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Backpack Buyer's Guide

Posted by 
May 22, 2013
Published in News & Tips > Camping > Backpacking
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In this article, we'll discuss backpacks commonly used by hikers, campers, hunters and other outdoor recreationists.

There was a time not so long ago when only three types of people — military men, Boy Scouts and backcountry hikers — were regularly seen wearing backpacks. Nowadays, it seems everyone is carrying a pack on their back.

BackpackBG AscendMS4400TrailPack
Today's backpacks like the Ascend trail pack are made from lightweight yet durable materials such as ripstop nylon, nylon packcloth or Cordura.

School children carry their books in backpacks. Parents carry their children in them. There are backpacks for snowboards and skateboards; computer backpacks and backpacks for cameras; wheeled backpacks for travelers; backpacks in which you can carry your dog; backpack diaper bags and purses; backpack coolers; tennis backpacks; backpack beach chairs and even designer backpacks.  

In this article, we'll be discussing backpacks commonly used by hikers, campers, hunters and other outdoor recreationists to transport equipment and provisions from point A to point B. There are three basic types of backpacks used in this manner: daypacks (including waist packs and fanny packs), external-framed backpacks and internal-framed backpacks. On short hikes, a daypack that holds a couple of water bottles, trail food, a rain jacket and a few other essentials may be all you need. Wilderness-area hunters, backcountry hikers and others usually need larger-capacity external- or internal-frame packs. A few insights into the many variations may prove useful before you buy.  

Picking a Pack Type Best Suited to Your Activity

Daypacks are ideal for carrying small loads over short distances. Light and compact, they're well-suited for activities such as day hikes, cross-country skiing, climbing and trail runs. General-purpose models typically have a capacity range from 500 to 2,500 cubic inches.  

Each model has features suited to particular activities. For example, those made for ski touring often have loops or straps for hauling skis and are more comfortable and useful than general-purpose packs. Bicycling packs are made to sit lower on the back to provide a lower center of gravity. Most have a special pocket or compartment in which to stow a helmet. Outside mesh pockets accommodate cycling shoes or water bottles.

BackpackBG HighSierraBobcat65ExternalFrame
External-frame packs tend to be more comfortable during hot weather.

Snowboarding packs feature an extra-durable rear pocket, usually made of Hypalon, Kevlar or heavy-duty Cordura, to accommodate a snowboard. Their streamlined, narrow-profile design won't hinder balance and maneuverability in the backcountry or on the slopes.  

Additional daypack features may include a padded hip belt; padded, contoured shoulder straps; outside mesh pouches for carrying water bottles or wet clothing; easy-access pockets storing cameras, GPS units, field guides or other items you want to keep protected, yet accessible; and/or external bungee cords or straps for securing gear to the outside of the pack.  

External-frame backpacks, the first generation of framed packs, feature a rigid framework, usually of tubular aluminum, to which a pack and support harness attach. These tend to cost less than internal-frame packs because their design and production is less complicated. They tend to be more comfortable during hot weather because they allow air to circulate between your pack and back. Some allow you to customize the load height by moving the bag up and down the frame.  

On the minus side, external-frame packs are much more rigid than internal-frame packs and usually have a wider profile. On open trails where balance isn't a critical factor, this shouldn't cause any problems, but in the backcountry, the frame could snag on branches or brush.

Internal-frame backpacks have a support system inside the pack, usually consisting of one or more aluminum or carbon stays that curve to fit your spine. The stays extend from the top of the pack to a hip belt, stabilizing loads and transferring weight to the hips. Many models include a high-density polyethylene framesheet to stiffen the back of the pack and allow for better weight transfer. The framesheet also prevents bulky items from poking you in the back.  

Internal-frame backpacks offer better balance because of their low profile and close-to-the-body fit, making them good choices for wilderness hiking. They're more compressible and flexible than external-frame packs and transfer a large percentage of the pack's weight onto the hips, which can bear far heavier loads than the shoulders.

Picking a Durable Backpack

BackpackBG CamelBakRogueHydrationPack
Hydration packs come with hydration bladders and nozzles.

Today's backpacks usually are made from durable materials such as Cordura, ripstop nylon or nylon packcloth. Most feature water-repellent or waterproof coatings or treatments. The best have good backstitching or bar tacking in high-stress areas, such as around zippers, pockets and external loops. High-abrasion areas, such as the pack bottom, should be reinforced with a strong material such as Kevlar, Hypalon or heavy-weight Cordura. Back panels will disperse perspiration better and enhance air flow if they're made of reticulated or compression-molded foam covered with a breathable, wicking fabric.  

Pay particular attention to the construction of the hip belt. You want one that fits properly and has just enough stiffness to support a load without sagging. A soft-foam hip belt may feel great in the store, but a few miles down the trail, it may become compressed, causing your hips to feel the pressure of the load. A too-firm hip belt can cut into your flesh and bruise you, which is just as bad. The best option is a belt made from a sandwich of different grade foams-open-cell foam for against-the-body comfort, closed-cell foam for support and compression-molded foam for even firmer support.  

You don't want shoulder straps made of too-soft foam either. Follow similar guidelines here. And beware straps that have creases or puckers in the foam or in the cover material. On the trail, these could turn into hot spots against your skin. The best packs have straps that bend and curve without creasing, but you'll probably pay extra for such craftsmanship.  

A Pack's Loading Design Does Matter

Many packs are top loaders, with a convenient, large opening or openings at the top. These tend to be more water-resistant, but when using one, it's more difficult to organize your gear. Panel-loading models have a U-shaped zippered opening in the front. These make organization easier, but they usually hold less gear, are less water-resistant and zippers can be troublesome. The best pack, if you can afford it, is a hybrid model combining the best features of both top-loading and panel-loading packs.  

A Backpack's Capacity

BackpackBG TheNorthFaceReconDaypack
On short hikes, a daypack can hold a couple of water bottles, trail food, a rain jacket and a few other essentials.

A backpack's capacity is measured in cubic inches. The size you need depends on what you'll be doing and the amount and type of gear you want to carry. Here are some general guidelines:  

  • 2,500-3,500 cubic inches: Good for overnight hikes during warm weather, with tent, light sleeping bag, small stove and food.

  • 3,000-4,500 cubic inches: An excellent choice for two or three-day excursions in late spring, summer or early fall.

  • 4,500-6,000 cubic inches: Should get you by for trips up to a week long.

  • 6,000+ cubic inches: Best for winter camping and long expeditions.

One tip to remember: don't use a pack that is too big. If you're like most folks, you'll have a tendency to fill all available space, and will wind up carrying a load that's heavier than necessary.

Pack Fitting Tips   

It's important to buy a pack that properly fits your body. Try on as many loaded packs as you can to see what works best. Look for comfortable, supportive shoulder straps and hip belts, and a good torso fit.  

The method usually employed to determine your torso length is to measure from the seventh vertebra (the bony protrusion at the base of your neck between your shoulders) to the small of your back (level with your hipbones). If your torso length is less than 18 inches, you'll want a pack with a suspension that's sized Small. A torso length between 18 and 20 inches requires a Medium. If your torso length is over 21 inches, your suspension size will likely be Large.

Be sure the hip belt cups your hips, and when cinched tightly, the pads don't touch. If you have straight or narrow hips, you'll probably prefer a standard hip belt. If you have wider hips, it may be best to choose a women's-specific model.

Shoulder straps should anchor to the backpack just below the seventh vertebra and the crest of your shoulders. They should wrap comfortably yet securely around your shoulders and should be at least five inches below your armpit.

Ask the shop owner to allow you to carry each pack with a load similar to that you intend to carry on the trail. You'll know you have the best one for you when the load feels so perfectly distributed you wonder if you forgot something. There should be no discernible hot spots, and you should be able to sashay your hips freely, swing your shoulders fully and raise your legs in parade step without ever feeling off balance.

Time now to hit the trail.


Tagged under Read 4909 times Last modified on March 18, 2016
Keith Sutton

With a resume listing more than 3,500 magazine, newspaper and website articles about fishing, hunting, wildlife and conservation, Keith Sutton of Alexander, Ark., has established a reputation as one of the country’s best-known outdoor writers. In 2011, Sutton, who has authored 12 books, was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame as a “Legendary Communicator.” Visit his website at

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