How to Choose a Backpacking Backpack

The Katabatic Liteskin pack in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.     Photo by Mike Unger.

The Katabatic Liteskin pack in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Photo by Mike Unger.

How to choose a backpacking backpack

Whether you need a backpack for an overnighter, a week long adventure, or a months long Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian Trail “thru” hike, the same principles apply.  The backpack should be able to comfortably carry everything you need for the backcountry. Here’s what to consider when buying a backpack, how to find the best backpack for you, how to fit a backpack, how to pack your backpack, and tips on keeping gear dry. Based on this criteria, we identified 17 solid backpacks and from that list identified the seven best backpacking backpacks.

 

 

There are many backpacking backpacks on the market. How do you choose the pack that best fits your hiking needs?   Photo by Mike Unger

There are many backpacking backpacks on the market. How do you choose the pack that best fits your hiking needs? Photo by Mike Unger

What to consider when choosing a pack

These are the principles we used to guide our full review of the seven best backpacking backpacks.

Pack Weight

Pack Weight

Weight matters.  The less weight on your back (and/or hips) the more comfortable you will be during your hike.  The best way to demonstrate this principle is to compare how it feels to hike uphill with a fully loaded pack versus the feeling to hike up the same hill with a light day pack.  

The backpack is one of the three heaviest items a backpacker carries (aka, “big three”)  items. The other two are your tent (see our backpacking tent guide) and sleeping bag. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to the weight of the backpack.   

The easiest and least expensive way to reduce your overall carried weight doesn’t require you to replace your old gear with new lightweight gear. Simply carry less stuff. Photo by Whitney LaRuffa

The easiest and least expensive way to reduce your overall carried weight doesn’t require you to replace your old gear with new lightweight gear. Simply carry less stuff. Photo by Whitney LaRuffa

Carried Weight

This refers to the amount of weight that your backpack can comfortably hold. This is important because if you carry too much weight in the pack, even the most robust pack suspension with load lifters and a thick padded hip belt will still feel uncomfortable.  


Most backpack manufacturers provide a load rating.  Internal frame packs typically have a 30-40 pound load rating.  Most frameless packs have a rating under 25 pounds. Some really heavy duty packs like our pick for heavy loads, the Osprey Aether AG 85 and Ariel AG 75, have a 60 pound load rating.  These are general guidelines. It’s feasible to carry more for short periods, such as if you have a large food or water carry, but consistently exceeding the rating will lead to discomfort, potential injury, and additional wear on the pack.

The easiest and least expensive way to reduce your overall carried weight doesn’t require you to replace your old gear with new lightweight gear. Simply carry less stuff.

The easiest and least expensive way to reduce your overall carried weight doesn’t require you to replace your old gear with new lightweight gear.

Simply carry less stuff.  

After a backpacking trip, go through your gear and determine which items you didn’t need. Do you really need an extra pair of pants or two cook pots?

Also, look at the amount of food and water you are carrying.  Those two categories are most backpacker’s two heaviest items.  Most of us tend to carry too much food. We are not recommending you skimp on water, but you don’t need to carry a full day’s water if there will be water sources along the way.  Treeline Review has a step-by-step guide on water filters that will show you how to quickly treat water while on to the move.

Pack volume for a weekend backpacking trip around Mount St. Helens, WA in the July is likely to be smaller than a fall or winter trip in the same area.   Photo by Mike Unger.

Pack volume for a weekend backpacking trip around Mount St. Helens, WA in the July is likely to be smaller than a fall or winter trip in the same area. Photo by Mike Unger.

Pack Volume

All the packs we considered in our full review of the seven best backpacking backpacks fell within a similar volume requirement of around 50-65 L.


A pack’s volume is determined by the total carrying capacity of the pack including the main body and pockets. Liz Thomas, one of Treeline’s founders, recommends in her book Long Trails: Mastering the Art of a Thru Hike, that you buy your pack after you have purchased your other gear. This way you know how large a pack is necessary.


You should also think about the amount of food and water you will need to carry.  Your gear may fit in a small 40L pack, but if you will be hiking through areas requiring 4-6 liter water carries or need to carry carry six or seven days of food, that small pack may be not a good choice.  Alternatively, too large a pack may encourage you to over-pack. We believe 50-65 liter capacity is the right backpack volume for most folks.


Like all gear, we recommend that you purchase a backpack based on the 80-20 principle. Buy the gear that best suits your hiking use case scenarios for 80% of the trips you will take.


For example: if you know you’ll have one ten-day backpacking trip this year, but you take weekend overnight trips twice a month, you’ll be more comfortable for greater periods of time by purchasing a pack with a smaller volume that works for your overnight trips. Because you spend most of your time on shorter trips, you’ll appreciate owning a more nimble, lighter weight pack. You can always rent or borrow that 10-day volume pack when that trip comes.

You may be traveling through unlevel terrain. Finding a backpack that is comfortable and fits well not only reduces the chances of shoulder injury or chafing, but keeps your gear more secure.   Photo by Duncan Cheung.

You may be traveling through unlevel terrain. Finding a backpack that is comfortable and fits well not only reduces the chances of shoulder injury or chafing, but keeps your gear more secure. Photo by Duncan Cheung.

Comfort

A backpack’s comfort is closely related to the weight it’s carrying. The less the backpack weighs, the more comfortable---regardless of the suspension system and padding. The pack may feel great fully loaded in an outdoor store, but after 6-8 hours of hiking you could be miserable. In our full review of the seven best backpacking backpacks, we considered packs that overwhelmingly had customer reviews from people who found the pack comfortable. The following are key considerations related to the comfort of a backpack:


Fit

Every person’s body is different. Make sure you get a properly fitting pack. We go into detail about how to select the correct pack size and fine tune the fit later in the article. See How to Fit a Backpack for more information.


Correctly Loading Your Backpack

We have discussed the importance of not carrying too much weight. It is also important to correctly load your pack so that your center of gravity is maintained and gear is properly distributed. We tips on how to pack a backpack provide tips later in the story.


Frame/Suspension System

A backpack’s suspension system is designed to transfer the pack’s weight from your back and shoulders to your hips. The frame provides a layer of padding between you and your backpack and will ideally allow some airflow to keep your back cooler. We especially like how our overall pick, the Gossamer Gear Mariposa, comes with a removable sit pad that doubles as part of the framing system. We also like how our Upgrade Pick, the Katabatic LiteSkin® Onni 65, has a frame sheet allows airflow.


A favorite feature of the Mariposa is the left side pocket (visible in this photo). It can fit a two-person tent or other items you may want to store on the outside of your pack.  Photo by Liz Thomas.

A favorite feature of the Mariposa is the left side pocket (visible in this photo). It can fit a two-person tent or other items you may want to store on the outside of your pack. Photo by Liz Thomas.

Essential Features

When it comes to pack features we prefer simplicity. We like to have easily reachable pockets, a few key attachment points, and the ability to customize the pack.


In our full review of the seven best backpacking backpacks, these features’ presence and quality often influenced our ultimate decision.

Hip Belt Pockets

Secure, voluminous, and easy to access pockets are one of the most important features of a backpack.


We like to be able to access important items such as a maps, snacks, and camera (see our best tough camera guide for more on our recommended camera for backpacking), without having to remove our backpack. While traditional packs were so heavy that they needed to be removed each time to reach an item, the packs on this list are so comfortable and light, most hikers find it preferable to keep their pack on to access small items.


This is why we like the large hip pockets on Gossamer Gear Mariposa that can easily hold a day’s snacks plus your lip balm, sunscreen, and other small items.


The front mesh pocket is the best place to store items you need throughout the day.   Photo courtesy Roger Carpenter

The front mesh pocket is the best place to store items you need throughout the day. Photo courtesy Roger Carpenter

Water Bottle Pockets

A well-designed water bottle pocket is secure while still accessible. Ideally, you want to be able to reach a water bottle while on the move. Even if you use a hydration bladder, you will want a separate water bottle for electrolyte drink mixes. (See our best electrolyte powderstory for more on why this is important for backpackers). We've found that it is not a good idea to use hydration bladders for drink mixes because they are difficult to clean and easily mold. In contrast, a poorly designed water bottle pocket will cause you to lose your water bottle when bending over or crawling over blown down tree trunks. A poorly designed pocket may also make it difficult to reach your bottle without taking off the pack. In the customer reviews we read, water bottle pockets were one of the most common complaints among unhappy pack owners.

All the packs that won our awards in our full best backpacking backpack guide have excellent water bottle pockets. Several backpacks that were contenders were cut from the list because their water bottle pockets were not easy to access.


Mesh Front Pocket

Perhaps our favorite pocket is a large stretchy mesh pocket in the front of the pack. This is where we store all the items that we will need throughout the day. We keep our lunch, extra clothing, and rain gear (see our best rain jackets story to select the best rain gear for backpacking). The front mesh is also a perfect place to store a wet tent or clothes that we don’t want to touch our must-stay-dry items in the pack’s main compartment.

All of the top picks in our full best backpacking backpack guide have excellent generous, stretchy mesh pockets. Several contender backpacks didn't make the cut because we didn't like their mesh pockets.


Attachment Points

As we noted above, we prefer simplicity in a backpack. We don’t want a lot of items attached to the exterior of pack. Dangling water bottles, tents, or sleeping bags can catch on limbs along the trail, throw off you balance, or even fall off. However, there are a few attachment points that we like in a backpack:

  • Ice axe loop
  • Trekking pole attachment. We really like the Mariposa’s trekking pole loops that securely store your trekking poles when not in use. (We also discuss foldable hiking pole options in our best hiking pole guide ).
  • Shoulder attachment points. These allow you to attach a small water bottle or gear pocket. They allow you to attach items you want easy access to like your camera, phone, or bear spray.
 
We like water bottle pockets that can hold two 1-L Smartwater bottles.   Photo by Mike Unger.

We like water bottle pockets that can hold two 1-L Smartwater bottles. Photo by Mike Unger.

Pack Customization and Availability

One of the great features about the lightweight backpacks we recommend such as the Gossamer Gear Mariposa and Granite Gear Crown2 60, is that they are large enough to support extended trips in the backcountry, but all easily adapted to work great for short trips or day hikes.


Compression straps

Compression straps allow you to increase or decrease the volume of your pack. This keeps your gear fitting snugly even as your volume of consumables (food, water, fuel) goes down. Compression straps are also really handy for securing items such as tent poles, trekking poles, or an umbrella on the side of the pack.


Removable items

The Gossamer Gear Mariposa and Granite Gear Crown2 60 can be quickly converted into ultralight frameless packs. Both have removable hip belts and frame. The Granite Gear Crown2 60 also has a removable lid. Not only does this significantly reduce the weight of an already lightweight pack, but makes them great day packs as well. This means that if you are on a backpacking trip, set up camp, and want to climb the peak right above camp, you can carry your water and snacks in the lid instead of having to bring your whole backpack.


Attachment cords allow you to air out wet clothing.   Photo by Naomi Hudetz.

Attachment cords allow you to air out wet clothing. Photo by Naomi Hudetz.

Additional pockets or attachment cords

As we note above, attachment points on the backpack allows you to customize the pockets or attachment cords. You may decide to add a gear pouch or attachment cord to your shoulder strap for a camera or water bottle. Also, shock cord can be added to the sides or the front of the pack to better secure items. We think it’s a good idea to use a pack a couple of times to get a sense for how best to customize it for your needs.


Tip: If you attach wet clothes (e.g., socks or a bandana) to the to the pack to dry as you hike, we strongly recommend that you use diaper pins to secure the items. Diaper pins are much stronger than standard safety pins.

 
 
Your pack is there to serve you, make you happy, and make it easier and more fun to enjoy the outdoors—regardless of your gender.   Photo by John Carr.

Your pack is there to serve you, make you happy, and make it easier and more fun to enjoy the outdoors—regardless of your gender. Photo by John Carr.

Should I get a women’s specific backpack?

Men’s vs. Women’s Packs

Osprey and Granite Gear make men’s and women’s specific models of their backpacks.  ULA and MLD have options from a “S” shaped shoulder strap, designed to better fit smaller bodies. Gossamer Gear, Katabatic, and MLD packs are designed to be unisex. Outdoor Gear Lab in their guide to women’s packs notes that women’s-specific models have shorter torso lengths, narrower shoulder widths, and waist belts that are designed for wider hips.


Hannah Weinberger in her article on women’s-specific gear notes that “gender designations are suggestions — not guarantees — that a product will work well for you.” Weinberger finds that good fit is more important than any gender specific designation on the label. We found this applies to backpacks as well. For example, ULA suggests that their S-shaped shoulder straps are“work best on almost all women and men with square shoulders and good posture.”


Naomi Hudetz, co-founder of Treeline Review, has found that “women’s” backpacks do not fit her correctly. She has a unusually long torso for her height and most women’s packs are too short. Therefore, we recommend focusing on getting a properly fitting pack, regardless of the gender designations (see our guide for how to fit a pack).


Because fit is so important, we also only recommend packs from companies that have return warranties in place if you find that you ordered a wrongly-sized pack.

 

Determining the correct pack size will depend on where you are hiking, the conditions, and your skill set.   Photo courtesy Amanda Jameson.

Determining the correct pack size will depend on where you are hiking, the conditions, and your skill set. Photo courtesy Amanda Jameson.

How to Fit Your Pack

An ill fitting pack can be a miserable experience.  When determining the correct pack size, one’s torso length, not height is the key variable.  Below is a summary of how to determine the correct pack size and how to fine tune the fit. We only recommend packs from companies that have return policies that make it easy to replace an ill-fitting pack with a different size. This means that you can purchase your pack in confidence, even if you aren’t sure what size you may be.

Determining the correct pack size

You will need to measure your torso length.  Ideally, you will have a flexible measuring tape and friend to assist in measuring your torso.  

  • Find the C7 vertebra at the base of your neck.  Tilt your head forward to locate the bony bump at the at the base of your neck.  This is your C7 vertebra.



  • Find your iliac crest (top of your hip bone).  Place you hands on your hip. The iliac crest is the pelvic bone you feel when you run your hands down the sides of your ribcage.



  • Measure your torso.  Have a friend measure  the distance between the C7 vertebra and the iliac crest.  This is your torso length for determining your pack size.



  • Get your hip measurement.  Measure around the top of your hips along your iliac crest.  This is slightly above your belt line. Therefore, your hip measurement could be different than your normal pant-waist size.  Ideally, you will be carrying the bulk of the pack weight on your hips, so it’s critical to get a good fitting hip belt.

Fine-tuning your backpack can make the journey as pleasant as a trip through a meadow filled with wildflowers.  Photo by John Carr.

Fine-tuning your backpack can make the journey as pleasant as a trip through a meadow filled with wildflowers. Photo by John Carr.

FINE TUNING YOUR FIT


After you purchase your pack it’s important that you fine tune the fit. We recommend that you fill the pack with around 15 pounds of gear, put on the pack, and go through the following steps:


Waist Belt

Buckle and adjust the waist belt so that it sits on top of your hip bones (your iliac crest). Tighten or loosen the shoulder straps to adjust the height of the hip belt. Try different waist belt adjustments until you find the right fit.


Shoulder straps come in different shapes and padding levels. Photo courtesy Amanda Jameson.

Shoulder straps come in different shapes and padding levels. Photo courtesy Amanda Jameson.

Shoulder straps

Tighten the shoulder straps so they fit snugly, but not too tight. Your hips should be carrying the bulk of the pack weight. The shoulder straps should attach to the pack a couple of inches below the top of your shoulders. Adjust the shoulder straps to find a comfortable fit.


Tightening the sternum strap, shown here, helps relive pressure on your shoulders.

Tightening the sternum strap, shown here, helps relive pressure on your shoulders.

Sternum Strap

This is a strap that connects the shoulder straps. Tightening the sternum strap should relieve some pressure on your shoulders and allow your arms to move more freely.


Load lifters on a backpack as viewed from the side.

Load lifters on a backpack as viewed from the side.

Backpacking load lifters as viewed from another angle.

Backpacking load lifters as viewed from another angle.

Load Lifters

These are the straps that connect the shoulder strap to the top of the pack’s back panel. Tightening the load lifters will pull the top of the pack closer to your shoulders.


The Katabatic Liteskin pack has a suspension system and center of gravity that makes the pack ride comfortably when hiking.   Photo by Mike Unger.

The Katabatic Liteskin pack has a suspension system and center of gravity that makes the pack ride comfortably when hiking. Photo by Mike Unger.

Continue to make adjustments during the hike

Straps can loosen throughout the day. You may find it more comfortable to loosen or tighten your straps depending on whether you are hiking uphill or downhill.


Make adjustments as the carried weight changes

For instance, I prefer to tighten my load lifters when I’m carrying more weight (such as a 2 liter water bag) in the exterior front pocket. This is because the water weight pulls the pack away from my shoulders.


 

How to Pack Your Backpack

There is no single best way to pack your backpack.  The most important principle is to plan ahead. Is there a chance of rain? Where are day’s water sources? Do you have any blisters or chafing that may need attention?  The following is how I personally load my pack along with some adjustments I make depending on conditions.


1. Determine items that I want quick access to without removing my pack.  

These items include:


    1. Maps, compass, GPS/smartphone if used for navigation or photos (see our iPhone for Outdoorspeople guide) ;

    2. Hand sanitizer, sunscreen, bug spray, lip balm, sunglasses;

    3. Camera (see our Waterproof Camera Guide);

    4. Light snacks (things I can snack on while on the move); and

    5. Water bottle (accessible in a side pocket).

I keep these items in my hip belt pockets and pants/shorts/shirt pockets. I prefer shorts / pants and shirts with good pockets to securely store small items.


Place items you wish to access throughout the day into your mesh.  Photo by Mike Unger.

Place items you wish to access throughout the day into your mesh. Photo by Mike Unger.

 

2. Put items that I want easy access to during the day in the front mesh or pack lid (if there is one).  

These items include:

    1. Lunch food, additional snacks, and drink mixes;

    2. Water treatment;

    3. Toilet items (TP, cat hole digger, doggie bags to haul out used TP);

    4. General first aid items that you may need during the day such as blister care items, pocket knife, tweezers, chafing balm;

    5. Rain gear (see our rain jacket guide), mittens, warm hat (conditions dependent);

    6. Tent stakes (I like these to be easily accessible at the end of the day);

    7. Wind shirt. I will often put on a wind shirt during breaks to stay warm or protect against mosquitoes.

    8. Headlamp. I also like to keep my headlamp accessible in the event it gets dark before I find a campsite. (See our Best Headlamp guide for more suggestions about how to pick a headlamp)



3. Now you can load the main body of the backpack.

I typically follow the following order:

  • Bottom section:  I use a trash compactor bag for my sleeping bag, extra clothes (which are in a stuff sack that doubles as a pillow), sleeping pad (if I’m using an inflatable pad), and ditty bag (this is a bag of miscellaneous items that I typically don’t need during the day and want to keep dry such as extra maps, batteries, wallet, keys, and chargers).  I typically will not put the sleeping bag or quilt in a stuff or compression sack. This is because I want the sleeping bag to fill in gaps in the pack and, more importantly, I want to maintain the bag’s loft (which is how the bag provides warmth). (If you’re hiking in wet conditions or quite concerned about space or your bag getting wet, many experienced backpackers will put their sleeping bag in its own compression or stuff sack at the bottom of their pack).

  • Mid Section: Here I put heavier items such as my stove, pot, and fuel. These are items that I don’t mind if they get wet

  • Top Section: I keep my food bag and extra water (if necessary) in the top of my pack.  The food and water are likely the heaviest items in your pack. Try to keep the weight balanced between your shoulders.  Also remember that all water containers can leak. Make sure the trash compactor bag in the bottom of the pack is closed.

  • My final step is to stuff my tent into the main body of the pack to fill in all the gaps.  I may also stuff my insulated jacket or fleece in the top (weather permitting) so I have quick access at the end of the day.

IMG_7149.jpg

Below are some packing adjustments I make depending on conditions:


  • If my tent (see our guide to best tents) is wet, I carry it in the front mesh and hope to have the opportunity to dry it out during the day.


  • If I need more capacity in the main body of my pack I will carry the tent, in its stuff sack on the outside of the pack, usually on the side of the pack with one end in the side pocket. I will also consider keeping my sleeping bag in a compression sack if I need more room inside the pack.


  • Try not to carry items attached to the outside of the pack, except for your ice axe, umbrella, snowshoes, or crampons. These are items that can have sharp edges and are oddly shaped, so are best suited on the outside. Some hikers will carry a foam Z Lite pad strapped to the top, bottom, or back of their packs.


 
 

Keeping gear dry is important to being able to stay warm at night.   Photo courtesy Roger Carpenter

Keeping gear dry is important to being able to stay warm at night. Photo courtesy Roger Carpenter

how to keep your gear dry

We must always be prepared for inclement weather in the backcountry.  Your backpack alone won’t keep your gear dry. Even backpacks constructed of waterproof materials such as Lite Skin® or Dyneema® Composite (formally cuben fiber) should not be fully trusted to protect your gear.  We’ve found that even on so-called waterproof packs seams may not be completely sealed. More commonly, the top of the pack is not as fully closed as we may have thought it was (user error).


Keeping your critical gear dry (sleeping bag, spare clothes, electronics) should be your top priority

There are three primary ways to protect your gear: pack cover; pack liner; and/or dry bags.

A pack cover can only offer limited protection to your backpack.  Photo by Mike Unger.

A pack cover can only offer limited protection to your backpack. Photo by Mike Unger.

why we don’t recommend pack covers

Pack covers have long been the standard method to protect your pack from the rain; however, they are not our favorite method to protect your gear. Water will find a way around the pack and have a tendency to catch wind like a sail and blow off or snag brush along the trail.


The big advantage of a pack cover is that they limit the amount of water that is absorbed into the pack material, adding to the pack’s weight. That’s one reason why we prefer packs made of waterproof material like Lite Skin. Note: water absorption is not an issue for Lite Skin® or Dyneema® Composite (formally cuben fiber) is that the fabric does not absorb water. That’s one reason that if you do choose a packcover, you’ll likely be happier with one made of Dyneema® Composite (as long as you aren’t someplace brushy).


If you use a pack cover we strongly recommend that you also use dry bags or a pack liner for critical gear.


A pack liner can keep your clothing and pack contents dry in all weather.   Photo courtesy Amanda Jameson.

A pack liner can keep your clothing and pack contents dry in all weather. Photo courtesy Amanda Jameson.

Pack liners

A pack liner is a waterproof bag that fits inside your pack to protect your critical gear. You can buy large dry bags to serve as your pack liner. However, we have found that a trash compactor bag makes a great pack liner. A trash compactor bag is durable and very affordable (just be sure to buy the unscented bags).


Some folks use garbage or yard waste bags as their pack liner. We don’t recommend these types of bags. They are too easily punctured, rendering them useless.


dry bags

We recommend that when traveling in wet weather, you replace standard stuff sacks with dry bags for critical items. A compression dry sack is a great option for your sleeping bag and spare clothes.


We strongly recommend LOKSAK bags for smaller items that you want to keep dry like your smartphone, wallet, and other items needing extra protection. Loksak bags are available in a variety of sizes and are significantly more durable than standard Ziplock bags.


 

More information

Read our Full Guide on the 7 Best Backpacking Backpacks for details on which backpacks made the cut and why.



 


 

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