Let me start by saying that I, like you, am still in the process of assembling my backpacking "setup" and am by no means an expert relative to some of the contributors/members of this forum. With that said, I am already well on my way to where I want to be; however, it has taken quite a bit of research (not to mention trial and error).
For me I got the backpacking bug while studying abroad in Argentina for a semester in college, but it wasn't until I moved to the LA area that I began to hike regularly. When I first moved to California I was borrowing gear from friends, but quickly realized that I needed to get, at the very least, my own backpack. Simple enough right?
My first stop was the local REI to get sized for my new pack. To my surprise I found out that I am considered a "small" when it comes to the mainstream manufacturers that REI carries (Gregory, Osprey, Arc'teryx, etc.). The reason this caught me off guard is due to the fact that I haven't fit into "small" in years. At six feet tall and 185 pounds I figured I would be a "regular" at a minimum, but one of the early mistakes I made was to assume that my height had something to do with the length of my upper torso (hint: it doesn't). With this newfound piece of knowledge I ended up going with a Gregory Palisade 80 and was looking forward to trying my pack out in Inyo National Forest.
On that trip I quickly realized that something was seriously wrong with my pack, but I wasn't sure what my problem was. Had I thrown in too much weight? Was it not adjusted properly? Another trip to REI and another backcountry hike in Death Valley and my suspicions were confirmed: the pack, while technically my size, was the wrong size. Like a t-shirt that fits great except for the fact that it rides up your armpits, my pack was destroying my hips and leaving my shoulders sore.
I turned to the Internet to help me figure out a solution, and the first place I came to was Trailspace. In the process of researching other options I came across a review where someone mentioned "... is a great pack, and unless you've got the money for a McHale it's the best you can buy." Frustrated with my search I decided to find out more about these McHale Packs.
Now before you go any further, I need to warn you that this community seems to be rather divided when it comes to Dan McHale and his backpacks. Some seem to think they're too heavy, others balk at the price (they're not cheap), and some seem to just not like Dan the person, but I was running out of options at my local REI and I thought that the custom fit of a McHale Pack would solve my problem. I went to Dan's website and was immediately overloaded with info. After failing to figure out what pack suited my needs I decided to write Dan an email and have the expert steer me in the right direction.
When it comes to your pack you really need to ask yourself "what am I going to be using this for?" Are you more of a weekend hiker? Or are you looking to do multi-day trips in remote areas? For me, I was/am looking to do quite a bit of international travel in the near future, so not only did my pack need to be sufficient for my more ambitious hikes but it also needed to have the capacity to hold my everyday clothes, laptop, and camera gear. The camera gear was particularly problematic because my gear not only takes up a large footprint, but it is also extremely heavy - my cameras weigh more than most people's base weights (two Canon 5D MK II, 16-35mm F2.8, 85mm F1.2, flash, tripod, accessories). For me it was this unique aspect about me and what I carry that made going with an internal frame pack a no-brainer, and considering the sheer weight, McHale a best buy.
Dan was extremely helpful in making sure that the pack I went with would suit my needs, and after going through the various characteristics I chose to go with a Critical Mass MB II Bayonet. What I loved about the CM MB II was that I could get the pack with his patented "bayonet" system. Essentially Dan uses removable titanium rods, which can be inserted into the pack to extend the volume to its maximum capacity. For me this one feature made the McHale the only choice. Take a hypothetical trip back to Argentina as an example...
Let's say I returned to Buenos Aires and need to carry everything I own on my back. Great, I just throw in the bayonets and ta-da! I've got a 7,500 cubic inch pack. Now let's say I travel out to El Calafate and I want to do a three-day hike around the Perito Moreno Glacier. Well 7,500 cubic inches is going to be cavernous even for a three-day, so what do I do? Take out the bayonets and I'm back down to 3,500 cubic inches.
For me having the luxury of multiple packs to handle different situations/hikes wasn't an option, and because of this I had to find a pack that could handle everything. For me, the answer was a McHale CM MB II Bayonet. Now if you're only going to be visiting the states for a short period of time going with a McHale probably won't work out for you (unless you're going to Seattle), but there are still two lessons to be learned from my experience:
1. Make sure the pack you go with suits your needs (capacity, accessories, panel loader vs. top loader, etc.).
2. Make sure the pack fits.
My short torso, camera gear, and need to live out of my backpack made my decision-making process relatively easy in that it created a very short list of options. So before you get here start thinking about what your needs are and which packs are the most capable at satisfying them. Now as far as what you put in your pack (sleeping bag/quilt, pad, tent, etc.) I’m going to be hard pressed to help you there (still trying to figure that out myself), but I have no doubt that others can help you return to South Africa with some great gear.