Planning to buy a new backpack? There are three main areas you should be looking at to buy the right backpack for you:
- Types of Backpacks: What are you planning on using the backpack for? Everyday use, hiking, long distance journeys? Whatever your reason, there is a specific backpack for your needs
- Backpack Feature: These are the refinements that affect how the pack works for you.
- Backpack Fit Torso length—not your height—matters most.
TYPES OF BACKPACKS
Weekend/Everyday Use (1-3 nights; 30-50 liters)
Efficient packers using newer, less-bulky gear can really keep things light on 1- to 3-night trips by using a pack in this range. These backpacks are also ideal for everyday use as they are lightweight, durable and extremely functional. The perfect accessories for student walking across campus, work commuters, etc.
Shop our Weekend/Everyday use backs
Multiday (3-5 nights; 50-80 liters)
The most popular choice for many hikers, these types of backpacks pack in the 50- to 80-liter range are also great for shorter trips where you pack a little more luxuriously or multisport activities like backcountry skiing.
Shop our Multiday Packs
Extended-trip (5+ nights; 70 liters or larger)
Trips of 5 days or more usually call for packs of 70 liters or more. These are also usually the preferred choice for winter treks lasting more than 1 night. (Larger packs can more comfortably accommodate extra clothing, a warmer sleeping bag and a 4-season tent, which typically includes extra poles.) They’re also a good option for folks taking young children backpacking because Mom and Dad wind up carrying a lot of kids’ gear.
Shop our heavy duty packs
- Internal-frame backpacks: The majority of good quality packs are body-hugging, internal-frame packs where the structure is hidden inside the back panel. They are designed to keep a hiker stable on uneven, off-kilter terrain.
- External-frame backpacks: With an external-frame pack, you can see the structure that supports the load: aluminum (usually) hardware on the outside. Because the frame extends beyond the backpack, a backpack like this may be an appropriate choice if you’re carrying a heavy, irregular load (like an oversize tent or inflatable kayak). External-frame packs also offer good ventilation and lots of gear organization options.
Frameless backpacks: Ultralight devotees who like to hike fast and light might choose a frameless pack or a climbing pack where the frame is removable for weight savings. But packs without a frame are much more uncomfortable under heavy loads.
When shopping for a new backpack, ventilation is a key component to look at. Some packs have a suspended mesh panel and other have ventilation channels (also called chimneys) that both do the same thing. The suspended mesh back panel can be found in many internal frame packs that ride against your body.
A key feature to your backpack is the ease of accessing your items within the pack itself. There are a variety of different ways to open a pack however, top access is fairly standard. A smart pack that is used for overnight trips, will allow access to lower items in the pack through side panels that can be unzipped without the need to unload the entire bag. This is definitely a “luxury” add on feature and will increase the cost of the pack.
This is all about personal preference as some people really prefer lots of pockets, versus others that don’t want any due to theft or a more streamlined look. When looking at a pack with pockets, see if the locations make sense for you when using the pack. Put the pack on and see where you would use the pockets and for what items. Are the pockets big enough, small enough and in the right location for your needs. Are the pockets zipped, elastic or Velcro? Can a water bottle be held on the outside effectively and with room? Does it fall out if you bend over to pick something up? Hipbelt pockets accommodate small items you want while hiking like a phone, snacks, lip balm or sunscreen. When evaluating the top zip, some people prefer only one access point, where other prefer 2-3 top access pockets.
If you’re using a lightweight pack with a fairly minimalistic hipbelt and lumbar pad, you can suffer sore spots on your hips, lower back or shoulders. If this is the case for you, consider using a cushier hipbelt. Be sure that your pack fit accordingly. The worst thing to have, is a backpack that doesn’t fit your body frame correctly.
Some packs offer an internal sleeve that holds a hydration reservoir (almost always sold separately), plus one or two portals for the tube.
Once you’ve chosen the type of backpack you want, it’s time to fit your pack. It should be correctly sized for your torso length (not your overall height) and hip circumference.
Backpacks can come in a variety of sizes to fit different torso sizes, and some are designed by gender size as well. Many packs also feature an adjustable suspension, which can be modified to fit your torso.
The majority of a backpack’s weight—80 percent or more—should be supported by your hips. Backpack hipbelts usually accommodate a wide range of hip circumferences, from mid-20 inches to mid-40 inches or so. People with narrow waists sometimes find they cannot make a standard hipbelt tight enough and need to buy a smaller size. Some packs offer interchangeable hipbelts, making it possible to swap out one for another.
Because they have smaller frame sizes, women’s backpacks often work well for young (or shorter) backpackers of either gender. The torso dimensions are generally shorter and narrower than in men’s packs. Another thing to note is that the hipbelts and shoulder straps in women-specific packs tend to be contoured to accommodate wider hips and breasts.
These typically offer smaller capacities and include an adjustable suspension to accommodate a child's growth. Women's backpacks, with their smaller frame sizes, often work well for young backpackers of either gender. So do small versions of some men's packs.