By Michael Lanza
If you’re super fit and strong, young, hike with a pack of any weight 50 to 100 days a year, and have never known any sort of injury or ache in your body, 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 now for my blog.
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. 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?
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.
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and the best ultralight backpacks.
#2 Decide on Capacity and Weight
Are you an 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 an ultralight or even mid-size pack can carry 50 or 60 pounds. First of all, many people—maybe most backpackers—simply cannot carry that much weight with any pack (and don’t 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 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 30-45 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., weighing under three pounds—weekend to multi-day, lightweight/ultralight backpacking with 30-35 pounds or less and relatively lightweight, 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 30-40 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.
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Want to make your pack lighter and all of your backpacking trips more enjoyable? See my story “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of that story for free, or click here to download that full story without having a paid membership.
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 my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside for categorized menus of all of my reviews and my expert buying tips.