I’m an outdoor enthusiast and in this guide, I’ll teach you how to choose a backpacking pack!
I outline questions for you to consider, as your unique situation will largely determine the best pack for you. This comprehensive guide also overviews volume options, how to ensure a proper fit, and features to take into account.
I also give specific pack recommendations based on my extensive testing and personal experiences. Most suggested products made our list of the best backpacking packs!
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Tips for Choosing a Backpacking Backpack
Stop your scroll! This is the most important section of this guide, as your ideal pack is based on your preferences, body type, and the gear you carry.
Consider the below questions, as they will most influence how you choose a backpacking pack.
Consider Your Preferences
Your preferences and unique situation will largely determine the right backpacking pack for you. For example, are you willing to carry extra pounds for the sake of comfort? Or are you an ultralight enthusiast who can skip on excess toiletries and luxuries?
Consider when and where you plan to backpack. Do you plan to backpack in the winter, which demands heavier gear? Does the climate or temperature in your go-to destinations require excess? Note local wildlife, as you may need a bear canister, as well as water availability on your route.
Keep in mind your companions—or lack thereof. Will you be carrying all of your essential backpacking gear solo? Or do you plan to split the load with a partner? Alternatively, you may need to account for more space if hiking with kids or dogs that need support.
Lastly, consider your preferred trip length. Are you a weekend warrior or planning a big thru-hike? I discuss this more in the volume section.
Consider Your Gear
Those who have invested in ultralight, compact gear can get away with a smaller pack, even when embarking on long trips. But you should opt for certain features if you have bulkier, heavier items.
For example, you’ll want a backpack with base straps if you have a larger backpacking tent. You may also want to seek out a pack with a higher max carrying capacity.
Certain sports and hobbies may also influence your decision. Consider external organization if planning to carry a packraft, splitboard, photography equipment, etc.
Consider Your Body Type
I’m 5 feet tall and 100 pounds (60 centimeters, 45.4 kilograms), and always prefer women-specific backpacks.
On the other hand, my husband is 6’1” and 190 pounds (185.4 centimeters, 86.2 kilograms). He prefers packs that are 60+ liters for their fit and capacity, as his large clothing demands extra volume.
In general, experts agree that your pack should weigh no more than 20% of your body weight. Usually, I try to keep my load below 20 pounds (9.1 kilograms), which isn’t always easy. But a lightweight pack helps—like the Osprey Eja, which I reviewed extensively and named 2023’s overall best backpacking pack.
Backpacking Pack Volume
Backpack volume is another major consideration. In my opinion, 55-liter packs are the most versatile, suiting both weekend and multi-day trips. However, each size has its pros and cons, which I overview in this section.
Overnight: 30-45 Liters
A single overnight trip doesn’t demand much outside of your base weight. This refers to everything outside of water, food, and fuel.
Those with ultralight gear can likely work with a pack as small as 30 liters—which can also serve as a hiking day pack. But those with more traditional gear may find a pack in the 40 to 45-liter range better accommodating. Larger models are also more versatile in supporting weekend trips as well.
Weekend Trips: 40-55 Liters
Opt for a 40-55 liter backpack if your trips are generally 2-3 nights in length. This range offers a wide selection of features for various needs and preferences. Max carry capacity is one of the most important attributes to consider. Again, this goes back to your gear kit.
For example, I mention in my REI Co-Op Flash 55 review that it can carry up to 30 pounds (13.6 kilograms) in its 55 liters.
Multi-Day Trips: 50-70 Liters
In my opinion, a 55-liter backpack is the most versatile backpack size. They accommodate both weekend and multi-day trips, the most common excursions among backpackers.
However, the considerations mentioned above may influence what’s best for your multi-day trip. Opt for a larger pack if seasonal versatility is important to you. Remember that winter backpacking will require a 4-season tent, thick layers, and a bulkier, warmer sleeping bag.
Address both trip length and seasonality with the Osprey Aura AG LT 65, my top recommendation for multi-day trips. This pack has a removable lid that can cut excess volume and weight. Plus, it’s spacious enough to meet winter demands and can comfortably carry up to 40 pounds (18.1 kilograms).
Thru-Hiking Trips: 60-80 Liters
Planning to trek the John Muir Trail, the Appalachian Trail, or another iconic thru-hike? Consider a pack between 60 to 80 liters given the amount of consumables needed on top of your base weight.
I named the Mountainsmith Apex 2023’s best backpack for thru-hiking. It expands into 70 liters and can carry up to 60 pounds (27.2 kilograms). However, note that it’s only available in a singular size.
👉 Pack Alternative: Consider the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest for a greater range of sizes. It’s available in small, medium, large, and tall. Plus, this 65-liter ultralight backpack weighs just 2.4 pounds (1.1 kilograms)! See my full Hyperlite review for details.
Backpacking Pack Fit
A properly fit backpack is crucial for comfort. Be sure to measure your torso length and waist prior to purchasing a pack. You may also want to consider gendered models.
But ultimately, you won’t be certain about a pack’s suitability until you test it out personally. Seek out generous guarantees so you can return the backpack if it’s not up to par.
Most backpacking backpacks cater to a range of torso lengths, even if only available in one size. For example, the Mountainsmith Apex 60 is best suited for larger individuals with an 18 – 21 in (45.72 – 53.34 cm) range. The extra small/small Osprey Eja, pictured above, fits petite backpackers like me. Its adjustable torso length feature spans 13 – 17 in (33 – 43 cm).
Determine your torso length with a cloth tape measure and another’s help. Bend your head forward to locate your C7 vertebra, a bump at the base of your neck, and between your shoulder blades. Place both hands on the top of your hip bones, thumbs pointing horizontally. Stand straight, then have your friend measure from this vertebra to the point in line with your thumbs.
Most packs also cater to a range of hip measurements using compression straps. Some even have an adjustable hip belt like the Gregory Maven, offering a wide range of 24 – 46 in (61 – 116.8 cm). Osprey’s Extended Fit collection features waist belts that fit up to 70-inch (177.8-cm) hips.
Note that this measurement is not your pant size. You can determine your hip size by wrapping a cloth measuring tape around the top of your hips — the same base point used to find your torso length.
Some backpacks are made to accommodate differences in genders’ typical builds. For example, women’s packs often feature more narrow shoulder straps, a higher sternum strap, and shorter torso lengths. They also take into account women’s lower centers of gravity.
I’m a very petite female and find women-specific packs to be more comfortable than alternatives. However, this may not be the case for all genders as obviously, body types and preferences differ.
👉 Pro Tip: Unsure about a gendered pack or a backpack’s fit in general? Consider the brand’s return policy and warranty. Some even offer trial periods, like The Backpacker by Salkan.
Backpacking Pack Features
This section overviews the most important features to consider when choosing a backpack. For example, a pack’s structure influences comfort and carry capacity. Organizational and customizable features may also impact your decision.
Pack Frame Options
Backpacking packs are available in three frame styles. I prefer those with internal frames given comfort and a wider range of options. Though, other structures have their unique benefits.
- Internal Frame Packs: This is the most common structure among modern backpacks. Integrated internal frames may feature a perimeter frame, a frame sheet, and/or aluminum stays. This often influences maximum pack weight.
- External Frame Packs: Largely, external frame packs are a thing of the past given their size, weight, and instability. However, some are ideal for carrying large, bulky gear. The MYSTERY RANCH Terraframe 65 is great for backcountry climbing and fishing. Other external frame packs act as hiking-specific child carriers.
- Removable Frame Packs: Ultralight enthusiasts may prefer a removable frame backpack, like the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest. This allows you to minimize pack weight. However, note that loads should be limited to around 25 lbs (11.3 kg) when using a frameless pack. Also, comfort may be negatively impacted.
Max Carry Capacity
Consider your preferences, gear, and body type. Then, take a backpack’s max carry capacity into account. Reason being, there’s no need for a 50-lb (22.7-kg) maximum if your abilities, load, and so forth don’t require such. Similarly, you probably wouldn’t want a pack with a 30-lb (13.6-kg) limit if you’re planning a thru-hike or winter trekking.
Several factors influence a backpack’s comfort. Here are a few important areas to consider when selecting a pack:
- Load Transfer Ability: The large majority of your load should be transferred to your hips and therefore, supported by your lower body. You don’t want significant weight pressing down on your shoulders. It’s tricky to gauge this without personally testing a pack. But pay attention to load transfer when reading reviews and note the brands’ guarantee.
- Padding: In my opinion, thick padding isn’t crucial — rather, it’s about placement. I recommend a backpack with padding on its hip belt, shoulder straps, and the majority of its back panel. At a minimum, back padding should cover the lumbar region.
- Ventilation: Consider breathability when choosing a backpack. Perforated foam padding on the hip belt and shoulder straps is recommended. Back panels may feature ventilation channels, as seen on the Mountainsmith Apex 60. Suspended mesh on the back panel is also common, as seen on the Osprey Aura AG LT 65 and similar models.
Most backpacking packs feature spacious main compartments and external attachment points. However, some do a better job of accommodating large items of gear. Others make organizing and accessing your outdoor gear easier.
- Pack Access: The majority of backpacks are top-loading. However, some also have side and/or bottom access — the Gregory Maven features all three. Front access is also convenient, allowing you to load a pack similar to a suitcase.
- Internal Organization: Internal organization is usually minimal among backpacking packs. However, a hydration reservoir is standard and recommended. Some packs may also have a dedicated sleeping bag compartment and/or a pocket for an integrated rain cover.
- External Organization: Various external pockets and attachment points are often seen on backpacking packs. Of these features, I most recommend hip belt pockets and deep, versatile side pockets. I also highly recommend base straps that allow you to attach a tent, sleeping pad, bear canister, or other bulky items.
- Unique Gear: Plan on trekking with awkward, irregular gear? Seek out specific multi-sport styles. For example, Hyperlite Mountain Gear creates backpacks for packrafting. The Osprey Kamber and Kresta series are ideal for backcountry skiing and snowboarding. Opt for a climbing pack if you plan to carry ropes, and so forth.
It’s hard to find a backpack that suits all purposes. But customization features add versatility and can limit your number of purchases.
The REI Co-Op Flash 55 is our number-one pick when it comes to customization. Its removable lid can be turned into a waist pack. Its pockets on the hip belt and shoulder straps can also be removed to reduce weight. Other Packmod accessories are compatible with the backpack.
Some backpacking packs are also compatible with day packs, allowing you to customize capacity. Others even come with removable day packs, like the two-in-one Backpacker by Salkan bundle.
FAQs About How to Choose a Backpacking Backpack
How do you choose the right backpack for your height?
You choose the right backpack for your height by measuring your torso length. Stand straight and have a friend measure from your C7 vertebra to the top of your hips. Ensure the pack’s torso length range suits you, and note that petite and tall models are available.
What size pack for a 3-day hike?
The best size pack for a 3-day hike has 40 – 55 liters of volume. This range will generally accommodate one’s base load, plus consumables needed for a weekend backpacking trip.
What size backpack do I need for a 5-day hike?
The size backpack you need for a 5-day hike has 50 – 70 liters of volume. This range will likely suit your base load, plus the amount of food, water, and fuel needed for a multi-day backpacking trip.
Now you know how to choose a backpacking pack for your adventures! If you want specific recommendations, check out my guide to the best backpacking packs.
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