Hiking and Outdoors Backpack Buying Guide

Gear Tips

We've taken some of the mystery out of shopping for your next backpack. Learn which specifications to pay attention to and other shopping tips with this quick guide.

Quick Tips:

  1. Prioritize. Consider how you expect to use your new pack and choose the pack type which makes the most sense.
  2. Get fitted. You'll be lugging your pack around for hours on end. If it is not comfortable when you first put it on, odds are it will be even worse on the trail.
  3. Research. Is the fabric durable or will it rip if you snag it on a tree branch? Waterproof or do you need a backpack-cover (usually sold separately).
  4. Special Needs. Should it accept a hydration system? How many gear pockets do you need (external or otherwise)? The options are endless.

Good Fit.  Finding the right backpack is a lot like choosing a good pair of hiking boots:  your first priority is finding a good fit.  Most backpacks come in a range of sizes; and their manufacturers use a variety of materials and techniques to maximize comfort.  After you determine your size, we recommend trying out as many as possible to find your perfect pack.

Get Measured. To find the right-fitting pack, it helps to take a measurement of your torso length.  Torso refers to the distance from the base of your hips to the top of your spine (where the vertebrae protrudes outward).  Match this number to the recommended “Torso Length” and you’ll be able to quickly narrow down your pack options.  Further customize your fit by adjusting all hip, shoulder and torso straps (note: some packs, like Osprey’s heat-molding packs, offer even further personalization).

Capacity. Packs are designed to accommodate a range of activities (think day hike vs. expedition trip).  How much space you need depends on what you want to do and how much stuff you need to bring.  Choose wisely, bigger is not always better.

  1. Expedition:  75+ liters (~4,600 cubic inches)
  2. Multiday:  50-75 liters (~3,000-4,600 cubic inches)
  3. Daytrip:  <50 liters (<3,000 cubic inches)

Weight. Generally speaking, more storage capacity equals more weight.  Some packs manage to shave weight by using lightweight materials and keeping features to a minimum. These measures shave weight, but generally result in a loss of durability and reduction in comfort.  Consider this tradeoff and consider the type of abuse you plan to put your pack through.  Again, it’s all about balance.   Don’t forget:  it might be easier to find weight savings elsewhere (think, do I really need my fleece pajamas?)

  1. Ultralight:  weight was clearly the priority when they designed this pack
  2. Lightweight  a more balanced approach to the weight vs. feature dilemma
  3. Standard: full-featured packs that do not pretend to be lightweight

Features. As with all outdoor gear, your goal should be to find the right balance of features and weight.  In our experience, ease of access and storage options take precedence.  Not all packs are created equal.