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Backpacking Pack Buying Guide

Travelers with Backpacks

Backpacking has become a popular pastime for Americans in the last few decades. It serves as a great escape from the technological bubble that we live in in our day to day life. One of the most important things you need before going on an adventure is to make sure that you have an adequate backpack to carry all of the necessities you will need in your journey. That is why we have created the top eight things to look out for before making that crucial backpack purchase.

Recommended Capacity

There are no clear-cut guidelines to purchasing a backpack. They come in all shapes and sizes, and each one is dependent on a multitude of situations. For example, you would need a very different backpack during the summer than you would need during the winter. During the cooler months, you would want to be carrying a bulkier backpack filled with essentials to keep you warm out in the wilderness. Nevertheless, as technology has improved in recent times, so has the efficiency of backpacking and camping gear. Gear, such as tents and sleeping bags, nowadays is much more lightweight and just as effective as gear from yesteryears. If your gear is outdated and bulkier, then you will want a much larger pack.

There are typically three different pack sizes to go by, which are dependent on the number of nights of your trip and also the number of people you are travelling with. For example, if you are going for a short one night trip carrying only the essentials for yourself, then you will likely want a backpack in the thirty-five to fifty-five liter range. For those weekend trips you will want to be carrying a forty-five to sixty liter range backpack to get you through the multiple nights. And finally, for longer trips and trips where you are bringing along children, you will want a backpack greater than sixty liters.

Definitely keep in mind that these are base guidelines to go off of and are subject to change depending on several variables, such as gear size.

Backpack Weight and Load Range

Not only should you focus on the size of the backpack, but you should also take into consideration the total weight of the items you will be carrying. Different backpacks handle different weight loads. For example, you will need a pack with a heavier weight load for carrying older gear, and the opposite is in effect for carrying newer lightweight packs. The different variables for a backpack's weight load abilities are the frame, padding, and suspension. Generally speaking, heavier backpacks will be able to carry more gear. As a rule of thumb, a two or three pound backpack weight will be able to carry fifteen to thirty-five pounds of gear. Three to five pound packs have the ability to carry thirty to fifty pounds of gear. And anything beyond that is recommended for carrying more than fifty pounds of gear.

Padding and Support

The padding on a backpack is typically found on the back panel, the shoulder straps, and the hip belts. The best backpacks are created where the majority of the weight load is carried through the hip belts. This will provide the most amount of comfort and will make it easier to carry. A few things to note about padding are that the most comfortable backpacks to wear when trying them on are not always going to be the most efficient when carrying heavier loads. They tend to be less functional and create more strain on your shoulders and back. The best type of padding to look for is the firm kind because they will be the most effective once the pack is fully loaded. You also have the option of purchasing a lightweight pack for the shorter adventures. These are great for mobility and overall comfort, but you must keep in mind to not overload it with gear because there is minimal foam and padding for support.

Backpack Organizational Features

Previously mentioned were the advances in technology that have made newer backpacks more efficient and less bulky. Not mentioned was that in order to become less bulky than their predecessors, newer packs have placed most of their pockets in the interior rather than the exterior. This saves space in the backpacks, but it also becomes a bit more challenging when packing your gear. In particular, you will have to be meticulous in how efficient you pack your gear so you know exactly where to look for certain items without removing the entirety of the pack's contents.

There are three main things in the area of organization to look for when purchasing the best backpack for you. First is the main compartment access. Most effective packs today have a top-loader opening that allows access to the rest of the backpack. From there you have a "U" shaped zipper that allows you to fully open the backpack and easily find whatever item you are looking for. The zippers may add some weight to the pack but they dramatically increase the efficiency. Second are the exterior pockets. Though less prominent as they were before, pack designers still utilize their functionality in certain areas. They are great for placing frequently accessed items such as jackets, sunglasses, and snacks. Third and finally are the compression straps. These not only serve to constrict the contents into a compact backpack, but they are also used to carry oversized items such as tent poles. The backpacks with the best compression straps will have them located along the waist and lower back areas to take the majority of the load off of you.


Ventilation can be a challenge when trying to choose the most comfortable backpack. Usually there is a tradeoff between comfort and ventilation. The more ventilation, the less effective a pack becomes because it no longer keeps it as close and sturdy to your body. That being said, you will still want some ventilation to keep you cool during those summer adventures in the wilderness. You will want to have a separate pack for these summer months when you opt to go for shorter trips that are not much longer than a weekend.

Water Protection

Very important during the wet winter months is a backpack that can protect your precious belongings, such as your camera and phone, from water damage. You have several options here. First you can get a backpack layered with nylon that is resistant to light rain and moisture. For heavier rain, you will either want to consider backpacks with waterproof coverings in the interior of the pack, or you will want to purchase a waterproof cover for your entire backpack. Of course, this comes with an added cost as well.

Ultralight Backpacking Packs

We mentioned above that there is a tradeoff for a lighter backpack with the effectiveness of it as far as the weight of the load you are carrying. Still, many backpacking enthusiasts opt to purchase this type of pack because they enjoy the mobility it offers. If you are this type of enthusiast then you are likely the type of person that is used to the carrying the bear minimums and essentials only. This may not be the best pack for a beginner who is not used to being without the more luxurious gear in the wild. The primary things you lose out on are the padding thickness and the amount of pockets. Despite the ultralight backpacks losing many of the essentials of a more complex pack, there are still various options to choose from including waterproof backpacks.

Pack Sizing: Know Your Torso Measurement

All of the aforementioned is essential in choosing a pack that fits your needs, but the most important is knowing your torso size. The reason for this is that backpacks come in all shapes and sizes and choosing one that is never going to fit your torso will leave you an unhappy customer. You can adjust it tirelessly and never find your true fit.

To find your torso size, you will want to have someone else measure it with a tape measure. They can do this by first finding the C7 vertebrae that is around your neck's base. They would then take the tape measure from this point all the way down to where your thumbs lay with straight down arms. This is typically the point where you want your hip belt to be. If you choose to purchase a bag you really like but does not meet your torso requirements, try to purchase one with adjustable or replaceable hip belts. This will allow you to tailor the pack to your body and still allow you to take the most load off of your back.