5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack
By Michael Lanza
If you’re super fit and strong, young, hike with a pack of any weight 50 or 100 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 backpack for your activities and 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. The following tips reflect what I’ve learned about finding the right pack from hundreds of days testing all manner of daypacks, backpacks, climbing packs, and ski packs for the past two decades.
Follow these tips in chronological order to help you narrow your choices, and by the time you reach the point of trying on a few models in a store, you will know which pack is right for you.
#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 it out over whether 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.
Decide the one primary activity for which you’re buying this pack. Dayhiking? Backpacking? Climbing? 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. Yes, 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.
#2 Consider Capacity and Weight
Are you an ultralight backpacker, or carrying most of the gear and food for your young kids, or somewhere into between those extremes? 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.
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 six pounds or more (empty)—family or gear-intensive backpacking or climbing trips carrying loads of 40-50 pounds or more.
• Packs 55-65L/3,356-3,967 c.i., weighing three to four pounds—longer trips carrying 30-40 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., weighing under three pounds—weekend to multi-day, lightweight/ultralight backpacking with 30 pounds or less and relatively lightweight, compact gear.
• Packs 30-45L/1,831-2,441 c.i., weighing 2.5 to four pounds—gear-intensive activities like climbing and backcountry skiing day trips or hut/yurt trips carrying 30-40 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.
Planning a thru-hike or just want to pack as smart as a thru-hiker? Check out my post “Ask Me: What’s the Best Thru-Hiking Backpack?”
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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.
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#4 Choose Your Preferred Degree of Organization
This really comes down to personal preference—how many pockets you like having for organization—and to some degree, it depends on how much stuff you’re carrying. I’ll offer my tips, with the caveat that you may find you have different preferences.
• When ultralight backpacking, I want a lightweight backpack, which means minimal features like pockets and zippers. Still, I like the convenience of quick access for some items, like a lid or hipbelt pockets for snacks, map, sunglasses, and sunblock, or a mesh front pocket where I can stuff a jacket.
• With a mid-size pack (55-65L) for a variety of backpacking trips, I like an external zipper that provides direct access to the main compartment, to grab a jacket or food without having to open the lid.
• With a large pack, which I use most often for backpacking with my family (when I’m carrying more stuff), I appreciate a higher degree of organization, with multiple pockets and an external zipper that provides direct access to the main compartment.
#5 Try On Some Packs
If you’ve plowed through the above steps winnowing your choices, by this final step you have a short list of choices—as in, two to four packs rather than eight to 10. It’s time to visit a store (or more than one) and try on a few packs, put some weight in them (stores often have a weighted bag to drop inside packs customers are trying on, or you could bring some of your own gear to throw inside it), and walk around. I would not buy a backpack without first seeing, wearing, and handling it. A pack is a significant cost, and the fit will greatly affect how much you like carrying that pack, so it’s worth your time.
The only possible exception I’d make to that rule is if I know a brand’s packs well and have very high confidence that the one I want will fit me and meet my expectations—or if an online retailer has a good return policy; then I might order it online without first trying it on.
How does each pack feel? Slight differences in sizing and design may translate to noticeable differences when you’re carrying each one. See whether you can adjust the harness easily to where it feels good, whether you can reach into side pockets while wearing it, and whether your head bumps against the pack when you look up. Set the pack down and get to know it: Check out the pockets and organization, ease of access, what it’s like to load and unload it.
By this stage, if you’ve followed all of the above steps, chances are very high you will go home with a pack you’ll love for a long time.
I’ve been testing and reviewing backpacks for 20 years; I know a little about finding a good one. See my “Gear Review: The 10 Best Packs For Backpacking.”
Don’t shortchange yourself. If you’re just out of school and counting every dollar you spend, then frugality necessarily rules the day—you’ll find a decent pack you can afford, and you’ll be satisfied with it because it’s enabling you to do what you love doing.
But I’ve also been asked for advice on buying a pack by friends who are fortunate enough to not have to count every dollar they spend, and when I see them fretting over the price difference between a $200 pack and a $250 pack, I tell them: Get the pack you want. A good pack will last many years and pay for itself, and given how many days you’ll carry it, it’s better to prioritize finding the pack that feels and functions the best for you.
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The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun
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 categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.
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