Selecting a backpack when you are 11 to about 14 is quite a tricky matter which presents some unique challenges. Given the cost of a good packpack, you want to ensure that it will last a long time. At the same time it has to big enough to take kit for an overnight hike as well as actually fitting a person who is an average 11 – 14 year old. We are going to discuss some of the factors to take into account in refining your choice.
At the outset it is maybe important to define the purpose for which you are buying the pack. Don’t buy a pack for all activities; rather buy for a specific activity and realise that it can change its function as you grow. Accept that if you are serious about scouting in South Africa, you will probably need a larger pack at some point but that your smaller pack will be entirely suitable as a day pack when you are bigger.
Size is the key determinant. A 75L pack is way to big for the average 11 year old and a 75L pack is really only needed for multi-night hikes which most people only do unsupported at the age of 15 or so. On the other hand a 25L pack is way to small, even for day hikes. So you need to be looking at around a 35L pack, certainly no less. Ideally, in my experience a 35L that is expandable to 45L is ideal as it allows you to use the pack for both day hikes and overnight hikes without having various pieces of equipment hanging off the outside of your pack. While it is understandable when your pack is too small it is really less than ideal. Firstly equipment has a tendency to snag on bushes and get pulled off. Secondly, in rain it is always that equipment that will get wet (and often it is your sleeping bag). Thirdly, it places the weight of the pack far back from your center of gravity and pulls you backward which is tiring. The advantage of choosing a rucksak of this size is that it will be usable as a day pack for many years to come, even when you are fully grown. Essentially, as you grow you can use this pack for day hikes and replace it with a full 75L pack for multi-day hikes.
Like any rucksak, fit is all important and completely individualised. Try the rucksak on. Put some weight in it. Feel for the points that don’t feel right. Imagine walking for 8 hours with this thing on your back. Will it rub? Will it be comfortable? Some important points are:
It should have a proper hipbelt. This means it should be padded; must be able to be tightened fully and the padding part must run across the hips. Packs around the 35L mark often just have a nylon hipbelt. This might be useful for stopping the pack swinging around but it is utterly useless for taking weight off your shoulders; the real function of a hipbelt. Second, make sure that the hipbelt can tighten. Sometimes hipbelts cannot be tightened enough to actually perform their function. You will grow into it but in the interim it is essentially useless. Make sure that the padding part covers the hips. This is probably not an issue at this age but I have run across 75L rucksaks where the padding is just too short and doesn’t sit on my hips.
Shoulder straps must comfortable, adjustable and well padded.
Whatever frame the pack has (nearly all South African packs are internal frame or frameless) check to see if it gives your back some breathing space and that it feels comfortable to you. While breathing space for your back is not essential, it does slow down the build up of sweat and the inevitable wet tshirt feeling. The effect of sweat on a cotton shirt is quite amazing in terms of hypothermic tendencies.
Hydration bladders are quite common these days and while it is not essential in a pack, it can be a nice thing to have.
Raincovers are quite common and are usually found in a pocket at the bottom of the pack. They are very handy when it rains and again, while not essential, are quite nice to have. You can always buy one separately if there is not one with the pack. The older the pack, the better it is to have one, as the waterproofing layer deteriorates with use.
Makes are again a highly individual choice but the best advice is not to get too hung up on a particular make or even model. I have found that certain First Ascent models are very comfortable for me while others just do not feel right. So the best idea is to let go of your prejudices and try what is on offer and judge on the merits, not on the badge. That said, there are some makes that are more recognisably established. The more established makes are First Ascent; Karrimor; Deuter; K-Way while lesser known brands include North Ridge and The North Face.
K-Way is the inhouse brand for Cape Union Mart and is manufactured in South Africa for SA conditions. Cape Union Mart has a good return policy (we have tried it out) so you can be assured that if there are problems you can replace the pack. In 2013 they have a 40 litre pack for R600 and a 50 litre pack for R900. Cape Union Mart also stock Deuter which is a German make. I personally have never hiked with a Deuter so I cannot comment on their longevity but they are quite expensive (being imported, I believe). Cape Union Mart has a 35L expandable to 45 litre pack for R1299.
First Ascent has the Mercury 35L expandable to 40L. I have hiked with this as a day pack and it has been very comfortable indeed, so much so that my next daypack is likely to be this one. Young scouts who have hiked with this on overnight hikes have also found this very comfortable and sufficient for a 2 night hike with some careful packing. It sells for R1100. First Ascent is a SA manufacturer and is available from Due South, Sportsman Warehouse and Outdoor Warehouse. The North Face have Terra 45, probably available from Due South. North Face tend to have reputation for making serious hiking equipment but I do not know anyone who actually has hiked with it.
So, that’s about it. In a nutshell, get what is comfortable and what works for you. Think about spending 8 hours on the trail with this thing on your back and how much equipment and food you need to pack to survive. And then buy it.