BACKPACKING GEAR: HOW TO CHOOSE A BACKPACKING PACK
If you’ve ever walked into an outdoor store or browsed an online shop and felt totally overwhelmed by the number of options, you’ll know that picking out the best backpacking pack is more complicated than it seems. With so many factors to consider, brands to choose from, and sleek styles vying for your attention it’s important to know exactly what you need and why you need it.
So, to help you find that perfect pack, here are the top things to know before buying a backpacking pack. We talk about what size of backpack you’ll need, what features are worth having, how to get fitted for a backpack, and more.
Basics of Choosing a Backpacking Pack
The type of hiking trip you plan on taking will determine what kind of backpacking pack you need to buy. Things like climate, gear, and duration of the trip will all play a part in what pack you purchase, so to help you make the best decision, here are a few important things to consider:
LENGTH OF YOUR BACKPACKING TRIPS
A multi-day trip requires a pack with plenty of room & storage compared to a pack which only has the capacity for a small overnighter. We’ll talk more below about size relative to the number of days you’re planning to backpack.
Weather and Climate
Will it be cold & snowy or hot & humid? A lot of packs have extra features and design details that can really make a difference when you’re out in the elements. For hot & humid weather looking for features that will help allow airflow on your back while carrying a backpack will help prevent a hot, sweaty back that could be more prone to chaffing.
Activities your doing in the wilderness
If your backpacking trip means you’ll be lugging a ton of extra gear you will want to be sure you have a pack to accommodate it all. Storage, functionality and external features will be helpful here. Some packs have padded pockets for carrying camera gear or waterproof compartments for wet gear.
What Size Backpack Do You Need?
Backpacking packs are often measured in liters and cubic inches. Not sure how to make sense of these measurements? Here’s a quick cheat sheet to help you pick the right pack:
- Daypack = Less than 2,500 cubic inches or 40 liters
- Weekend Pack = 2,500 to 3,999 cubic inches or 40 to 65 liters
- Weeklong Pack = 4,000 to 5,999 cubic inches or 65 to 95 liters
- Expedition Pack = Greater than 6,000 cubic inches or 95 liters
For reference, on my 10 day Alaska backpacking trip last summer, I used a 75 liter pack. For shorter 3-4 day trips, I try to use a backpacking pack in the 50-60 liter range. By choosing a smaller pack, it will force you to think about each and every item you are bringing, and as a result, your backpacking pack will end up lighter on the trail.
Learn practical tips for going ultralight on your next backpacking trip
How to Measure Your Torso for Your Backpacking Pack
A properly-fitting backpack means even weight distribution, comfort and greater functionality overall. Measuring your torso before you buy will help you find the perfect fit. Here’s how:
- Place your hands on your hips and locate the uppermost points of your pelvis, the iliac crest
- Draw an imaginary across the low back between the thumbs and pinpoint that spot
- Tilt your chin down towards your chest and have a friend measure from C7 vertebrae (at the base of the neck) down to the point where it intersects the line between your hips, and there is your measurement
You’ll want to purchase a pack that meets your torso length. Generally, all backpacking packs list a torso-length range in inches. While you’ll want to choose the right size to start with, many of backpacks have adjustable torsos which allow you to make micro adjustments to the torso length.
How heavy of a load are your carrying?
Some packs are designed for heavier loads than others. In many cases, packs intended for lighter loads are lighter themselves such as the ultralight backpacks by Hyperlite or a lightweight ULA pack. If you overload these packs they won’t wear as comfortably as they are designed and can be more prone to tearing. Considering all the different factors mentioned above will help you determine what size pack you need and whether an ultralight backpacking pack is appropriate. Work to keep your gear within the range of your pack size.
If you are new to backpacking, an ultralight pack might not be the best choice. You’ll need ultralight, compact gear (like your sleeping bag, pad, and tent) in order to fit everything in the pack. All that ultralight gear can be expensive if you are starting from scratch. We recommend opting for one of the normal multi-day backpacking packs we suggest at the end of this post.
This is an ultralight Hyperlite pack. Just one giant pocket, intended for maximum loads of 35-40 pounds.
A Note on Women’s Specific Packs
Backpacker Magazine said it best when they noted that “women’s packs aren’t just smaller men’s packs in pretty colors.” These packs are designed to properly fit a women’s anatomy, like more slanted hip straps and narrower shoulder straps that will fit better overall. If you’re a female and struggling to find a pack that fits you perfect, we recommend looking into a women’s specific fit.
Backpacking Pack Features
This fit of the pack is the most important factor when buying a new backpacking pack but there are also a number of features to consider when deciding on the right backpacking pack for you.
Internal Frames vs. External Frames
When you’re carrying a heavier load of 15 pounds or more (longer than a day hike), an internal framework works to help evenly distribute the weight around your back and hip area. Since internal frames are contoured to hug in towards the midline, they have a more narrow shape than other packs and provide the wearer greater stability and balance. This makes them great for activities such as climbing or skiing and squeezing through narrow spaces.
Packs with an external frame are the heavier, old-school version of a backpacking pack that is a less popular option and less likely to be found in stores thanks to the lightweight and compact size of an internal frame. However, this frame is able to carry heavier loads, give better ventilation and the ability to strap more to the outside of the pack.
Internal frames are the current industry standard for backpacking packs.
Internal Hydration Pocket vs Side pocket for water bottle
The majority of backpacks on the market today have space in between the interior compartment and the frame to store a hydration reservoir. Not familiar with the term? A hydration reservoir is a plastic bladder that can be filled with water; it has a long tube attached so you can drink the water from the hydration pack rather than digging out your water bottle. It’s a pretty nice feature that doesn’t add too much extra weight.
But not everyone likes using bladders when they backpack (including me). A downside is with most packs if you need to refill your hydration reservoir, you have to unpack your whole pack. Also when it’s full of water, it takes up valuable sapce inside your pack. The alternative is to use a side pocket to carry a lightweight water bottle or two.
When you are trying on the pack, consider how difficult it is to reach your water bottle with the pack on. If you’ll mostly be hiking with friends, then you can have them hand you your water bottle. If you’re solo, then you’ll want to be able to reach your water in the side pocket without help, otherwise you’ll have to take your pack off every time you need a sip of water, which really interupts your pace.
Removable Top Lid
The top lid on a pack helps and adds easy-access storage for things to grab in a pinch, like extra layers, your map, or snacks. On most packs, you can remove the top lid if you don’t need it and want to save weight, or you can buckle it around your waist and have it function as a makeshift daypack. Some newer packs actually have lids that transform into useable daypacks – like the Osprey Ariel 65.
Molded Hip Belt
Want a customized fit? Some brands, like Osprey, offer a molded hip belt for a better and more contoured fit. If you’re purchasing the pack in-store ask an associate to heat and mold it for you. If you’re buying online, call up your local outdoor store, like REI, to see if they offer the same service.
Packs with internal frames sit closer to the wearer’s back and can trap heat, which on a hot day, can get pretty uncomfortable. To get better breathability / some backpacks have a mesh lining or perforated foam on the back to increase the comfort level.
Other Organizational Pockets
If you’re a person who appreciates pockets over one big compartment you’ll want to get a pack that has additional pockets in strategically-placed areas. Many packs offer zipper pockets on the hip belt pockets as a convenient place to carry things like chapstick or your phone. There are also large stretchy pockets on the outside of the pack that’s a great spot for quickly stuffing in your extra layers.
Few packs on the market are fully waterproof so most require a rain cover, which is a thin and durable layer that you can wrap around your pack to keep dry when the weather gets wet. Unless you’re absolutely certain that it’s not going to rain, a rain cover is a good thing to throw in your pack as a just in case.
Our Favorite Backpacking Packs
Best ultralight backpacking packs for long-distance hikes
ULA Circuit (2 lbs. 8 oz. )
The unisex ULA Circuit is a clear winner for all long-distance trails. With a max load of 35 lbs, it’ll keep you from overpacking for your thru-hike. We love that you can select your torso size, hip belt size, type of shoulder straps & pack color to customize your backpack for your specific body type. And if you lose weight on the train, you can order a smaller hip belt and easily swap them out on the trail. This is the pack that Kim, Bearfoot Theory’s community manager, took on the PCT and she’s completely in love with it.
Granite Gear Crown Pack (2 lbs. 4 oz)
The Granite Gear Crown 2 Women’s Pack or their men’s version can support up to 35 lbs. The pack has a roll-top closure, a removable lid, and one main compartment. It’s all about being ultralight and minimal with only a few pockets on the exterior of the pack.
Best backpacking pack that doesn’t break the bank
REI Trail 65 (4 lbs, 12 oz.)
If you’re worried about organization, any REI pack will leave you fulfilled. We like the REI Trail 65 Women’s pack which has a bottom access compartment making it great for accessing that one item you stashed at the very bottom of your pack. Here’s the men’s version of this pack. The pack comes complete with a built-in rain cover so you’re ready to hit the trail no matter the weather.
Best backpacking packs for normal multi-day trips
Osprey Aura Packs (~4 lbs, 7 oz)
One great thing about the Osprey Aura Pack is that you can remove the top lid for shorter hikes. Osprey packs are often built with a frame that promotes ventilation and doesn’t position the pack flat against your back. Here’s the men’s version.
Deuter Aircontact Lite 60 SL (4 lbs, 3 oz.)
The Deuter Aircontact Women’s pack comes in varying sizes ranging from 45-70 L. I’ve used Deuter packs on several trips including my 22-day John Muir Trail hike & my 10-day trip to Alaska last summer. I’m still working towards going more ultralight, but with my camera equipment, I need a pack that can carry a heavier load. Deuter has met all of my expectations, and their packs are also priced well compared to other major brands.
Deuter has great packs specific for women with shorter adjustable back lengths, narrower shoulder harnesses & women specific shaped hipbelts. Similar to Osprey packs the frame allows for ventilation and helps distribute pack weight, and there is an extended extra 10 L pack collar for storing extra gear. Here’s the men’s version.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE BACKPACKING PACKS? WHAT QUESTIONS OR ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR SELECTING A NEW BACKPACK? LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW.
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