How to Choose a Backpacking Pack

How to Choose a Backpacking Pack

Buying a pack is an investment. With so many different options out there, it can be a little intimidating for new backpackers. What kind of backpack should you buy? What about cargo capacity and pack size? These are all important questions. To get started, just follow our three-step process on how to choose a backpacking pack.

1. Choose a frame style. Internal frame backpacks have semi-flexible “frame stays” inside that give structure and support to the pack. An internal frame pack hugs the body, providing optimal balance and easier movement. External frame backpacks feature a tubular metal frame that supports the pack from the outside. Although it won’t hug your body as closely, an external frame pack generally offers a bit more ventilation.

2. Next, choose a backpack capacity. Make your choice according to two criteria: 1) how many nights (on average) you’ll be spending outdoors and 2) the time of year when you’ll be backpacking most often. Winter camping gear takes up more space than summer gear, so you’ll need more capacity if you plan to backpack in cold climates. Use the chart below to get an idea of how much capacity you’ll need:

Duration of Trip Season Best Pack Voume  
    Cubic Inches Liters
5 Nights or More Summer 4000-5000 65-80
  Spring/Fall Over 5000 80-90
  Winter Over 5000 80-90
3-5 Nights Summer 3000-4000 50-65
  Spring/Fall 4000-5000 65-80
  Winter Over 5000 80-90
1-2 Nights Summer 2500-3000 40-50
  Spring/Fall 3000-3500 50-55
  Winter 4000-5000 65-80
Day Hike Only Summer 1500-2000 25-35
  Spring/Fall 2000-2500 35-40
  Winter 2500-3500 40-55

Note: Some backpackers eat more and/or wear larger clothing, which takes up more space. If you’re a big, tall person, consider adding a little extra capacity.


3. Finally, you may need to choose a backpack size, which is different from capacity. Some packs are only available in one size. Others are available in several sizes (e.g. small, medium and large). Pack size relates directly to torso length — the larger the pack size, the longer the torso length. Most packs fit a range of lengths. For example, a small pack may fit 15- 17” torsos while a medium pack may fit 17-20" torsos. On our website, torso length is listed in the specs tab. Check out the video below for tips on measuring your torso.

Once you know what kind of pack you want, how much capacity you’ll need and your torso length, you’re ready to start shopping for a new backpack. For more information on packs, check out our full Backpack Guide. For helpful backpacking tips and advice, visit our Backpacking Guide.