The Perfect Pack: How to Choose a Hiking Backpack

Picking the right pack for your next backcountry hiking or camping adventure


The first step in picking the perfect pack is picking your adventure. And, well, truth be told the "Perfect Pack" is really something of a myth. There's no backpack that works perfectly in every scenario, but by going into your purchase with the most crucial facts in mind, you can make a sound decision and get a versatile bag that will serve you well for years to come.

Know Before You Go
Before setting foot in your nearest outdoor sports outfitter, appraise your fitness level. For most outdoorsy folks in the market for a hiking pack, we’re probably preaching to the choir, but it's still worth mentioning here: Bells and whistles can only compensate for poor fitness to a degree.

Also, expect to spend up to $300 for your dream backpack. Most major brands—Kelty, Gregory, Mountain Hardwear, Osprey, The North Face and Deuter among them—carry great options at around $200 that'll suit most weekend warriors. However, if you’re looking for rugged durability, weatherproof construction, and highly articulated customization—just to name a few extra features—be prepared to spend.

Pack Capacity
Hiking and backpacking bags range in volume anywhere from 20 liters to 80 or more, so it's important to know what you need. The most obvious way of calculating your capacity needs is to know how long you plan on traveling in the backcountry. Below are general guidelines for choosing pack size for spring, summer and fall trips (winter trips usually require larger capacity to carry extra warm layers):

Type of Trip Pack Capacity (liters) Empty Pack Weight (lbs.)
Day or Overnight (1-2 nights) 20-50 1.5 to 4.5
Weekend (2-3 nights) 50-60 2.5 to 5
Multiday (2-5 nights) 60-80 2.5 to 5+
Extended (5+ nights) 80+ 4 to 6+

If you do many types of trips—weekend and multiday, say—it's probably best to aim for a sweet spot on the border, like 60 or 65 liters. Know, too, that larger packs can often be compressed down with cinch straps to carry smaller loads in a stable package. If you intend to buy the latest, lightest, most compressible gear, maybe you want to err on the side of smaller. The point is that you know yourself and your style of backcountry travel best and should buy accordingly.

The most important consideration for pack comfort is fit. In order to be sure that your hips support the bulk of the load, it has to fit your torso length (not your overall height). To find your torso length, have a friend measure from the bony bump at the back of your neck (the C7 verterbra) to the place on your spine at the top of your hip bones (to find this spot, simply place your hands on your hips…your thumbs will be pointing to it). If you don't have a tape measure, many outdoors shops can size you in-store. Following is a general guide for pack size based on torso measurement, though individual manufacturers differ slightly:
• Extra Small: Up to 15 ½"
• Small: 16" to 17.5"
• Medium/Regular: 18" to 19.5"
• Large: 20" and up

Many stores offer pre-stuffed bags for you to try on in-store. Once you know the capacity you're looking for and know your size, try on a few different packs that match your profile. Features like pockets and hydration sleeves go a long way, but you'll quickly forget about them out on the trail if you find that a pack's suspension system rubs you uncomfortably.

Take a few laps around the aisles. It doesn't nearly simulate the real thing, but it’ll give you a real sense of whether you and a pack are compatible. An ideal fit will place the majority of the mass on your hips, while shoulder straps primarily keep the pack stable and close to your back. The best strap hugs the shoulder straps together.

There are essentially two kinds of pack frame available: internal (most of what you see commercially available) and external (picture old-school Boy Scout packs). Some traditionalists on long excursions still prefer rigid external frame packs for their ability to carry heavier loads. Most bags sold nowadays have internal frames, allowing for increased mobility and lighter-weight construction. They also prevent mid-hike snags on branches and brambles.

Aside from size, pack construction is the biggest determining factor in weight. If weight is a major concern to you, don’t forget to check the heft of the pack when empty, which typically ranges between one and five pounds. In the seemingly never ending race to shed weight, manufacturers are producing lighter and lighter bags. The major trade-offs here tend to be durability and comfort. A 140-denier (140D) nylon ripstop bag is considerably lighter than a burly, 840D bag, but is much less durable. Another place where bag weight is reduced is padding. Minimal hip belts and suspensions will significantly reduce the pack's overall weight, but may rub, causing sore spots.

The most dizzying aspect of your purchase, once you’ve gotten the proportions down, are all of the different pocket and compartment configurations offered. Some bags have only one main, highly waterproof compartment that's built to last. The downside there is that once you’ve packed your gear inside—an article in its own right— you have to unpack everything to get to access the bottom.

Multi-pocketed bags have become extremely popular. Some come equipped with separate sleeping bag compartments beneath. Others offer detachable, elasticized pockets. Some offer compression straps and lockable zippers, others offer specialized pockets for shovels and ice picks.

The important thing here is to closely examine the various offerings of your soon-to-be-companion, and decide what you think you’ll need most. It’s hard to rail against the accessibility that all these sections offer, though some argue that all the extra features compromise the durability and waterproof seal of the main compartment (while adding zipper weight, etc.).

The real issue though, is that once you’ve chosen your snazzy new sack, all those pockets tempt you into what else? Filling them, of course. But you'll want to practice self-control, because when it finally comes time to take your pack for a real-world spin in the backcountry, you’re going to want to pack light.


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