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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.

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

  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

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