Backpack Guide for Backpacking Backpacks and Hiking Backpacks

This guide is primarily about the modern backpack, and how you should go about choosing said backpack. If you’re interested in the ancient history of backpacks, you’re in the wrong place. That said, we do know the term “backpack” was coined in 1917 in the U.S. because it entered the dictionary at that time, and before then such a pack was called a “rucksack” (still used), “pucksack” (odd), or “moneybags” (clearly awesome).

guide to backpacks

The concepts and use of modern backpacks include a number of topics:

We’ll break down each of these elements below for your easy reading pleasure.

The goal for this guide (and all our Outdoor Guides) is to inform you with the most up-to-date knowledge on a given topic. The goal is also to make you blow water out your nose while drinking, so keep an eye out for that too.

A Modern History of Backpacks

In the realm of backpacks, the aforementioned up-to-date knowledge is cultivated from a hardcore, obsessed, sometimes feral community called “backpackers.” This community has been active since transcendental pioneers decided green was in, the wild was something to experience and survive, and long, dirty beards were glacier-level cool.

john muir guide to backpacks
John Muir and his beard. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

But in the context of backpacks as a piece of gear (rather than backpacking as a philosophy), the modern understanding began to take shape in the late ‘60’s. The backpack grew from a large, external frame box with fabric to a zippered, padded piece of gear. The ‘70’s saw the establishment of a number of prominent outdoor companies, which proved a profitable market existed in the outdoor activity marketplace.

Whenever you read “profitable market” in a sentence, get ready for some next level advancements. Once money was found in the pockets of backpackers, the development of said backpack (along with every other piece of gear) began to skyrocket.

Technologies designed and tested for military use were put into backpacks, advancing the durability of materials, the ability to haul heavy loads, the comfort of hauling said loads, and about a hundred other adjustments as time went on. These include the move from external to internal frame backpacks, which are now standard. It also includes the use of hydration reservoirs, non-corroding zippers, air-mesh technologies and dense foam lumbar support, hip belts with pockets, detachable day packs, small jet propulsion systems, and an osmosis technique that allows backpackers to ingest food through the pack while they hike. (You’ve got to try that model.)

guide to backpacks suspension Backpack Fit backpacks

Backpacks are arguably at their prissiest, but they’re also at their most comfortable. The industry has overdesigned to the point of going back to simplicity, reaching a nice middle ground with lots of options.

Below I’ll break down the aspects of a backpack that are important, why they’re important, and how they should influence you as a consumer and backpacker.

Backpack Fit and Adjustability

Backpack fit and adjustability is arguably the most important aspect when it comes to buying a new pack. These have to be dialed in to your body, specifically, or your specific body is going to develop hot spots, sore spots, rashy spots, or some other inconvenience that doesn’t end in “spots.”

Sure, you can lug 50 pounds in the snow uphill both ways in a poorly fitted pack, but you won’t feel good after.

The concept of backpack fit and adjustability is more important when the load you’re carrying and the distance you’re traveling are greater. If it’s a backpack for around town, fit and adjustability won’t be as big of an issue.

Achieving the perfect backpack fit has to do with prefabricated pack sizes, torso length, hip belt sizing, and how your curves pop (or how they don’t).

Prefabricated Sizes for Different Backpacks

You’ll notice that most backpack manufacturers offer their backpacking backpacks in different sizes. Some, like Osprey, dial it in with a Small, Medium, and Large. Others only offer two sizes, and a few offer a single size.

The key to this pre-fabricated pack sizing is to know generally what size you are. Do you shop in the Small, Medium, or Large sections of a department store? Match that size to the pack size, because it’s the best general way to tell. But don’t stop there — following a prefabricated pack size alone is like getting a new TV and not adjusting the picture settings.

The real fit and customization is in the torso and hip belt.

Backpack Torso Measurement

Raise your hand if you’ve been asked about, tried to measure, or stood awkwardly in a store while an employee measured your torso. Typically they say things like “Is it alright if I touch your hips?” and “stand erect” and “put your head forward.” If that sounds like a come on — well, the words are out of context.

guide to backpacks suspension-2 Backpack Torso Measurement
Will your torso fit?

In context they are getting to the root of your torso measurement. Just because you’re 6 feet tall doesn’t mean you have a “large” sized torso. Backpack torso measurement is key to getting a comfortable fit.

This measurement is determined by finding the length between your Iliac Crest (the top of your hips) and the C7 vertebrae near the base of your skull.

How to Find the Iliac Crest

To do this you’ll need a cloth tape measure (or any tape measure that isn’t rigid) and a friend.

It’s hard to instruct visuals with words, but, essentially, put your hands against the side of your hips. Both hands. Sway a little. Now move your hands (I use my thumbs) up the hip bone until it starts to curve inward. This point is the Iliac Crest. If you keep moving up you should feel the bone move into flesh, and about an inch above that fleshy area is your lowest rib.

The Iliac Crest is pointy and comes to a full stop, like a narrow plateau in the bloody chasm of your body. This is the bottom of your torso measurement.

In order to measure your torso length, follow the Iliac Crest in a line to your spine, keeping the point level.

How to Find the C7 Vertebrae

This one is easier. Try to touch your chin to your chest. Place your hand on your neck as you do this and feel for the bony protrusion. Yes, that’s inside you, and yes, it’s the C7 vertebrae. Also, yes, it’s the top of your torso length.

Measuring Your Torso

With the aforementioned measuring tape have that friend measure from your Iliac Crest to your C7 vertebrae. Stand very straight, and still, and don’t breathe! Don’t blink. Don’t do anything, alright?

That length is your torso length. If you’re intense you could write it on a “backpacking” card, get it laminated, and put it on a lanyard for all your trips into the wild and stores.

Or you can just remember the length.

In general adult human torso lengths range from 15-23 inches, with room on either side for the extremely small or tall.

Backpacking Backpacks With An Adjustable Torso Length

You’ll find that many backpacking backpacks will list torso length in their measurements (see a spec chart for the pack you’re interested in). They’ll also note if the pack “works” for a torso length range, or if the pack is “adjustable” through a range of torso lengths.

The difference here is between a pack that covers a general torso length range, like a Medium pack that works for torsos 18-20 inches, or a pack that can actually be adjusted to your specific length. Adjustable is always better if you’re seeking a perfect fit.

Manufacturer Measure Charts

Most manufacturers in the backpack industry have created their own measurement systems for the torso. The most popular is the Osprey model, which backpacking store employees will place over your back as you stand straight. This determines your torso length while also easily fitting the length into that manufacturer’s range of packs.

Each manufacturer has slightly different ranges, therefore getting fitted to the individual pack is a smart idea.

Why Do You Need to Measure your Torso Length?

My above instructions talk specifically about how to adjust for your torso length, but I didn’t really say why.

Torso length is about making sure your torso matches with the torso of the pack. This ensures that the hip belt will rest at the right level on your Iliac Crest, and that the shoulder straps will come over your shoulders at the right height.

The most common issue with torso length in a backpack is that the shoulder straps don’t get high enough over your shoulders. When you cinch those straps down the straps will press too much on your shoulders, putting more weight on them than necessary. The hips are where you want the bulk of the weight.

Backpack Hip Belt Position and Measurement

Hip belt position and measurement is simpler than torso measurement, but also requires a soft measuring tape. You’ll want to measure in a circle from your belly button to your Iliac crest and around your whole waist, keeping as straight a line as you can. That’s it.

This line is higher than where your pants and belt usually sit, so the measurement should be slightly different from your typical waist measurement for clothes. However, using your waist measurement is a good way of ball-parking the actual hip belt measurement.

guide to backpacks Backpack Hip Belt Position

You’ll know if you measured correctly if the backpack hip belt position is comfortable, tight, and distributes the weight well. You want the top point of your hip bones, which are higher than you think they may be, to sit in the middle of the padded portion of the hip belt. This will ensure the weight is coming down properly.

You also want each padded portion of the hip belt to reach around your waist to the front of your abdomen. If they are too far back you will feel uncomfortable with so much tight strap strangling your stomach. But if they come together closely near your belly button, it’s also not good. You want them to be at least three inches apart, preferably a bit wider.

Static vs. Swappable Hip Belts

Hip belts on packs today come in two varieties, but both of them serve the same overall function: securing the load of the pack to your hips. If a backpack doesn’t have a hip belt it’s not meant for heavy loads.

Static Hip Belt

This hip belt is attached to the pack, cannot be removed, and comes in a prefabricated size that typically matches the prefabricated size of the pack itself. Thus a Large pack will come with a Large waist belt.

These belts innately have ranges — as you cinch the belt tighter or looser you will find it fits a wide range of hips. However, you might find that a Large hip belt won’t get tight enough for a very small-hipped person (like myself), even if that person happens to be very tall (therefore needing a Large pack).

When selecting a pack you’ll want to make sure to tighten the hip belt and see if it is snug, loose, or not large enough. Do this with weight in the pack.

Swappable

There are also backpacks that have swappable hip belts. This is the best for a customized and comfortable fit, as they allow you to dial in the right hip belt size independently of the right torso size.

This works extremely well for the oddly shaped — the incredibly lanky, the short and squat. It’s worth considering trying on a backpack that has a swappable hip belt if you’ve always felt like your pack comfort could never get dialed in — it’s probably an issue with torso size in coordination with hip belt size.

A Firm Resting Place

Finally, you want the hip belt, static or swappable, to rest right along that measured hip belt line. The pads should sit square against the pointy Iliac Crest on either side, and there should be an inch of space above and below it.

Also, it should feel good. Really good. Like, Thai massage good. Load up the pack with weight and see how that weight sits on your hips. If it’s not glorious, try another pack.

How to Determine Backpack Size and Capacity

Leaving fit and adjustability behind we come gallivanting to backpack size and capacity. The technical term here is capacity, as it refers to how many liters or cubic inches are in your backpack. For the common user, this is called backpack size. Backpack size will range greatly for your activity type, but in general you want a backpack that is large enough to carry what you need.

guide to backpacks Backpack Size and capacity
How much space do you need?

If you’re a hardcore gear person that knows exactly, down to the cubic inch, what kind of space you need, go for a smaller pack with no expandable room. Most people, though, operate under the concept that “more room won’t hurt.”

That’s true to a point. More room means a potentially heavier pack, which could actually hurt. But for those that want a backpack that can fit what they need, and then some, going up 10 liters in a wilderness backpacking pack makes a lot of sense, as does a couple liters in a day pack.

Here’s a rubric by which you can gauge backpack size (capacity) and functionality.

  • <10 Liters: A very small backpack meant for running, cycling, or other sports. It typically has a hydration system included if it’s a sports pack. It could also be a very minimal around town pack.
  • 10-20 Liters: A small hiking backpack that can fit basics for a day hike or day-long adventure. Also a good-sized exercise pack for extended trails or roads.
  • 20-30 Liters: A standard hiking backpack size for day hikes, urban transport, or college. This size can typically fit lunch, a jacket, emergency/survival items and a water bottle or two if you’re hiking. If in a city or college, this size pack can typically fit laptops, binders or work papers, a change of clothes, and electronics.
  • 30-40 Liters: A larger pack that has a lot of uses. It can be an oversized day hiking backpack if you want to bring a lot of food, cold weather clothing, blankets, or are carrying for multiple people. It can also be also be an oversized commuter bag if you have to make deliveries, haul video or other electronic equipment, or a second set of clothes for a long day. Finally, this size can serve as a small, lightweight backpack for ultralight backpackers.
  • 40-50 Liters: This pack size is typically for wilderness backpacking or international travel. In the wild you can expect an overnight or two day trip to fit in a pack this size. This is also a standard size for ultralight backpackers who thru-hike long distances. This size pack can sometimes fit on airplanes, and works well for traveling over multiple countries and different transportation systems. It often holds everything you need for these activities, but not much extra.
  • 50-70 Liters: This is a 20-liter range because it’s the classic range for backpacking backpacks. Typically you can can fit gear for an overnight, a week, a month, or months, depending on how long you want to go and how you pack. Most backpacks you’ll see in the wilderness are this size, with 65-70 Liters being the sweet spot. This size also works for international travel, but you’ll have to check a bag this big.
  • 70-80 Liters: These are extremely large packs for hauling lots of weight for weeks on end. Works just as well for wilderness overnights or a few days, but is overkill in most cases. Also a good size for months-long travel in foreign countries when you need a single pack to hold everything.

This is our rubric, but remember they are guidelines. Check the capacity of a pack before purchase, eyeball your gear, and see what fits.

guide to backpacks Backpack Size and Capacity

Calculating Backpack Weight

I’ve mentioned weight here a couple times already, and it’s a pretty straightforward concept: the more your pack weighs, the more you have to carry. Much like 2 + 2 = 4, the weight of your pack is determined by the pack itself, then all the stuff you decide to put inside. (I’m blowing your mind, aren’t I?)

There are two major schools of thought when it comes to weight:

  1. Be very specific. Know exactly what the weight of your pack is by itself, what each item you’re taking weighs on its own, and how much all of it together weighs (with water and food). Add and subtract this weight for each trip, be meticulous in your measurements, bring only what you need and truly desire, and mention your pack’s weight every other fifteen minutes (that’s every 30 minutes for those who are counting).
  2. Wing it. You still bring all the required stuff, but you have no idea what the weight is. If you hoist it up and it’s too heavy, you drink some water or take something out. If it’s light, you smile and throw some more whisky in there. Or a non-alcoholic joy inducing heavy object — take your pick.

Both trains of thought are valid. It’s a good idea to know generally how much weight you are capable of carrying, but it’s more important to know the range of weight your backpack can carry.

Backpack Weight Limits

Any backpack you consider purchasing should list a weight range. That range can be large or small but you need to know what the manufacturer has to say about the load carrying capability of the pack. In general you can trust this measurement, but always be wary of the last 5-10 pounds of their claims.

This is necessary because you could have an extremely comfortable backpack with a 30 pound load that begins to sag and hurt at 40 pounds. One backpack does not necessarily work for every scenario, and weight limits are one of the biggest factors in one backpack working for everything.

guide to backpacks backpack weight

Much like capacity, many folk go with the “more can’t hurt” when it comes to weight limits. A higher weight limit allows for more carrying power, not less. A pack that carries 50 pounds easily will also carry 20 pounds, right?

Yes, it will, but you can bet that the pack itself will weigh a lot more. Overly rugged packs might feel awkward and will feel bulky when carrying smaller loads, and the goal is a well-fitting load on your back, not an awkward one.

Consider your typical carried weight when strapping on a backpack (for any activity) and get a pack that gives you some cushion. Finally, test it in that weight range to make sure it works with your body.

Backpack Features

You can’t talk about backpacks (or any piece of gear) without highlighting features. Gear features are like drugs — they’re time-tested, they make you feel good, and you talk about them incessantly. (Note: do features, not drugs.)

Many times there’s a long list of features for modern backpacks listed in a spec sheet — some are obvious, others never really explained. Here’s a glossary of popular features used today, mostly in regards to wilderness backpacking backpacks:

  • Internal Frame: As opposed to external frame, this is the style of pack. Packs with the support on the inside are internal, packs with support bars on the outside are external.
  • Hydration Sleeve: CamelBak started the wave of hydration via tube-sucking, and now most packs have a sleeve inside the pack (or a separate outer sleeve) to place a hydration bladder. This also implies a hole for the tube so you can drink hands-free.
  • Trampoline Suspension: Some companies use trampoline suspension on the back panel. This is excellent for ventilation and an even weight distribution. Depending on the pack it can suffer at higher weights.
  • Load Lifters: These straps are essential to a backpacking backpack as they pull the pack closer to your back, adjusting the comfort and carry ability while you hike.
  • Brain/Floating Lid: A top compartment to hold easy accessible basic items. Detaches on some backpacks for reduced load and customization. Also closes the pack to sandwich bulky items outside of the confines of the backpack.
  • Convertible Day Pack: Some backpacks now have a convertible day pack included, often in the brain/floating lid. This makes day hikes a breeze without bringing a whole separate backpack.
  • Hip Belt Pockets: Everyone’s favorite feature — small pockets for chapstick, energy bars, smartphones, or cameras that are built right into your hip belt.
  • Shoulder Strap Pockets: Not seen very often, a pocket on the front of your shoulder strap for carrying a water bottle or smartphone.
  • Adjustable Sternum Strap (with whistle): The sternum strap helps to balance the load, and should sit roughly two inches below your collarbone. Most packs allow you slide your sternum strap up and down, and some wilderness backpack versions have whistles attached for easy SOS or animal scaring tactics.
  • Waterproof Material: Recent use of cuben fiber (since renamed Dyneema) is an extremely weather resistant (and waterproof) fabric. You’ll pay for it.
  • Sleeping Bag Compartment: Instead of one long chute, some packs have a divider and separate zipper at the bottom called a “sleeping bag compartment.” You can put anything here that you want easy access to, not just a sleeping bag.
  • Ice Axe Loops: For the ice-loving trekkers, these are specific loops hanging off the backpack that make attachment very simple. Can attach other things here as well.
  • Trekking Pole Loops: Very similar to the above, and sometimes one and the same feature. Many hikers (long distance and day hikers) like to use trekking poles. Being able to store them on your pack is sweet.
  • Drawstring Closure: A method of closing your pack that involves tightening a drawstring that compresses everything down. Easy access, but not very weatherproof.
  • Rolltop Closure: A method of closing your pack that involves rolling up the remainder of fabric into a burrito-like shape, then snapping that closed with a buckle. This is pretty waterproof, but can be annoying to get things out of.

Backpacker Types

The question at the top of our website asks a specific question, and you may feel that it begs a distinction, but you can happily be multiple kinds of backpacker. If you identify as a backpacker, you probably have, need, or want a backpack. So, you’re in the right place.

I’ll break down the Backpackers.com approach to persona types and the backpacks we’ve chosen for those types below.

Wilderness Backpacker

This Outdoor Guide has been primarily built around the functionality of the backpack for the Wilderness Backpacker. This type of backpack is the most comprehensive and requires the hardest use cases, so its general principles are a good rubric for backpacks in every other activity type.

The backpacks we looked at and selected for the Wilderness Backpacker assume that users will typically go on 1-7 day trips, and they will also work for thru-hiking. They are uniform in their pack size (65 Liters) and upper weight limits (40-50 pounds) because that is the standard most backpackers will need.

Each has unique features and adjustability, but all would be excellent choices for any person, so long as they are comfortable on your body.

Ultralight Backpacker

The Ultralight Backpacker is essentially a slimmed down, extreme version of the Wilderness Backpacker. The backpacks we chose for this persona reflect that, and expect you to use lightweight gear in conjunction with the backpack.

The ultralight backpacks we selected are on the larger side of things at 60 Liters. Hardcore users will stay in the 40-50 Liter range, but we used the “more can’t hurt” principle, as many of you are getting into the ultralight field now. The main thing to consider with ultralight packs is that their weight limit is much lower, typically around 30 pounds or below. This requires an ultralight gear setup, or a very specific selection of what you’re bringing.

Car Camper

As you can see, we haven’t selected any specific backpacks for the Car Camper. This is mostly due to our belief that a Day Hiker backpack or a Wilderness Backpacker backpack will work equally well for your car camping experience.

We will be recommending duffel bags in the near future, which will apply specifically to the Car Camper persona.

Day Hiker

The name says it all — we chose backpacks that are perfect for your day hike. These include hydration valve ports, hip belts, and decent carrying capacity for those that like to haul a decent amount of gear during their day. They also slim down nicely for the minimalist user.

You’ll notice that the Day Hiker backpacks carry much less weight, and don’t have as many measurement options. However, it’s still imperative that it feels comfortable on your body.

Urban Hiker

Our Urban Hiker backpacks are for the commuters, the tech-savvy, and the college bound. Things you would do in the middle of civilization, not miles away from it. As such they have laptop compartments, organizers for electronics and pens, and other functions that serve the life of a city person.

Note that we also care some about style in the city, and made picks that we think represent the outdoor lifestyle while also fitting nicely with an urban environment.

Choosing the Right Backpack for You

You’ll notice that the above is a long lesson in how to find the right backpack for you. Backpackers.com has also selected specific backpacks we think are the best for a type of activity and price bracket.

If you look hard, there’s some conflict here. You should always go with a pack that feels best, no matter what a website tells you is the “best.” Comfort is paramount to reducing injury, enjoying your trip, and knowing your body’s limits.
Part of our recommendation for backpacks (and other products) has to do with their customizability or usefulness for a large group of people. They rock, and usually rock for everyone.

That said, each manufacturer has a different design, and therefore fits a different shape of person. If the backpack we recommend is uncomfortable, don’t buy it just cause we told you to. Try on many packs, then make the informed decision.

Our recommendation will always be an incredible pick for gear, but the varieties of shapes and size for individuals varies so greatly it can never fit everyone.

Daniel Zweier

Daniel Zweier is Editor-in-Chief of Backpackers.com. Beyond orchestrating the daily flow of Backpackers.com, Daniel writes surrealistic short fiction and novels, adventures into the backcountry and abroad, surfs, reads, drinks tea, and obsesses over gear. A lot of gear. Visit his website if you want to learn more about his authorial pursuits.

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