7:16 p.m. on May 1, 2005 (EDT)

I have no experience with backpacking but I need to by one for my daughter that is doing 6 weeks of volunteer work for the Student Conservation Association. She will be backpacking in Mississippi in June and July when the heat and humidity will be a factor. I understand that external framed backpacks are cooler on the back than internal framed packs. The internal backpacks look more comfortable. Is there anybody on this list that has experience with both and may give me some advice on this topic.

8:42 a.m. on May 2, 2005 (EDT)
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In general, external frame packs do offer better ventilation. However, some of the newer internal frame designs do pretty well on this front as well. If your daughter will be working on a trail crew, she'll probably be spending compartatively little of her time actually backpacking, so I wouldn't get too hung up on the point of ventilation.

Of course, ventilation is not the only "coolness" factor for teenage girls. Internal frame packs are by far more popular and widely used these days. It's mostly a marketing thing; there's not much functional advantage one way or the other for most users.

However, external frames do have a big advantage in a trail crew scenario: you can remove the packbag and use the frame to haul tools, rocks, logs, and whatever else may need to be moved to and from a worksite.

Whatever type of pack you choose, the most important thing is to make sure it fits your daughter properly. Ideally, you should find an outfitter with a variety of backpacks that you can try out in the store and, more important, a knowedgable salesperson who will be able to help find the right size pack and make the appropriate adjustments in the store. Just as with footwear, the suitability and comfort of a backpack is more in the fit than in the features.

11:20 a.m. on May 2, 2005 (EDT)
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Backpacks for trail work

Dale -

Dave is right on in his comments. Just to add a little (mostly emphasize some of his points).

I used to live in Mississippi and backpacked there some with both external and internal backpacks (actually have done most of my backpacking, even when I lived there in other parts of the world), and I have done a bit of trail work in my time. I work with teenagers a lot these days, including some supervising of trail crews. So I have some experience with what your daughter will encounter.

First the practical side. External frame backpacks are really significantly superior for trail work. As Dave noted, being able to remove the packbag and carry awkwardly shaped loads strapped to the frame is a real plus. With the external, you don't get poked in the back with the odd corner, and you can balance the load better both laterally and get it closer to your back. This does require getting familiar with the adjustment of the straps. Yes, externals have better ventilation. But do watch for how the back bands are made. Some are mesh that give extra ventilation, but some are a tight weave and cover a lot of the back, so you don't get much more ventilation than an internal. If you look at what adult trail crews use, you will see a prevalence of external frame packs.

As Dave notes, get a good packfitter to first fit the frame (size, adjustments) to your daughter, and second teach her how to do adjustments on her own for those trail-building loads. In packs, price and quality do go together for the most part, but there are some old-line brand names that have a cachet but have declined in quality. A good packfitter at a good backcountry specialty shop can help a lot there. Ask some questions about the packfitter's personal trail building experience.

And yes, there is definitely the "cool" factor (hmmmm, both Dave and I are dating ourselves here - "cool" is not a current "cool" term. I seem to have lost track in the past couple of years, with the terminology changing a lot - "sick" was a term I overheard in a shop a month or two back that seemed to be a "term of endearment"). It depends, obviously, on how old your daughter is. I would guess that if you are sending her off on her own with the trail crew she is in the 16-18 range. At 16, she probably still cares a lot about "cool" "in" considerations, but at 18 she may have become more independent and think about the practical side of gear more.

Mississippi is going to be hot and humid (weather in 10-11 months of the year), plenty of rain (except August, which is hot, dusty, and dry), lots of mud (again, except August). This is one of the few places where cotton clothing is really very appropriate. She should have water bottles that are handy pretty much all the time.

I hope she is mentally prepared for trail building. It is hard physical work, but very rewarding. You get to see the progress in a very visible way. Most of Mississippi trail building is chopping vegation, but there is still a fair amount of shovel and pickax work. And a lot of teamwork, as with any trail project. Then again, the kudzu grows fast, so come back in a year, and it's time to clear the kudzu again (for those who don't know it, kudzu is a vine that someone introduced because it is fast growing. It was expected that it would hold the soil in place, but it turns out that erosion takes place under the vines. It grows literally feet per day, so cut it back, then come back to cut it back again in a week or less).

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