If you’re new to backpacking, or are interested in trying it out this summer, you’re going to need to a good backpacking backpack.
But how do you pick just one? It can be hard to choose the best backpacking backpack with soooo many sizes, price ranges, and brands out there.
Here are a 7 tips to help you choose your first, or next, backpacking backpack:
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Size: Do buy a pack early on in your gear shopping, pick the size you want to carry, and then choose the rest of your gear carefully to fit the pack. If you buy the pack last, you’ll probably end up needing the biggest one you can find, in order to fit all the things you think you need in there.
For a simple, multi-day backpacking trip, during warmer weather (think late Spring, Summer, early Fall) you want to look at 55-65-liter packs. 45 L is a bit on the small/ultralight side for multi-day trips, with 65 or 70 L packs being a bit on the large side.
70+ L packs do have their place though. If you’ll be doing any winter camping or need to carry any extra technical gear like ropes or climbing equipment, on top of your usual backpacking gear, then you may want to look at 70+ L packs, since all that gear takes up quite a bit of extra space.
Price: Packs can range from about $175-$500 or more, but you might get lucky and be able to find a used or discounted one for $100 or less. In general, the lighter the pack and higher quality material, the more expensive it will be, but you should be able to get a good quality, lightweight pack for about $300.
I do think it is worth putting up the money to invest in a good pack that will last for years and years, rather than just getting the cheapest thing you can find that you’ll end up replacing after just a season or two, either because it falls apart, or you don’t really love the way it fits.
Brands: The most mentioned brands I hear that hikers use and love are Osprey, REI, Zpacks and Granite Gear. Full disclosure – I personally use a GoLite pack, but they are unfortunately out of business now.
Features + Fit: When you’re shopping for a pack, I do think it’s best to actually go to a store, so you can get properly fitted, try it on and test it out a little bit before buying. But there are a few things you should look out for.
- Try to put a water bottle in and out of the side pockets while you have it on. This is totally impossible to do on some packs, which can be a deal breaker for some hikers. It might not bother you, but it’s worth checking.
- Is the bottom part of the pack ‘separated’ on the inside, to create a bottom compartment for a sleeping bag, and then a bigger top section? This isn’t right or wrong, but most hikers prefer to just line their whole pack with a contractor trash bag and keep it as one big compartment. So just be sure to inspect the bag, to make sure you at least have the option to use it as one big section if you want. If you’re really counting ounces and going ultralight, choose a pack without the separation, or cut it out, if you can do so without damaging the pack.
- Does it have a brain? You know, the top part of the pack, that’s fairly small, zippers closed and flips on and off the rest of the pack. Again, it’s not right or wrong to have this, but most newer, ultra-light packs do not have a brain. Some hikers really like to have that smaller top compartment to keep maps, a phone/camera, water purification and snacks easily accessible. Others are ok to just keep that in the top of their pack if it doesn’t have a brain. On some packs, the brain can be detached and used as a small day pack, which might be useful on longer hikes or international travel. So, you need to decide if that’s something you want or can do without.
- Does the belt have pockets/storage compartments? Again, this can be a deal breaker for some hikers – they need those hip belt pockets, and not all packs have them. However, if you find a pack you love, that fits really well, but doesn’t have hip belt storage, there are little pouches you can buy that slip onto the hip belt, or even should straps for extra, easily accessible storage.
- Does it feel good? The biggest issues usually come from two places. Watch out for the shoulders straps and make sure they aren’t digging into the sides of your neck, your armpits, or rubbing your sides weird. Also be sure the hip belt isn’t digging into your hip bones or belly. If you try on backpacks in a store or outfitter, they should be able to help you size up the right pack and make sure it fits properly.
If you have any questions about backpacking backpacks, leave them in the comments below. If you have a backpack you love, then let us know which one it is!
For more tips and recommendations on the best backpacking gear, check out:
- How to choose the best backpacking tent
- Must have hiking and camping gear guide
- How to choose the best hiking sleeping bag
- How to fit a backpacking pack