Choosing a backpack can be tricky, especially for someone who is just starting out. You need to know what you are carrying to choose the right pack, but if you are just starting out you don’t know what you are going to be carrying. I suggest start with trips you expect to take (duration & conditions), and what backpacking style you will use (ultra-light, light weight, hut2hut / hosteling, medium/heavy weight). I would encourage taking a light to ultralight approach
Conventional wisdom is that people carry a backpack that’s less than 20-25% of their body weight. There were several experiments run by the US and by the Swiss military. The key finding IMHO was that on extended (8+ hour) exercised that fit / trained individuals had a measurable increase of fatigue and a drop in agility when they carries more than 10-12% of their lean body weight. This has been my personal experience. In a well designed pack I feel no more tired at the end of a 20 miles walk carrying <12% of my lean body weight as compared to carrying no pack at all. The caveat is that I have some issues with my shoulders. If the pack does a good job transferring weight to my hips I can carry between 15-20 lb with no pack related fatigue. If all the weight is all on my shoulders I need to keep the weight to 6%, around 8lb or the shoulder pain starts to fatigue me. My wife found her sweet spot is around 6lb.
What you are carrying effects how much volume you will need, and how substantial the suspension system needs to be. I typically tell people don’t get a pack that’s larger “just in case you need more room”, this will only encourage you to bring too much stuff, will be heavier, and more ungainly. If anything, you want a pack which is slightly smaller than you need. It is likely that over time you will find the weight and volume of your gear will go down, and the slightly too small pack becomes just right. In the mean time, use a stuff sack which you attach to the outside of your pack with straps or under the top lid to hold the items that don’t fit inside the pack. As your food gets consumer, move the items into your pack.
Beside the backpack being able to hold everything you need it to, the most important thing is to find the pack which is comfortable when holding the load you plan on carrying. The first issue is that the pack needs to fit you well. A great pack which is poorly fit can be more uncomfortable that a cheap pack which fits you. There is a nice video made by REI about adjusting backpack fit which will give you a good idea of what to look for. One caviet, if you are looking at packs without load lifters, or where the load lifted doesn’t attach to the frame, you want the shoulder strap anchors to be slight above the shoulder top rather than slightly below.
Ideally, you should go to a outdoor outfitter that employs experienced backpackers or climbers who can help you get a good fit. Note: many of the larger outdoor stores employee people who do not have significant experience backpacking and climbing.
It’s best to try backpacks before purchasing. You should place weight in the pack to simulate the sort of load you expect to carry and give it a try. For experienced packers, I would suggest bring all your gear in a duffel bag and try packs using your stuff rather than simulated weights.
Check with local stores to find out if it is possible to rent the pack you like for a weekend or has a good return policy. This could save you from buying a pack which seemed good in the showroom but isn’t comfortable after a hard day of use.
I can’t stress enough how important getting a comfortable backpack can be. Other than your footwear, no other piece of gear is as likely to ruin a fun trip than a backpack which isn’t comfortable. My experience is that a well fitting backpack carries 20 lbs so well that I can actually forget that I am carrying a pack, and that I can carry 30 lbs for days without any shoulders or hip soreness or pain. Do not scrimp on your pack. Get a pack which is comfortable for you.
If you are looking for a pack for european backpacking / trekking, where you are going from hut to hut, or hostel to hostel, you might want to look at my notes about packing light for travel. and my list of trekking packs. I also have a separate post about backpacks for kids.
I have been using a Gossamer Gear Gorilla 40L backpack since 2009. I used the original for several years, and then in 2012 switched to the 2nd generation. I believe that pack currently being sold is the 5th generation and if has only improved. My pack weighs 29 oz including the removable aluminum stay and back panel which doubles as a sit pad. I have been able to use it as carry on luggage with major airlines. Between 2000-2009 I put at least 150 miles on 15 different packs and tried a number of others as I searched for the perfect pack for me. These packs spanned the range from the 4 oz Gossamer Gear Whisper frameless through 6 lb external frame packs. I came to realize that given the duration and conditions of my normal hikes that food and water + a SUL base would put me over 10lb. I found <16-20lb in a pack with good load transfer to my hips was more comfortable and less fatiguing than >=10lb just on my shoulders. Carrying the extra weight of some sort of frame to improve carry comfort is worth it to me, and I do’t have to be an obsessive gram weenie. Today my base is 8-11 lb, I carry between 15-26lbs. GVP example is getting me to rethink if I could enjoy SUL with a frameless pack, so I am running some experiments, but I suspect I will stick with a light frame.
Internal -vs- External Frame Packs
There has been a debate running since at least the 1970s as to whether internal or external frame packs are better. I doubt this debate will ever end. My observations are as follows:
Internal Frame Packs
These days most people seem to use internal frame packs. An internal frame pack uses foam, plastic, metal, and/or carbon fiber which is located inside the pack to give the pack structure and effectively transfer weight to the hip strap. Advantages are that internal frame packs tend to be easier to balance since they are closer to your body and are less likely to get snared on things if you are climbing or going cross country. The downside is that your back doesn’t get much ventilation.
External Frame Packs
External frame packs typically have a ridged metal or plastic frame which has shoulder and waist straps on one side to allow you to carry the pack, and some sort of bag on the other side to hold your stuff. These packs are good for hauling large amounts of gear. They also tend to be better in hot weather because they can provide better ventilation for your back, provide lots of pockets to make organizing your gear easier, and allow you to secure gear against the frame to minimize shifting of your heavier gear. External frame packs also tend to be more adjustable so they are good for people who are growing of as packs which get used by a number of people of variable size.
Over the years I have had a number of external frame packs including the original Kelty Tioga and a JanSport D2, but I never managed to find one which was really comfortable for more than 10 miles. On the other hand, there are many people who absolutely love their external frame pack.
Don’t “upgrade” you old external frame pack if it is working well for you. I have met a number of people who were convinced to get rid of their external frame packs and get a “modern” internal frame pack only to find that they liked their old pack better and then were unable to find a comparable external frame pack on the market. They ended up hunting on ebay for a pack just like the one they gave away a few months earlier. Most external frame packs are quite heavy, but there are a few that are quite light. Some people save weight by replacing the heavy fabric pack bag with light weight stuff sacks. This is described on Brawny’s The Packless Pack System webpage.
Durability & Materials
I have seen many people (including myself) obsess on pack durability. We have all heard about, or seen packs fail in the back country and we don’t want this to happen to us. All the catastrophic failures I have seem stem from poorly constructed packs made from mediocre materials. Often these packs came from big box discount stores. Most often, I have seen their seams rip out. For people doing trail hiking, a well constructed pack made from even light weight materials like sil-nylon will be sufficiently durable. If your pack does run into something, it can typically be repaired with some tape (duct, gorilla, etc). I know several people who have thousands on miles on ultralight sil-nylon backpacks that weight less than 1lb. Light weight packs use mesh pockets which are fairly prone to damage. If you are concerned about long term durability, especially if you go off trail sometimes, I would recommend fabric pockets. Climbers and people who spend the majority of their time bushwacking are justified in concerns about durability. They face a lot more wear and tear than a trail hiker.
If durability is your top issue, then 100% spectra is likely the way to go, but you pay a 2-3x premium for this. Most of the companies that make 100% spectra packs are oriented to climbers like McHale Packs and WildThings. Ultra 200 is becoming popular, but there have been reports of it delaminating. I am a fan on Dyneema, Robic, etc which mix of nylon and spectra threads which seem to provide a good durability : weight and seems to last for years. Finally there is the old standby Cordora, which tends to be heavier, but also cheaper than the other materials listed here. I recommend avoiding packs made from DCF. While light weight and strong, it’s expen$e and doesn’t stand up to abrasion/cuts. There was a nice post by Montmolar about lessons make fastpacks which drills into fabrics a bit.
I would not recommend novice to start out using an ultra-light style unless you are going some place with mild conditions. There are skills which need to be developed to be safe and it takes some practice to figure out what you should take and what you can leave behind.
Ultra-light packing is minimizing absolutely everything and relies on effective use of technique to keep you comfortable and safe. Ultra-light backpacks are frameless rucksacks (think high volume book bag) made out of a light-weight fabric. The philosophy is that if you aren’t carrying too much weight, you don’t need a frame or super heavy fabric… make the backpack as light as possible and save up to 5 lb as compared to heavy weight backpacks.
Some people swear frameless backpacks are the most comfortable way to carry <30lb of weight. The general run of thumb is frameless packs are great up to 15lbs, +/-5lb given individual preferences. Personally, I want a frame sheet or stays if I am carrying more than 8 lbs in most cases. I have found that if the pack has a harness system rather than more traditional shoulder straps I am ok up to 12lb or so. I used to say I am a wimp, but I have discovered I can carry 40lb on my shoulders while doing rucking for exercise… but I would rather not when my goal is to enjoy nature rather than being tortured to boost fitness.
Ultra-light backpacks typically use the combination of a sleeping pad and tight packing to provide a suspension. Most ultralight packs aren’t able to provide an effective suspension for more than 15lbs. For more information about how this works, check out Frameless Backpacks Engineering Analysis which looks at how much the pack collapses as weight is added to it.
There are several different approaches to hipbelt on ultralight packs. Many have none and just use shoulder traditional shoulder straps. Some using a “vest” rather than shoulder straps which keeps the pack more stable when you are moving and spreads the weight more than traditional straps. Some have thin webbing hip straps which don’t transfer weight but can help to stabilize the pad. A few ultralight packs have hipbelts which can actually transfer weight provide packing has been done in a way to resist compression.
Ultralight packers tend to carry packs weighting 10-15 lbs and will likely be ~1800cu/in for weekend trips. Week long without resupply you want a pack which has ~2600cu/in and can carry 20-25 lbs. If you are in locations without good water supplies, you will need to carry significantly more weight and volume and should seriously consider a light weight pack. My experience is that ultra-light packs aren’t for everyone.
My favorite ultralight pack is the long discontinued Six Moon Design StarLite pack and the current Hanchor Tufa which are only frameless pack that I could comfortably use for loads of around 22 lb as compared to most frameless packs that weren’t comfortable with more than 9lb if used for a full day.
There are a number of companies which make high quality ultra light packs. I am generally not going to list any specific models, because most of the frameless packs I have experience will are no longer made and there are a number of new companies. Noteworthy / commonly recommended ultralight packs. Keep in mind that the built to order packs often have a 8-16 week lead time and often are not returnable.
- Atom Packs (UK): Built to order (semi-custom), multiple size with light frame and belts which can be optionally added.
- Dandee Packs: custom made: select shoulder straps, materials, torso length, volume, accessories.
- Gossamer Gear: Good range of products, several of which can be configured with frames. Factory made and easily ordered
- Granite.Gear: Virga 2 not lightest but durable, reasonably priced and I found it more comfortable than most of the frameless packs I tried in 2010.
- KS Ultralight Gear: Built to order (semi-custom)
- LifeAF Packs: Built to order (semi-custom)
- MLD: one of the grandfathers of ultralight packs
- Palante: Handmade frameless packs with minimal customization
- Nashville Cutaway Pack: Built to order (semi-custom) with harness style attachment
- Six Moon Designs: One of the early makers of ultralight packs that can be configured a number of ways. Factory made and easily ordered. Many people love their packs. I found one of their now discontinued packs, the StarLight very comfortable. For whatever reason there newer packs haven’t seemed significantly better than the average ultralight packs.
- SWD: Built to order (semi-custom)
- Japanese companies
- Zimmerbuilt: custom made backpacks
It’s worth noting that several of the light weight style backpacks have removal stays, and can be configured as frameless, ultralight packs.
Light weight packers carefully select light weight gear, and don’t take a lot of luxury items… the luxury is carrying a light pack that isn’t fatiguing. I would recommend anyone starting out to follow a light weight style. As a light weight packer you optimizes for carry comfort like an ultra-light packer, but you bring a little extra gear to give larger safety margins and more comfort in camp. Weekend pack should carry 15-25 lbs and have ~2600cu/in. Week long trips without resupply you want a pack which has ~3600cu/in and can carry 25-40 lbs. Light weight packs are also great for people who are otherwise ultra-light packers who want to have a bit more carry comfort or need to carry a fair amount of food or water in addition to their ultra-light gear (this is me). Light-weight packs typically weight between 1.5-3 lbs. Packs I would recommend looking at:
- Dan Durston 40L Pack: Great price for what looks to be a good pack. I found the shoulder straps a bit uncomfortable because they put the weight on the inside edge when I used it (there are a few other people who have had a similar issue), but there seems to be a good number of people who have been very happy with this pack.
- Durston Kakwa 40: A good price for a really well designed pack. Shoulder straps are great (big improvement over the DD40). Excellent material and workmanship. Nice design. I found the hipbelt on my Gorilla more comfortable, but many seem to love it. Well worth considering. The pack is 23″ long, some airlines limit carry-on to 22″.
- Elemental Horizons: No personal experience. I have seen a number of reviews such as the search for the perfect pack which leads me to believe it would be worth giving a try.
- Hyper Mountain Gear: Many people seem to love their packs, especially people who care about durability. I tried the SW2400 for a couple of days. I found it less comfortable than my Gorilla for weights 19-24lb.
- Gossamer Gear Gorilla: $215, 29oz, 2800ci pack. The pack can be used like a typical frameless pack, but was designed to use the combination of a foam sleep or sit pad attached to the outside of the pack in combination with a removable U shaped aluminum double stay. The stay is easily reshaped for a custom fit which could be an issue with heavier loads, but I didn’t have any problems with the stay deforming with <25lb loads. The frame isn’t seated into the hip strap system which ultimately limits it’s weight carrying capacity and means that that more care needs to be used in packing than the average internal frame pack. The Gorilla has a removable wrap around waist strap and extra wide shoulder straps which I have found quite comfortable. The material is more durable than the typical sil-nylon ultralight pack. The side pockets are easy to reach while wearing the pack with a large mesh pocket on the back of the pack. I found with loads less than 25lb this is one of the more comfortable pack I have used. If you need more volume, there is the Mariposa.
- Granite Gear makes well designed light weight packs. I am fond of the Crown2 38L which I found to be slightly larger than my GG Gorilla 40L though it weights around 8 ounces more. Overall carry comfort was good, but I was surprised to find the Gorilla hipbelt to be a bit more comfortable. For many years I used the now discounted Granite Gear Vapor Trail which I found more comfortable that the Gorilla for loads up to 25lb. GG Crown2 is one of the best values, especially if you pick up one the the drop.com versions.
- McHale Packs custom makes some of the best packs. The only packs I hear people rave about in the same way are Seek Outdoors.
- NeoTrekk StackPack is an external frame back which uses a number of “barrel” bags to hold your gear. Used to be known as LuxuryLite. Didn’t work for me, but I have yet to find an external frame pack that I have liked using.
- Osprey Exos/Eja, Levity/Lumina are light weight packs with a mesh back panel for better ventilation. Light weight given their features. I found the first version of the hip belt was not comfortable. The current generation (on the Levity) was good up to around 22lbs at which point I found it to be uncomfortable. A downside for me is that the smaller packs don’t fit a full size bear canister, and the larger models are just too big for me.
- Outdoor Vitals CS40: Looks promising. 25oz, carbon fiber stays with load lifter
- Seek Outdoors Flight Series: Light weight but reported by a number of people I trust to be one of the most comfortable packs, especially in the 30-50lb range.
- Six Moon Designs Swift X: On paper looks like a great pack with all the features I would want. My experience with the super wide shoulder straps on the Gossamer Gear Gorilla and a brief test trail running using the harness on the Six Moon Designs Flight pack years ago made me think this could be a worthy update to my Gorilla. Alas, I just couldn’t get it adjusted to provide me with a comfortable fit.
- ULA-Equipment: Makes a range of light weight of packs which have been popular with thru-hikers and light weight enthusiasts looking for long lasting packs. There website explains what volume and weight carrying capabilities each of their packs has. Mostly mail order, there are several stores such as Downworks in Santa Cruz which carry them.
- SWD Movement: No personal experience, but loved by a friend.
- ZPacks Arc line of packs is a modern take on external frame packs. I have no personal experience. Some people seem to love these packs. A minority of folks complain about durability issues.
Several the the semi-custom ultralight pack makers do a version of their pack with some sort of frame and a hip belt which is capable of load transfer.
Mid-weight packers are the most common / main-stream. You select standard backpacking equipment and take enough gear to feel that you will be safe in comfortable in a wide range of conditions. Weekend pack should carry 30-40 lbs and have ~3500 cu/in worth of space. Week long trips without resupply means that you want a pack which carries holds 40-50 lbs and ~4800cu/in. Mid-weight packs tend to be 3-5lbs. Boy Scouts tend to have a mid-weight approach.
Mid-weight style packers can use light-weight style packs for shorter trips, but if you are going for a week+ a larger and more structurally sound pack should be used. For 40lb+ plus loads I have tried packs by Granite Gear, Seek Outdoors, Gregory, Osprey and ArcTeryx. I have liked most of the Osprey packs I have tried, Gregory where generally ok, and there is something about most of the ArcTeryx that just doesn’t work for me, though many people see to love them. I know a number of people who really like the external frame packs made by JanSport and Kelty (they also made a number of internal frame packs… none of which stand out as particulary remarkable). I have not looked at this class of pack in great detail in a number of years, though I have tried several packs recently.
Heavy weight style is when you bring whatever you are going an for an extended period of time without resupply or foraging, or if you are looking for maximum comfort for the camping or activity part of the trip (at the expense of the hiking being comfortable). Serious camera gear, comfy camp chairs, lots of climbing gear for an extremely technical assault, wine in glass bottles, etc. For a heavy weight, weekend pack should be able to carry 40-50 lbs and has ~5000cu/in. Week long without resupply you want a pack which has at least 7000cu/in and can carry 70-80 lbs. Heavy weight packs often weight more than 6lbs!
I know a number of people who carry very heavy load who swear by Seek Outside, McHale Packs, Dana Design Packs, and Mystery Ranch packs, but I have no personal experience carrying huge weights in any of these packs. I used to carry these sorts of weights in external frame packs. I am glad I don’t do this anymore.
What I Look for In a Backpack
There is no right or wrong preferences when it comes to selecting a backpack. You will likely prioritize and value things differently than I. I am particuarly sensitive (and difficult to fit properly) because I have a moderately severe case of scoliosis. Here is what I want in a pack (in rough priority order):in a pack, so my recommendations might point you in the wrong direction. Here is what I want in a pack (in my priority order):
- Appropriate Volume: Overnight I am typically carrying around 2000ci. Week long three season trips with bear canister I am carrying 2600ci. Snow trips (which are pretty rare these days) normally run 2800-3200ci. A perfect pack would handle this range of volumes well.
- Light-weight Frame: I use an air mattress as my sleeping pad, and I normally carry loads which are more than 16lb, but typically less than 25lb, always less than 35lbs. I have found that with this weight, and without the stiffness of a closed cell foam mat, that I need sometime the provides structure in the pack, be it stays or a plastic frame sheet.
- Curving Back: I have found that I like a pack which “leans” into me. I believe that my thoracic curvature is a bit more aggressive than some people and I have scoliosis. I want a solid connection at my waist, and I want the pack to curve gently to my shoulders. I have found that packs that are too strait bounce too much or feel like they are pulling away from my body.
- Well padded, encircling, grippy waist straps. Wing hip belts typically don’t work well for me. My hips aren;t very pronounced which means I am tempted to over tighten the hipbelt to keep it from sliding down. Hipebelts with double buckets which can be independently adjust are often better.
- Minimal or no lumbar pad: I seem to have much less sacral and lumbar curvature than some people. As a result most lumbar pads feel like they dig into my back. Because of this, I typically carry my packs slightly lower around my hips than what is considered “correct”. I have found that when I carry a pack in the “correct” location, I either have to tighten down too much on the waist strap, put more weight on my shoulders which I don’t like, or need to periodically reposition the pack as it slowly inches down my back until it hit the widest section of my hips.
- Grippy back material: I like the pack to stay fixed on my back. I have found that if the material against my back is somewhat grippy that the pack stays put better. The opposite of this are packs that put sil-nylon against my back. Particularly good have been the the rubberized mesh of the VauDe Seina 45 and the slightly textured foam on the Granite Gear Vapor Trail, and the mesh over foam of the GG Gorilla pack.
- Load Lifter: With the pack leaning into me I like being able to pull on load lifts to take even more pressure off the tops of my shoulders. Actually, load lifters aren’t an absolute requirement, but the shoulder strap top anchors need to be slightly above the top of my shoulders.
- Pocket which is reachable while walking: I want a place to store snacks which can be easily reached while wearing the backpack. This could be side pockets which aren’t too tall, maybe even angled forward like the Ospret Aether 60. I have recently discovered I like small pockets on my shoulder straps. I typically don’t like or pockets on the hip belts because when I take my pack off these pockets end up in the dirt.
- Appropriately Durable Materials: These days I most hike trails or am in fairly open terrain when going cross country. For me is 210 Denier uncoated nylon (or Sil-Nylon) with Dyneema (UHMWPE) ripstop for trail hiking and light bushwacking. Serious off trail / climbing I would want 100% spectra. My experience is that laminated materials is that delaminate after a hard year of use, say a few thousand miles. PU coated nylon ends up becoming a nasty mess in a few years due to hydrolysis. I am intrigued by the 100D Nylon PC that Hachor is using but not experience with it.
- Hydration Tube Access: Some convenient way to get a hydration hose a out of the pack, but I don’t require a hydration sleeve.
- Narrow enough that the pack doesn’t stick out much beyond the sides of my body. Short enough that I can wear a wide brim hat without the hat rubbing against the pack.
- Back ventilation: I loved my VauDe Siena Biking Daypack. The mesh allows my back to breath. Alas, I have yet to find a pack that has this feature which carries 25lb comfortably and also has enough room for my bear canister while not being too big.