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How to adjust a backpack: 6 easy steps to fit your pack properly

A hiker adjusting the sternum strap on his backpack during a hike
Knowing how to adjust a backpack so that it fits properly when you’re on a hike or backpacking trip can make the difference between moving with ease and slogging miserably along the trail (Image credit: Christopher Kimmel / Aurora Photos)

Knowing how to adjust a backpack so that it fits properly when you’re on a hike or backpacking trip can make the difference between moving with ease and slogging miserably along the trail.

You can have the world’s best backpack in the right size, but if you don’t adjust it properly to fit your body, the weight of your back can slow you down and even cause back pain which can really put a damper on your excursions. In this article, we break down the simple steps to adjusting your backpack so that it carries your gear on day hikes and long treks without bogging you down.

If you’re still in the market for a goodbackacpking backpack, you’ll want to start with our guide to how to choose a backpack

How to adjust a backpack 

A hiker adjusting the hip belt on her backpack during a hike

The padded section of the hip belt should sit right on top of your hip bones, which transfers most of the weight of the backpack off your shoulders and low back and onto your legs (Image credit: KaraGrubis)

1. Pack your backpack with weight 

Your backpack will behave differently empty than it will full of gear, so you want to make sure you adjust it with some weight in it. The easiest thing to do is to pack some of your regular items like your sleeping bag, sleeping pad and camping stove so it’s roughly the same size and weight it will be on your adventures. 

2. Loosen all the straps 

The straps of your backpack might have been tightened for shipping, for a mannequin in the store, or by other shoppers trying on, so to start from scratch, loosen all the straps. This way you’ll only have to work on tightening them to fit your body, not tightening some while loosening others. 

3. Find the right placement for the hip belt 

Now, put the backpack on and start by finding the right placement for the hip belt. The padded section of the hip belt should sit right on top of your hip bones, which transfers most of the weight of the backpack off your shoulders and low back and onto your legs. Buckle the hip belt and fasten so it feels snugly – remember that it shouldn’t feel uncomfortably tight and you have to be able to breathe. 

A backpack loaded up for an overnight adventure sits on a rock

Your backpack will behave differently empty than it will full of gear, so you want to make sure you adjust it with some weight in it (Image credit: Sawitree Pamee / EyeEm)

4. Adjust the shoulder straps 

Next, work your way up to the shoulder straps and tighten them both at the same time by pulling down on the straps. Again, you don’t want the straps to be so tight that they’re uncomfortable, or start to lift the weight of the pack off your hips. The shoulder straps should contour snugly to your shoulders all the way around from front to back – if there are any gaps between the straps and your shoulders after tightening the straps, your backpack is too big and you need a smaller size. 

5. Adjust load lifter straps 

The load lifter straps meet just behind your neck (check out our guide to the parts of a backpack) and they pull the weight of the backpack closer in towards your body so that it doesn’t pull your body backwards, which can offset your center of balance and cause back pain. Reach back and pull on the load lifters straps so that the pack is at about a 45 degree angle from your body. 

6. Adjust the sternum strap

Finally, buckle the sternum strap across your chest and tighten it so that it’s snug but again, not too tight. You have to be able to breathe when you’re hiking.

And that’s it! You’re now ready to head out into the hills with all the gear you need for an epic adventure and a spring in your step.

Julia Clarke

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Adventure.com. She is an author, mountain enthusiast and yoga teacher who loves heading uphill on foot, ski, bike and belay. She recently returned to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland after 20 years living in the USA, 11 of which were spent in the rocky mountains of Vail, Colorado where she owned a boutique yoga studio and explored the west's famous peaks and rivers. She is a champion for enjoying the outdoors sustainably as well as maintaining balance through rest and meditation, which she explores in her book Restorative Yoga for Beginners, a beginner's path to healing with deep relaxation. She enjoys writing about the outdoors, yoga, wellness and travel. In her previous lives, she has also been a radio presenter, music promoter, university teacher and winemaker.