By Michael Lanza
If you’re super fit and strong, hike with a pack of any weight 50 or more days a year, and have never known any sort of injury or ache in your body, then don’t bother reading this article. But for everyone else, knowing how to find the right pack for backpacking and other outdoor activities—and for your body—will make a world of difference in your enjoyment when carrying that pack for hours a day on a trail or up and down a mountain. This article will lead you through five steps to accomplish exactly that—helping to ensure that you spend your gear money smartly.
These tips reflect what I’ve learned from field testing all kinds of packs for backpacking, dayhiking, climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing over a quarter-century of testing and reviewing gear—formerly as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine for about 10 years and for even longer running this blog.
Follow these tips in chronological order and you will find the pack that’s right for you (or maybe more than one pack).
Please share any tips of your own or your questions in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
#1 Decide What It’s For
It’s tempting, especially when you’re on a budget, to want to buy one pack that will serve every possible need for which you can imagine using a pack. While that approach is understandable, unfortunately, setting such broad expectations takes you in exactly the wrong direction in this important first step toward finding the right pack.
Don’t sweat the fact that your diversity of interests demands a larger quiver of packs than you can afford; in time, when you can, you will get another pack. (We all do.) Your goal here is to focus down and narrow choices.
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The profusion of pack choices is largely the result of specificity in pack design—companies pursuing customers by making packs intended to be perfect for one purpose or another. Decide the one primary activity for which you’re buying this pack. Dayhiking? Backpacking? Climbing? Backcountry snow sports?
Sure, you can find packs that are more generalist and all-purpose—for example, tough enough for climbing, but with adequate organization and capacity for backpacking, or big enough for weekend backpacking and not too big or heavy for dayhiking, and that may serve you just fine. But if you want a pack that’s ideal for, say, backpacking, then look for a pack primarily designed for backpacking.
See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and the best ultralight backpacks.
#2 Decide on Capacity and Weight
Are you a lightweight or ultralight backpacker, or carrying most of the gear and food for your young kids, or somewhere into between? Are you a weekend backpacker, or planning to take weeklong trips as well, or planning a long thru-hike? Do you dayhike or backpack only in dry, mild climates in summer, or go out in colder and wetter climates, in shoulder seasons (spring and fall), or even in winter, too?
Capacity and maximum weight you’ll carry are two distinct but overlapping considerations. A mid-size pack, for instance, may still be lightweight and intended to carry only a maximum load of 30 or 35 pounds.
• Consider the total weight and the bulk of the gear and food you’ll typically carry, so that your pack has enough space for your needs, can comfortably handle the weight, and isn’t more pack than you really need.
• Don’t buy the lightest pack if you intend to carry more weight than it’s designed for.
• If you’re unsure between two backpack capacities—say, 50L or 60L—ask yourself whether you’re ready to size down some bulky gear (like a sleeping bag), or go with the larger pack.
I usually roll my eyes when I see a reviewer suggest that a lightweight or even mid-size pack can carry 50 or 60 pounds. First of all, many people—probably most backpackers—simply cannot carry that much weight with any pack (and don’t want or need to). Don’t trust any suggestion that a minimal frame and suspension system can carry a large weight, or you’ll set yourself up for some painful disappointment.
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How I use packs based on volume and approximate pack weight (there’s overlap between these categories):
• Packs 65L/3,965 c.i. or larger, weighing four to five pounds or more (empty)—family or gear-intensive backpacking or climbing trips carrying loads of 40-50 pounds or more.
• Packs 50-65L/3,356-3,967 c.i., weighing three to four pounds—longer trips carrying 30-45 pounds, including several days’ food, when I’m carrying some weight for a partner, or extra clothing for colder temperatures.
• Packs approximately 50L/3,051 c.i. or smaller, weighing under three pounds—weekend to multi-day, lightweight/ultralight backpacking with 30-35 pounds or less and lightweight or ultralight, compact gear.
• Packs 30-45L/1,831-2,441 c.i., weighing 2.5 to four pounds—ultralight weekend trips and gear-intensive activities like climbing and backcountry skiing day trips or hut/yurt trips carrying 30 or more pounds.
• Packs 20-30L/1,220-1,831 c.i. weighing 1.5 to 2.5 pounds—dayhikes carrying 15 to 25 pounds.
• Packs under 20L/1,220 c.i. weighing under 1.5 pounds—longer trail runs and dayhikes carrying under 15 pounds.
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#3 Get the Fit Right
For starters, measure your torso correctly in order to know your pack size. While many hydration packs and daypacks come in only one size, most mid-size and large backpacks come in two or three sizes, each fitting a specific range of torso lengths, or they’re adjustable. Some pack makers offer customization of fit such as different sizes in hipbelts.
How to measure torso length:
Stand straight and have someone use a soft tape measure (or a string which that person can hold against a stiff measuring tape afterward) to measure your spine. Find your iliac crest, which is the shelf-like top of your hipbones on your sides; place your hands there and your thumbs will point to the spot on your spine where your helper should place the end of the tape measure. Have that person run the tape measure along your spine to your C7 vertebrae, which is the knobby bone at the base of your neck when you tilt your head forward. That’s your torso length.
I’ve often found that if a pack model’s sizing is such that my torso length falls on the line between sizes, then either size could be a little small or a little big for me. If I really want that pack, the smaller size often fits me better. But you’ll probably find a more comfortable fit when your torso length falls closer to the middle of a pack’s fit range.
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips”
and “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes.”
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Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” the lightweight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”
NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See The Big Outside’s Gear Reviews page for categorized menus of gear reviews and expert buying tips.