How to Choose and Fit a Backpack
Updated: Jun 29, 2020
If you are new to backpacking or just overwhelmed by the choices when it comes to replacing your pack, figuring out what you need can be daunting. You need a pack that is big enough to carry all of your gear, supportive enough to be comfortable with the weight of that gear, and sized and adjusted to distribute the load effectively. Like most issues these days the choice is overwhelming but there are so many options that with a bit of searching you can find the perfect pack for your needs.
Look for the following features in a pack:
Top loading full-length main compartment with compression straps
Internal frame rated for the weight you aim to carry
Side Water bottle pockets
Larger mesh pocket on the front of the pack
Top Lid pocket
Padded shoulder straps
Padded hip belt
Load lifter straps
Hip belt pockets (can be added)
Shoulder strap pockets (can be added)
Lash points for additional gear like a foam sleeping pad
Trekking pole/ice axe loops
Pocket for a hydration bladder and port for the hose
A good backpack is something you will have for many years so if you are going to head out regularly don't skimp on your pack just to save a few dollars. Avoid Walmart or online discount brands as they are heavy and uncomfortable compared to a name brand pack.
To get a new pack with the capacity and features necessary for backpacking you should expect to spend $200 USD to start. Packs can get quite expensive but if you get something between $200-300 you will be well served.
How many liters does your pack need to be?
As a starting point for overnight or longer trips, you will be looking at a 50-65 liter internal frame pack. You may get away with a little smaller or need bigger. This is going to be dictated by the size of your gear, weather conditions on your trips and how long you want to go for.
As well, if you are combining backpacking with other activities like rock climbing or photography, you need to account for the extra weight and space needed for that gear. If you have any friends that backpack, ask to borrow their pack and see if your gear fits in it. This will give you a better idea of the size you need.
If your sleeping bag is synthetic it won't pack as small as the equivalent down bag so you need to account for more room. The same goes for your tent and sleeping pad. If they are not on the small end you will need a pack on the upper end of the recommended size. In cold weather, you need to account for extra space for more clothing.
I use the Osprey Exos 48 which has around 56 liters of storage including the external pockets. With this backpack, I can fit everything I need for a long distance thru-hike or multi-day winter trip. My gear is compact and light but not the absolute smallest. I do tend to run warm so I don't need as warm of clothing and sleeping bag as some people.
Packs are broken down into three rough categories: Light, medium support and expedition.
The lighter a pack, generally the less supportive it will be. This will mean it may be comfortable with 30 lbs but uncomfortable at 40 lbs. This is because to make it lighter less paddling is used in the straps and hip belt and the frame is thinner making it less rigid. Lightweight packs are often less durable due to thinner fabric being used in the body of the pack.
Weigh all your gear to have an idea of how much weight you will be carrying. The weight of your gear without food, fuel or water is referred to as base weight. This includes the weight of your backpack. If you are planning on hiking long distances, getting the weight of your pack and gear as low as possible will make the trip much more enjoyable.
Base Weight Recommended Pack Style and Weight Examples
10-20 lbs Lightweight (1.5-3 lbs) Osprey Exos/Eja, Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider, Zpacks Arc Blast
20-30 lbs Medium Weight (3-5 lbs) Osprey Atmos/Aura, Arcteryx Bora AR 63, The Northface Banchee 65
30 lbs plus Expedition Weight (5 lbs +) Osprey Aether/Ariel Pro 70, Gregory Baltoro 75, The Northface Prophet 85
Men's vs Women's
Most companies have clued into the fact the men and women are generally built differently. Women tend to have narrower shoulders, shorter torsos, and wider hips so designers have worked to address this with packs tailored to fit women better. If you are a woman looking for a pack this is a good place to start but in the end, get the pack that fits you best regardless of who it was designed for.
The first consideration in fitting a pack is getting the right length for your torso. To measure your torso length you will need the help of a friend with a measuring tape or go to an outdoor store where they have a measuring jig. If you get measured at a store, write it down or store the measurement on your phone so can recall it if you don't buy a pack that day.
If you are doing it at home, your friend will need to measure from your iliac crest (top of the hip bone) to C7 vertebrae (base of your neck).
To find the lower spot, put your hands on either hip with thumbs over your kidney. Slide them down until you hit the boney ridge that is the top of the hip bone. The line between your two thumbs will be the starting point to measure from.
To find the upper location, look down and feel for the bump from the C7 vertebrae that sticks out where your neck meets your shoulders.
Have your friend measure between those two points.
Now you have a number to compare to the lengths of listed on the packs. Packs will list a range of torso lengths that they cover. If you fit at the top end of one size and the bottom of another try them both on to see if one fits better. Additionally, some packs have an adjustable torso length, allowing you to further refine the fit.
There are a number of styles of the back panel on modern backpacks. There is tensioned mesh, flat padding or ergonomically shaped padding. The tensioned mesh will be cooler but isn't as comfortable with heavy weight. If you are looking at a pack with padding on the back, test it out to see if the shape suits your body.
The hip belt should support most of the weight in your pack so it's important to find one that fits you well. Some backpacks have swappable hip belts so you can customize the fit of your pack even further.
The shoulder straps have different shapes and levels of padding. Try different packs to find what fits you best.
Adjusting Your Pack
Loosen the hip belt, sternum strap, load lifters, and shoulder straps
Put on pack and buckle the hip belt and sternum strap
Tighten the hip belt so it wraps the hip bones
Snug up the shoulder straps
Adjust the height of the sternum strap so it sits an inch or two below the collarbone
Adjust the sternum strap just enough to keep shoulder straps in place. Doing them too tightly can restrict breathing and chafe the neck.
Adjust load lifter straps so they pull the weight in. Watch doing them too tightly as it can pinch the shoulders
Once your backpack has been adjusted you will usually only have to adjust the hip belt when you take it on and off. Minor adjustments may be needed for comfort as the load changes on a trip.
Cover Photo Credit: Catharine Gerhard