Boys' Life magazine

How to Buy a Great Backpack

Backpacking expands your world, opening up vast backcountry areas for exploration beyond the reach of day hiking. But you’ll have to carry your portable home on your back.

Besides boots, no piece of gear will affect how much you enjoy this activity like your backpack. Follow the Gear Guy’s advice to make sure you get the right pack for your body and your adventures.

Gregory Wander 70 ($190, 3 lbs. 7 oz.; fits torsos 13-18 inches; The Wander 70 could be the only pack a Scout ever needs. With 5 inches of fit range in Gregory’s Versafit adjustable suspension — including an adjustable hipbelt that fits a wide range of young waists — you could own this pack through high school. The internal wishbone frame carries 30 pounds comfortably, and the pack has tough fabrics (300- to 630-denier), multiple pockets and access points, a rain cover and the capacity for big trips — all while being light and compressible enough for overnighters.


The capacity you need in a pack depends, of course, on how much stuff you want to carry. For the beginner, opt for a heavier (read: less expensive) 65-liter pack that fits one person’s stuff — this is a good all-around size. Some packs in this category are fairly lightweight, yet they can comfortably carry 35 to 40 pounds.

For gear-intensive multiday trips such as mountaineering, look at 70 liters or larger. Bigger packs built for heavier loads have a more substantial suspension and more features — thus, they are typically heavier.

If you want to do some ultralight backpacking — maybe for a long-distance trek — you’ll likely need a pack that’s 45 to 55 liters and weighs no more than around 2.5 pounds when empty — which usually means it has minimalist features. This style of pack demands lightweight, compact gear, which can be pricier.

JanSport Katahdin 50L ($100, 2 lbs. 10 oz.; fits torsos 13-19 inches; JanSport’s reputation for no-frills quality gear at a good price can be seen in this top-loading 50-liter pack. It has an adjustable suspension, and its 600-denier fabric will survive a lot of hard use. The Katahdin has simple but useful features, including large mesh pockets on the front and both sides, a spacious lid pocket and side compression. Its basic harness will comfortably carry 20 to 25 pounds.


As a growing guy, stick to adjustable-suspension packs that can adapt to your body through the years. (Fixed-suspension bags are another option, and they are usually sold in more than one size — meaning you buy a new one when you grow out of it.)

Fitting a pack correctly is critical to comfort, and that requires knowing your torso length. Here’s how to measure it:

Stand straight and place your hands on the shelf-like top of your hipbones; your thumbs will point to a spot on your lower spine. Ask someone to extend a soft tape measure (or a string to hold against a stiff measuring tape afterward) from your thumbs to the bone protruding from the base of your neck when you tilt your head forward. That’s your torso length.

If your torso length falls at the top or bottom end of a pack’s fit range, it is possible neither the smaller nor larger size will fit well. If you still want that pack, try on both sizes, but make sure one is comfortable — or it’s not worth your money. You’ll find a better fit when your torso length falls in the middle of a pack’s fit range.

Expert tip: If all this measuring and pack-fitting sounds like too much, head to your local outdoors store, which could be a place like REI or a mom-and-pop shop. There you can ask an expert, who will help you find a pack that fits best.

BSA Technical Venturing 50L ($80, 4 lbs. 2 oz.; fits torsos 16-21 inches; Need a basic backpack that leaves you some cash for other gear? This top-loading 50-liter pack has features like an adjustable suspension to fit growing hikers; ample shoulder, hipbelt and back padding; convenient zippered pockets on the sides, hipbelt and lid; a front zipper to the main compartment; a separate sleeping-bag compartment and side compression. But be careful with it: The 150-denier fabric isn’t as durable as others.


You wouldn’t buy pants without trying them on; the same goes for a backpack. Throw some weight in it and walk around.

Osprey Atmos 65 ($260, 4 lbs. 3 oz. to 4 lbs. 8 oz.; Three sizes, fits torsos 16-23 inches; Osprey’s revolutionary AG (Anti-Gravity) suspension, a panel of tensioned mesh that enwraps your back and hips, feels different the instant you put it on — in a good way. All three sizes feature an adjustable harness and hipbelt, allowing a customized fit. It’s loaded with features: nine pockets, side compression, a trekking-poles attachment and durable fabrics (420-denier and high-tenacity nylon). The pack carries 45-plus pounds easily and still weighs less than 5 pounds when empty, making it versatile enough for weekend and weeklong trips.


Backpacks come in a variety of designs, differing in shape, how you open them (top-loading, one-zip panel access, roll-top), pockets and tons of other features. Don’t settle for a pack that doesn’t meet your needs and backpacking style.

Osprey Ace 50 ($160, 3 lbs.; fits torsos 13-18 inches; Including the Ace 38 ($140) and Ace 75 ($180), there’s an Osprey backpack for any sized Scout. The adjustable harness covers torsos from 11 inches (Ace 38) to 19 inches (Ace 70). The wire frame and plastic framesheet handle loads of 25 to 30 pounds, and the Ace 50 and 70 hipbelts have the same adjustability as Osprey’s men’s Atmos packs. Throw in a large mesh front and side pockets, hipbelt pockets (on the 50 and 70) and a rain cover, and this is one of the best youth backpacks out there.


What do you get for more money? Simply put, with backpacks, it’s usually a design and more dialed-in fit that result in greater comfort, more durable materials and construction for a longer lifespan, and sometimes cutting-edge technology.

My advice: Get what you can afford — and it is worth spending for more comfort, performance and durability when you can.

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