Backpacks have become high-tech works of art. From features-strapped load-haulers designed for distance backpacking trips to ultralight shoulder-slingers built for bike commuting, the options are myriad and choosing the right one can often feel overwhelming. So we decided to reach out and ask a few of our friends (who also happen to be product designers and experts at leading brands) how they choose their own backpacks. This guide will help you learn how to choose the best backpack for hiking, cycling, or whatever your next outdoor mission might be.
“Find what fits best, then go to size and activity,” says Todd Walton, spokesperson for 100+-year-old German backpacking giant Deuter. For inexperienced users he also recommends a degree of versatility and expandability.
Here’s what to look for when shopping online by Fit, Size, and Activity:
Fit: A backpack must fit properly for a comfortable carry but how do you know what to buy if you can’t try it on? Most brands come in sizes measured by the torso length. Each size fits a range of body types. To make the pack work for each person, most packs then also have a finer size adjustment to perfect the fit. Be sure to check manufacturers’ fit guides to make sure the pack you buy fits or torso length or can be adjusted to do so.
Some brands also have multiple hip-belt sizes for various sized waists. This is worth investigating if your waist is significantly larger or smaller than the average person of your height.
“It’s like buying a pair of running shoes,” says Chris Horton, assistant product line manager at Osprey Packs. “The amount of adjustment and sizes and interchangeability are very important. Within torso sizing, can it adjust? Buying a pack that has adjustability is the ideal way to go.”
Size: How long will your trips last? Would you rather haul a heavier pack that you can fill with comforts or a smaller, lighter pack and leave the finer things at home? Knowing what you’ll be hauling and how long you’ll be gone helps you determine needed capacity.
Capacity: This term defines how much will fit inside a backpack. It is what determines what can, and can’t be accomplished with any given pack. The following chart is a general guide to pack sizes for hiking. Specialized activities will often lead to additional equipment and required capacity. Winter travel also adds heavier clothing and requires larger packs.
20-50 Liters — Day trip to overnight
50-60 Liters — Two to three nights
60-80 Liters — Five nights
80 Liters + — Extended trips where you’ll be hauling lots of gear
When it comes to backpacks, you’ve got a lot of options. Brands are in constant competition and add different and unique features every year. Further narrow your search by the type of activity you’ll be doing.
Climbing: Rock and ice climbing require dense, heavy gear that can push the limits of a small pack. 30 to 50 liter packs are generally big enough for most cragging, especially if the rope is carried outside the pack. Several companies offer purpose-built climbing packs with streamlined designs and organizational structures designed with racks of protection, slings, and ropes in mind.
Alpine climbing and technical mountaineering: These sports often require big packs and a lot of equipment. For expeditions and big mountains expect to lug an 80-liter pack at least to a base camp. Once unloaded, much less gear should be carried up the mountain and a larger pack can either be compressed or traded out for a smaller and lighter summit pack.
Paddling: Packs made for paddling usually are not as comfortable to carry as hiking packs. They don’t need to be though because they spend a lot of time in the bottom of a boat. A classic example of a paddling pack is the Duluth Pack, which is basically a large canvas sack with a couple shoulder straps or a forehead strap thrown on for good measure.
Modern paddling packs come in many shapes and are usually made from waterproof material. When choosing a paddling pack, keep in mind the size of the vessel and how much space you have for gear. (When kayaking for example, the size of the gear portal will dictate the size of pack you bring.) Sometimes multiple small bags are easier to fit in a boat than one large one.
Running: Packs for running are the lightest, smallest, and least noticeable of all bags. Several companies make their packs as vests that hug the upper body for stability during runs. These have either bottles or hydration bladders that can be accessed on the go and just enough space inside to carry mandatory safety gear like a space blanket, ultra-light jacket, whistle, gloves, and hat.
Cycling: Cycling packs come in several designs. Popular styles include traditional backpacks designed with back ventilation and messenger bags that are slung over one shoulder. For cycling, stick with something in the 20-liter size range and focus on back ventilation that will keep you cool while riding hard.
Bike commuting: Packs for the bike-to-work rider are designed to be comfortable and yet protect valuables and electronics from the elements. Look for waterproof compartments for laptops and phones, as well as a comfortable and stable carry systems.
Snow: With increasing access to the backcountry, more and more skiers and snowboarders need a backpack to carry safety equipment into the wild as well as extra clothing, food, and water. A backcountry ski pack should be able to haul a folding shovel and avalanche probe. It should also have an attachment system for snowboards and skis, a place to strap a helmet, and ample room for water, food, a camera, and a spare item of clothing or two. Some backcountry packs also feature an insulated pocket to keep hydration bladder tubes from freezing.
Some specialized winter-use packs are designed with user-activated air bags that help protect and float a skier or snowboarder in event of an avalanche. Called ABS, this technology is popular with those who expect to spend a lot of time in avalanche country. While they do improve the odds of surviving an avalanche, ABS bags are not a cure-all and do not take the place of proper training and safety equipment.
Mountain Biking: Several types of packs are made for mountain bikers. These include small hydration packs, everyday active packs and larger multi use packs. Features to consider for mountain biking include snug fit, hydration compatibility and ventilation.
Frame or No Frame
Packs of small to medium size may or may not have any type of frame. Some medium and even large packs skip a frame completely to save weight.
Internal Frame: These packs are designed to carry fairly heavy loads. Internal frame packs are perfect for hiking trips as well as other sports that need a lot of gear like mountaineering and rock climbing. Internal frame packs come in a variety of sizes and with many different features for specific uses. The unifying factor is a suspension system that spreads weight over the back, hips and shoulders.
Internal frame packs may use stays, made of metal or another durable and stiff material like fiberglass, to stabilize the load and link the shoulder straps to the hip belt. More and more modern packs no longer use stays. Instead they use some type of integrated suspension system to spread the load over a body comfortably.
Horton says companies design packs with a frame sheet for packs designed to carry 20 to 30 pounds, a frame for 25 to 30 pounds or more. Packs that carry less than 20 pounds rarely need a frame.
External Frame: What used to be the standard in pack design is now uncommon. External frame packs carry heavy, odd shaped or bulky loads well and are popular with hunters for packing out meat. There are fewer external frame packs on the market than internal frames.
No Frame: Smaller packs do not require a frame because of generally lighter loads. Larger ultra-light packs sometimes forego a frame in exchange for lighter weight.
Packs are designed with all kinds of additional features. Some have all kinds of pockets and organizational capabilities. Others are little more than a tube with an opening at the top.
Pockets: The number of pockets in a pack is a matter of personal preference. Most top-loading packs have at least one pocket in the lid of the pack that is handy for small items that need to be easily accessed like sunglasses, sunscreen, a hat or toiletries. More pockets can be handy for those who like everything to have a place in their organizational scheme.
Webbing: Many packs have webbing loops sewn down the back or sides of the pack. These loops are a handy place to clip caribiners and tie in ropes to attach objects to the outside of the pack.
Axe loops: If you plan on using a pack for mountaineering be sure it has axe loops. These loops provide an easy way to carry ice axes in a safe way away from your body so you don’t get impaled if you take a spill.
Waterproofness: Packs feature varying degrees of water protection. Some packs come with removable rain covers. Others use durable water resistant treatments to make water bead on the surface. Some packs designed for paddling, also called drybags, are completely waterproof. These are usually made of a rubberized outer material and close with a rolling and clip system. Most hiking packs are water resistant, but not completely waterproof. Untaped seams will leak regardless of the material.
Loading type: Top-loading is the most common design for larger backpacks, but it is by no means the only design. Top-loading packs are basically large bags with a lid that snaps into place over the opening of the bag. They often have second compartments that can be accessed without opening the top lid. The zipper openings may access the lower compartment, where sleeping bags are usually stored, or the main central area of the pack for quick access to contents.
Smaller packs come in both top-loading and zipper styles. The advantage of zippers in the 20 to 30 liter size range is easy access to the main bag compartment. This is the most popular design of small daypacks.
Pack materials: Packs are made from a composite of many different materials. Standard pack materials are ripstop nylon, coated ripstop nylon, Cordura and other durable fabrics. Some ultra-light packs use materials such as Cuben, Tyvec or other high tech fabrics to reduce weight. Most pack-makers choose excellent materials for their designs, so this should not be a primary concern when selecting the best pack for your needs.
Hydration: Most modern hiking, running and cycling packs will be compatible with hydration bladders and systems. They will feature a small opening to pass a hydration tube through the body of the pack so that you can hydrate on the move and usually a pocket or other space to house the bladder. Many pack companies make hydration bladders specifically for their packs. These make an excellent additional but are not always necessary as most bladders will work in most hydration-compatible packs.
Hydration bladders come in several sizes. For hiking, a large bladder is nice if water is scarce or needs to be purified. For mountain biking, a smaller bladder is better so your back isn’t overloaded with unnecessary pressure while riding. Most bladders range from one to three liters.
Women’s Specific: Packs designed specifically for women often fit the female back profile better than unisex packs. If a company does not offer a women-specific pack, they do often have women’s hip-belts that are properly shaped to fit female hips.
With many great packs on the market and something designed for nearly every purpose, take a little time to research the packs that catch your interest. A thoughtful review of any pack should give you an excellent idea of how it functions in real-world applications.
When the choice is made and pack loaded up, you will be confident and feel good for mile after mile.