How to Choose a Backpacking Pack
Backpacking packs come in a variety of different sizes, shapes, and colors, with different features, some are ultralight (UL), while others are heavier. At the end of the day the two most important parts of picking a backpack are will you be comfortable and can you fit everything you need with you.
If you’re not sure what to bring backpacking, read through my backpacking pack list.
For backpacking, the weight is important too, because a backpack falls into the category of the “big 3,” meaning, that the quickest way to drop the base weight of your pack is to reduce the weight of your backpack, sleeping bag and tent. However, having a UL backpack doesn’t make sense, if the rest of your gear isn’t UL.
Every backpack is also built to hold up to a certain amount of weight and still be comfortable. If a backpack is meant to hold 20lbs and you fill it with 50lbs, you’ll be uncomfortable and the pack might rip while you’re on the trail. This is where careful planning comes in handy!
Make sure that the backpack you select is properly fitted for your body. If the bag is too small or too big, you’ll be uncomfortable.
To find the right fit, measure along your spine from the base of your neck to the top of your hips.
Torso length to pack size:
Up to 15” - Extra Small
16” to 17” - Small
18” to 19” - Medium/Regular
20” + - Large/Tall
A majority of the pack weight should sit on your hips, not on your shoulders. So when looking for a backpack that fits, make sure that the hip belt also fits. It should sit right on your hip bones. Some backpacks come with interchangeable hip belts so if you need something wider or narrower, you can easily swap it out.
Women Specific Backpacks
Women’s backpacks often have smaller frames, are generally shorter and narrower than men’s backpacks, and the hip belts and shoulder straps are contoured to better fit a woman.
When you’re looking for how big of a pack to get, keep in mind the duration of your trip, how much gear you’re bringing, how much your gear weights, and how big it is.
It’s recommended that for a weekend trip you get a 30L to 50L, for 3 to 5 nights you get a 50L to 80L, and for over 5 nights you get 70L or larger.
Your trip might only be a weekend, but if you didn’t factor in size or weight for the rest of your gear, you might need to get a 50-70L pack. If you’re also going somewhere with bears, you may need to bring a bear canister, so factor in the size of that, and how much food you will need. If you’re doing a longer trail like the John Muir Trail, you’ll be hiking for roughly 2 to 3 weeks, but you’ll have resupplies so you won’t have to carry that much food. So there are a lot of factors to consider with the size of your pack.
I have a 65L pack that I’ve used on weekend trips, a week long trip and then for 16 days on the John Muir Trail. I have some ultralight gear like my tent, I’ve factored in weight and size for my sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and food. But with my BV500 bear canister and not willing to skimp on bringing my PJ’s, I can’t seem to get everything to fit into a smaller pack.
If you’re sharing your gear with someone and they can help carry some of the weight, you can go with a smaller sized pack.
Backpack Frame Types
Majority of backpacking packs have internal frames. They are body hugging and designed to keep you stable on uneven terrain. Some even have Zero Gravity technology to keep the weight off your shoulders and on your hips.
These frames are ideal for healthy and irregular loads. They also offer good ventilation and offer lots of gear organization options.
Most ultralight packs have a frameless pack to save weight.
Some backpacks feature a suspended mesh back panel, it’s also called “tension-mesh suspension,” which is has a trampoline-like design, which keeps the backpack a few inches away from your back which helps keep your sweaty back ventilated.
There are hip belt pockets, there are pockets around the outside of the back. Typically in the pockets you’ll put things you’ll need throughout the day such as snacks, a map, a trowel, and your phone. Some packs have more pockets, others have less. When looking for a backpack identify which pockets you want to have for convince.
I personally like having hip belt pockets, I store snacks that I’ll want throughout the day in them. This way I can snack, don’t have to take off the pack and can even keep hiking! My phone is a little too big for my hip belt pockets, but if it fit, I would keep it in there too!
Sleeping Bag Compartment
This is a zippered stash spot at the bottom of your pack. It’s a useful feature if you don’t want to use a compression stuff sack for your sleeping bag. You can also use this area for things you’d like to easily get to.
Removeable Top Lid
Some packs have removeable top lids. To save on weight and if you don’t need it for a backpacking trip, just take it off! In some packs the top lid can also be used as a daypack.
These are loops on the outside of your pack where you can attach an ice axe or hiking poles. Sometimes you’ll have a daisy chain, which is a length of webbing sewn to the outside of the pack where you can attach multiple things like a helmet and water shoes.
Move overnight packs come with an internal sleeve where you can put a hydration bladder into. Sometimes they’re sold together, but almost always they’re sold separately. There are also going to be one or two holes where you’d pull out the hose to the front of your pack.
I have this pack. It has an Anti-Gravity suspension system where the weight of the pack sits on your hips instead of your back. I have scoliosis so the Anti-Gravity has been huge for me! On packs without this feature, my back hurts. I have the 65L version but there is also a 50L. It’s not the lightest pack, mine is just over 4 pounds. But I value the back support. It also has the back ventilation/suspension.
In this pack, the harness and hip belt rotate independently of each other do you can adapt this pack to your body and the terrain. This pack is also over 4 pounds. This pack also has a suspension for breathability, a removeable hydration sleeve which converts to a daypack, and a sunglasses stow system on the shoulder strap for quick and scratch free access to your sunglasses.
This pack has adjustable torso length, hydration sleeve for your bladder, removeable lid, sleeping bag compartment, and they use open-cell foam for increased ventilation while anatomic X-frame aluminum stays move with you and provide effective load transfer.
This pack is just over 2 pounds, removable pockets on the shoulder straps and the hip belt, attachment loops, and a hydration compatible design.
These are Osprey’s UL backpacks. To go with an UL backpack, you do need UL gear in general. The packs weight 1 pound and 12 ounces. NanoFly fabric integrates ultra-high-molecular weight ripstop and Cordura nylon, creating a light but durable fabric that minimizes pack weight .