EMS_Conway-4341_Backpack_Hike

Backpacking Packs

As the name implies, these are your overnight bags, big enough for all the gear that comes with that. And just how many nights you’ll be out, as well as your creature comfort level, will determine exactly how large a pack you’ll need. Pay particular attention to how the pack fits your body as you will be carrying more weight, and for multiple days.

Keep mind that the volumes given and how they relate to the length of a trip are not law. While they are a pretty good guide for beginners, there are plenty of weekenders who like to carry extra food and gear like camp chairs, so a bigger pack might be nice. Simultaneously, thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, out for weeks at a time, often pack ultralight and get away with extremely small packs.

Weekend (1-3 nights, 36-55 liters)

These are slightly larger than daypacks, and likely have more compartments in them. This volume range is suitable for a few nights out, if you’re using lightweight modern gear. But be prepared: A lot of packing discipline and efficiency technique goes into fitting your gear into these smaller packs, so most beginners opt for slightly larger packs, even on weekends.

Multiday (3-5 nights, 56-80 liters)

These packs, the most popular backpacking packs, are slightly larger for longer trips, or those shorter trips where you may need to carry extra gear. They are well-suited to warm-weather trips lasting 3-plus days. This is the size/volume range that you typically see on long-distance hiking trails like the Appalachian Trail, the Long Trail, or the PCT. It will have more space for food and extra clothes.

Expedition (More than 5 nights, 70 liters and up)

These specialized packs are meant for long-duration journeys or trips to remote places where additional gear or equipment may be needed. This could be a 7 to 10 day trek out west, extended trips to climbing destinations, or travel in extreme weather regions like the mountains or winter backpacking. They might also be necessary for parents carrying extra gear on multiday family trips.

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Hydration Packs & Waist Packs

Hydration packs offer a smaller, streamlined version of a daypack. They are useful for shorter hikes, and for outdoor fitness like running, cycling, or the slopes where you may want food and water beyond a granola bar. They are also a good starter pack for kids and are helpful for parents to encourage hydration on-the-go. If you need a little more space, most daypacks today are hydration compatible (see below).

Waist packs have become more technical over the years, which has increased their functionality and range of use. They come in a wide range from smaller pouches for your wallet, keys, and a few granola bars, to larger packs that hold water bottles and some gear. They’re suitable for short walks, or when you’re touring and want a little extra pocket space on-the-go. There are also lightweight versions that are popular with long-distance runners, they hold small water bottles and maybe a snack or two.

GO: Daypacks | Backpacking Packs | Waist Packs | Hydration Packs

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Backpack Structure

Packs are built and organizes in many different ways, many of which impact personal preferences, but others impact the carry-ability and usability of a pack for a specific activity.

Internal vs. External Frame

Almost all packs feature some kind of rigid frame through the back. These add stability, keep the load close to your back, and help transfer weight to your waist. In daypacks, this usually just comes from more rigid foam or fabric, but in larger backpacking packs, these are metal rods, typically set up in one of two ways:

External frames are composed of hollow aluminum pipes and are easily visible on the outside of the pack. The pack bag is then attached to this frame system, and the frame offers many attachment options for additional gear. Less common than they once were, these types are still available on the market.

Internal frame backpacks are far more common, today. They are composed of thin fiberglass or metal rods that are sewn into the pack itself and give the pack its structure while using minimal materials. They also tend to be more streamlined and keep the load toward the center of your back. Most internal-frame packs also allow you to adjust the torso length to fit your body.

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Top-loading vs. Panel Access

Most larger packs are top-loading, providing access to its main compartment through a cinched opening at the top of the pack. This makes it easy to load the pack efficiently and keep its contents stable. Packing these packs requires some thought to correctly position commonly-needed items toward the top so they are more easily accessible.

However, some designs (including most daypacks) offer you a panel access option, allowing you to reach into the main compartment without digging from the top and removing other items unnecessarily. This also allows you to organize your pack around each item’s weight and not just the frequency you may need to access it on the trail.

Many backpacking packs today feature aspects of both, primarily using a top-loading access point, but offering other zippers along the sides or back to make accessing deeper items on the fly easier.

Sleeping Bag Compartment

A sleeping bag compartment is one panel-access point on larger packs, specifically designed for sleeping bags. It is a separate area at the bottom of the pack just below and sometimes connected to, the main compartment. It is accessed from the outside so you can reach for the sleeping bag at the end of the day without having to remove everything else. Some packs have the option to remove an internal panel and make the sleeping bag area contiguous to the main compartment.

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Load Support, Padding & Ventilation

A pack’s load-carrying system consists of two main supports: shoulder straps and the hip belt, both of which have varying types (and amounts) of padding. Packs are designed to direct the weight onto your skeletal frame at your hips, a natural point of support for the human body. Shoulder straps hold the pack upright and close to your body to direct the load directly down, rather than pulling you to the side or backwards. While shoulder straps should not carry the weight, they do have additional “load-lifter” straps to fine-tune the fit and pull it closer to your body.

Padding on the shoulder straps and hip belt is an important feature, and largely a matter of personal preference. Thicker padding can offer more comfort and a flexible fit to your unique body shape, while less padding can allow these points of contact to ventilate better. Some straps are even designed with holes in them to reduce sweat build-up. Always test your pack in the store and fully-weighted to see what feels right for you.

Ventilation is another important feature of your pack, as it can reduce the build-up of uncomfortable, and possibly unsafe perspiration on your body. Traditionally, the padded fabric of the pack lays directly against your back, like a typical school bookbag. You might not notice how much sweat builds-up until you take the pack off. These days, most hiking packs are designed with greater ventilation, potentially using air channels in the backpanel, an arch between the shoulders and hip to lift it off your back entirely, or breathable mesh in the backpanel.

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Pack Features & Accessories

Pockets

In addition to the main and sleeping bag compartments, a pack will have several other storage pockets. Starting at the top, the “brain” is the very top pouch that closes over the main compartment, acting as storage and weather closure. It is a great place for those items you may want to have on the go like lunch, gloves, hat, sunglasses, or a map. Some packs have a removable brain, allowing you to either leave it at home to reduce weight or use it to carry a few items on a short side trip from your camp, or into your tent at night.

Other pockets include water bottle pockets, which are located just behind your hips and are nice for carrying a water bottle, or other small items you may need to reach while walking. Exterior access pockets can also be found on the outer sides of the pack, and are nice for storing items you may want to reach for without digging into the main compartment. This might include rain gear, lunch, or a water filter.

Hip belt pockets are a great feature found on many packs today. These are small, zipper-closed pockets on each side of your hip belt and in easy reach while you’re hiking. These are a great place for a compass, GPS, or snacks.

Different packs have varying numbers of pockets and organizational abilities, mostly corresponding to preference—Some like the organization of multiple pockets, while others prefer the streamlined nature of keeping everything in the large main compartment.

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Attachment Points

You will notice most packs have a variety of small loops or straps sewn into them for attaching additional gear. These are helpful for attaching bulky, but lighter-weight, gear like trekking poles, a sleeping pad, an ice tool, spikes/crampons, snowshoes, or even skis. Consider your intended activities and see what attachment point(s) might be useful to you.

Rain Cover/Weather Resistance

Most hiking backpacks are made with water-resistant materials but are not actually waterproof. And when you are on the trail, you will definitely want the option to protect your clothing and gear from the elements. Rain covers are like a fitted, waterproof jacket that you stretch over the pack. Some packs come with a rain cover built-in, but if not, there are many options available and it’s a worthwhile investment. They come in a range of colors for degrees of visibility, and some include reflective graphics.

Hydration-Compatibility

Keeping hydrated is critical when you’re on the trail, and many hiking packs now have a specific sleeve/pouch inside the pack to hold a hydration reservoir. A reservoir is a plastic bladder with a drinking hose that stretches through a secure opening in the pack so you can hydrate on-the-go. It is a very nice feature, and many find it easier than reaching for that water bottle.

GO: Pack Rain Covers | Clips & Buckles | Straps & Gear Ties

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Where to begin?

Now that you have an idea of what to look for, where does one go to find the right pack? It is strongly recommended that you visit an EMS store to try the backpack on first-hand and receive advice from a store expert. Buying online might be convenient, but finding the right fit your body is critical and well worth spending the extra time to get it right.

When you visit a store and work with their staff, you should expect several things. First, you will get introduced to many different pack styles, designs, and manufacturers. Each has its own unique approach and one of them may suit your needs and preferences better than the others. Secondly, you will get the pack properly fitted to your body. This is imperative and it involves finding the correct torso length, then fine-tuning the fit. Third, in the store, you will be able to load the pack with test weights (usually sandbags) to simulate a fully-loaded pack. Then you can wear the pack around the store for a length of time to see how it really feels. It is always best to find out how it truly feels before you make the final selection.

Lastly, you can expect good, relevant advice. Store staff will take the time to work with you and give you invaluable advice on how the packs work, how they are constructed, and how each might work for you and your intended activity. You can often find a staff member who has specific experience related to your chosen activity, so the guidance you receive will be timely and on-point.