What to look for when looking for… Backpacks


By AU Guide John Benincasa

Backpacks contain everything needed to spend days in the backcountry away from civilization. The one piece of gear that keeps it all together.

From the tiniest of day packs to expeditionsized monsters, any backpack must be able to carry what you need efficiently and comfortably. This simple ideal takes on added importance when considering packs meant for multiday backcountry adventures.


Externalframe packs have largely fallen by the wayside in favor of internalframe packs, which are built around metal stays or rigid sheets built into the back of a pack. Much like a skeleton, they keep the pack rigid so as not to collapse when carrying heavier loads. Common on larger packs designed to be loaded with everything needed for multiday hikes.


Technically, any pack can be a backpacking pack. A minimalist thruhiker may be able to get away with a larger day pack, while a two-week mountaineering trip may require a towering behemoth. Generally, most of us will be considering packs between 30-50 liters for overnights and weekends, 50-70 liters for multi-day trips, and 70+ liters for longer trips, expeditions, or extra gear. Regardless of volume, it should be able to comfortably carry the gear we own and will need for the duration. This will include a sleeping bag, tent, clothes, food, stove, water, etc.


The fit of a pack is everything, and great care must be taken in this regard. The first rule of thumb is that – when weighted – the vast majority of the load should rest on the tops of the hip bones and not the shoulders. The shoulder straps should rest lightly on the shoulders, and you should be able to slip a finger easily between the strap and shoulder. Properly fit and loaded, a pack will feel noticeably lighter when the hip belt is positioned and fastened properly. Larger packs will often come in mens and women’s versions, as well as small, medium, and large sizes in order to accommodate different torso lengths and gain the proper fit. A proper outdoor store will have people knowledgeable in fitting packs and will have many versions to try on. Ask to try on different designs and manufacturers, and have them put weight in the pack for a proper feel. In addition, shoulder straps and waist belts can be micro-adjusted and sometimes switched out to further refine a fit.


Larger packs have largely forgone multiple outside pockets and extraneous details in favor of simpler, streamlined, and lighterweight designs. These haulers will generally have one large compartment with a separate top compartment (brain) for the essentials needing easy access. They will also have multiple lashing points, water bottle pockets, and smaller pockets on the waist belt.

Consider what gear you have and how it might be carried. Will I lash my tent or pad to the outside of the pack? Will my phone fit in the waist pocket to access easily for pictures? Do I need dedicated lashing points for poles, skis, ice axe? Look for a floating brain that can be raised or lowered to allow for bigger loads. Some will detach and double as a waist pack for a day hike away from camp.

Take the time and look at all the options to find the right pack for you as it can make all the difference.


Choosing a backpack, especially one designed for backpacking should not be based solely on price. The importance of a good fitting pack cannot be overemphasized. While price should be considered, as packs can be quite expensive, the wrong pack can make for a miserable trip and may have you question whether you want to go a second time. It should be noted that, like all quality camping gear, if cared for,  a pack will last for years. One can easily expect a decade or more of use if needed. Consider a price range beginning at just over $100 for smaller-volume packs to over $300 for the largest sizes.

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