Even zippers often play a major role in backpack construction, design and utility, they are often overlooked both by manufactures and by backpacker. Zippers on backpacks can be made to be durable, lightweight, lockable, color coordinated and even fireproof if needed. Having the wrong zipper on your pack could make opening and closing the pack more difficult than it should be, not allowing it to be lockable, catch delicate clothing in its teeth or drastically shorten the usable lifespan of a pack as the zipper slowly eventually completely fails.
There are many zipper sizes available but sizes #5 through #10 are most suitable for backpack use.
If a zipper is used for the main compartment, one should use #10 (preferred) or #8 to allow for enough durability for heavy use compared to smaller sizes.
Other compartments should incorporate #10 or #8 zippers. Manufactures often use size 5 for accessory pockets on packs.
There is also a YKK Uretek #5 water resistant zipper that is often used in some backpacks. The #5 zipper is a bit flimsy compared to its larger brothers, but the water resistance is a nice feature to have.
Size Coil Tooth #3 0 .165" ≈ 5/32" #5 0.275" ≈ 17/64" 0.225" ≈ 7/32" #8 0.284" ≈ 9/32" #10 0.417" ≈ 27/64" 0.335" ≈ 11/32"
Coil (aka nylon zipper)- Coil teeth are extruded plastic, sewn onto the zipper tape. Although most are now made of polyester, there were formerly made of nylon and are still often referred to as nylon zippers. They tend to be self repairing, smoother opening, very flexible, easier to work with and much more forgiving to clothing and sleeping bags. They are less tamper resistant and more prone to problems with dirt and sand than tooth type zippers. Coil zippers are more wind and water resistant than other designs. There is also a great selection of zipper sliders for coil zippers allowing for various styles and multiple lockable designs. The majority of zippers used in backpacks today are coil type, mostly because they cost less than other zippers, but they are also better suited for curves than molded zippers and metal zippers.
YKK also markets Uretek and other water resistant coil zippers in size #3, #5 and #8 (more difficult to find). These zippers are inverted and require an inverted zipper slider, decreasing your selection of zipper sliders and making it more difficult to add sliders designed for padlocks.
Molded Plastic Tooth (aka plastic chain)- These have individually injected molded teeth, fused directly onto the tape of the zipper. Resins such as polyacetal and polyethylene used to manufacture these molded plastic chain are incredibly strong and comparably sized plastic tooth zippers are much more durable and stronger than coil type zippers. They also stand up to dirt and sand much better than coil zippers. These zippers are ideal for many medium and heavy weight garments or any outdoor application.
The concern with plastic teeth is that should you damage or lose a tooth, the zipper is ruined.
Metal Tooth (aka metal chain) - These have been around since the 1800s and are generally made from flat metal wire. They tend to corrode and fall apart with time and abuse. They also have a great tendency of catching loose clothing (or skin) in them. These are not ideally suited for backpacks or luggage but can still be found on inexpensive packs.
Aluminum Chain constructed principally from aluminum - oxidizes Steel Chain tend to rust Brass Chain constructed of brass, typically a combination of copper and zinc Antique Brass Chain made from brass that is chemically treated to give the appearance of worn or tarnished brass. Black Oxidized Chain made from brass that is chemically treated to a black matte finish. Nickel Brass silvery color
Quality varies between zipper manufactures and low quality zippers and zipper sliders tend to come undone and fail much sooner than higher quality zippers. YKK is a good brand for durability and dependability and YKK coiled zippers are preferred generally preferred for backpack use.
Most backpacks and bags come with zipper pulls made from thin metal. These work fine and also allow you to attach a mini padlock or zip-tie through them for added security. These can jingle a little when you walk and are not very robust against attack. They can also be difficult to grab with gloved fingers.
Many backpackers choose to remove the metal pulls that most sliders come with and replace them with cord and cord locks. This gets rid of the audible jingle associated with metal zipper pulls and makes the zipper easier to open with gloved hands. Removing the metal pulls can make it more challenging to effectively lock the zipper with a padlock.
One way to keep your metal pull tabs while removing their jingle is to weave a cord through the slider and attach a pull tab at the end. When done right, this prevents noise as well as allowing you to run a padlock through the metal zipper pull when you want to lock it.
You can also use a metal cable placed within a hollow weaved cord with a crimped sleeve or epoxied pull tap at the end. This creates a jingle free zipper pull which is resistant to cuts from a knife or small pair of scissors.
If you are replacing or repairing a zipper, a good quality zipper slider is work the extra cost. Most sliders are made of some pot metal, while some are made from brass (often painted or nickel plated) or even stainless steel.
Padlock Zipper Slider
with single locking tab
Hasp Padlock Zipper Slider
You may find that few North American backpacks come with padlock sliders compared to European or Australian backpacks. If you end up with a nice backpack without the proper zipper sliders for security, you can retrofit some into your backpack. These sliders can be custom homemade jobs, single padlock tabbed sliders, multiple padlock tabbed sliders, or the hasp type padlock sliders. See our Zipper Security Page for more on this topic.
Keyed Hasp Lockable Zipper Slider
Keyed Lockable Zipper Slider
Sliders with a built in locks can usually be easily picked with a paperclip and the keys may of course be easily lost.
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