Nothing quite compares to the experience of heading off into nature with a pack on your back that contains just the essentials. Although we’re not all going to complete a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trail, any able-bodied person can manage an overnight trip on a local trail. The chance to disconnect from everyday life and spend a day and night (or longer!) immersed in nature is a restorative experience that a weekend or multiday pack makes possible.
Backpacking is what 99% of people who read this will be doing. Backpacking in this context means that you are taking a trip where you intend to travel to more than one destination in a given time frame. This could be within one country, or multiple countries. The type of accommodation is likely to be hostels or cheap hotels and transportation is likely to be buses, trains, tuk tuks, overland trucks, taxis and other local transport.
Picking the right travel backpack is an important part in planning your trip. Too big and you’ll have too much extra weight to carry around. Or you might not get your bag on an airplane! Too small and you’ll never fit all your stuff in the thing! Pick the wrong material and your stuff will be soaked in the rain.
There are so many backpacks out there that it can be very confusing knowing how to pick the right one.
How to Choose a Backpack
Backpack capacity: The size pack you’ll need is tied to the length of your trip and how much weight and bulk you want to carry.
Backpack features: These are the refinements that affect how the pack works for you.
Backpack fit: Torso length, not your height, matters most.
How to Choose Backpack Size
It’s extremely important that your pack fits correctly. There are two elements to this: the size of the hip belt and the length of the suspension system. If your hip belt is too large, you will not be able to carry the load efficiently. Remember that most of the weight should rest on your hips, so that they can disperse the weight to your larger bones and muscles. All packs are going to have an adjustable hip belt, but some go further and offer interchangeable belts to get an even more dialed-in fit.
The same goes for the shoulder harness system. Packs are not sized by your height but the length of your back or, more specifically, torso. Sizing is not standardized between manufacturers, so it’s essential to measure yourself. You can easily measure this with a partner (or not so easily on your own.) The measurement you are looking for is from your C7 vertebrae (the more prominent one at the bottom of your neck) down to your iliac crest (essentially, the line running between the tops of your hip bones). You will likely measure in the 16-23 inch range; look at a specific pack’s sizing charts based on that measurement. Many packs out there, including those made by Deuter, feature a suspension adjustment so you can get the fit just right.
Women-specific packs are not just for women; I know several smaller men who take advantage of the features these can offer. These packs are going to be narrower and have shorter torso options; the shoulder straps are more contoured as well.
Backpack Frame Type
Internal-frame backpacks: The majority of packs sold at REI today are body-hugging internal frame packs that are designed to keep a hiker stable on uneven, off-trail terrain. They may incorporate a variety of load-support technologies that all function to transfer the load to the hips.
External-frame backpacks: An external-frame pack may be an appropriate choice if you’re carrying a heavy, irregular load, like toting an inflatable kayak to the lake. External frame packs also offer good ventilation and lots of gear organization options.
Frameless backpacks: Ultralight devotees who like to hike fast and light might choose a frameless pack or a climbing pack where the frame is removable for weight savings.
Choose the right size pack for your torso
Packs usually come in small, medium, and large sizes. Having the right size is essential for the comfort and functionality of the pack.
Although it differs among brands, generally a small pack fits a torso length of 16 – 19 inches (41 – 48 cm).
Medium packs usually fit a torso length of 18 – 21 inches (46 – 53 cm).
For torso lengths of 20 – 23 inches (51 – 58 cm), a large size is generally best.
Try on the different pack sizes where possible to get the best fitting size.
The best backpacks — the ones that last the longest and stay in good condition no matter how much you abuse it — have all the following characteristics that make them durable, long-lasting, and will protect your stuff from the rain. Don’t get a backpack that doesn’t check off all the boxes on this list:
While your pack does not need to be 100% waterproof (that is unless you are going on some long multi-day hike), make sure your bag is made out of a semi-waterproof material so everything doesn’t get wet in a drizzle (most travel backpacks come with tarps you can put over them in case of a severe downpour). Moreover, make sure the material won’t stay wet long and thereby get musty. I look for material that is thick but lightweight. Treated nylon fiber is really good. You should be able to pour a cup of water over it without the insides getting wet. I’m not traveling a lot during torrential downpours or monsoons, but I have been caught in small rainstorms before, and because my backpack is made out of a good material, I’ve never opened my bag to find wet clothes.
As with the hip belts, the thickness and type of padding used on the shoulder straps will change with the size of the pack. Thick padded straps provide comfort and support while thinner ones offer better flexibility. Again, mesh straps provide better ventilation.
These should be contoured and padded for comfort. They should be adjustable and include foam channels to provide cushioning that also improves breathability. For warm weather hiking you may consider a pack with a suspended mesh system which offers better ventilation.
There are two ways to carry and access your water on the trail. Water reservoirs (bladders) make getting enough liquids really convenient. They range in capacity, generally averaging around 13 liters. If your pack is compatible, it will have a separate sleeve for this to slide into as well as a hook to keep the bladder vertical. The shoulder harness will have a port and clip to keep the tubing and mouthpiece easily accessible. Water bottle pockets are nice, especially if you are not using a hydration system. The advantage of water bottles is that they are less prone to failure and much easier to fill with a water filter. Many people will use a combination of both.