Your Backpack Should Fit Like A Glove: Here's How

The bag you carry day to day has an outsized impact on your musculoskeletal health. Here are my recommendations on how to find one that fits well.

Today's topic is a subject that, perhaps, only a physical therapist (physio) could love. 

But it is seasonally appropriate for back to school, and is a topic that I speak with patients about frequently: Backpacks! 

Urban Baggage

A little background: I live in a highly walkable, relatively dense city neighborhood, where driving cars can be more inconvenient than other ways of getting around. (I realize this is not true for everyone, but many of my in person clients also live in this area). 

Because of the amount that I walk and bike, and due to my ergonomic interests, I carry backpacks. On any given day, my backpack could be filled with groceries, my laptop, a full water bottle, lunch, and other everyday items. It gets heavy. 

For years -- well over a decade -- I cycled through so many ill-fitting daily backpacks that I was convinced none were made for my narrow shoulders. 

Seeing the "Light"

I was on the brink of purchasing a "Junior" sized backpack (after my last proper backpack with lumbar support kept hitting the back of my head while riding my bike).  

Then, an REI salesperson set me straight.

Patiently, he asked, "What are you using the bag for?"

He plopped a few sandbags (to mimic the weight I would normally carry) into an elaborate fuschia day pack. 

The color was hideous, but that backpack fitting changed my life. I bought it in a neutral grey that afternoon and have stuck with wearing that same backpack (technically a day hiking backpack) design for over 6 years. 

What was new?

Of course I knew about lumbar belts (which distribute more of the weight off your shoulders into your pelvis) and chest straps (which distribute weight more evenly through your torso). 

But I did not know that companies offered different sizing and "gender" shapes for the same design. (Please take the gender labels with a grain of salt -- these are inanimate objects. What matters is that they fit well).

The daypack that I tried on that day was a Women's "Xs/Small". The chest strap rose above the lady parts. The waist band / lumbar support did not make the shoulder straps float off my shoulders. 

It fit my narrow shoulders like no backpack had fit since childhood.

The same amount of weight felt so much lighter, and massively decreased strain around my neck and shoulders. 

You won't turn back

It is not an exaggeration to say that many of the repetitive things you do in daily life can contribute to physical problems, aches and pain. 

Whatever bag you carry in daily life will contribute to repetitive movement patterns -- either in a positive or a negative way. Don't make yourself need physical therapy if you can help it.

Whether you are an urban hiking human like me; need to lug your laptop, water, gear and snacks around a campus; or are simply practical, once you feel the difference with a well-fitting backpack, you won't go back to ill fitting ones. 

Follow this guide to find the best fit for you. 

How to Fit a Backpack to You

  • 1 - It may be obvious, but determine how you will use your backpack and figure out what your typical haul would weigh and what kind of volume your day to day requires. Add a little extra to the weight to help you. I do NOT recommend buying a larger volume backpack than you truly need. It becomes like a larger plate at a buffet and you may end up carrying more than is reasonable. 
  • 2 - If you can, go to a store like REI, where you can try on different kinds of packs and, ideally, add weight to them and walk around to mimic daily use. As you know already from this blog post, I have been very happy with my Osprey Tempest 20 Womens XS/Small. The quality and the various sizes and "genders" really helped me get the best fitting pack for me. I also had a great experience with Osprey customer service, so I recommend that brand (and do not get paid in any way for doing so). 
  • 3 - If you use your pack for anything substantial, you will want it to have both a chest strap and the kind of waist band that can distribute some of the weight into the pelvis (not just a thin strap at the waist), and check that nothing pinches.
  • 4 -  Make sure there is as small of a gap as possible between the bag and your back. The same weight feels heavier when held further away from the body. Sometimes there will actually be a gap under the shoulder straps if the weight is mostly in the lumbar region -- this is fine. 
  • 5 -  Make sure are happy with how your backpack looks as well as how it feels. That way, you will be more likely to use it. 

  • 6 - Finally, trust how your body feels with the backpack on. On paper I would have thought mine -- with its mesh back, million pockets, water bladder sleeve -- was overkill and for sporty activities only. It isn't. 

If you need me to help you figure out if you bought the right bag for your body, make an office appointment, and I can assist with that final stage of fitting. (Booking link). 

It may not be the most stylish thing, but my backpack is one of many "ingredients" that I use every day to keep myself healthy and active now and for years to come. 

Me and my Osprey Tempest on a typical urban hike.

This post was published on August 31, 2023. 

Categories: Back pain, Physical Therapy