How to Pick the Perfect Backpacking Backpack

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This is actually one of the most common questions I get from y'all so I'm finally writing a post to tackle the question...

So you want to get into backpacking but you're not quite sure where to start. Or maybe you've been backpacking but you've just borrowed gear and now you want your own. With so much information and so many options for backpacking bags, it can be a little overwhelming, believe me I know! I have owned two backpacks in my adult life; one I loathed, one I currently love. I'll talk more about them throughout this blog post.

Want to add your advice to this post? Comment at the bottom and I'll add it in!

Lets get started!

What Do You Need from the Backpack?

For starters you're going to want to figure out what you need from the backpack. Are you just going to be backpacking on weekends for 1-2 nights or are you planning for your trips to be a little bit longer? Personally I chose a backpack that I could use for both; I usually only go on 2-3 night trips but I wanted something big enough to accommodate longer trips if needed. I just don't stuff the backpack to it's full potential for the shorter trips. According to REI these are the sizes you need depending on the length of your trip:

  • Weekend (1-3 nights; 30-50 liters)

  • Multiday (3-5 nights; 50-80 liters) What I have

  • Extended-trip (5+ nights) or Cold Weather Trip (70 liters or larger)

"Liters" refers to how much space is inside of the backpack. A 50 liter backpack can hold 50 liters of gear. All backpacks will say how many liters they are either in their descriptions or in the specs.

What Kind of Features Do You Want/Need?

The next thing you need to decide is what kind of features you want your bag to have. Do you want it to have multiple pockets? A sleeping bag compartment? Does it need to be compatible with your water reservoir? Do you want a reservoir? Do you need certain pockets? All of these questions are important when thinking about what backpack you want to purchase. When I was purchasing the backpack I have now I had a very specific list of requirements because the first pack I had bought was not the greatest. Out of experience I knew I wanted a sleeping bag compartment, great ventilation, enough space for a quick weekend trip or a longer week trip, a pocket for my reservoir, a rain cover and at least a few little pockets on the outside of the bag so I could easily access things I needed. If you have no idea what you need, think about what you have now on your everyday backpack or whatever bag you usually take hiking; think about features you like on the backpack you have.

  • A rain fly is a waterproof cover that you can put over your entire backpack should it start raining. Sometimes they come with the bag, but if not you can buy them separately.

  • A reservoir refers to the plastic pouch that fits inside your backpack that holds water. They usually have long hose-like spouts that wind through the top of the backpack so you can easily drink water on the go. Some backpacks have little holes in the pack to accommodate these reservoirs

  • Some backpacks have multiple pockets, some only have one big section. My backpack has a ton of little pockets as well as a top loading section where I can easily store my maps and other things I need to access quickly. Some people prefer to divvy their gear up in stuff sacks and then load those into one big pocket (I do this too).

  • Sleeping bag compartments are a section at the bottom of your backpack dedicated for your sleeping bag. They're usually separated from the rest of the bag by a single piece of nylon or material and can be detached if you don't want to use that area. I use a compression stuff sack for my sleeping bag.

What Size Backpack Should You Buy?

After determining what specs you want/need for your backpack, you have to figure out what size you are. I highly recommend visiting your local REI or outdoor retailer to be fitted by a sales specialist of that store.

When getting fitted for a backpack, the two measurements that will be taken are the length of your torso and your waist size. The size of your backpack does not have anything to do with you total height or weight. It has everything to do with the build of your upper body. For instance, although I'm 5'1 I have a longer torso and shorter legs so for me I really needed someone to fit me so I could determine whether I needed an XS or S. Finding a backpack that fits your back well, is snug around your waist and gets the weight up off your lower back is key.

So, What Do You Think?

Does this help you begin to brainstorm what you think you may need in a backpack? An easy place to start is simply making a list of things you need for your backpack, how long you need it to hold gear for and then what size you need to get. Another alternative to buying a backpack is renting one! There are tons of gear resources out there where you can actually rent really nice backpacks for a fraction of the price of buying one. You can really test drive the thing without committing to the big purchase. Any other recommendations or questions? Comment below and let me know!

Advice from followers:

  • Scott, @sknap44: "Fit! Fit! Fit! Fit! Fit! I don't care how light your gear is, if your pack doesn't fit right your going to hate it! Makes sure it adjusts to your torso length."

  • Ben, @bgroski13: "Length. Or at least the adjustability to make it fit. Having a tall frame means I have to shop around because some packs sit uncomfortably high on my hips or even on my lower back."

  • Nat, @natvarano: "Aside from the obvious comfort factor I think durability/quality is the main thing I look at in a pack. Never fun to have equipment blow out whether you're just on a day hike or a multiple day trip."

The backpacks Michael and I own:


I have the Women's Osprey Aura 65 AG Pack; Michael has the Men's Gregory Baltoro 75 Pack. These backpacks are a long term investment and we will have them for the rest of our lives as long as they hold up (they should, that's one of the reasons we chose the brands we did). Each pack fits each of us perfectly, distributes weight magically so even with 20+ lbs on it feels like nothing, and we each got the specs out of each bag that we needed. They are perfect for each of us and like I said, I owned a cheap backpack before this one and it made my backpacking experience less-than-stellar. The investment in good gear has been worth it and we're both very happy and comfortable while out in the back country!