How to Choose a Backpack

How to Choose a Backpack

Having a comfortable backpack that suits all of your storage needs can make or break a backcountry trip of any length. That's why it's so important to carefully consider the right one for you. In this article, we'll cover what aspects to consider as well as a few helpful tips for finding the perfect pack.


Torso length is the most important aspect to look at. If it's too long or short, it won't be comfortable. Though sizes are pretty similar across brands, each has its own range of sizes, so make sure to have a helper measure your torso length along your back. This is the length between your C7 vertebrae, which is the prominent one at the base of your neck when you tilt your head slightly forward, and your iliac crest, the bony part at the top of your hips.

Fortunately, more and more backpacks are being designed with an adjustable torso, giving you an even better, if not perfect, fit. This may be an especially critical factor for you if you are planning on sharing your backpack with anyone else.

You should also consider the comfort of the shoulder straps and hip belt. Some hikers like more padding than others. In some cases, you can trade out either of these for ones that are a better length, shape, and amount of cushion for you. Since most of the pack weight should be sitting on your hips, take special care to ensure the hip belt feels and sits right on your own hips.

For the petite people out there, yes, women-sized backpacks do make a difference. The smaller torso length is perfect for men or women on the smaller side and overall the packs are a bit narrower, hence less cumbersome. The shoulder straps are also designed to not dig in nearly as much in the chest and armpit area because they are flared.


How much storage space your backpack offers is, of course, the other main factor to consider. Most pack volumes are given in liters. Which size works best for your needs depends on a number of things, including:

  • Trip length is the primary consideration when it comes to size. Will you mostly be going on short overnighters, several-day long, or week-long treks?
  • Do you prefer taking some “luxury items” or do you gravitate more towards ultralight backpacking? 
  • Do you need the space/inside pocket to hold a hydration bladder? Or will you be relying on water bottles?

Pack sizes can be broken down into the following groups.

Overnight Packs (35 liters or less) - The name says it all for these bags. They are best suited for overnight trips and ultralight hikers. One of the major drawbacks of this size is that you will still likely need to attach one of your larger items to the outside of the bag, such as your sleeping bag, which may not be wise if you don't have a rain cover. However, if you have a habit of bringing too much gear with you, it may be just the thing you need to cut back on unnecessary items.

Multi-Day Packs (35-50 liters) - This size works for those 3-5 day long trips in the backcountry. They provide ample space for the extra food and clothing you will need. You should also have enough room inside the pack itself to fit even your bulky items as opposed to strapping them to the outside.

Extended-Trip Packs (50 liters+) - These packs are perfect if you plan on being out on the trail for a week or more. (Or even a thru-hike.) You might also consider one if you can't live without some bulkier luxury items, such as a coffee press, if you don't mind the extra weight and bulk. These packs are also typically used for mountaineering to accommodate the extra gear that goes along with it.

Some packs feature a roll-top closure, which allows you to adjust the storage volume to whatever you need. For example, you might start with more volume at the beginning of a trip, but as you consume food and fuel, you might be able to roll the top down further to make the pack smaller. If you plan on going on different length trips, a roll-top closure could be a great feature.

Other Aspects to Consider

Backpacks are as varied as the hikers using them. Once you pinpoint what size you need, there are some other accoutrements to contemplate.

  • Does it have water bottle pockets? 
  • Are there any compartments on the shoulder straps or hip belt to hold your phone, knife, and other smaller objects you may need easy access to? 
  • Does it have “lid” storage at the top for quickly grabbing things you may need frequently without digging through your entire bag? (This is also good for using as a day pack on longer trips.) 
  • Does the inside have enough pockets to organize all of your gear, making it easier to find specific items without too much digging? Does it have too many pockets for your liking? 
  • Is the back area ventilated and is that something you want or need? (Most likely “yes” if you will be doing a lot of hiking in the summer or get hot easily.)
  • How many access points does the main compartment have?
  • Does it come with a rain cover or will that be an added expense?
  • Is there a sleeping bag compartment?
  • Does it come with load lifter straps? (These make a huge difference in weight distribution and overall comfort.)
  • How adjustable is the sternum strap? (Aside from adjusting it horizontally, does it also move up and down along the shoulder straps for extra adjustment?)
  • Does it include attachment points on the outside of the pack? (These are handy for attaching trekking poles when not in use.)
  • Consider the weight of the pack. It's not uncommon to find backpacks that weigh 4-5 pounds. If you're into ultralight backpacking and don't need a fancy suspension to carry 50 pound loads, a simple ultralight backpack can weight less than 2 pounds and still provide everything that you need.


Here are a few other suggestions for making your backpack purchasing experience a satisfying one.

  • Try packs on at a store, if possible. Try different brands as well as styles. If you don't have a particular brand or pack in mind, talk about your needs with the employees and they can give you suggestions. Reputable places will also put special weights in the packs when you're trying them out so you can get a feel for how they will handle out on the trail. 
  • Find out if the pack/brand you choose offers a lifetime guarantee if something ends up needing to be replaced or even if returns are available if the pack doesn't work out for whatever reason.
  • Look into borrowing a backpack from someone you know to get an idea of what features you would like in your own.
  • Research, research, research! If you have a solid idea of what you want, shop around before making a purchase.

What is your go-to backpack? What one would you recommend for a beginner?

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