The Ultimate Guide to Backpacks

Backpack

Our mission is to get people outdoors, not sell gear. That's why our guide starts with the core function that needs to be addressed, then helps you evaluate your options holistically, since sometimes you may not need any gear & can use what you have at home. We want you to think critically about what you need, which is personal to you with no right answer (some people go venture outside naked without any gear, survive & have a great time).

Core function: When you're in the outdoors, everything you could need has to be carried with you. For short hikes you may not need a backpack (e.g., a purse, messenger bag, duffle, or even just a reusable grocery tote bag may be sufficient for some water & snacks). Realistically, though, you might be in tougher terrain than in the city, have more stuff to carry, and want to keep your hands free. That's why a good backpack helps support & distribute this weight in an ergonomic way, allowing you to explore more thoroughly.

Is either the core function or the outdoor-specific gear made for it an essential?

A hiking specific backpack is highly recommended for backpacking trips .

For rationale, read our 'what you really need' protip

What to use & how to choose

Key factors

Cool zippers, new waterproofing, etc... sometimes it's easy to get lost in all the hype (over-spending happens on features). Our guide focuses on the fundamental factors you should always keep in mind (thus, this short list is similar across all items). Then only at the end do we have some questions to get you thinking about other minor features.

We highly recommend reviewing Type or Style first, where we review what you can use to address the Core function--a regular item you have at home may work! The other factors are secondary & depend strongly on the Type or Style you've picked.

While we encourage you to use regular items wherever possible, as an outdoor gear shop, we only carry outdoor-specific products

Type or Style

We've organized the most commonly used items people use to address the Core function below, with example images, characteristics, features, etc.

Name

Regular backpack

(for school or work)

Travel backpack

(aka rucksack)

Hiking backpack
Example qualities & features Example images Regular backpack Travel pack Backpack
Feature examples
  • laptop sleeve
  • laptop sleeve
  • wrinkle-free clothing pocket
Does it have frame to support weight? No Yes Yes
Does it have straps to help weight distribution?

May have sternum or waist strap

Waist strap, sternum strap, load lifters

Waist strap, sternum strap, load lifters

Is it water resistant?* No Yes Yes
Effect on secondary factors Price $20-100 $50-250 $50-400
Capacity 10-40 liters 20-70 liters 10-100 liters
Weight & Size <3lbs (1.4kg) <5lbs (2.2kg) <7lbs (3.2kg)
Rationale Less technical, smaller capacity = less materials More technical, greater capacity = more materials

Why we do/don't carry it

= we rent

= we sell

Not specific enough for outdoor use

Standard for most outdoor uses

*If you want something that is foolproof, there are hybrid backpack-dry-bags. We don't discuss them here, because they're used only in really special circumstances, this is because they don't have frames, and so lack a key feature that helps support heavy loads. (Though at the larger capacities, where they're called dry packs, they do have shoulder straps, waist or hip belt, and sternum straps.)


While the next set of secondary factors affect any Type or Style, we've only gathered specific data for the hiking backpack Type or Style, as the others are not optimized for these secondary factors (e.g., Weight & Size)

Price

One of life's certainties is the trade-off between price & quality. This creates an inherently unfair situation. If you save money today by buying something lower end, you'll end up replacing it more frequently, spending money & time each instance so that at the end, you probably haven't actually saved anything. On the other hand, if you decide to invest in something higher end, you'll need a lot more upfront money, and you need to be able to use the item frequently enough to make it worthwhile.

We developed our rental program to address this unfairness. We don't sell lower end items. But for our higher end items, we offer them for rent at up to 90% off retail price, generally well below the cost of buying even the cheaper option. That's a win-win!

It may seem like the price & quality trade-off is disappearing, because you can find a cheap version of almost anything for tens of dollars that still has good reviews (assuming the reviews are real). Remember 2 things:

  • Many reviews are written after only a trial use, first use, or infrequent use: We've seen entire review videos of gear done at home, which is very different than actually being outdoors!
  • The point of gear is to give you a good experience because you've already spent money to be on vacation from work! Don't let quality issues affect your relaxation

For gear specifically, the quality issues center around performance & durability.

Performance

  • The backpack was bigger or heavier: A 1lb or 2kg difference may not matter on a 3 hour hike, but it might on a 6 hour hike!
  • The backpack wasn't very waterproof or durable: Backpacks scrape on all kinds of surfaces and should be super tough. Fabric-wise, lower end items tend to be made with polyester, which is less durable than nylon (more info in our clothing protip); and of course, if the fabric tears, performance is compromised. Finally lower end items may not have or may have less effective waterproofing treatments

Durability

Maybe you are the average person that goes 1-2 times per year, you don't mind the hassle of replacing gear that doesn't last, and you also don't care about the performance differences. Then use our borrow program & get free gear where available! Or for a little more, use our rental program.

Methodology notes on prices shown on this page

Capacity (size)

Measured by Liter capacity (you'll see it following the pack name, for example an Osprey Aether 70 means it's a 70 Liter backpack).

Hiking backpack liter capacity

10L

& below

20L 30L 40L 50L 60L 70L

80L

& above

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
This hiking backpack may be called... Hydration pack Day pack (Daypack) Backpack
Hydration pack Day pack Backpack
Example use cases Quick hike or trail running Day trip 2-4 days 3-7 days Technical trips (lots of gear)
Effect on other factors

Price

Regular weight**

$50-100 $100-300 $200-350

Weight

Regular weight**

1-2lbs

(0.5-0.9kg)

3-5lbs

(1.4-2.3kg)

5-7lbs

(2.3-3.2kg)

Rationale Less material & features More material & features

Why we do/don't carry it

= we rent

= we sell

Doesn't add that much more value (you can use something non-outdoor-specific which would be much more affordable)

Packs in the 50-70L range are standard for most outdoor uses

Most people would not need something this technical

**Since as you'll see in the Weight & Size section, many capacities along this spectrum don't have lightweight options

Weight & Size (Compactness) for Backpacking

If you're thru-hiking 20+ miles (32+km) per day, every advantage counts! In this case, size refers to compactness. You can carry more gear in the same size backpack if all of it is very compact, or for more weight savings, you can get a smaller size pack.

To reduce more weight & increase compactability, manufacturers reduce the amount of material used (e.g., fewer features, thinner fabrics, etc.) and, where possible, use more technical materials to prevent performance loss. For example, ultralight fabric used in clothing has to still be waterproof. These strategies create 2 general consequences

  • Lightweight gear tends to be less durable: Sometimes, light-weight gear is just thinner & so more prone to damage (even a more technical material may not fully offset the loss in durability)
  • Lightweight gear tends to be more expensive: While less materials = lower cost, the more dominating effect is often that thinner materials = more technical = greater cost

For these reasons, the lighter the gear, the more you should treat it as an investment! Is the price difference worth the weight or size savings? This depends on you & your trip.

Hiking backpacks Regular Ultralight

50-65 Liter

Capacity

Weight

3.4-5.2lb

(1.5-2.4kg)

1.2-3.0lb

(0.5-1.4kg)

Effect on Price $100-300 $150-350

65-75 Liter

Capacity

Weight

4.8-7.4lb

(2.2-3.4kg)

2.3-2.6lb

(1.0-1.2kg)

Effect on Price $200-350 $250-400
Rationale for effect on Price Going lightweight removes enough features & materials that even though the material used is more technical, price doesn't increase by that much

Why we do/don't carry it

= we rent

= we sell

Standard for most outdoor uses

Only 50L capacity only (most people who care about weight & size wouldn't take a larger pack); extremely limited availability, please call to reserve. Our mission is to increase access to gear & we are proud to be the only company to rent as well as sell this type

Methodology notes

Minor features that may be important

Here, we give you a list of questions to start thinking about minor features. We hope our approach of savings these features for last gets you to more critically think about what you need & not get caught up in the hype of what's cool and over-spend your budget.

  • Does it have all the pockets desired? Examples:
    • Interior water bag pocket with a hole for you to thread through a hydration tube for hands-free drinking while walking
    • Hip belt pocket or shoulder strap pocket for small essentials
    • Water bottle pockets on the side
  • Does it have all the gear loops & straps desired? Examples:
  • Is it top-loading or front-loading? (I.e., how does the zipper open so you can put stuff inside)
  • How does it support weight? (E.g., some packs have an 'anti-gravity' type of suspension technology that helps 'float' the weight over your back; some people like it, some people don't)
  • Is it convertible to a daypack? (E.g., some packs have a outer pocket or brain that can convert to a smaller pack)
  • Is the torso adjustable length or fixed? (Adjustable is better if you anticipate your torso length changing or if you'd want to share with others)

What we carry

General Notes

  • We choose what we carry based on extensive research on what's the best value to our customers (e.g., price given performance & durability features) across all the top brands. We specifically do not carry every brand & model; for details on why we do/don't carry certain items in the How To Choose section
  • Buy prices are MSRP with tax, i.e., what you see is what you pay. Prices may differ in-store due to change in models or discounts, but this is rare. If we don't sell what we rent, we list MSRP value with tax
  • Rent prices are the starting prices; enter trip dates on our Catalog to get exact prices (based on total trip length, not per day!). We also don't charge sales tax, an automatic savings of almost 10%!

Capacity

Torso size may push it a few liters +/-

~50L ~60L ~70L
1-3 day or weight-conscious trips 3-6 day or standard trips 7+ day or technical trips
Model Osprey Exos backpack Osprey Renn backpack Osprey Rook backpack Osprey Atmos backpack Osprey Viva backpack Osprey Volt backpack Osprey Aether backpack Osprey Aether backpack

Osprey Exos

48L

Osprey Renn

50L

Osprey Rook

50L

Osprey Atmos

50L

Osprey Viva

65L

Osprey Volt

60L

Osprey Aether

60L

Osprey Aether

70L

Buy

MSRP with tax

$217

$168

value

$250

$217

value

$315

$337

Rent $20+

Weight

Medium torso

2.6lbs

1.1kg

3.3lbs

1.5kg

3.5lbs

1.6kg

4.2lbs

1.9kg

4.2lbs

1.9kg

4.3lbs

2.0kg

5.1lbs

2.3kg

5.2lbs

2.4kg

We do carry gear designed specifically for women (some differences mentioned throughout this guide); however, in our experience, most people do not notice the differences; i.e., actual fit & personal preference are more important than industry-average differences based on sex (e.g., not all women are shorter). Whenever considering sex-specific gear, we recommend comparing all the options, to ensure the price difference is worth it (women-specific items are often more expensive). If you do require a specific sex when renting online, please write-in on the Options page of our online order form; otherwise we will pick regardless of sex. For this gear, women-specific items available as the Osprey Renn or Viva models.

When you rent online, we will pick a model for you. You can change the model if you pick-up in-store, subject to availability. On the Options page of our online order process, you can also select options or write-in any preferences. This section describes the majority of our models & options, but sometimes we carry others. We will only pick something else if it doesn't conflict with your choices indicated on the Options page; moreover, if there's a major functional difference (e.g., capacity), we will attempt to contact you first

Anatomy diagram

A great diagram of the various parts of most hiking backpacks from Backpacker Magazine's awesome guide on how to pack your backpack

Backpack anatomy

Click to see full size

Usage tips

You may not know how well a backpack fits until several hours into your hike, even if it felt fine walking in a circle around a store (unfortunately, it's just as finicky in fit as shoes are!). We also recommend a test hike before a long hike in the same backpack. Also different people may have different preferences on what feels comfortable, how the pack is loaded, etc. Check out our diagram & specific notes below.

How to pick a backpack that fits

Backpack fit guide

Click to see full size

Torso length

This is the primary consideration. Ill-fit torsos are noticeable with issues in how the shoulder straps & load lifters fit, as in the above diagram. This is the length from the bumpy bone at the base of your neck to the top of your hip bones (or your iliac crest).* Adjustable backpacks have some way (usually with velcro) to change the torso length. Women-specific backpacks tend to be shorter in length to accommodate average shorter height.

Backpack torso sizing

Click to see full size

Waist or hip girth

Analogous to waist sizing on pants. Girth refers to the circumference for the waist or hip belt, which should sit around you such that the top of your hip bone (iliac crest) is centered vertically within the belt. When the belt is equally tightened on each side, the buckle should be centered around your navel. Generally, hip belts are pretty adjustable, so for most people, the size that comes with the size based on torso length is sufficient (exception for Youth, see below). Women-specific backpacks tend to be wider to accommodate average wider hips.

*While generally tall people have a longer torso, it's not a direct relationship. If you're curious for a rough benchmark (which may be good enough for an adjustable pack), we took limited data from Internet forums & calculated a linear equation with an R^2 of 0.6 that torso length in inches = 0.4557 * height in inches - 13.495. (A polynomial equation yielded a slightly better R^2, but not substantially, so for simplicity we only show the linear one here. You can download our data & play around with it yourself)

Youth-specific

There are youth-specific backpacks designed to accommodate youth-specific torsos & hips (on average, smaller on both). One other thing to note, however, is that youth hiking backpacks are also sized smaller in terms of Capacity, usually topping out at 50L. We don't have youth-specific packs, but we find that high schoolers can often use a smaller-torso adult backpack, we'd recommend having your child trying on in-store.

How to pack

Follow the general guidelines below. Serious backpackers understand that ideal loading varies by type of terrain (including going uphill vs downhill), & that personal preference & comfort as just as important as any guideline!

  • Weight: The heaviest items should generally go toward your spine in the center of the pack (not at the top or bottom or too far to the right or left). Semi-heavy large items that you will not need while hiking do well at the bottom (the bottom compartment is very popularly used for sleeping bags)
  • Accessibility: Put items that you need to frequently get (e.g., rain gear, snacks, water, first aid, maps) at the top of your pack, in the brain, or hip belt pockets.
  • Shape:: For comfort, don't put weirdly shaped objects that may poke out against your back
  • Strapping: Make the most of all those straps & gear loops on the outside! They are great for bulky or oddly shaped items. When strapping, take care to balance weight on both sides & ensure the item won't get damaged if it rains & you don't have a cover. Items commonly strapped to the exterior include trekking poles, ice axes, bulky foam sleeping pads

Keeping dry

Hiking backpacks are usually made of water resistant material (some may be fully waterproof), but there are so many holes and openings that it is important to take some precautions to be sure your things don’t get wet. Check out our page on backpack protection for more info.

Managing chafe

Some people may experience rubbing from the pack & straps after extended use. For advice on managing chafe, click here.

Trial run

Just because it fits in-store doesn't mean it'll be comfortable after you've been walking for hours with a lot of weight. To prepare for long trips (e.g., thru-hikes), we strongly recommend doing trial runs with similar weights on long day trips or even weekend backpacking trips. Like with shoes, an ill-fitted backpack can be really bad!

Traveling with a backpack

Backpacking doesn't just mean heading out in the backcountry, but also mean an extended period of travel (like, when did "backpacking through Europe" become a phrase?). Understandably, a large backpack to carry your gear can be much more convenient than traditional suitcases. A few things to keep in mind:

  • Recall that there are specific travel backpacks vs hiking backpacks with feature differences that may be important to you
  • Regardless of backpack, double check your airline's specific carry-on regulations to ensure your pack will be allowable. In our general experience, larger backpacks (i.e., not just a school or work bag) are judged by most airline staff on an subjective basis. Meaning sometimes, if it visually looks too large, they won't let you board with it as a carry-on, othertimes you may get away with it
  • Rule-of-thumb, a well-packed 50L is probably OK as a carry-on, a very bulky (e.g., things hanging from all exterior straps) 70L is probably not
  • If you will be checking-in a backpack, try to tie off exterior straps, or stuff them into zippered pockets, so they don't catch on any moving pieces and get damaged (especially for hiking backpacks, which have more straps than travel backpacks given the functional differences)

Maintenance tips

Repairing

Zippers: If the zipper track isn't staying closed, this is usually because the zipper slider pull has 'widened' over time & is no longer effectively pressing the teeth together. If your track has 2 zipper slider pulls, a tailor should be able to remove the malfunctioning one. If you'd like to add a new zipper slider pull, the biggest challenge will be finding one, since gear often uses different, proprietary sizes. Once you have a slider pull, a tailor can add it easily (~$10). If you need to replace the entire zipper track (e.g., you can't find another slider pull or the track is physically damaged), be aware this can be very expensive, expect to spend $50-100. We also recommend seeing a luggage repair specialist, since they may have the larger zippers used for gear, or Narain's & Rainy Pass Repair.

Rips, tears, holes: For small ones, you can stick on a patch of Tenacious Tape yourself. For larger ones, you may need to sew on a replacement fabric patch; most tailors can help with this (if you're doing it yourself, most technical fabrics are rip-stop nylon and this is sold by many fabric stores; most meshes used in outdoor gear however is not widely sold). Remember, sewing compromises waterproofing, since it adds punctures. Ultralight gear with thinner fabrics may require specialists. Two repair specialists are Narain's & Rainy Pass Repair; both accept gear shipped in, expect to spend $30-100

Cleaning & Storing

Gear not in use should be cleaned & dried and then stored loose & in a dark environment, check out our entire protip on the topic here.

We have a general protip on how to store & maintain gear that we highly recommend reviewing as well. If you send us video or a good photo series, we may be able to help you evaluate your repair needs.

Other products on the market

A current trend is that, as part of the athleisure movement, the industry is designing more versatile packs that can go from the urban jungle to actual jungle (balancing being feature-rich with multiple pockets and straps, with a slim look & feel for the city). Be sure that a pack is fully functional for whatever you will be using it for, and don't get too caught on the hype!

A previous innovation that is has now basically become standard, internal frame packs rule the market these days because of their form fitting, compact, lightweight design. Old-school external frame packs (see picture at right) can still be found at places like Salvation Army. They do offer a straighter frame & may have more places to strap gear to.

External frame backpack

The exact numbers (e.g., weights, dimensions, prices, etc.) used were updated as of September 2019 . That said, there usually isn't dramatic change; we update & review the market roughly biennially.


Thoughts, ideas, questions? Let us know in the comments below! We're Last Minute Gear, the only outdoor gear shop where you can buy, rent, or borrow gear!