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How to buy a backpack

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In the same way a pair of too-tight hiking boots can ruin your day on the trail, an ill-fitting backpack can easily turn your fun trek into a nightmare march. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Backpacks come in many different shapes and sizes with tons of adjustability to fit just about any type of backpacker. The trick is finding the right pack for your body and the type of backpacking you have planned.

Your Gear Guy is here to help get you on the trail and easily shouldering that load.

TORSO LENGTH

To pick a pack that fits you correctly, first measure your torso length. Have a parent use a soft seamstress tape to measure the distance from the base of your neck straight down to your hipbone. Now find a pack that fits that sizing. Most youth backpacks have adjustable harnesses that accommodate a range of torso lengths.

WAIST WISE

The next measurement you need is your waist size. About 70 to 80 percent of the weight of your pack will be supported by your hips, so getting a hip belt that fits is key. Most hip belts offer a lot of adjustment, and some packs provide removable/swappable hip belts so you can size appropriately.

Deuter Fox 40 and Outdoor Products Dragonfly

Deuter Fox 40: ($109, deuter.com) Capacity: 40 liters/2,440 cu. in. Weight: 2 lbs. 14 oz. Adjusts to fit torso range of 11″-18″. The Fox 30 ($99) fits smaller guys. Outdoor Products Dragonfly External Frame Pack: ($67, outdoorproducts.com) Capacity: 45 liters/2,780 cu.in.; Weight: 3 lbs. 10 oz. Adjusts to fit torso range of 15″-18″.

INTERNAL VS. EXTERNAL

There are two basic types of backpacks: External frame packs use a metal framework on the outside to support the load, while internal frame packs have their support structure hidden inside the pack like a skeleton.

Internal frame packs are more formfitting, bringing the load closer to your body for more stability and better performance on tight trails.

External frame packs are cheaper and provide better airflow between your body and the pack, while also offering more flexibility for packing bulky items.

When choosing between internal and external frame packs, make sure to consider the size of your sleeping bag. You might buy an internal frame backpack only to get home and realize there’s no way your sleeping bag will fit inside. If you have a lightweight, compressible sleeping bag, it should fit well in most internal packs, but if you have a big, bulky sleeping bag and won’t be getting a new one anytime soon, consider an external frame pack. It’ll give you plenty of room for strapping on a large sleeping bag.

Gregory Wanter 50 and Kelty Yukon 48

Gregory Wander 50: ($179, gregorypacks.com) Capacity: 50 liters/3,051 cu. in. Weight: 3 lbs. 6 oz. Adjusts to fit torso range of 13″-18″. The Wander 70 ($199) fits larger guys. Kelty Yukon 48: ($170, kelty.com) Capacity: 48 liters/2,900 cu. in. Weight: 4 lbs. 13 oz. Adjusts to fit torso range of 13″-19″.

CARRYING CAPACITY

When it comes to backpacks, bigger is not always better. The amount of gear a pack can hold is measured in either liters or cubic inches. Your pack’s carrying capacity should mirror the type of trip you’re planning, whether it’s a simple overnighter, a full-on seven-day backpacking trip or something in between.

An internal frame pack with a capacity of about 40 to 60 liters would be a versatile size for most guys and perfect for a multiday trip. Of course, the smaller you are, the smaller the bag you should carry, so a 35- to 50-liter pack might be fine for you. You can also get by with a lower-capacity external frame pack since there’s lots of extra space to strap on a sleeping bag and pad.

Remember, just because you have space left over doesn’t mean you should fill your pack to the brim. Keep your load within 20 to 30 percent of your bodyweight. Carry just the essentials and your pack will be much lighter, you’ll use less energy getting down the trail and you’ll probably have a lot more fun, too!

EXTRAS

They’re nice but not necessary. Comfort and fit are most important. Beyond that, look for a pack with compression straps that help keep your load from flopping around when the pack isn’t filled up. Some packs are top-loading only while others have side zips that let you access your stuff from several places. You’ll also find bells and whistles like built-in sleeves for hydration packs and lots of exterior organization pockets for easy access to what you need on the trail.

BORROW FIRST

Ask around to see if friends have a backpack you can borrow. This will help you get a feel for what type of pack you want to buy and how it should fit. Some outdoor shops even rent backpacks, so you can try before you buy.

Osprey ACE 38 and Mountainsmith Youth Pursuit

Osprey ACE 38: ($140, ospreypacks.com) Capacity: 38 liters/2,319 cu. in. Weight: 2 lbs. 6 oz. Adjusts to fit torso range of 11″-15″. The ACE 50 ($160) fits larger guys. Mountainsmith Youth Pursuit: ($140, mountainsmith.com) Capacity: 45 liters/2,746 cu. in. Weight: 3 lbs. 6 oz. Adjusts to fit torso range of 13″-17″.

BACKPACK BUDGET

Before you go pack shopping, set a budget. Sure, you’ll see lots of tricked-out big brand-name backpacks in the $400-plus range, but you certainly don’t need to spend that much. The $150-$200 range will get you a nice pack that should last for several years or more.

WHERE TO BUY?

Nothing beats a Scout shop or outdoor specialty store with knowledgeable sales people who can help with fit. Try on several packs, have them adjusted appropriately, then fill them up with gear and wear them around the shop for 15 to 20 minutes. The key is to simulate the kind of weight you’ll be carrying. So fill up the pack with 20 to 30 pounds of tents and climbing ropes from the store or bring your own gear. While buying online can save you some cash, you won’t be able to try out the pack before you buy it.

L.L. Bean Youth White Mountain Pack

L.L. Bean Youth White Mountain Pack: ($159, llbean.com) Capacity: 50 liters/3,051 cu. in. Weight: 4 lbs. 11 oz. Adjusts to fit torso range of 14″-16″.

REI Passage 65

REI Passage 65: ($159, rei.com) Capacity: 65 liters/3,967 cu. in. Weight: 4 lbs. 4 oz. Adjusts to fit torso range of 15″-19″. The Passage 38 ($100) fits smaller guys.

All prices are MSRP — manufacturer’s suggested retail price. You can often find better deals in stores or online.

56 Comments on How to buy a backpack

  1. My youngest son (17- Eagle scout ) got a Duluth Pack 2800 ci We are minimalists, now he uses it all the time, school too. Nice to see him figure things out. Multi-use packs are great .This brand is guaranteed for life too. Find that anywhere else!

  2. I got a Kelty Coyote and I really like it and it holds enough, but if I was buying a new one I would either by the Kelty Red Cloud (The Coyote’s big brother that also has a sleeping bag compartment) or a Kelty Yukon (So I could strap stuff to the outside easier)

  3. Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // October 12, 2012 at 12:33 pm // Reply

    Hey T-Man did you ever get that osprey? If so, hows it workin!

  4. yourmominator // October 10, 2012 at 9:43 pm // Reply

    i have a kelty and it ROCKS!!!!

    • Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // October 14, 2012 at 9:19 am // Reply

      Good for you! what is the name of your Kelty pack?

      • yourmominator // August 14, 2013 at 9:21 pm //

        I call it George.

      • Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // September 3, 2013 at 1:45 pm //

        Cool. I love people that name inanimate objects because im one of them!
        I have a snowmobile named Debbie, my LMF is named Ogla, my assisted Keshaw is Speedy Gonzales, and my 870 shotgun is named Maggie

  5. If you are looking for a good backpack,rei or keltys are the best,live in Alaska. I should know

  6. I like the osprey 68, I found it for $150 e-omc.com my parents still think its too much. What would you suggest I get?

  7. I need a good cheap(hopefull) backpack.any ideas?

    • Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // September 6, 2012 at 9:02 pm // Reply

      I would highly recommend Teton Sports Explorer 4000 or Scout 3400. They are fairly inexpensive ($70-$65 for the Explorer and $50-$45 for the Scout) they are made of RipStop and are very good packs.

  8. Off-Trail-Monkey // August 3, 2012 at 12:18 pm // Reply

    Kelty packs are number one !!!!!!

  9. Like a BOSS // July 27, 2012 at 12:09 am // Reply

    El lobo 75 ALL THE WAY

  10. Sorry chad that was my bro who doesn’t even have a teton. Which is better out of the osprey range: the aether 70 or the kestrel 68? no other packs requested

    • Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // July 27, 2012 at 12:56 pm // Reply

      Thats ok bro. I would probably go with the Kestrel 68. But they are both Ospreys and Ospreys are SUPER good quality so either one would work great.

  11. Knife overlord // July 3, 2012 at 8:50 pm // Reply

    Try Granit Gear, If it’s good enough for the military it’s tough enough for a scout. Made in the USA too.

  12. Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // June 18, 2012 at 10:02 am // Reply

    I KNOW A GOOD PACK WHEN I USE ONE AND THE 4000 IS DEFIANTLY A GREAT PACK!

  13. Xtreme Bakpakr // June 1, 2012 at 5:44 pm // Reply

    The Jansport Scout 63 is so boss, it’s better than the CEO of Jansport!

  14. Which is better: The North Face Terra 55 or Jansport Carson? Please reply soon!!!

    • outdoorsman // July 14, 2012 at 3:01 pm // Reply

      id go with a terra 55. I have a kelty redstone 60 which is bigger and about the same price. Both are good packs.

  15. It may have hit a few sharp rocks and i bought it from Tetons website

    • Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // June 7, 2012 at 3:35 pm // Reply

      I have a feeling your not telling me the whole story but here’s some buyers advice… buy it from a store so you can try it on and look over it for any deformities, or if you really think a pack made of RipStop (one of the toughest fabrics) can just fall apart for no reason then dont buy it again, its your money and your choice of what to do with it. But as for me, Teton is my number one backpack company.

      • Just face it man! Tetons are mostly badly made!

      • Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // June 18, 2012 at 10:01 am //

        THEY ARE NOT!!!!

      • Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // June 23, 2012 at 4:41 pm //

        I have the 4000 and my brother and another friend have the SCOUT 3400 and none of our packs have broken in any way yet. are we talking about the same Teton? maybe you got a bad batch or something… all I know is if I know two other people that have packs just like mine and have been very rough with them for over a year then you are wrong Tetons are not mostly bad you just had bad luck that all.

  16. Off-Trail Monkey // April 12, 2012 at 5:50 pm // Reply

    Alps Mountaineering and Kelty both make great packs of all sizes. I like the internals best.

  17. Chad 101 you are incorrect! I brought the pack back and got a new one and that one fell apart as well. I then swapped it out for a refund. Tetons suck! Long live LL Bean and REI!

    • Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // April 5, 2012 at 2:25 pm // Reply

      P.S. Mine is a Teton Explorer 4000. INDESTRUCTIBLE!!!

    • Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // April 12, 2012 at 1:24 pm // Reply

      I dont care what you say Tetons ROCK!! I dont know how you broke your two packs but I do know this The Teton Explorer 4000 will always be there when I need it! And it will never Break!!

    • Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // April 24, 2012 at 6:16 pm // Reply

      Well what TYPE of teton did you buy?

      • The Explorer 4000.

      • Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // May 11, 2012 at 9:32 pm //

        dude, HOW on EARTH did you break it! It is made of RipStop and is an EXTREMELY tough pack! did you stab it with your pocket knife or what? I beg you try the 4000 just one more time… and buy it from a different seller.

  18. Trail Monkey // March 9, 2012 at 3:16 pm // Reply

    Look at the Kelty series; They have super nice waist belts and superior back meshing to help keep you drier in hot weather. The are also very light yet strong enough for any outing. I prefer the comanchee model, 3# 6 oz.with 6 compartments.

  19. dolphins#1fan // March 1, 2012 at 4:01 pm // Reply

    What is a good backpack for the AT trial and Philmont

  20. Internal frames are the best for off trail hiking of mountaineering.

  21. I going to buy the Rei pasage 65 backpack and I can’t find a pack I like better. I am going to philmont this summer and that hip belt looks real nice.

  22. I just bought an Osprey Kestrel 58 Backpack for my son. Just wanted to add that Osprey will repair or, if they can’t repair, replace any of their backpacks for free, no matter how old the pack is! Dick’s wanted me to buy a one year warranty on a Northface pack that wasn’t as nice. If Osprey has that kind of warranty, their packs have to be good! The built in rain cover sold me on it too.

  23. the schnauzer // November 26, 2011 at 7:27 pm // Reply

    I have the osprey ace and i prefer it over the rei passage. though smaller, it has a higher quality feel and come with a rain cover! hooray for osprey!

    • Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // November 28, 2011 at 7:38 pm // Reply

      I use a Teton 4000. how much $$ is the Ace?

      • the schnauzer // December 10, 2011 at 2:20 pm //

        149 bucks. totally worth it

      • I HATE Tetons. Worst quality ever. I bought one for a small weekend camp and it totally fell apart. now I have to use my 35l!

      • Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // February 24, 2012 at 8:10 pm //

        Dude give Teton another chance! My explorer 4000 is very good quality and has lasted me about 50 miles of rough hiking and im sure it is going to last me hundreds more! Maybe there was a defect in your pack… whatever the cause I encourage you to try them again. If they work for a experienced off trail Idaho hiker like me, they can work for you!

      • Minecraft // March 17, 2012 at 3:38 pm //

        I’m a new camper and I need gear what do I need

    • Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // April 11, 2012 at 1:08 pm // Reply

      My mom has an Osprey I dont know what it is called but I know its a really good pack! Osprey makes some really good stuff!

  24. hello I am going to buy an extreme pak digital camo backpack. is that a good backpack?

  25. Person number 1 // November 2, 2011 at 6:45 pm // Reply

    I am looking at the Rei Passage 65 but what could I do about Rain Cover

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