How To Choose the Best Backpacking Backpack

How To Choose the Best Backpacking Backpack

Good news: The right backpack is your ticket to backcountry adventures, from weekend escapes to weeks-long epics. Bad news: The wrong pack can turn your trips into shoulder-straining, hip-bruising sufferfests. You want a pack that accommodates all your gear, feels stable and comfortable, and has all the features you need for life on the trail. Here’s how to find it.  

How long will you be out there?

Pack volume is one of the most important variables to start with. A too-small backpack won’t fit what you need, while a too-big one will be excessively heavy and awkward to haul. The number of days you’ll be out, the weather, and your tendencies toward minimalism or luxury all come into play. Volume is measured in cubic liters, and general guidelines are: 40 to 55 liters for a weekend, 55 to 70 liters for a week, and 70 to 90 liters for gear-laden expeditions and winter backpacking (and hero parents taking a crew of young kids). The best strategy: Get out all the gear you’ll need and load your prospective pack to see how it fits. In the store, you can borrow gear to do this. 

Does it fit?

Once you’ve zeroed in on the proper volume, the next task is making sure your pack fits your body well. Good fit is critical to getting the weight to sit comfortably: on your hips, not hanging on your shoulders, and no pinch points or painful rubbing. 

Fixed versus adjustable suspension: Some backpacks have a fixed (nonadjustable) suspension, which has the benefit of being lighter and has fewer moving parts that could break. These usually come in several different sizes, like small, medium, and large. For the most custom fit, look for a pack with an adjustable suspension. These models can be fine-tuned for different torso lengths and shoulder widths. Adjustable suspensions are also a smart pick for people who will be sharing a backpack. Some brands also offer interchangeable hipbelts that can be swapped out to accommodate different waist/hip sizes.

Women’s Packs: Backpacks made for women are generally designed for shorter torsos, with shoulder straps that are positioned with a female body in mind. That said, these packs aren’t necessarily right for all women, and they can be great for some men as well. Let comfort be your guide.  

Measuring your torso: Packs are designed to fit torso length, not height, so it’s good to measure yours before shopping. To determine your torso length, have a friend measure the distance, in inches, between your C7 vertebrae (that big lump at the base of your neck) to the base of your lumbar spine (on a line between the tops of your hips).  

Check fit: It’s best to think of packs like shoes. Every brand fits differently. Once you zero in on a model that’s the right size for your torso length, you still need to confirm that it fits correctly. Load it up and cinch the waist belt just above your hip bones, then tighten the shoulder and load-lifter straps. With the weight resting on your hips, check how the straps fit your shoulders. Is there a gaping space? The suspension is too big. Is it squeezing down on your shoulders? It’s too small. 

Hiker wearing an Osprey backpack on a trail

Do you prioritize low weight or durability? 

If you’re the ounce-counting type, you might be drawn to ultralight backpacks, usually with simple designs and specialized materials. These can be great choices for dedicated minimalists, but keep in mind that the lightest packs are generally less durable than their heavier cousins (there are some exceptions, like models made with light-but-tough, and very expensive, Dyneema). Also, consider your whole kit: Ultralight packs usually lack a robust suspension, so the rest of your gear will have to be ultralight, too, so you don’t overload the pack.  

On the other hand, if you’re tough on your gear (or just want hand-me-down durability), you want heavier materials and reinforcements at high-wear areas. Check the denier used on the pack fabric. Denier measures a fabric’s resistance to tearing, and the higher the number, the more durable the pack fabric will be (400 denier or higher is a good bet for longevity).

Want the Goldilocks approach? A 50- to 60-liter pack that weighs about 4 pounds, give or take, is likely to offer a middle-road balance of weight, capacity, price, and durability. 

What features do you want?

From organizationing pockets to hidden day packs, here are the major features to consider:

Organization: If you like having a dedicated place for everything, look for plentiful pockets: Packs may have them on the hipbelt, exterior sides, and top lid, as well as an open-top pocket on the back called a shove-it pouch. On the inside, look for a hydration pouch. Some models also feature a sleeping bag compartment on the bottom, which helps a bag stay compressed. 

Access: The simplest and most common design is called a top-loader, with an opening that cinches tight via a drawstring. This is durable (no moving parts to break), but makes it a little harder to access stuff at the bottom. Some top-loaders have external access zippers that solve this problem. Panel-loaders exclusively use zippers for loading and unloading. 

Ventilation: Backpacking in hot weather is sweaty work. Some packs incorporate a trampoline-style backpanel that uses mesh to keep a few inches of air between the pack and your back; others have narrow vertical channels to boost airflow. 

Attachment points: Webbing loops, daisy chains, and other attachment points let you secure and carry ice axes, trekking poles, and other items you want strapped to your pack’s exterior. 

Day pack: It’s handy to have a lightweight backpack for summit hikes and other exploration. Some backpacks of convertible top-lids or internal packs that can be used for this purpose, saving you from schlepping the whole pack along, or bringing an extra day pack.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.