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How to Choose a Backpack

The right pack can make your time on trail safer and more comfortable. Here are some of your options — and how to make them work their best for you.

By Sandra Saathoff

A bluebird day has dawned and it’s time to head outside. You just need to pick your pack and fill it with all you need to have a spectacular and safe adventure. As you think about which pack you need, consider these factors:

  • Will you be out for a few hours, overnight or for a week or more?
  • Do you have any physical issues like neck or back pain that would make carrying a standard backpack less inviting?
  • Do you pack everything including the kitchen sink? Or do you prefer to keep your gear light and minimalistic?

A hiker with a small day pack on trail.
Day packs are a hiker's best friend. Photo by Sean Philbrook.

Day Hiking Packs

At a minimum, carry the Ten Essentials, even if you’re only planning to be out for a few hours — you never know when you’ll need to adapt to changing conditions. If you’re doing an urban hike, you probably won’t need to bring things like a shelter or fire starter. But water, snacks, sun protection, layers, even a small first aid kit are all things you’ll want on most hikes. So the pack you select should be able to fit all of them.

DAY PACK FEATURES

Storage capacity: Backpack capacity is measured in liters. The measurement includes all the storage pockets in a pack. That means the main compartment, any side or hip pockets and sometimes water bottle pockets or rear mesh pockets. To choose the right pack, you need to know how much you’ll want to bring along.

  • 18–24 liters: Sufficient for carrying what you need for a half -hike.
  • 25–30 liters: Good for a full day. You’ll appreciate the extra space, which lets you carry more food and water.
  • 35–45 liters: A good option for a day when the weather is variable and you want to bring more layers. Larger packs like this are also good if you’re snowshoeing, since you can strap the shoes to your pack when not in use. A bonus: A pack this size can double as an overnight bag for a trip to visit friends.

Styles and features: Day packs come in a variety of styles, from light and simple to robustly structured with cushy padding. Larger packs often include a hip belt and sternum strap, which are helpful when carrying weight. Hip belts with pockets also allow for convenient snack storage or a small camera or phone. A hip belt is also a great place to clip a can of bear spray, if that is warranted where you’ll be adventuring.

Cost: About $50 to $200 new, but also check clearance sales and thrift shops for deals.

Weight: Anywhere from a few ounces to 4–5 pounds, before adding your own gear.

LUMBAR PACKS

These may not occur to you immediately as a pack option, but because they strap around your waist and allow your hips to carry the weight without impacting your shoulders or back, they are great if you have back or shoulder issues. You also get to skip the sticky, sweaty back! A good lumbar pack will provide storage for a couple water bottles or have an internal hydration system as well as pockets large enough for the stuff you need. If you’re a heavy packer or the weather looks iffy for your hike, you won’t be able to carry all you need for your trip, but if you’re headed out for a short hike in stable weather conditions and can pack light, this may be a great option.

Cost: Lumbar packs can cost anywhere from $30 to $100 new, but check sales and thrift shops for affordable options.

Weight: These can vary between a 0.5 to 2 pounds before adding your essentials.

Dog and hiker sitting along a river
Consider a pack for your pup, too! Photo by Aaron Peabody.

Backpacking Packs

If you’ll be on trail for multiple days, you’ll want a comfortable backpack that can haul everything you need, while fitting your frame. What type of backpacking do you plan to do? Do you have light, compressible gear? Or are you a backpacker who carries heavier equipment? Do you bring lots of luxury items with you — perhaps a hard-bound copy of your favorite novel? Identify what you need to bring, then buy your pack last. That way you’ll know it will fit everything you want to have with you to be comfortable on trail. Plan to practice packing several times before heading out, so you know how your gear fits and how to distribute the weight.

  • 45–50 liters: This should fit all your gear for a standard one- or two-night trip. However, if you are hiking in particularly cold weather you may need to size up, since more layers require more space.
  • 50–70 liters: Good for 3 to 7 nights. Your limitation will likely be food, since more than a few days’ worth of food can get bulky quickly.
  • 70+ liters: These are big packs designed to hold a lot of gear and food for multiday trips that might also include mountaineering activities.

Find the Pack You Want

WHERE TO BUY

Look for local outdoor retailers near you. They will likely offer an assortment of backpacks you can try on, and you can get assistance from a store associate for fit and pack size. Stores like REI and Cabela’s also offer these services. Of course, you can also purchase online, but you lose the opportunity to test the pack in-store. If you prefer to not shop in person, but you aren’t sure about pack size, look for retailers that allow returns or exchange.

For those who are looking for a more specialized type of pack, there are a number of online retailers who offer specialized pack designs. Some even have stores you can visit, should you live nearby. Many of these kinds of packs are meant for lightweight or ultralight gear and offer specialty fabrics and features not normally used in traditional packs. Some of these retailers include ULA, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Gossamer Gear and Six Moon Designs.

GETTING FITTED

Regardless of where you buy, you’ll be much more comfortable if the pack you have is sized appropriately for your body. Backpacks are sized based on your torso length, the length in inches between the bony vertebrae where your shoulders meet your neck (C7) down to the vertebrae between the top of your hip bones. Measuring this span is nearly impossible alone, so have another person help you. Once you have this measurement, use the backpack manufacturer’s sizing chart to decide what size you need. Many packs allow you to adjust the torso length of the pack and then lock it into place. Additionally, some manufacturers offer hip belts in various sizes, and you may be able to swap out your hip belt if you lose or gain weight.

A hiker with a backpacking pack heads up a ridge with their dog on leash behind them.
Backpacking packs usually have more pockets, straps and features than a day pack. Photo by Rachel Horn.

Understanding the Features

WHAT ARE ALL THE STRAPS FOR?

Once you have a pack that can carry all your gear and sits well on your body, it’s time to customize the fit — that’s where all the straps come in. Put some weight in the pack — about 15 pounds — and loosen the straps, then put it on.

Hip belt: Start adjusting your pack here. The hip belt takes the weight of your pack off your shoulders and distributes most of it (around 80 percent) to your hips, where you can more comfortably carry it. The hip belt should hug the top of your hip bones, not sit above or below them. Snug it up so it doesn’t move or sag, but is not overly tight. Make sure the padding is sitting comfortably on your hips.

Shoulder straps: Tightening the shoulder straps pulls your pack closer to your body and keeps it from pressing down on your shoulders, which would cause shoulder and neck pain. The adjusters are at the bottom of the padded section of the shoulder straps. Pull down on them until the pack is tight enough that it doesn’t wiggle a lot when you shake your shoulders. The goal is to make yourself like a turtle with a shell that is attached, but not too tight, so you can move while carrying your home.

Load-lifter straps: The short straps on top of the shoulder straps are the load lifters. They prevent the top of the pack from falling away from your body and pulling on your neck. They make the weight secure and easier to balance. Adjust them by pulling down on the tabs until the straps make about a 45-degree angle. Adjust as needed for comfort and a secure fit.

Sternum strap: This strap keeps the shoulder straps from wiggling while you’re walking. It should sit about an inch below your collarbones and be snug enough to keep the shoulder straps in place.

Once you’ve adjusted your pack, you’re ready to set off. But once you start moving and get a few miles into your hike, you may find that you need to loosen or tighten something. That’s OK — that’s why the straps are adjustable — it doesn’t mean you did anything wrong. Make minor adjustments as you go to suit your needs. 

MORE FEATURES!

Not all packs have all of these, but if yours does, here’s how they work.

Lifting loop: Most packs have a loop at the top of the pack frame on the side that sits against your back. This is the sturdy handle you can use when lifting your pack into and out of the car, or moving it around in camp.

Compression straps: These are straps on the sides of the pack that allow you to make the load more compact vertically, horizontally or both. Keep them loose while putting your stuff in your pack and then tighten them as desired. Compressing the pack is useful because it makes your load smaller and easier to balance.

Loops on the outside of the pack: These can be used to attach gear like a sleeping pad, tent, trekking poles, a mug clipped to a carabiner or even your laundry hanging out to dry (firmly attached, of course). Some packs have just one loop on one side of the bottom: this is for attaching ice axes.

A row of hikers stand looking away from the camera and up at a snowy peak in the distance. They are all wearing large backpacking packs with assorted gear strapped on the exterior.
Exterior straps are can be helpful for attaching bulky items like rolled-up sleeping pads. Photo by Derek Henderson.

Mesh pocket: Many packs include this pocket, which is handy for storing items you may need during the day (sunscreen, trowel and toilet paper, maps, lunch) or perhaps a wet rainfly you don’t want to carry inside the pack.

Lid or “brain”: Some packs come with a big zippered pocket on top, handy for storing small items you want to have accessible. The lid typically is buckled down when in use, and can be unsnapped for access to the main body of the pack. Some of these are removable and can be used as a lumbar pack for day hikes while base camping.

Side pockets: These are excellent for storing water bottles. Some can even store a one-person tent.

Hip belt pockets: More space for snacks, a camera, sunglasses.

Now you have the tools to find the perfect pack for your situation, whether you’re heading out for the morning or for a week. Don’t be surprised if you start collecting packs. As we’ve discussed, not all situations are the same and there’s a pack for each one. Most importantly, enjoy this fabulous state we all call home. Hike on!

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.