Your Complete Guide to Selecting a Backpack!

Updated: Jan 14

If you jump right in the unbelievable amount of variety, size and features available in a sea of adventure backpacks it can be overwhelming. These aren't your typical school bags. Use this guide to narrow the field before your next hiking or camping adventure.

One of the more exciting times on a hike are the very first steps you take into the wilderness. The wild, the unknown, the adventure or even the familiar with a prime destination at its end bring the excitement to full brim. In your head important questions begin swirling. "Do I have all the essential equipment?" Do I have the right gear?" Will it function properly and serve its purpose well?"

Choosing the right backpack is the first step in confidently answering those questions.



Backpack capacity is divided into three general categories. Weekend, multi-day and expedition packs. Each size is designed to carry everything you need to stay outside for varying lengths of time.

Weekend: 30-50L's

These are the smallest of backpacking packs. They are lighter and less bulky These will carry enough gear for 1-3 nights out in the wild. With every new edition of gear it becomes lighter/smaller and more packable having all the luxuries is more and more possible. Still, be meticulous in your planning with these bags. A good question to ask yourself when looking into these bags is, "How much am I willing to leave behind."

Multi-day: 50-80L's

This is the most common size backpack. It can hold enough gear and food for multiple nights in the wild with a few luxuries or extra gear for other additional activities like fishing for example or a small camp chair.

Expedition: 70+L's

These are the big boys. Expedition packs are designed for long hauls of five or more days, multi-day winter trips(room for extra clothes, larger sleeping bags and 4 season tents) or for families on multi-day trip(parents may have to carry extra gear for children)

*I've only carried an expedition pack(80L) on the American Discovery Trail (7months) and week long backcountry trips miles into the Rocky Mountains.

*If you are hiking in group of 2 or more, consider what gear you can share to minimize weight and pack size.* (Think cook set and stove or tent)

Knowing this basic information significantly narrows down the sea to a lake.


Once you have narrowed down the pack capacity it's time to see what fits! This is where is gets fun. Now it's time to put a pack on and see how it feels. First you have to know what size you are.

Your size is determined by the length of your torso and the circumference of your hips. You can do this at home or have a specialist at your local outdoor store find your fit.

Toros is measure by two points. You iliac crest and the C-7 vertebrae. First put your hands on your hips. Rest your hands right atop your hips. This is your iliac crest. Draw a line from thumb to thumb on your lower back. Where the line intersects your spine is the first point. The C-7 vertebrae is found by looking down, putting your chin to chest. The vertebrae that protrudes at the base of your neck is the C-7 vertebrae. This is point number two. Measure the distance between both points and you have your torso length. (measure standing straight up with head raised)

Now that you have your torso length you are ready to try some packs on. Be sure to check the measuring chart at the outfitter. Back back sizes can vary from each manufacturer.

Before throwing the pack on loosen all the straps and add some weight to it for a better feel of fit. This is where hip circumference matters. The majority of pack weight should rest on your hips, at least 80% of it. This disperses weight over larger muscles and bones limiting stress on the body. Makes sense that you start at the hip belt when tightening up the pack. Hip belts adjust to a large range of sizes from the 20's to mid 40's. When tightening the hip belt the padding should center on your hip bones. Next tighten the shoulder straps followed by the load lifters. Load lifters prevent the pack weight from pulling away from your back and keep weight centered. When tightened properly these straps form a 45 degree angle to the shoulder and pack. The last piece is the chest strap. This should only be tight enough to add a little tension. It will the additional stability to the pack to complete the whole set up and secure your pack when crushing terrain.

Look at you! You got your new backpacking pack on!... As long as it has all the right features. But hey, your down to a small pond


This is the most fun part of selecting a new backpack for me! These options can be endless. Take the time to think about how you will use each feature and how it will function on your backpacking trip.

Features are, but not limited to: frame style, padding, ventilation, pockets, pack access, compartments and attachment points. Much of this comes down to personal preference and how you want to organize your gear.

I'll loose hours looking at and playing with features on a backpack but here is a brief breakdown of the above features.

Frame style can be internal, external or frameless.

Nearly all packs are internal frame body hugging packs. They are design to keep weight centered and the hiker stable in less than ideal terrain.

External frames have a visible support structure or exoskeleton so to speak. These packs are better designed to carry heavy, irregular loads or gear. These packs may be useful among the pack rafters out there. They can support an inflatable raft and have multiple options for storing additional gear that may come with such an adventure. However, there are much fewer packs of this style in stores.

Frameless pack are for the minimalist or ultralight hikers. The frame is removable to save pack weight for those who carry extremely light loads or intend to move quickly. These packs cannot support heavy loads and would put unwanted stress on the body with too much weight.

Ventilation and padding are all about comfort. If this is your first pack get ready for a sweaty back. With internal frame packs that sit directly on your back it's easy to see why things are gonna get toasty back there. If this breaks through your level of comfort then more strongly consider the ventilation. The channel you see on the back pad are not for looks. They bring air flow to your back helping you to stay cool and dry. If that is not enough relief consider a suspended mesh ventilation pack. The pack is designed to sit off your back a few inches and the tension mess provides maximum airflow for ventilation.

Padding varies in thickness. Easy to say, the larger the pack the heavier the padding to support the large loads. Be sure to walk around with the pack on and weighted to get a feel for any hot spots or where the padding will rub on your body. Remember you're carry all the weight for miles and thousands of strides.

Pockets, pack access and compartments are my absolute favorite feature. I love looking thorough a backpack and thinking about what I can store and where i can store it. How necessary is access to those items and what can be stowed out of the way for later use.

Pockets help me organize smaller items and keep gear categorized. For example, I like to have a pocket for emergency kits and survival kits, one for navigation and tools and another for snacks and food.

Compartments are great for storing gear that is not immediately needed. A compartment gives me a place to store my sleep system or cook set and keeps it out of the way while I'm searching for smaller things I have lost in my pack... should've got one with more pockets...

Access to the pack is an overlooked feature. There can be top, bottom and side access or any combination of the three in a single pack. Top access is standard. Side and bottom access make it much more manageable to get at gear when you need it with out having to unpack your entire bag first. Think of arriving at your destination in a rain storm. Bottom or side access will allow me to grab my tent quickly and set up with out having to take out all my other gear and risk it getting soaked through.

*Removable pockets or compartments can be a huge feature if your on a multi-day trip with a base camp. Rather than hiking around a huge pack for day hikes and exploring is a burden. A removable pocket or compartments can be used to carry the essentials or as a day pack for longer day hikes.*

*You don't have to go overboard on features. Some backpacks will have a pocket, loop or extra for every single piece of gear known to man. Less pockets and extras may help you stay more organized and help you decide what gear is necessary for your hike.

Attachment points are as much fun to pick through as pockets. These are external pieces to attach frequently accessed gear or larger gear that is not placed in the pack but secured to the outside. Most common are daisy chains and extra loops.

Daisy Chains are an extra webbing of multiple loops. Single extra loops are located on the hip belt, underside of the pack or on external pockets. Pretty much they can be anywhere but are highly useful for securing rope, fishing poles and nets, skis, pic axes, camp sandals and so on.

When I started backpacking this information was very helpful in my hunt for the best backpack for my adventures. The one I chose lasted years, thousands of miles and never treated me wrong!

Now get out there and go somewhere!

Keep Killin' It!

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