HIker wearing backpacking pack standing on rock overlooking green forest

How to Choose a Backpacking Pack

Backpacking packs generally have larger capacities and more robust suspensions in comparison to daypacks. These bigger packs are designed to carry the larger amounts of gear (40+ liters) required for overnights or multiple-day adventures. They also offer more specialized features that appeal to those on long trips. Let us show you how to choose a backpacking pack.

When shopping for a backpacking pack, consider three important questions:

Matching Pack to Purpose

When learning how to choose a backpacking pack, you should consider your plans with the pack. This simple question can narrow down your search quickly and considerably.

Are you just getting started? If you’re just trying backpacking, you might want a simple overnight pack (30-50 liters) with fewer specialized features.

Want a pack that can grow with your kids? Will you be sharing a pack with friends or family? Check out designs with adjustable frames.

Planning the big hike? You’ll want to look for more room (60+ liters), a robust suspension system, trekking pole loops, and convenience features such as a hydration system and hip belt pockets.

FIT

Backpacking packs are made to support long trips, which means multiple days on the trail with a heavy load. Because of this, learning how to choose a backpacking pack with a proper fit is important and can make the difference between an uncomfortable ordeal and a pleasant backcountry trip.

When we talk about fit, a point of confusion for some people is size (or more correctly, frame size) versus capacity.

A pack’s size describes who the pack is made to fit, whereas a pack’s capacity tells you how much gear the pack can carry. A very tall man and a short teenager can both carry packs with a capacity of 20 liters, for instance, but the sizes for those two people would be different.

Size

The first step towards getting a correctly-fitting pack is determining your torso length. This simple exercise uses a flexible tape to measure the distance from your C7 vertebra to your illiac crest. Once you know your torso length, you can consult manufacturer’s specifications to determine which frame size or adjustability range will fit you best.

Many companies offer special frame designs for women and young people. Women’s packs are created with an appropriate capacity for smaller bodies and theses designs better fit shorter torso lengths and narrow shoulders. Youth packs are similarly sized for smaller hikers and many are adjustable to accommodate rapidly growing children.

Capacity

The capacity you’ll want for your pack depends on your packing style and the length of your trip(s). For more detail about capacity, you can read this.

The important thing to keep in mind, in the case of a backpacking pack, is that everything that you need – for one night or a weeklong trip – is going into your pack, including a tent and a sleeping bag and all the rest.

Generally, backpacking packs fall into these categories, depending on your planned adventure: 

  • Overnight packs: 30-50 liters (1830-3051 cubic inches)
  • Weekend packs: 40-70 liters (2440-4271 cubic inches)
  • Extended trip packs: 70 liters and up (over 4271 cubic inches)

Features

Backpacking packs offer a variety of features specifically designed to benefit hikers who are on the trail for days.

Frame Type

External frame packs – these packs dominated the market for many years. In external frames, the packbag is attached to a substantial metal frame that is visible from the outside of the pack. These packs have several benefits:

  • retain their shape when empty
  • allow unequaled ventilation (airflow between your back and the pack)
  • the rigid design easily accommodates and supports heavy loads
  • generally less costly than internal frame packs

Internal frame packs – originally built for alpinists looking for less bulky, close-fitting packs that gave them better balance, internal frame packs include a much smaller and less rigid frame system sewn into the pack bag. These support systems are much less visible from the outside and have several benefits:

  • a more comfortable fit.
  • better balance and maneuverability
  • lighter weight

Today, most people prefer internal frame packs. The demand for external frame packs has declined considerably over the past decades so few external designs are currently available.

Hydration compatibility

Many packs provide an inner sleeve designed to accommodate hydration reservoirs of various sizes. They also include exits points in the pack (usually near your shoulder strap) where you can slide the hydration hose through, allowing access to your bite valve. Bear in mind that the a hydration reservoir will take up space in your pack.

This feature has become so desirable that packs at virtually every price point include them. Many packs also include exterior pockets for liter-sized bottles if you decide not to use a reservoir. 

Sleeping bag compartment

Many packs provide a dedicated compartment in the bottom of the pack for your sleeping bag. Some of these compartments feature zip-out dividers so you can choose whether or not to use them. Organizationally, this gives you a solid, cushioning layer at the bottom of your pack to build on. It also means your sleeping bag doesn’t get in the way when accessing other gear that you might need during the day.

Included raincover

While backpacks are made from durable and water resistant materials, they are not designed to protect your gear from hard rain or long soaking days. For that reason, you’ll want a backpack rain cover, which are lightweight and generally inexpensive. Some backpack models include an integrated rain cover. These integrated covers are best, as they are designed to fit their packs well, but rain covers can are also be purchased separately.

Detachable Daypack

If you’re the kind of backpacker who likes to set up a basecamp and then explore, a detachable daypack might be useful for you. Detachable packs are most often a removable lid. These packs are minimal, with less robust suspensions and simple construction. You can remove these lids to save weight on a shorter trip where you won’t need the convenience of a daypack. Generally, the detachable packs are included in the higher price point backpacks.

Load lifter straps

Load-lifter straps help you keep the bulk of your pack weight close to your body and centered over your hips. The straps reach from the top of your shoulder straps to the top of your pack’s frame. When you’re pack is properly sized and fitting, these straps form a 45-degree angle.

Ventilated Back Panel

Internal frame packs are designed to maximize maneuverability and balance by keeping most of the weight close to your body. This design decreases airflow between your back and the bag, but today’s designs have evolved so that many packs now provide varying degrees of back panel ventilation.

Pockets, loops and bungees

The more pockets, separate compartments and gear loops a pack offers, the more organized you can be, but all these features add weight and cost to your pack. Over time, you’ll come to understand how much (or how little) of these features you want. There are options for every taste, from multiple daisy chains to streamlined packs.

The Takeaway

Backpacking packs are specialized to carry large loads for long trips. When considering how to choose a backpacking pack, you’ll realize that correct fit is essential when covering miles with a heavy pack. Because of that, these large packs offer different sizes for differently-sized people and many offer adjustable fit options. Other features are available to make long days on the trail a little easier, like hydration sleeves, sleeping bag compartments and detachable daypacks.

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