How to Choose a Hiking Backpack

Before setting out on an adventure in the wild wilderness of a far-off land, you’re going to need the perfect travel buddy that’s going to suit all of your needs day after day and night after night on the trails.

A trustworthy backpack that can hold all of your equipment, food, water, and supplies. It’ll need to be lightweight enough that you can handle it for long stretches but big enough so you don’t have to compromise on the gear you choose to bring along with you.

How to choose a hiking backpack

You might be asking yourself, “But how to choose the right one? What should I look for? Can’t I just grab something cheap that’ll hold a lot of stuff?” All good questions and that’s the point of this article.

I hope to clarify any gray areas you may have on how to choose a hiking backpack. I’ll explain the differences and nuances between the sizes, how it should fit, and features to look out for. I’ll also go over how your backpack should sit on your back and hips, ways to access your rucksack, and hopefully, any other extra questions that might come up.

Sound like a plan? Great, let’s get started! Once you’ve finished reading this post you should be confident in choosing the right pack to add to your backpacking checklist. I hope you enjoy it!

If you prefer video and want a highly detailed breakdown, check out this awesome content from REI

Main Categories

When choosing the ideal rucksack for your back, you’ll need to focus on 3 main areas to narrow down your decision-making. Before I leave, I like to envision the entire trip in my head and think about all the potential situations I’ll find myself in. This helps me to decide which pack I should take with me.

Backpack Capacity:

If you didn’t know, a backpack’s volume is measured in liters as opposed to the dimensions of the pack itself. This provides a good indication of how all of your items and supplies will roll up and fill out the interior space of your bag. Here’s a quick general breakdown of the size of the bag needed compared to the length of the trip.

Duration of TripVolume Needed
weekend getaways (1-3 nights)30-50 liters
multi-day trek (3-5 nights)50-80 liters
extended expedition (5+ nights)70 liters or larger

Backpack Elements:

Besides how much a backpack can hold, you’ll want to know how it holds it. For example, are you going to need a spot for a tent or sleeping bag, or are you going to do most of your backpacking through big cities and hotel/hostel stays?

Backpack components

Do you like to travel light and only need a minimal amount of “accoutrement” (those little extras), or do you want to be prepared for anything thrown your way? These are the types of questions you should be asking yourself before you purchase. 

Other things to keep in mind before you pick the right pack –

  • Versatility – Will I need my backpack to adapt to different activities or travel requirements?
  • Organization – Do I care about everything having its place, or do I prefer a bag that can compact down and be the simplest possible?
  • Weight – How will the added features add to the overall size and weight of my bag?
  • Value – Are the extras worth the additional cost of the bag’s utility or performance?
  • Appearance – Do you care about the color or overall look of your bag?

I’ll delve deeper into the individual characteristics that make a great backpacking pack further along in this article, but I wanted to introduce this category now so you have a good idea of how to make a great decision. 

Backpack Fit:

Forget your height; it’s all about your torso length and hip circumference when picking the best-fitting backpack. It doesn’t matter how long your legs or arms are, just how it fits your upper body. This is how you distribute the weight evenly and focus the bulk of it (80%) on your hips, instead of your shoulders.

Backpack Fit

A properly fitting backpack should snugly fit the trunk of the body, with the sternum strap comfortably securing the top of the shoulder straps for optimal comfort and weight distribution. I’ll go over more on this later in the article.

Types of Backpacks

When it comes to backpacks, there are three main types to consider: external frame, internal frame, and frameless. Each type offers its advantages and disadvantages suited for all types of outdoor adventure activities and preferences so you’ll need to decide on which type will serve you best before venturing outdoors.

Internal-frame backpacks:

These are the most common types backpackers use on the trails and are the easiest to find options for. As you can imagine, there’s a hidden structure inside the back panel that provides stability and support. They hold the load close to your body, making it easier to navigate all sorts of wacky terrain while staying sleek and form-fitting. 

Internal frame backpack

Grab one of these if you plan to do long treks in the countryside or you’ll be city-hopping from country to country. They carry a lot while traveling well. 

External-frame backpacks:

These packs are easily recognizable by their square shapes and visibly shiny metal elements. They are the champs when it comes to hauling hefty, odd-shaped loads like a large tent or an inflatable kayak because you can secure your cargo with a few straps to basically anywhere on the frame itself. 

External frame backpack

Most trail crews or hunters pick them for their durability and for providing endless options to organize their gear. They are also known for ventilation since they have a large gap between the frame and pack bag that allows air to flow across the wearer’s back. 

Frameless backpacks:

For the trailblazers who live for speed and simplicity, ultralight frameless packs are where it’s at. Since they don’t have the added bulk of a frame or load lifters they are usually more flexible and easier to maneuver on any trail. 

Frameless backpack

They let you scramble over technical obstacles and allow you to zip through the wilderness with ease but remember, they’re not the best buddies for heavy loads, so pack smart and pack light!

Backpack Features

After you’ve decided which type of backpacking you’ll be undertaking, and for how long, you’ll need to decide on what your pack needs to accomplish. What’s important and what can be left by the wayside? The fancier the pack, the higher the cost so it’s important to know exactly what you want. 

Ventilation:

Something every hiker or backpacker experiences from hauling gear around all day is a sweaty back. It can be uncomfortable and distracting, especially in hot and humid environments. You’re going to want good ventilation. There are a few ways to achieve this. 

The first design is called a suspended mesh back panel, which keeps the pack bag a few inches away from your body, letting fresh air flow through and chill your back as it rests against the highly breathable mesh. It’s kind of like a mini trampoline for ventilation. 

How to choose a hiking backpack - ventilation

The other common ventilation system for backpacks is ventilation channels. These allow you to keep your pack closer to your body which helps with load dispersion and provides a more balanced fit. The downside is there is less overall air flow throughout. 

How to choose a hiking backpack - channel ventilation

Pack Access:

Many packs, if not all, on the market, have a huge opening at the top of the bag to the main compartment. A drawstring and/or buckles at the top of the pack frame are also there to help secure the entrance against rain and other weather conditions. This is the standard top loader.

Top loading backpack

If you choose this style, you’ll be able to fit everything you require, but since there’s only one access point, you’ll have to pack intelligently. Put rarely-needed supplies like tents toward the bottom and readily-needed items like rain jackets toward the top. 

Another version, and my personal choice of backpack, offers panel access halfway down so you can unzip and search for a specific item without fully unloading. It’s a real game changer out in nature. This feature does add a tiny bit of weight and a few more dollars at the checkout stand, but to me is completely worth it. 

Panel access backpack

Pockets:

The perfect pack should have a spot for every item. Whether or not you clump in multiple types of gear with each other is up to you, but you’re going to want to know where everything is. This is where the types and number of pockets come into play. If you aren’t bringing a lot, grab something more streamlined, but if you want a spot for every small item in the world, shoot for an option that caters to this. 

It’s all about finding the perfect pocket placement. Elasticized side pockets are efficient—they lie flat when empty but stretch to hold all your goodies, from water bottles to tent poles. Hip belt pockets are perfect for stashing your trail snacks, lip balm, or mobile phone for those mountain-top selfies. Shovel pockets are handy flaps for stashing maps, jackets, or any other lightweight treasures you want to keep close. 

Backpack pockets

Occasionally a backpack will come with a top lid pocket (sometimes called a pack’s “brain”). I personally like one with multiple compartments so I can organize my gear a bit easier but others may prefer one large space for ease of packing. The choice is yours.

When it comes to pockets and your gear, think about what you are bringing with you and how often you’ll be grabbing for it. Where do you want it on your back? Giving it a bit of forethought goes a long way in picking the perfect pack. 

Removable Daypack:

Sometimes on a great backpacking trip, you’re going to want to leave your main pack behind and go for a quick and easy day hike. This is when a removable day pack is handy to have. It’s great for those quick trips from camp, like conquering summits or grabbing supplies during a thru-hike. 

Removable day pack from backpack

Having one could make your trip a little easier but it’s not a necessity. If you’ll be carrying everything with you from point A to point B then this could be a moot point, but if you have times when you want to do some quick side quests, I highly recommend bringing one with you. 

Sleeping Bag Compartment:

Some, not all, packs come with a sleeping bag compartment near the bottom of the bag. It’s usually a zippered stash spot that’s useful for access without unloading your entire rucksack. Consider purchasing one with this if you intend to sleep under the stars night after night.

Sleeping bag compartment

If you don’t plan on porting a sleeping bag with you, it can be used to stash other essentials you’ll want to grab in a jiffy as well. Bulky items like camp sandals, first aid kits, or water purifiers are great to stuff in these spots. It’s a great addition for easy access to some of your more oddly shaped gear. 

Padding:

Lightweight packs with minimalist-style hip belts and lumbar pads save weight but can dig into you after a while. You might be feeling the squeeze in all the wrong places after a day or two. On the flip side, added padding on larger backpacks can feel great at first but might weigh you down or be hard to travel with due to the added heft.

Shoulder strap padding

The trick is to find a nice balance when looking for the optimal luggage for your back. Look at hiking packs with cushy hip belts and pleasant shoulder straps. The shoulder strap padding should end about 2-3 inches (5-7cm) below the armpit. Choose the right backpack padding and avoid any future sore spots on your hips, lower back, or shoulders. 

Attachment Points:

Many backpacking packs come with little gear loops for attaching important items spaced strategically throughout the outside and front of the bag. They are made to secure equipment that you either don’t want or can’t fit inside. Hardcore packs specialize in long sections of stitched webbing called “Daisy Chains” that run down the center or sides of the pack. 

Backpack attachment points

These attachment points are great for hooking up helmets, tools, trekking poles, or anything else that didn’t quite fit inside but unless you’re a technical climber needing a climbing pack for your trusty supplies, don’t worry about grabbing a bag with a ton of loops. 

Raincover:

If you’re expecting a downpour on your adventure, you’ll wanna be prepared with a way to keep your bag dry when the skies open up. Even though your pack’s fabric might be treated with a waterproof coating, water can still sneak in through seams and zippers after a short time in the elements. 

Backpack raincover

So for this reason you should find a bag that comes available with a handy raincover. If you’re feeling crafty, you can always DIY it with a waterproof stuff sack or even a good ol’ plastic garbage bag but they are a pain and personally not worth it. 

Hydration Reservoir:

I usually favor a large water bottle attached to my belt but almost every pack out there comes with an internal sleeve to hold a water reservoir like a Camelbak (sold separately, of course), plus one or two portals for the tube. The only real thing to consider here is how easily accessible the reservoir is when the bag is full. Keep that in mind when shopping. 

Hydration reservoir and tube access on a backpack

Backpack Fit

Now that you’ve picked out the perfect backpack for your adventures, let’s make sure it properly fits. As I mentioned previously, your pack should be tailored to your torso length and hip circumference, not your overall height.

If you’ve never purchased a bag before or don’t know your upper body size, swing by your local outdoor adventure store and ask one of the sales specialists for an accurate measurement, or do it on your own following these steps – 

Backpack fit
  • Tilt your head forward and find the bony bump where your shoulders meet your neck. That’s your C7 vertebra, marking the top of your torso length.
  • Slide your hands down your ribcage to the top of your hip bones (iliac crest). With your index fingers pointing forward and thumbs pointing backward, imagine a line between your thumbs. This marks the bottom of your torso.
  • Stand up straight, and ask a friend to measure the distance between your C7 vertebra and the imaginary line between your thumbs. That’s your torso length.

After you’ve got the correct measurement, find a bag that you like with a corresponding available range.

Torso Length:

Relating to length, hiking backpack sizes normally range from extra small to large or tall as shown below. If you’re in between sizes, no worries—many packs have adjustable suspension systems that let you customize the fit, so you can hit the trails with confidence no matter what size you are. 

  • Extra Small: < 15.0”, 38 cm
  • Small: 15.0” – 17.0”, 38-43 cm
  • Medium: 17.0” – 19.0”, 43 – 48 cm
  • Large: 19.0” – 21.0”, 48 – 53 cm
  • Tall: 21.0”, 53 cm +

Waist Size:

Now, let’s talk about hips and their role in it all. They should be the heavy lifters, carrying 80 percent or more of the weight, not your shoulders. To do this we use a hipbelt, which usually accommodates a wide range of hip circumferences, from mid-20 inches (50cm) to mid-40 inches (100 cm) or so. 

Some packs even offer interchangeable hipbelts if you run higher or lower, so you can swap ’em out for the perfect fit. If you’re still unsure you can go by this general rule –

  • if your waist size is less than 33.5” (85cm) choose a small to medium size
  • if it is greater than 37.5 ” (95 cm), choose a large or tall size

Backpacks For Women:

Ladies, make sure you double-check which rucksack you’re getting because the dimensions on a female-designed pack are shorter and narrower than men’s, and the hipbelts and shoulder straps are contoured to accommodate wider hips and female chests.

Backpack for woman

Also, women-specific backpacks aren’t just for women. If you’re shopping for a young or shorter backpacker, consider a ladies’ backpack since they are designed with smaller frame sizes in mind. 

Backpacks For Kids:

Youth-specific backpacks are like mini versions of their grown-up counterparts, designed with smaller capacities and adjustable suspensions to accommodate a child’s growth.

Backpack for kids

If you plan on doing multiple excursions with your little ones for years to come, purchase something on the larger end of the spectrum. 

Additional Adjustments:

A few last tidbits on what to keep your eye on when choosing the right hiking backpack – 

  • Load lifter straps – There should be two of these connecting your shoulder straps and the pack. They snug the top of your bag closer to your body, taking the weight off your lumbar and giving you a comfy carry. 
Load lifter straps
  • Sternum strap – The cross strap connects your shoulder straps boosting your stability, especially on uneven terrain where an awkward move could cause your pack to shift. 
Sternum strap

Final Thoughts

Finding the right hiking backpack for your trip is quite simple. It comes down to knowing what you want and how you want to carry it. How heavy is the weight of your pack, what is the size you need, and will it carry everything you need inside the pack? Ask yourself these questions and you should be completely fine for your adventure!

I also recommend getting your hands on different types and styles at your local outdoor gear supply store if you want to be sure of your investment before making a final purchase. There’s nothing like being there in person and asking questions with the employees. It’s worth your time, believe me.

Well, that’s it. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading through my article. I wish you the best of luck out on the trails. Be safe and happy hiking! 

Author

  • James Ryan

    A seasoned hiker and adventurer who loves to travel and experience new things. An extrovert and creative at heart, James is most definitely a "People Person". He started this blog in the hopes of making somebody's day just a bit brighter!

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