Like most outdoor gear, choosing a backpack depends on what you plan on doing with it primarily. Consider how long you will be gone on trips (a day, overnight, a week?), how much gear you’ll need, or want, to bring along (are you a minimalist fastpacker or deeply attached to your creature comforts?), and when you’ll be out (winter requires more and heavier gear).

Answering these questions will help you determine the first factor in selecting a backpack—capacity.

How Big?

  1. Pack sizes vary between manufacturers and capacity needs depend on the individual. However, in general the following ranges are a good starting point:

    1,800-2,500 cubic inches (30-40 liters)—for hiking trips with a daypack

    3,000-5,000 cubic inches (50-80 liters)—for overnight and multi-day backpacking trips up to a week

    More than 5,000 cubic inches (80 liters and more)—for trips longer than a week or winter overnights

  2. Choose a backpack that will fit the greatest amount of gear you’ll need to carry. Don’t forget the group gear you’ll need to bring along too.

  3. That said, don’t buy a pack that’s bigger than you need. You’ll be tempted to carry more than necessary or will end up with a floppy, half-filled pack.

  4. Depending on your range of activities you may need more than one backpack. Perhaps a large internal frame pack for multi-day backpacking trips and a small daypack for day hikes.

  5. If you’ll be carrying specialty gear like ice axes, snowshoes, or a snowboard, look for a pack with features or accessories designed to hold those items, rather than trying to jury-rig them on later.

Internal versus External

If you’ll need a medium- to large-sized backpack for your adventures, you’ll have to choose between an internal or external frame pack.

Fit and Comfort

You can select a pack with the right design, size, and features for your activities, but if it doesn’t fit comfortably you’ll regret your purchase over the long haul. Most important, your pack should be adjustable to fine-tune the fit to your individual body. While nothing beats the expertise of a knowledgeable pack fitter, below are some tips to help you choose a backpack that fits you well.

by Alicia MacLeay,
October 11, 2005

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