How To Choose A Backpacking Pack [Your In-depth Guide]
Choosing a backpacking pack should be pretty straightforward, right? Afterall, it’s a backpack, how hard can this be?
And you’re right. It’s not challenging, but this is still an area that so many people get wrong because they don’t know what to look for and what to get. Which then costs them endless misery on their trip because then your back hurts, things don’t sit correctly, and you’re left spending the entire trip shuffling around your backpack and struggling. Why put yourself through that?
In this blog, we’re going to break down in depth exactly what you need to consider when choosing a backpacking back.
If you’re not sure what to bring backpacking, read through my backpacking pack list.
Browse a specific category by clicking on any of the quick links below:
- Women Specific Backpacks
- Backpack Frame Types
- Frameless Backpacks
- Pack Access
BACKPACKING PACK WEIGHT
When choosing the best backpacking pack for you, it is important to consider the weight of the pack because a backpack falls into the category of the “big 3.” This means the quickest way to drop the base weight of your pack is to reduce the weight of your backpack, sleeping bag and tent.
However, having a ultralight (UL) backpack doesn’t make sense, if the rest of your gear isn’t ultralight. This is an area where many people get it wrong. Ultralight backpacks are designed to carry ultralight gear, not to mention non-ultralight gear won’t even fit inside. Which is going to leave you scrambling to strap stuff to the outside of your pack, and it’s going to dig into your shoulders and your lower back the entire time.
Every backpack is built to hold up to a certain amount of weight and still be comfortable. If a backpack is meant to hold 20lbs and you fill it with 50lbs, you’ll be uncomfortable and the pack might rip while you’re on the trail. This is where careful planning comes in handy!
Make sure that the backpack you select is properly fitted for your body. If the bag is too small or too big, you’ll be uncomfortable. To find the right fit, measure along your spine from the base of your neck to the top of your hips.
Torso length to pack size:
- Up to 15” – Extra Small
- 16” to 17” – Small
- 18” to 19” – Medium/Regular
- 20” + – Large/Tall
Ideally when choosing a backpack, go into a store and get measured. If you prefer to shop online, grab a tape measure and have a friend or family member measure from your iliac crest which is the top of your hip bone (directly below your armpit, not in front of your body) to the C7 vertebrae which is at the base of your neck. If you’re having trouble finding your C7 vertebrae, look down at the ground, the bone that sticks out the most is your C7.
Keep in mind that sizes are not uniform across brands, it’s like buying pants. You might be one size in American Eagle but another size in Levi’s. So if you’re buying online, check their sizing guide against your measurements.
A majority of the pack weight should sit on your hips, not on your shoulders. So when looking for a backpack that fits, make sure that the hip belt also fits. It should sit right on your hip bones. Some backpacks come with interchangeable hip belts so if you need something wider or narrower, you can easily swap it out.
Something to keep in mind as you’re shopping around for a pack – Women’s backpacks often have smaller frames, are generally shorter and narrower than men’s backpacks, and the hip belts and shoulder straps are contoured to better fit a woman.
Capacity of your backpacking pack is where a lot of people also get confused and get it wrong. Remember how earlier we talked about choosing the weight of your backpack based on how much gear and what kind of gear you have? Not just UL or not?
The same thing applies to choosing the capacity of your backpacking pack. Say you’re just getting started with backpacking, you don’t have a lot of gear that compresses nicely and it’s not really ultralight, you should not be getting a backpacking pack that’s smaller than 50L (liters). 50L to 65L is going to be the golden zone for the capacity you’re aiming for.
You shouldn’t have stuff strapped to the outside of your pack. Your tent, or a sleeping pad is fine to strap to the outside. Even your water shoes while they dry after a water crossing, but that’s it. It’ throws off your center of gravity. So your goal is to get everything to fit inside.
Pro Tip – If it doesn’t fit and you don’t need it for survival, leave it at home.
A lot of people also think their pack capacity needs to vary depending on the trip duration. That’s only partially true. For the most part, whether you’re heading out on a week long backpacking trip or a weekend trip, you’re going to be bringing the same amount of stuff with you. You might need extra pairs of underwear or bring rain pants for one trip but not the other. But the big thing that will vary will be how much food and water you bring per trip, not so much how much stuff you bring.
Your trip might only be a weekend, but if you didn’t factor in size or weight for the rest of your gear, you might need to get a 50-65L pack. If you’re also going somewhere with bears, you may need to bring a bear canister, so factor in the size of that, and how much food you will need. If you’re doing a longer trail like the John Muir Trail, you’ll be hiking for roughly 2 to 3 weeks, but you’ll have resupplies so you won’t have to carry that much food. So there are a lot of factors to consider with the size of your pack.
I also don’t recommend getting anything bigger than a 65L pack. If your pack is bigger, you’re going to want to fill it with more things which is only going to add pack weight and make your trip more uncomfortable.
I have a 65L Osprey Aura pack that I’ve used on weekend trips, a week long trip and then for 16 days on the John Muir Trail. I have some ultralight gear like my tent, I’ve factored in weight and size for my sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and food. But with my BV500 bear canister and not willing to skimp on bringing my PJ’s.
If you’re sharing your gear with someone and they can help carry some of the weight, you can go with a smaller sized pack.
Majority of backpacking packs have internal frames. They are body hugging and designed to keep you stable on uneven terrain. They’re designed to keep the weight off your shoulders and on your hips.
These frames are ideal for healthy and irregular loads. They also offer good ventilation and offer lots of gear organization options. You might be able to find some external-frame backpacks out there, but most of the options will be internal-frames.
Most ultralight packs have a frameless pack to save weight.
Some backpacks feature a suspended mesh back panel, it’s also called “tension-mesh suspension,” which has a trampoline-like design, which keeps the backpack a few inches away from your back which helps keep your sweaty back ventilated.
There are hip belt pockets and there are pockets around the outside of the back. Typically in the pockets you’ll put things you’ll need throughout the day such as snacks, a map, a trowel, and your phone. Some packs have more pockets, others have less. When looking for a backpack identify which pockets you want to have for convenience.
I, personally, like having hip belt pockets to store snacks that I’ll want throughout the day in them. This way I can snack, don’t have to take off the pack and can even keep hiking! My phone is a little too big for my hip belt pockets, but if it fit, I would keep it in there too!
SLEEPING BAG COMPARTMENT
This is a zippered stash spot at the bottom of your pack. It’s a useful feature if you don’t want to use a compression stuff sack for your sleeping bag. That way, you just stuff your sleeping bag to the bottom of your back, and you’re good to go for the day. When you’re packing your backpack, you always want your sleeping bag, or other light stuff to sit at the bottom of your pack, compared to something heavy like a bear canister that will cause back pain.
REMOVABLE TOP LID
Some packs have removable top lids. To save on weight and if you don’t need it for a backpacking trip, just take it off. In some packs the top lid can also be used as a day pack.
These are loops on the outside of your pack where you can attach an ice axe or hiking poles. Sometimes you’ll have a daisy chain, which is a length of webbing sewn to the outside of the pack where you can attach multiple things like a helmet and water shoes.
Move overnight packs come with an internal sleeve where you can put a hydration bladder into. Sometimes they’re sold together, but almost always they’re sold separately. There are also going to be one or two holes where you’d pull out the hose to the front of your pack.
I have this pack. It has an Anti-Gravity suspension system where the weight of the pack sits on your hips instead of your back. I have scoliosis so the Anti-Gravity has been huge for me! On packs without this feature, my back hurts. I have the 65L version but there is also a 50L. It’s not the lightest pack, mine is just over 4 pounds. But I value the back support. It also has the back ventilation/suspension.
In this pack, the harness and hip belt rotate independently of each other so you can adapt this pack to your body and the terrain. This pack is also over 4 pounds. This pack also has a suspension for breathability, a removable hydration sleeve which converts to a day pack, and a sunglasses stow system on the shoulder strap for quick and scratch free access to your sunglasses.
This pack has adjustable torso length, hydration sleeve for your bladder, removable lid, sleeping bag compartment, and they use open-cell foam for increased ventilation while anatomic X-frame aluminum stays move with you and provide effective load transfer.
REI Co-op Flash Women’s 44 and Men’s 45 Pack
This pack is just over 2 pounds, removable pockets on the shoulder straps and the hip belt, attachment loops, and a hydration compatible design.
Osprey Lumina (Women’s) and Levity (Men’s) 45 Pack
These are Osprey’s UL backpacks. To go with an UL backpack, you do need UL gear in general. The packs weight 1 pound and 12 ounces. NanoFly fabric integrates ultra-high-molecular weight ripstop and Cordura nylon, creating a light but durable fabric that minimizes pack weight.