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Backpack buying guide


“Backpacking lets you get away from the city and go to places that are magical and special,” says Eagle Scout Jon Almquist, who works for national outdoors retailer REI. “Not everybody can see those places. In order to get there you have to pay your dues a little bit. But if you do it right, getting there is half the fun.”

Doing it right means having a backpack that fits all your gear and, more important, fits you. There are some tricks to pack shopping, so we asked Almquist to fill you in.

WAIT! Although the following is still great advice, the Gear Guy is currently researching new models and writing an update to this article. Watch for his updated tips and reviews in the June 2015 issue of Boys’ Life.


You wouldn’t buy a pair of hiking boots three sizes too big. The same goes for backpacks.

“If you’re not an adult, don’t buy an adult pack,” Almquist says.

In order for you to carry the weight properly, a pack must fit properly. Sure, some guys who are 16 or 17 are already pretty much grown and they need a men’s pack, but most kids don’t.

“Prior to picking a pack, it’s important that you measure yourself,” he says.

The measurement you need is your torso length. Use a soft seamstress tape and have someone measure from the base of your neck (precisely, your C7 vertebrae, the most prominent bone at the base of your neck) straight down your spine until it is level with your hip bone (also called your iliac crest). Most adult packs have a fit range of 18 to 20 inches, while youth packs are more adjustable and fit torso lengths between 14 and 19 inches.


There are two types of backpacks: External frames have a metal framework on the outside. Internal-frame packs have their support structure hidden within the pack like a skeleton. External-frame packs are less expensive, provide better ventilation in warm climates and are best for carrying heavy loads on smooth trails. Internal-frame packs are more form-fitting.

“They bring the load closer to your body. They are more comfortable and stable so the load doesn’t shift and is easier to carry off-trail,” Almquist says.


The amount of gear a pack can hold is measured in either liters or cubic inches. A larger capacity is not always better. Be careful not to overfill your pack and carry too much weight.

“Once fully packed, try to keep your load within 25 to 30 percent of your weight,” Almquist says. “When I was a young Scout, I used to carry too much and struggle.”

A good rule for those not yet full grown: Look for a pack with a capacity of 50 to 65 liters.


Naturally, the comfort of a pack’s shoulder straps and hipbelt are among the most important considerations, but thoughtful extras and handy accessories are worth mentioning. Some packs have built-in pockets for hydration reservoirs; others have a removable top that can be carried as a fanny pack for day hikes.

“Make sure the pack has enough exterior pocketing to handle your on-trail needs,” Almquist says.

And look for compression straps that help keep your load in place when the pack isn’t totally filled up.


“You could spend $400 on a big brand-name pack, but if you target somewhere in the $150 range, you’re going to get something very good,” Almquist says. “There’s really no reason to spend more than that.”


Shop at an outdoors specialty store with a knowledgeable sales staff who can help fit you with the right backpack.

“Try on at least three packs and then spend the time having each adjusted properly by the sales staff,” Almquist recommends.

Fill the pack with gear to simulate the sort of weight you’ll be carrying on the trail and spend at least 30 minutes walking around the store fully loaded. The hipbelt should rest on your hipbones, not your waist, and the shoulder straps should come within three or four inches of your armpit when cinched down tight. Don’t be swayed by color or name brand. Pick the one that fits best.

183 Comments on Backpack buying guide

  1. Which is better the REI Passage 65 or the LL-Bean White Mountain Pack Youth?Please respond soon!!!!!!!

  2. ultra-light master // July 7, 2011 at 7:45 pm // Reply

    like smitty says, the murmur is the best

  3. Kelty makes good externals. I like externals because there are more pockets and room to lash on a bag or mat on the frame. Happy backpacking everyone.

  4. Gossamer gear murmur. The best. Only 8oz. Uses sleeping pad as frame

  5. anybody have recomendations on a cheap pack for weekend campouts

    • Try a used military duffel bag with a plastic liner; a great general purpose bag if you’re not hiking a long way. Also one of the best canoe bags for the price. We just bought 3 for the Troop at $18.00 each. Liners were $3.00. They’ll last you a life time if you take care of them.

  6. The S.S. SCOUT! // February 26, 2011 at 11:30 am // Reply

    I recommend looking for one at Dick’s it will be a good bit of money but it will be worth it.(The highest i’ve seen is aboout $99.00 lowest is about twenty to thirty)

    • Yankees Rule!! // May 1, 2011 at 8:45 am // Reply

      actually, i’ve seen Dick’s sporting goods’ packs range from $40.00 to $199.99.

  7. xtreme kayaker // February 21, 2011 at 4:08 pm // Reply

    i usually use a hikers backpack with a sleeping bag on top

  8. Firstclasshiker509 // February 9, 2011 at 8:17 pm // Reply

    I use an internal frame pack wighs 5lbs. but supports really well with 30+lbs!!

  9. TheProfessor // February 8, 2011 at 8:42 am // Reply

    I’ve always used a external. Mine has the composite frame that has some give and flex. Very comfortable and breathes well in the summer. In my 30+ years of hiking, the externals give you more flexibility as to gear placement. They have more pockets and the frame to strap on your gear. The newer (last 15yrs) styles of internals have made much progress with compartments and pockets, but still suffer. I find it to be a real inconvenience to unpack most of my pack to get that piece of gear that I may need out. Internals have a better center of gravity and tend to have more adjustments for comfort, but will always be hotter to carry.

    • TheProfessor // February 8, 2011 at 9:00 am // Reply

      One more thought. With my external frame, I attached a water bottle holder (like the ones used on a bicycle) to the back side of my frame near the bottom. My water is always a few inches away which helps you drink more and stay hydrated.

    • Yankees Rule!! // February 28, 2011 at 8:06 am // Reply

      I just recently crossed over from a cub scout to a boy scout, and as soon as possible, my dad and i went to go look for a backpack. Since i am kind of small for my age i got a small external frame as well. i went on one camping trip already, and i think i over packed. alot of my friends got internal frames. and they seemed a lot less heavy, but our SPL said that external frames were the best. would you think, if i had a lot of gear, would need an internal frame?

  10. Osprey kestrel 48 liter is the best but not inexpensive last along time and weighs only 2 pounds

  11. i have a hi-tech pack and it is nice

  12. The Osprey Kestrel 58 is a great pack!! I’ve used it in just about every season and any trek. It is a little on the pricey side for me, since I try to find the best stuff for the lowest price, but still it is an awesome pack. I have never been ( and probably never will be) dissatisfied with this pack. Good work Osprey!

  13. I have a military pack also;] it is awsome. I love hiking

  14. i have a army surplus backpack and it is awesome

  15. Mountiansmith Scout external frames lack external pockets but make up for it in the HUGE 55 liter main pocket. it has straps for your sleeping bag and pad and a great fit

  16. i like the kelty trekker 3950 external frame backpack

  17. ygfreigritughytiuh // October 9, 2010 at 9:12 pm // Reply

    my camel pack makes the water nasty after a few hours how do i stop it.

  18. good tips, trailrat

  19. lightweight gu-ru // July 13, 2010 at 5:51 pm // Reply

    Get the Osprey Ace 48. AMAZING!!!!! I have it and it is awesome. It has good ventilation for your back in hot conditions and verrrrry comfortable.

  20. what are those solar things that you put on the backpacks. how much do they usauly cost and are they worth it. what kind of things can get power from them and does it power them well.

  21. external frams hurt my back.

    • off topic but what are those backpack solar energy things and are they worth buying and how much money and do they have ones with different plugs to charge diffdrent things.

  22. Ranger Danger // May 3, 2010 at 8:20 pm // Reply

    Try thrift shopping.. I bought a perfict size packpack for just 5 bucks and now I’m glad I did. The pack has no bells and whistles but it gets the job done!!

    • GANDALFRULES // June 1, 2010 at 8:51 am // Reply

      I bought a pack at Sams Club auction for 20 bucks, swiss gear really nice back pack with all the bells and whistles.

    • i have a 48 liter backpack from an army surplus shop for under 50 bucks water proof and very durable

  23. get up and go // April 24, 2010 at 9:17 am // Reply

    This may sound odd, but I highly recommend a pack without a frame.
    They may not have as much room as one with a frame, but they are loads more comfortable, and the
    packs them selfs are lighter too!

  24. Never buy a backpack over the internet! If you are going to get a pack, try to find a store and try it out. Some outdoor stores have a specialist to help you choose a pack, without trying to advertise to you. Those guys can help you find the right pack that fits you and how you are going to pack. If you can, ask if they have a weight or something and put it in the pack, then walk around in the store, try it out!

  25. I have two packs for different backpacking. For scouting trips I use a Teton Sports Scout 3400 cu. in. It is good for the simple 2 to 4 day trips. For longer trips, I use a Deuter 5500 cu. in. pack I bought from the NOLS base in Lander, WY. Both packs are great for packing and cheap. The Teton Sports pack I bought from Sportsman’s Warehouse for $50!!! It’s not hard to find a good pack at a reasonable price.

  26. a externelframe has alot more room

    • maybe be so but they are unconformable and if you pack only what is needed then room is not really a problem. Try making a list on your next backpack. Whatever you do not use check of and do not bring it again(of course things like first aid kits and other 10 essentials should still go). Also only carry as much food as you are going to eat, if you have too much food left after the trip cut down on the amount you bring.

  27. reader 2662622 // December 1, 2009 at 6:56 am // Reply

    it is great thanks for the tips

  28. kelty yukon 2900 is graet it even has a sleeing bagcompertment

  29. I used a Gregory Palisade (5300) when I went to Philmont a few years ago. I never had any trouble with the pack and always had space for troop and personal gear.

    For a young scout you cant go wrong with a Jansport Scout. I recieved one when I was in Cub Scouts and used in for several years. The pack is ajustable and a great pack for youth who are just starting out in the sport. Usually you can always find them on sale at stores like Campmor or REI. Moreover, I always hear good things about the Kelty Yukon.

  30. awsome its cool

  31. Loading a pack with the heavier items near the bottom and lighter items near the top also makes the mpack easier to carry and control. This is true of both internal and external framed packs. Many packs have a sleeping bag compartment at the bottom of the pack, but if your tent is heavier than your sleeping bag it make sense to carry it nearer the bottom of the pack. Heavy items such as stoves and fuel will also help move the load downward to your hips and take some pressure off of your shoulders. Water is arguably the heaviest item you will carry at nearly eight pounds per gallon. Packs with hydration compartments make sense, and the constant ability to drink as you walk can save you from dehydration. The most important point about pack size, as pointed out is that it should fit properly, then considerations about the length of the trip and time on the trail should be taken into consideration. I enjoyed reading the posted comments.

  32. Wow, External won my vote

  33. Are Canvas Backpacks built more durable than nylon backpacks? Will Canvas Backpacks withstand the weather and terrain more than nylon backpacks? During our visit to Philmont, my crew decided to earn the 50 miler afoot and afloat award so that our backpacks need to withstand water as well as dry heat of Philmont. Thank you for your input regarding canvas backpacks versus nylon backpacks.

  34. i got the rei passage 65 yesterday

  35. i think u need a backpack in the 5000 cubic in for a week backpacking trip. not a 2000 cubic in . i personal use the osprey argon 85 and it works great

  36. troop102 patrol leader // July 30, 2009 at 11:06 am // Reply

    i used 2 carry 2 much much gear and fell a few times so i say ONLY!!!!!!!! the most important gear and chance is u wont use most of the extra stuff anyway so pack light!!!

  37. should high adventure camping trips have more advanced backpaks than other scouts

  38. The Osprey Kestrel comes in the small/medium size. Do you know what the suggested torso size is and what ages would this pack normally be for?

  39. is the rei meteor pack waterproof or does it come with a rain fly

  40. None of ur business // July 18, 2009 at 8:37 am // Reply

    Nice how heavey should a backpack be

  41. I like the backpacks. and I wish I could buy one.

  42. Worcester Scoutmaster // June 16, 2009 at 4:30 am // Reply

    The tent in the article was the MSR Trekker Tent.

  43. If anyone wants my opinion:
    External backpacks are the way to go. there cheap.There sturdy. They also can easily have a sleeping bag just dangle off a bar.

    • definitely i agree, external packs are the way to go for 90% of scouts. but when i went on a backpacking trip in the adirondacks, i found that my external frame pack constantly shifted left and right on the rugged trails, and the frame sometimes caught on low-hanging branches (a common occurrence in the adirondacks), so in conditions like those an internal frame pack would be more appropriate.

    • skip the external and get an internal, when bushwhacking it is much easier to get through dense brush the pack protects everything inside of it, and you don’t have to deal with strapping your gear on and don’t have to worry about the gear falling off.

    • Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // October 5, 2011 at 12:59 pm // Reply

      yeah they work good… for a kiddy trail. if you are a serious hiker (like myself) you don’t walk on perfectly groomed trails (I RARELY hike or a trail at all!) internal frames are the best of the best for rough trail hiking (or no trail at all)

  44. Very specific

  45. I think that a larger capacity of pack is needed rather than these internal frames with only 3 to 4 thousand cubic inches because they allow you to carry some of your troops gear or if your sleeping bag or pad is rather bulky.

  46. what was the name of the tent that was in the article. i was going to look for it on ebay but my dad threw away the magazine

  47. Backpack Camper329864 // May 27, 2009 at 12:58 pm // Reply

    Thank you for the insight regarding hip belts and how to affix a tent and sleeping bag to a backpack when backpacking to a campsite.

  48. scuba dude 642 // May 18, 2009 at 7:57 pm // Reply

    Dear Backpack Camper,

    Hip belts are a must in all situations. They are well worth the cost. Hip belts do reduce injury, but are also much more comfortable to where. The hip belt is designed to eliminate load on the shoulders, thus increasing range of motion and hikability. You will always want a hip belt once you try it out.

    When camping I put the tent on the top under the top cover, and attach my sleeping bag to the bottom of my pack with tie-downs.

  49. Backpack Camper329864 // May 15, 2009 at 12:50 pm // Reply

    Are hip belts really worth the cost for people who go camping and hiking frequently to reduce injury to the lower back by placing the weight of the backpack on the pelvis? Or, are hip belts on a backpack only really needed for people who hike for distances such as at a High Adventure Camping Program. How does a person properly affix both a sleeping bag and a four person tent onto a back pack for hiking to a campsite?

    • YES hip belts are worth the cost. They help a bunch.
      And for the affixing the sleeping bag: with a backpacking bag, just put it inside. For a regular bag, use the straps on the bottom of the bag. For a tent, either use the straps on the bottom if nothing else is there, or loosed the straps on the main pocket cover, put the tent under it, and tighten the straps

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