Why and How to Wear a Hip Belt… Even Though It Doesn’t Look Cool

Fred Perrotta

Remember in high school when everyone wore their backpacks by a single shoulder strap? We were all too cool to wear two straps. Ergonomics was for nerds. One strap was plenty to carry a bunch of heavy books… right?

Oh, teenagers. Thankfully we all grew up and started caring about the comfort of our gear.

Except for one thing…

We still see travelers’ hip belts dangling around their legs. Their overworked shoulders sag under the weight of their backpack.

A good hip belt is a boon for comfort, even if you aren’t carrying an 80L hiking bag.

Your backpack can weigh up to 10 kg (22 lbs) while being carry-on-compliant.

Twenty-two pounds is a lot of weight to put on your shoulders. Imagine carrying that as you try to navigate an unfamiliar city to find your hotel.

A modest load becomes a burden when you’re lost, confused, annoyed, and on foot.

Both the Setout and Outbreaker travel backpacks, have hip belts, but this post isn’t a sales pitch. This post is an explanation of why hip belts are so important that we included one on our pack. The smaller, lighter Homebase backpack does not have a hip belt. We’ll address the reasoning for both in this post.

Now, let’s save those shoulders! If you already know why you need a hip belt, you can skip ahead to the section on how to fit your belt for maximum comfort.

Why You Should Use a Hip Belt

Let’s step away from the world of travel for a moment. Take a look at hiking backpacks, which are often larger and heavier than travel bags.

Every hiking backpack has an advanced suspension system, including a padded, weight-bearing hip belt.

Large hiking packs are heavy. They don’t have to conform to airline weight limits. They have camping equipment, not just clothes, to carry. Outdoor companies are experts at making huge heavy bags feel light enough to carry over mountains for miles at a time.

The most important part of the suspension system on these bags is the hip belt.

A hip belt can carry 80-90% of your pack’s weight, according to REI and Outdoor Gear Lab.

Would your shoulders feel better if your pack felt 90% lighter? I thought so.

With this statistic in mind, travelers who have hip belts and don’t use them seem crazy.

“No thanks, I’ll keep all the weight on my shoulders. The belt doesn’t look cool. I’d rather be uncomfortable.”

Travis from Extra Pack of Peanuts covered this topic in a podcast episode on choosing the right backpack.

At the max carry on weight of 22 lbs, a hip belt could take 17.6 lbs of weight off of your shoulders.

Transferring the weight to your hips lets your stronger leg muscles, not your weaker shoulder muscles, do the heavy lifting. This weight transfer is especially helpful for women.

We built the Setout and Outbreaker (45L) travel backpacks to maximize carry on space. These are big bags that hold a lot of stuff. They get heavy. A hip belt is a necessary feature. We included a hip belt on our original features list and have never considered removing it. A full sized carry on travel backpack is too heavy to carry on just your shoulders. Our robust hip belts are often the deciding factor for savvy travelers deciding on their next backpack.

Our minimalist backpack, the smaller and lighter Homebase backpack does not have a hip belt. At 32L, the Homebase is smaller and lighter (even when packed) than the other  Tortuga bags. At the Homebase’s size, a hip belt does not offer enough advantages to be worth the extra weight and money.

Now that we’ve covered why you need a hip belt and our hip belt design decisions, let’s discuss how to fit one.

How to Wear a Hip Belt

Used incorrectly, your hip belt won’t do anything. Just buckling it isn’t enough.

Let’s cover how to best fit and adjust your pack, including the hip belt.

When shopping for travel backpacks, make sure to check out the hip belt on a prospective bag. Some bags claim to have a hip belt, but it’s only a piece of webbing.

Webbing belts only keep your bag against your body. They do not transfer any weight. They will prevent your bag from bouncing up and down and from sliding side to side. This is helpful when you’re hiking but not when traveling.

Make sure that your bag’s hip belt has padding and can bear weight. Otherwise, it won’t do anything. Don’t be mislead by deceptive marketing.

First, you will need to measure your torso to ensure your backpack is a good fit.

Measure Your Torso

To measure your torso, go to an outdoor retailer like REI and ask for help. You can also do it at home with a friend and a soft tape measurer by following these directions:

  1. Tilt your head forward to find your C7 vertebra, the one that sticks out at the base of your neck.
  2. Find the top of your hip bones, also known as your iliac crest. Place your hands flat with your fingers pointing forward and thumbs pointing backward. Your hands will form a “shelf” that your backpack will rest on.
  3. Have a friend measure the distance from your C7 vertebra to the top of your hip bones.

 

Torso length diagram

Source: EMS

That distance is your torso length. You can use that length to buy the right backpack for you. Hiking and travel backpacks with hip belts will include sizing information.

A backpack that is too tall or too short for your torso will be uncomfortable. You won’t get the full benefit of a hip belt.

Now that you’ve measured your torso and found a backpack that fits well, you can load up your backpack and adjust everything.

Adjust Your Backpack’s Fit

We already covered how to adjust your backpack’s fit from the shoulder straps, to the sternum strap, to the hip belt.

How to adjust your backpacks' fit 

The hip belt should rest on the top of your hip bones. Depending on the height of your hip belt, the buckle should be roughly on top of your belly button.

Start there then adjust the placement and fit until it is comfortable.

Hip belts can carry 80% of your pack’s weight. When you’ve adjusted the belt correctly, you’ll know it. The weight will move off of your shoulders. It will feel like magic.

If you’ve never used a hip belt before, this sounds crazy. When you do it the first time, you’ll have the same “aha” moment that I did. Welcome to the hip belt fan club.

TL;DR

A hip belt can transfer 80-90% of your backpack’s weight off of your shoulders and on to your hips. On a properly fitted backpack, the hip belt should rest on the top of your hip bones. Adjust your shoulder straps then tighten your hip belt. When you feel the weight come off of your shoulders, you’ve got it.

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