Many backpackers attach gear to the outside of their backpack because it’s too bulky, they need to carry extra supplies, they want to keep their gear easily accessible, or because it’s wet and they need to keep it separate from their dry clothing. While some techniques for attaching gear to the outside of a backpack are nearly universal, like sandwiching it under compression straps, many are more specialized and rely on features that depend on the specific backpack you own.
Learning how to attach gear to the outside of your pack, like many backpacking skills, is best learned by observing what other people do and adapting it to your needs. That said, it helps to think about the kinds of external attachment capabilities that are possible on different backpacks and figuring out which ones you’ll need before or after you buy a new backpack.
To help you with this process, I’ve compiled the following collection of examples that illustrate the most common techniques for attaching gear to backpacks and the different external attachment systems.
Side Compression Straps
While side compression straps are not universally available on all overnight backpacks, most backpacking and climbing packs designed for weekend or expedition trips have them. While they can be used to compress the volume of a backpack to bring the load closer to your core muscles, most people use them to attach bulky gear like sleeping pads, snowshoes, or cylindrical tent bags to the outside of their packs.
When attaching gear under compression straps, it’s best to balance the load so that you carry an equivalent weight on the left and right sides. You’ll want a least two straps, although some larger packs have three, that can be tightened using a friction cinch.
Some backpacks come with reversible side compression straps than can used to attach gear to the back of your pack. This requires that the rear facing ends of the compression straps have clips, instead of being sewn onto the pack, and that there’s a male clip and a female clip on opposite sides so they can mate together. The other nice thing about this kind of compression system is that you can use it without losing the ability to fill side pockets with water bottles.
One of the problems with compression strap systems is that they’re clumsy when using a side pocket to hold water bottles because the compression strap has to run outside of the pocket and around the bottle. Granite Gear backpacks have a great pocket design that alleviates this issue. Instead of running the bottom compression strap outside the pocket, they cut small holes in the pocket that let you run the webbing strap underneath the bottle, so you can use the pockets and the compression at the same time.
Some backpacks also have a Z-style compression strap, which gear manufacturers use to trim the weight of their packs. While it’s reasonably effective for shrinking the volume of your pack, these Z-style straps are awkward to use if you want to strap bulky gear, like snowshoes, to the outside of your backpack. Horizontal compression straps are much easier to use.
Shoulder Strap Keeper Loops and Hardware
Many people like to festoon their shoulder straps with extra pockets for storing a camera, a GPS, a walkie-talkie, water or snack bottles, or even a map case. But many backpacks lack good attachment points on the shoulder harness to do so.
When choosing a backpack, look for packs that have horizontal keeper style straps or small daisy chains that you can hang external pockets from. It’s also helpful to have some kind of plastic or metal ring that you can clip heavier gear onto like a GPS on a retractable cord. If you have a pack that doesn’t have these features, sell a wide variety of plastic hardware and buckles that you can often use to rig something that suits your needs.
A floating lid is a top pocket attached to the pack using 4 webbing straps instead of being sewn to the back panel like a hinge. They’re often used in winter to compress bulky objects like sleeping pads, tent bodies, or rope between the top pocket and the top of your pack bag.
When carrying very heavy gear, floating lids help you keep it closely aligned with your spine and your strongest core muscles rather than along the sides or back of your pack where it can throw you off-balance. They also provide much needed vertical compression to keep your load compact and balanced.
Shovel pockets are open pockets sewn onto the back of a pack that you can stuff gear, like snowshoes, crampons, or layers into for easy access. They’re quite similar to backpacks that have stretchy mesh pockets actually, but more rugged when it comes to storing gear that has sharp pointy teeth.
Ice Climbing Tool Holders
Most climbing packs have extra tool holders for attaching climbing or walking ice axes to a backpack. These include shaft holders to hold ice axes in place and ice axe loops for securing the pointed end of an axe to the pack in a way that prevents it from spearing you in the thigh if you fall.
The shaft holders are made with webbing and buckles or elastic keeper cords. Some packs also have pick protectors which let you secure the tip of the pick, protecting it, you, and your gear!
Hip Belt Gear Loops
Backpacking hip belts have pockets, webbing straps, or gear loops on the exterior side. The latter two are often far more useful as gear attachment points because you can secure anything you want to them.
It’s not uncommon to find gear loops on climbing and winter packs because you can rack climbing gear like carabiners and quickdraws to them when you’re not wearing a sit harness. They’re also used to attach insulated water bottle holders to a pack for easy access.
Daisy chains are webbing loops sewn to the sides or back of a backpack that let you clip extra gear to your pack using carabiners or webbing straps.
Tie Out Loops
A lot of lightweight gear manufacturers sew small gear loops along on their packs so that backpackers can rig up customer attachment points. While these are functionally equivalent to daisy chains in some ways, they weigh less and it’s easier for manufacturers to add a lot more of them to a backpack: around the perimeter of the back, the sides of the pack, and even on top of the lid.
You can hang almost anything from a backpack using a system like this from solar power chargers to a wet tarp. All you really need is some cord and a few small cord locks, which companies like Gossamer Gear include with their packs for this purpose.
When attaching clothing and softer items to a pack, it helps to use an elastic style cord to create a rigging system. More static, non-elastic cord is better for hanging heavier gear, like snowshoes on the outside of a pack, because it’s more durable and there’s less chance that it will break.
Rear Loading Straps
Many larger backpacks have rear loops that hang below the bottom of the pack bag for securing sleeping pads, sleeping bags, or tent bodies.
While gear hanging from them can be nuisance since it can swing into your legs while you walk, they can provide a convenient place to attach very lightweight items like pads or wet tents.
There are a lot of ways to extend the volume of a backpack so that you can carry a lot more gear when required. While many of these techniques depend on the specific features of your backpack, there is usually a way to MacGyver a custom rigging system provided you’ve seen enough examples of the external attachment systems that other people have rigged up.
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