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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.

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

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

    What is a good backpack for the AT trial and Philmont

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

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

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

  10. 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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