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Guide to Backpacks

Ah, to go a-wandering with a knapsack on your back. Whether you’re setting off on a trail run or a weeklong backpacking trip, you’ll need a way to carry your gear.

How to Choose a Backpack

Like most outdoor gear, choosing a backpack depends on what you plan on doing with it primarily. Consider how long you will be gone on trips (a day, overnight, a week?), how much gear you’ll need, or want, to bring along (are you a minimalist fastpacker or deeply attached to your creature comforts?), and when you’ll be out (winter requires more and heavier gear).

Answering these questions will help you determine the first factor in selecting a backpack—capacity.

How Big?

  1. Pack sizes vary between manufacturers and capacity needs depend on the individual. However, in general the following ranges are a good starting point:

    1,800-2,500 cubic inches (30-40 liters)—for hiking trips with a daypack

    3,000-5,000 cubic inches (50-80 liters)—for overnight and multi-day backpacking trips up to a week

    More than 5,000 cubic inches (80 liters and more)—for trips longer than a week or winter overnights

  2. Choose a backpack that will fit the greatest amount of gear you’ll need to carry. Don’t forget the group gear you’ll need to bring along too.

  3. That said, don’t buy a pack that’s bigger than you need. You’ll be tempted to carry more than necessary or will end up with a floppy, half-filled pack.

  4. Depending on your range of activities you may need more than one backpack. Perhaps a large internal frame pack for multi-day backpacking trips and a small daypack for day hikes.

  5. If you’ll be carrying specialty gear like ice axes, snowshoes, or a snowboard, look for a pack with features or accessories designed to hold those items, rather than trying to jury-rig them on later.

Internal versus External

If you’ll need a medium- to large-sized backpack for your adventures, you’ll have to choose between an internal or external frame pack.

  • Internal frame backpacks are designed to carry the pack weight on the hips and with their body-hugging design provide the most balance and freedom of movement. This is especially important if you’ll be on rough trails, off-trail, scrambling, climbing, or skiing. Internal frame packs work well for nearly everyone and are the most popular option.

  • External frame backpacks were once the mainstays of backpacking. They can help you carry very heavy loads. Because they don’t lie against the body they are cooler in hot weather. They may be less expensive and can be good introductory backpacks for growing kids and beginners.

Fit and Comfort

You can select a pack with the right design, size, and features for your activities, but if it doesn’t fit comfortably you’ll regret your purchase over the long haul. Most important, your pack should be adjustable to fine-tune the fit to your individual body. While nothing beats the expertise of a knowledgeable pack fitter, below are some tips to help you choose a backpack that fits you well.

  • Size a backpack to your torso length, not your height. Don’t assume you need the tall (or the regular or the short) model just because of your height. To find your torso length, have someone measure from the iliac crest at the top of your hipbone to the prominent bone at the base of your neck (the seventh cervical vertebrae).

  • The sizes of different manufacturers' frames may correspond to different torso lengths, so check the pack’s technical specifications. For example, a 20-inch torso length may mean a regular size in one pack and a large in another.

  • Since it will be supporting your pack’s weight, make sure the hipbelt provides adequate padding. Some pack makers offer interchangeable hipbelts in different styles and in sizes for both men and women for a better individual fit.

  • During a fitting, load up the pack with weight (an amount you typically would carry) to see how well the pack carries. Then walk around with the loaded pack, practice taking it on and off, make sure you can look up without whacking your head on the pack, and climb up and down stairs.

  • Shoulder straps, which control the fit of the suspension system, should be well padded and adjustable.

  • An adjustable sternum strap, which connects the shoulder straps, helps bring the load weight forward, and off your shoulders.

  • A padded back or frame sheet will keep your stove, tent poles, and other hard objects from jabbing you in the back.

  • Women and others with short torsos, like kids, should consider backpacks sized for them. Many pack manufacturers produce women-specific or short torso versions.


"They are also cheaper and can be good introductory backpacks for growing kids and beginners."

Wow, biased much? Exterior packs offer better gear distribution among other things, and are typically much more rugged. The rugged factor is very important if you're doing anything more then a weekend hike.

"They can help you carry very heavy loads, but generally are best for covering easy terrain."

Again, biased much? They are superior for difficult terrain as they last longer, and are more rugged. When you're heading up a steep mountain out in the Rocky's, you want a pack that you can rely on. If you are an avid backpacker, durability and reliability are much more important then comfort. If the frame snaps in the middle of a hike, it doesn't matter how damned comfortable it was.

The last time I used an internal (It was a top of the line Gregory), the frame snapped in two on one side. That was my third and final Gregory pack. My other two bent horribly out of shape. I've also used and Osprey, Arc'teryx. The Osprey lasted awhile, but the frame eventually bent out of shape. The Arc'teryx however, never gave me any problems, but that's Arc'teryx for you, amazing brand.

Guess how many externals I've had? Two. One of them lasted me 17ish years, and I figured it was just time for a new one, it didn't give me any problems whatsoever. My current backpack would be a top of the line Kelty, which also, has never given me any problems.

As soon as I graduated college I hiked the AT with a couple friends. One of them messed his ankle up in the Smokey's, so he had to head home. The other had to purchase a new pack in northern Virginia, as his frame internal frame bent out of shape. Guess which pack I was wearing? My 15 year old external.

Other benefits would be that your pack is much more organized(typically), and you can attach items to the frame when you aren't using them(trekking poles, ice axes/picks, etc), also, they are much cooler on your back.


Now, I'm not going to be horribly biased like you, and leave it at that. If I did, I was basically be saying that external frame packs are the end all be all of packs, that they are superior in every way. But they aren't, and I'm not going to lie to your readers.

Interior packs definitely have there pluses. For weekend or 3-4 day trips they are great. They typically sit a bit better then exteriors, and a bit more comfortable. Though, they typically make your back sweat a bit more.

Interior packs are definitely the best choice for climbing, skiing, or similar activities. The interior frame allows for more movement, and there's no chance of the frame 'catching' of tree branches, or rock protrusions. Whenever I go on a cross country ski trip I'll wear my Arc'teryx pack. I'll also typically use that pack for when I go on kayaking tours/expeditions, as it fits in my kayaks tail, whereas my Kelty does not.

Just my .02 from a few decades of experience

Now, I'm not going to be horribly biased like you, and leave it at that.

Was this necessary? Catch more flies with honey.

ZeCritic, what's kind of funny about this is that I agree with your basic points.

It's a five-year-old article that could use some updating. Agreed.

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