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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.

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

  1. 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.

  2. Wow, External won my vote

  3. 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.

  4. i got the rei passage 65 yesterday

  5. 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

  6. 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!!!

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

  8. 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?

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

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