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Expert Buying Tips to Help You Pick the Best Backpack

Backpacking lets you explore places in the wilderness that most people never see. Other than boots, no piece of gear will affect how much you enjoy a backpacking trip as much as your pack.

Here is the Gear Guy’s guide to picking the perfect pack.

BSA Ultralight 50 L ($100, scoutshop.org): Functional and affordable, this top-loading backpack has features seen in pricier packs, starting with shoulder hip belt and back padding, and an aluminum frame. The pack’s 50-liter capacity can handle multiday trips. Side compression straps stabilize partial loads, and stretch material in the pockets swallow items like water bottles, snacks and rain gear. The pack’s fabric also mirrors what’s used in more expensive packs, offering good durability. Bonus: Its unisex design adjusts to a wide range of torso sizes. Fits torsos 15-21 inches, 3 lbs. 6 oz.

HOW BIG SHOULD YOUR BACKPACK BE?

Backpacks with 40-50 liters of capacity are generally made for carrying some personal gear — sleeping bag, pad, clothes, some personal items and snacks — but not a full share of team gear.

If you’re planning an ultralight backpacking trek for a few days, look at backpacks that hold 50-65 liters of gear and weigh no more than 2.5 pounds when empty.

A 65-liter backpack is a good all-around size for weeklong trips. Some are fairly lightweight yet comfortable, carrying up to 40 pounds, sometimes more.

For gear-intensive multiday trips, look at 70-liter backpacks or bigger, with a supportive suspension system and more features.

Granite Gear Blaze 60 ($270, granitegear.com): This pack hauls 50 pounds comfortably, thanks to a lightweight framesheet and foam padding on the shoulder harness and hip belt, both of which are adjustable and calibrated to specific torso length and waist size measurements. The six external pockets include two spacious zippered ones on the hip belt and a deep stretch-woven front pocket. The removable floating lid converts to a chest pack that carries clipped to the pack’s shoulder harness. With its low weight, carrying capacity, features and superior compression, the Blaze 60 ranks among the most versatile backpacks on the market. Fits torsos 15-24 inches, 3 lbs. 2 oz.

GET THE RIGHT FIT

If you’re still growing, 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.

Whether the pack has an adjustable or fixed suspension, fitting it 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.

A pack fits better when your torso length falls within the pack’s fit range. Try on the pack to make sure it’s comfortable. If it isn’t, it’s not worth your money.

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

Deuter Fox 40 ($120, deuter.com): From a brand known for its tough and well-built adult packs, Deuter Fox 40 is an adjustable pack sized for young people. At 40 liters, it has enough capacity for your personal gear, and its suspension transfers pack weight onto the hips, as a good pack should. It has two external pockets, and you can hang your gear off multiple attachment points. It’s also made with durable ripstop fabric. Fits torsos 11-18 inches, 2 lbs. 14 oz.

PICK YOUR FLAVOR

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. Find one that meets your needs and backpacking style.

Gregory Zulu 55/Jade 53 ($200, gregorypacks.com): For those who are serious about backpacking and ready to step into adult-sized packs, the men’s Zulu and women’s Jade find a sweet spot in fit, performance and features. Gregory’s suspension system features flex panels that let the hip belt pivot and flex as a person walks to prevent hot spots. At barely more than 3.5 pounds, this pack is built to haul up to 40 pounds comfortably, thanks to an open-air ventilated back panel and the adjustable torso length. Nice touches: the U-shaped zipper opening up the main compartment, and integrated rain cover and the large hip belt pockets. Fits torsos 14-19 inches, 3 lbs. 6.5 oz.

BACKPACK PRICES

Higher prices usually mean greater comfort, more durable materials and construction, and sometimes cutting-edge technology. But any pack will get you into the backcountry.

Osprey Ace 50 ($160, scoutshop.org): The top-loading Ace series packs, including the Ace 38 ($140) and Ace 75 ($180), strike a balance between moderate price and the qualities of higher-end backpacks. The Ace 50’s adjustable harness covers a 5-inch range of torso lengths, while the Ace 38 fits torsos down to 11 inches and the Ace 70 reaches up to 19 inches. The LightWire frame and plastic framesheet handle loads of 25-30 pounds or more. Large stretch-mesh front and side pockets and zippered hip belt pockets (on the 50L and 70L) offer abundant external organization, and an integrated rain cover comes in handy. Fits torsos 13-18 inches, 3 lbs.

TRY ON THE BACKPACK

Follow the same rule for buying backpacks as you would for buying boots: Try them on first. Throw some weight in a pack and walk around. After going through all the above steps, this step will help you decide if the backpack is right.

15 Comments on Expert Buying Tips to Help You Pick the Best Backpack

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

    Nice how heavey should a backpack be

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

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

    The tent in the article was the MSR Trekker Tent.

  4. 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)

  5. Very specific

  6. 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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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