How To Buy a Pack

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.