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Choosing the Right Backpack

When you venture out on a hike it’s important to be outfitted with the right equipment. There are shoes and boots made for different kinds of terrain. There are coats designed for specific kinds of weather. And there are different sizes and styles of backpacks for all kinds of hiking. What you wear on your back is as important as what you wear on your feet. Just like ill-fitting shoes or boots lead to sore feet and blisters, the wrong backpack will lead to an aching back and a tired body. Choosing the right backpack is an important step that shouldn’t be rushed or done at the 11th hour. Think about it, your backpack will be on your back and carrying all of your belongings for the majority of your trip. It has to fit just right and be able to carry all of your gear comfortably. That’s a tall order for a relatively small bag.

When shopping for a backpack, there are three criteria to look at: size/capacity, features, and fit. When you find a backpack that fits all three criteria, buy it! It’s the right backpack for you! Let’s explore each criteria a little bit!


To determine the capacity/size that you need, identify how much stuff you’re going to be bringing on your trip. This depends largely on how long you’re planning to camp for and what season you’re camping in. The capacity of backpacks is measured in liters.

Day trips (15-30 liters):

These packs are great for short trips (1 night) or school. They can handle a lunch, snacks, books, light layers or a jacket, a camera, water, and other small items like a first aid kit or a Swiss Army knife.

Weekend trips (45-55 liters):

This is the most popular size of backpack. It’s great for weekend trips (2 nights). Besides holding everything the daypack holds, you can also fit more clothes and food, a lightweight sleeping bag, a small tent, and a little camping stove in this pack.

Week-long trips (55+ liters):

This backpack is large enough to hold the contents of the two smaller bags plus additional winter gear (if needed), more clothes, a heavier sleeping bag, and a larger tent. This size is great for family camping where the parents end up carrying most of the load for everyone on their backs.


Water-resistant material-

Your backpack doesn’t need to be 100% waterproof, but it needs to keep the contents dry. Some packs come with a hood or tarp that can be fixed over the top of the pack to help water run off of it.

Internal frame-

Most backpacks are constructed with an internal frame. This means that the support rods and frame are built into the backpack and not visible from the outside. The frames are usually made of carbon fiber or plastic, therefore they’re lighter than external-frame backpacks. They usually have a slimmer design as well, making them less bulky and easier to carry.

Multiple compartments-

It’s a good idea to keep dirty shoes separate from food and toiletries away from clothes, so look for a backpack with multiple compartments. Having multiple compartments also helps you organize your gear so that you know where things are and you can reach them in a moment’s notice.

Padded hip belt-

Since most of the weight from your backpack should be resting on your hips, it’s important that your pack have a padded hip belt. A good-quality hip belt will provide support for your back and help distribute weight evenly across your back while keeping the majority of the weight off your shoulders.

Padded shoulders-

A quality backpack will have thickly padded shoulders that can withstand the weight of your pack without splitting open or tearing.

Padded, ventilated back-

The back panel on a backpack should be padded so that your tent poles or other contents don’t poke you as you hike. Also, look for a backpack that has a suspended mesh back panel or air channels to let your back breathe. Not all of them have this but many do. Some backpacks are also contoured with a comfortable lumbar shape that also allows for some much-needed air circulation.

Hydration pocket/sleeve-

Many backpacks have exterior mesh pockets that hold a water bottle within easy reach. Additionally, most backpacks also feature an interior pocket that holds a hydration reservoir and includes 1 or 2 holes through which you can slide the hydration tube. This feature is great for hikers who want hands-free hydration.


When shopping for a backpack, do not use your height as a determining factor in which pack you choose. Instead, use your torso measurement. To find your torso measurement, do this:

  1. Standing tall, look down at the floor. Feel the back of your neck and find the vertebra that protrudes the furthest in your upper spine (just below your head). This is the C7 vertebra.

  2. Now find the top of your hip bones. This is called the iliac crest.

  3. Have someone use a tape measure to measure from the C7 vertebra down your back to the level of the iliac crest. This is your torso length.

Most backpacks list a torso length on the tag to help you find the right size. While some backpacks have adjustable torso lengths (from the shoulder down to the hip bones), others have fixed lengths. Most of the other straps included on backpacks are adjustable to help you achieve the perfect fit.

All backpacks are not created equal. Name-brand backpacks are made of heavier-duty materials and often worth the money. With backpacks, you get what you pay for, so don’t buy a backpack just because it’s on sale. And don’t buy a backpack without trying it on first. Resist buying one online unless you’ve tried it on in a store first. Most outdoorsy stores have trained sales staff who can walk you through the process of finding the right backpack for your size and needs. Some even have bags of sand that they add to the backpack while you’re wearing it so you can feel how it fits when it’s loaded down with gear. A good-fitting backpack should feel sturdy and lightweight, allowing you to maneuver on uneven terrain and steep hills with ease. Just like a good hiking partner, your new backpack should be strong, dependable, supportive, and willing to accept all your baggage.

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