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How to Choose a Hiking Backpack (for Day Hikes, Backpacking Trips, or Whatever Your Heart Desires)

choosing a hiking backpack assortment

Maybe you’re packing up for an extended camping trip known as a mountain bike stage race. Or maybe hiking and backpacking has become your cross-training method of choice.

Either way, when you’re choosing a backpack, you want to get one that meets your needs and (most importantly) fits you well.

Here’s how to choose the pack that’s right for you:

 

Start by asking yourself some questions

As with any purchasing decision, it’s important to know what you’re going to use the product for. Buying the wrong pack could be like buying a ‘cross bike when you would have been better off with a road bike.

Asking yourself these questions will be a good starting point:

  • What activities will I actually use this pack for?
  • Who is going along with me?
  • What all do I need to carry with me?
  • Is my camping gear heavy and bulky or light and packable?
  • During what time of year will I use it?
  • What’s my budget?

When it comes to activities, you might want the pack for hiking (day hikes), backpacking (multi-day, overnight trips), car camping, and/or travel. Each type of use prioritizes different types of packs and features.

Just as important could be who is going with you. Solo treks are one thing. If you do family trips, you might be in charge of carrying everyone’s gear, meaning you need a bigger pack than expected! Or perhaps you’re always with another person, and you can split community gear (tent, stove, etc.) between packs, so each person carries a smaller pack.

Most important, though, is what you’re actually packing. Pack size guidelines are usually based on the camping gear you need. If you’re also carrying photography equipment, fishing tackle, rock climbing gear, a bike repair kit, or anything out of the ordinary, expect to size up.

Similarly, if your gear is made for camping in the backyard, rather than backpacking, it’s not going to be fun fitting that into a backpack!

Consider the season, too. Do you stick to summer and nice weather, or do you get out in the winter, too? Winter clothing is much bulkier than your summer wardrobe!

Finally, your budget is probably going to be maxed out here – most packs, new, are in the $100-300 range.

With all that in mind, let’s start thinking about backpacks!

 

What it holds: Day packs vs backpacking packs

Usually the first choice you have to make deals with pack size (capacity). You’re either looking at a day pack or a multiday pack for extended trips.

day pack

The smaller packs, or day packs, are best for day hikes. These are the trips where you carry food and water, rain gear, first aid kit, maybe some extra socks… stuff like that. The capacity is going to be roughly 20 liters (20L).

Packs just get bigger from there. Day packs, and packs for easy overnight trips, are generally in the 20-50L range.

For multi-day adventures, when you carry not only the basic hiking essentials, but also camping gear (a tent or hammock, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, etc.) and more food, you’re looking at a 50-70L pack.

If you like to pack light, you can probably stick with a 50L pack. If not, they make gigantic 85L packs for you!

I should really emphasize that the type of gear you have to carry makes a huge difference.

backpacking pack

If you have an ultralight tent ($250-450) and a nice sleeping bag, maybe even a down-filled bag ($200-400), that folds up nicely and can fit with all your gear in a 50-60 liter pack.

On the other hand, if you have a $100 tent that weighs 6lb, and a $30 sleeping bag, nothing else would fit in your 50L pack! I’m not kidding. You’ll need an 85L to carry it all. And a pack that big is not cheap. (Then, of course, if you get hooked on backpacking and upgrade your gear, you now have a heavy pack and tons of unused space.)

Personally, in that situation, I’d get a 60-75L pack. That’s a great size that can fit cheap, bulky gear, or puffy winter clothing, or other non-essential hiking gear.

Why not use my hydration pack?

Just to give you an idea of these sizes, my Deuter hydration pack with a 3 liter (100oz) reservoir is only a 6L capacity pack. That’s alright for a mountain bike ride, but not much else… which is why we’re talking 60L packs. Ten times more carrying capacity!

 

Important pack features

Here’s some of what you might be looking for in a pack.

Top loading vs Panel loading

A top loading pack is where the very top of the pack opens. It’s like a laundry hamper.

A panel loading (or front loading) pack is where the front panel zips open, so it’s like a duffel bag.

Panel loading packs are great because they allow you to access most of the gear inside your pack, without unpacking what’s on top of it. Top loading packs are lighter and generally more waterproof (fewer zippers mean less weight and fewer opportunities for leaks).

For backpacking trips where you hike during the day and set up camp at night, and repeat, top loading is generally sufficient. But if your pack is also going to serve as a travel bag, and you need to access different gear throughout the day, the front loading pack is your friend.

Organization

Different packs offer different levels of organization. Even a top load pack can offer some external pockets to better organize your supplies.

Externally, look for zippered pockets on top, a mesh stuff pocket on the front, hip belt pockets, and elasticized side pockets.

Some packs have divided interiors with individual pockets. This is great for organizing small items. Not so great when you have a bunch of big items.

Hydration

There should be a special pocket specifically for a hydration reservoir. This is so you can remove and refill the reservoir (bladder) without messing with your gear. It should also have a drain hole in the bottom in case there’s a leak!

(Note: rarely will one of these packs include a hydration reservoir.)

Durability

It can be tough to tell just from looks, but with careful inspection, you can get an idea of the durability of a pack. Look for big, hefty zippers and thick materials.

Deuter is a brand known for durability. Beat up a Deuter pack, it’s going to come out fine. No frills, just bomb-proof bags.

Osprey is more well-known for innovation, cool features, and weight savings. In some cases, these packs can be a little more fragile, but they’re still made to serve you well in the backcountry.

Bear canister capability

Some areas (typically the ones with Grizzly bears) require all food to be stored within a bear canister. These are big and don’t pack down, so make sure you’re getting a pack that’s big enough to fit one.

I’d say you definitely want the 65-75L pack if you think you’ll ever have to carry a bear can inside it.

Accessories

Packs are available with some or all of these accessories built-in:

  • Sleeping pad straps
  • Trekking pole and ice ax holders
  • Daisy chain
  • Built-in whistle
  • Rain cover

*Rain covers are typically sold separately, but sometimes come built-in. (For occasional rain, a plastic garbage bag can be a quick substitute and save you $40.)

 

The guarantee and warranty

Since this is a purchase you don’t want to make often, I’d suggest looking for something with a good warranty. Consider both the brand of pack and the retailer.

REI

As far as REI brand packs, I’ve never worn one that was comfortable for me. But I love the store for trying on a wide variety of packs, and being able to return the pack if I happen to get it wrong.

REI is a great place to buy something like this because you get a year to use the pack and return it for any reason, no matter what brand it is.

Deuter

Deuter offers a limited lifetime warranty that basically says they will fix your pack if it’s deemed to be defective. Pretty standard practice; nothing to get excited about.

Gregory

Gregory offers a lifetime guarantee that sounds similar:

“We build Gregory gear to last a lifetime and that’s how long we stand behind it.”

There’s more legal jargon to it, but I’ve heard that if you have any problems with your pack, Gregory will take care of you.

Osprey

Osprey offers an all mighty guarantee that says:

“Osprey will repair for any reason, free of charge, any damage or defect in our product – whether it was purchased in 1974 or yesterday. If we are unable to perform a functional repair on your pack, we will happily replace it. We proudly stand behind this guarantee, so much so that it bears the signature of company founder and head designer, Mike Pfotenhauer.”

With Osprey’s guarantee, as long as your pack is durable enough to last through your trip, you can send it back for free repairs! Word on the street (and in online forums) is that they honor their warranty and are quite fast with replacement parts.

 

Getting the right size and fit

As with a bicycle purchase, the #1 priority is getting a pack that fits you properly.

Fortunately, it’s not that complicated. And they make packs for people of all shapes and sizes. It’s all about your torso length.

Everything else can be adjusted. It doesn’t matter what your waist size or BMI is – I’m a skinny cyclist, not even that tall, yet I can actually fit into the range of size Large packs. (I’m on the line between the upper end of medium and the lower end of large.)

If you have a friend and a flexible measuring tape, you can measure your torso at home.

First thing to do is find your C7 vertebrae. If you lean your head forward, feel that bony bump on the back of your neck? That’s it. Take the measuring tape, start at C7 vertebrae, and measure down your spine to the top edge of your hip bones (if your hip bones were in the center of your back). And that’s the magic number!

Typically, the following pack sizes match these torso lengths:

Small: 16-17″
Medium: 18-19″
Large: 20″+

There are also some “one size fits all” packs which adjust to fit most 16-21″ torsos.

When you find the right size, make sure it fits.

Even if you found a specific size of pack, it should still have some adjustability for torso length. This is going to be some type of ladder system on the back of the pack. On my pack, I simply un-do a Velcro flap, slide as necessary, then fasten the Velcro. And that’s it.

You want to adjust the length to where the top of the hip belt pads match the top of your hip bones (i.e. your iliac crest).

If you can do that, the pack fits!

 

Trying on backpacks at REI

Expanding on how awesome REI is, not only do they have an excellent selection of packs to try on, they also have a torso measurement tool. As well as weighted beanbags and stuffing for you to fill the packs with when you take laps around the store to demo them. And, oh, people that actually go outdoors and use these products and know what they’re talking about that can measure your torso and give you advice.

If you don’t live near an REI store, you could even order a few packs from REI.com (nearly as awesome as the retail stores), demo them at home, and return the ones you don’t want.

I was lucky enough to have my torso measured in-store and try on a bunch of awesome packs.

When you find the right pack, you’ll know it. I went in for a Deuter based on my previous experience, and bought an Osprey instead. So go in with an open mind and plan to at least try on a couple different packs from all the main brands.

(And yes, the Osprey Volt that I bought during that trip is still going strong!)

 

Getting a good deal on a good pack

Packs are expensive. The pack I have now actually cost more than my tent and sleeping bag combined!

There are a few ways to save money:

The easiest is to wait for a sale. REI has a few 20% off sales throughout the year, so that’s a good way to save $30-50. Sierra Trading Post will occasionally have a good price on a Gregory pack (and possibly an additional 35% off coupon).

You can also try your luck at an REI Garage Sale. You never know what you’re going to find, but you might find a nice pack, in your size, in good condition, cheap. If you don’t mind doing a little handy work, you could find a dirty pack with cosmetic damage for 50% off retail.

Or you could buy used. This is hit or miss, and can be a pain. But if you can find a local outdoors club, you might happen to find a member looking to sell some gear.

 

Backpacking FAQ

To finish up, I’ll answer some frequently asked questions that weren’t covered above:

What if I do both short and long trips?

What I would NOT do is purchase a medium sized bag. Then you essentially compromise on both types of trips.

Buying two separate bags will work great, but that’s expensive!

A big pack with a detachable summit pack could be ideal, if you can find one you like.

I decided to buy the biggest bag I needed, and I use it for day trips and multi-day backpacking trips. It’s not like the extra half-pound from using a bigger pack is going to matter over the course of a day. Using a 60-70L pack for a daypack is perfectly fine. The extra comfort features might even make up for the extra weight, to where you’d prefer it anyway.

I really think the 60-70L range is the perfect “do it all” size.

What about for rock climbing?

This is a situation where a day pack means 60-70 liters! You want the room for your rope and all your gear.

Should I get an ultralight backpack?

Unless you’re experienced, no. Don’t do it. This would be akin to a beginning mountain biker doing a downhill course on a road bike. Save that for Danny MacAskill and Martyn Ashton!

Internal or external frame?

That’s so last summer. (Or last century?)

Most packs today have a fancy load support system that’s a hybrid design. And honestly, it doesn’t matter a whole lot. Just get a pack that feels comfortable.

Should I get a women’s backpack?

There are some women-specific models out there that are a little shorter and narrower, with different contours to the shoulder straps and hip belts. Try them on and see!

The differences can be helpful, but as with bicycles, some women will fit a men’s model better.

Backpacking – It’s Great!

Backpacking is a great way to explore the outdoors at a slower pace than you would mountain biking. You can really take it all in.

Anyone else enjoy this form of cross-training?

Any more questions on your backpack purchase?

This guide was originally published on September 20, 2014. It was updated and republished July 21, 2018.

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Levi Bloom is an experienced endurance athlete who has been training and competing for over 17 years. A former Cat 1 road and mountain bike racer (professional class on the regional circuit), he is now a cycling coach (USA Cycling Level 3 Certified) and sports nutrition coach (Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certified).

4 Comments
  1. I had no idea it was so complicated. It’s like fitting a road bike. I’m glad I didn’t order one online.

  2. I’m trying to decide on a 50L vs 65L backpack (the Osprey Atmos, to be specific). Is 50L enough for the average person for short trips?

    • @Suz

      I would say yes – for most people, in weather conditions the average person would venture into, a 50L pack is probably perfect.

      There are always exceptions, of course! But the Osprey Atmos 50 AG Pack ain’t cheap, so if you are buying that pack, I’m assuming you would have good quality, lightweight gear, and you can probably pack that all down small enough to fit into the 50L.

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Hi, I'm Coach Levi. I'm a USA Cycling Certified Level 3 Coach as well as Level 1 Certified with Precision Nutrition. Want to feel better, ride faster, and look great? Let's work together!

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