Backpack Buying Guide
There are a ton of great packs on the market today. From packs for serious ultra-light backpackers to weekend warriors, and from desk jockeys to the always prepared. Somewhere out there is the right pack for everyone. Here at Going Gear, we stock a huge selection of packs and bags from great brands like Maxpedition, Osprey, 5.11, Arc’Teryx, CamelBak, Patagonia, Mountain Khakis, Salomon, and Black Diamond. If you’re in the market for a new pack, this article will help you figure out what features you’re looking for in a bag.
Now, full disclosure, the title say’s, “backpack,” but this article will attempt to encompass all types of bags from the tried and true two-strap version, to the ever-growing sling pack market, to duffels for just hauling lots of stuff.
Also, lets keep in mind that everything has its pros and cons. There is always a trade off. Minimalist packs are super easy to carry, but they’re small and don’t offer much in the way of organization. Maxpedition offers a ton of organization options, but everything added increases the weight. Sling packs offer easy access, but can cause strain on the shoulder you carry it on. You have to keep in mind what is most important to you in your pack, and what you can do without. Things you’ll probably want to consider include fit, weight, style, comfort, organization options, accessories, size, gear safety, and probably more things that I’m not even thinking of.
So let’s get started.
The first thing you’ll want to consider when starting your search for a new bag is what you’re going to be using it for. I know this seems obvious, and it is, but you’d be surprised at the number of people we see who come in with a pack in mind, and leave with a completely different one because it suits their needs better. Just as you probably wouldn’t hit the Appalachian Trail with a Maxpedition Pygmy Falcon II, an Osprey Volt 75 would be equally out of place at the office. So lets break it down into a few areas: everyday use, day hiking/hydration, backpacking, and travel/storage. Keep in mind, these aren’t so much distinct categories. They function more on a spectrum in that order.
Everyday Use - This would be the backpack that you use every day. Most of us would love to spend every day in the woods, or on the trail, or wherever, but the fact is, most of our days are spent either going to work, school, or something similar. So in this case, everyday use is going to be geared toward the 9 to 5 grind. These packs are generally on the smaller side with capacities up to around 25 liters based on the individual.
Most everyday use packs would have some commonality in features. Since these packs are primarily used for work or school, they typically have a padded laptop/electronics sleeve, multiple compartments for organization (sometime with additional organizational within each compartment), and a water bottle holder. Optional features that you might find on these backpacks include hydration compatibility, small (typically unpadded) hip belts, sternum straps, concealed carry compartments, or headphone ports.
Not all everyday use packs are true packs either. Some ditch the second strap in favor of a sling pack or messenger style bag. These types of bags typically offer the same type of features, but sacrifice a little comfort to gain faster access.
Some great everyday packs:
- Osprey Quasar
- Osprey Celeste
- Osprey Flare
- Osprey Comet
- Osprey Cyber
- Osprey Pixel
- Osprey Beta (messenger bag)
- CamelBak Coronado
- CamelBak Quantico
- Patagonia Refugio
- Arc’Teryx Kitsilano
- Arc’Teryx Blade 20
- Arc’Teryx Sebring 25
- 5.11 COVRT 18
- 5.11 COVRT Boxpack
- 5.11 COVRT Box Messenger
- 5.11 Rush 12
- 5.11 All Hazards Nitro
- 5.11 Rush Moab 10 (sling pack)
- 5.11 All Hazards Prime
- Maxpedition Vesper (messenger bag)
- Maxpedition Condor II
- Maxpedition Falcon III
- Maxpedition Sitka Gearslinger (sling pack)
- Maxpedition Pygmy Falcon II
Day Hiking/Hydration – These are the packs that you would wear when you’re going on a day hike. They’re large enough to carry supplies for a few people for an entire day, and probably a single person on a short ultra-light overnight trip. Day hiking packs, or “daypacks,” will share a lot of the traits of our everyday use bags. In fact, most every day use bags will function just fine on a normal day hike. If you get out more, or start getting further off the path though, a designated day hiking pack might be good for you.
Day hiking packs are still typically small with capacities of up to 35 liters and will also share many features of your everyday bag including multiple compartments for organization and water bottle holders. They may even still have a padded internal sleeve that you can slide your electronics into. Where they start to differ, however, is some of the features that were optional on your everyday pack, become standard on day hiking packs. Daypacks have heavier padded hip belts, sternum straps, are almost always hydration compatible, have some sort of catch-all pocket, are lighter weight, and tend to have lashing points for gear on the outside of the pack. Daypacks also generally have more padding on the shoulder straps, as well as a heavily padded or mesh back panel. If you tend to get warm on hikes, a mesh back panel can be your best friend.
Hydration packs tend to get used similarly to daypacks, and are therefore lumped in with them. However, there are some pretty significant differences. While most daypacks will be hydration compatible, most hydration specific packs will by much smaller. Hydration packs typically only have room for the hydration bladder and a few small personal items like a packable raincoat and some granola bars. They also tend to have a lighter hip belt, or forego one entirely due to their small size, so they can get uncomfortable if you overstuff it.
Don’t discount a hydration pack just because you don’t want to carry a bladder. A hydration pack sans bladder has become my go to bag for wading while fly-fishing. The small size keeps the bag light, easy to carry, easy to synch up high while wading deeper, and easy on the shoulders for a day on the water while still providing ample room for flies, tippet, a water bottle, snacks, and a camera.
One last group of daypacks that have become increasingly popular are small, light, minimalist day packs. These packs typically forego a lot of the padding of a traditional daypack, generally offer only one or two compartments with almost no organization, are made of extremely lightweight material, and top out at about 20 liters. These packs are made for people that like to travel light above all else. Ultra light daypacks don’t offer much in the way of frills, but their minimalist form-follows-function design makes them every bit as capable if you like to travel light.
Some great daypacks:
- Arc’Teryx Altra 35
- Osprey Sirrus 24
- Osprey Stratos 24
- Osprey Manta 20
- Osprey Manta AG 20
- Osprey Mira 26
- Osprey Mira AG 26
- Osprey Manta 36
Some great hydration packs:
- Osprey Moki
- Osprey Hydrajet 15
- Osprey Skimmer 16
- Osprey Skarab 18
- Oprey Viper 9
- CamelBak Rim Runner 22
- CamelBak StoAway
- CamelBak Mule
- CamelBak Scout
- CamelBak Lobo
Some great minimalist daypacks
- Osprey Daylite
- Patagonia Atom 8 (sling pack)
- Arc’Teryx Astril 19 (highly water resistant with taped seams and waterproof zippers)
- Black Diamond BBEE 11
- Also consider any of the hydration packs without the bladder, effectively giving you two packs in one.
Backpacking – We’re not talking about that backpacking trip you took across Europe in college, although these packs would definitely work. We’re talking about multiple days and nights spent in the woods living with only the things you’re carrying. Packs specifically made for backpacking are generally at the forefront of backpacking technology; they get the lightest materials and the newest technologies. Again, these packs are somewhat of a continuation of the previous category (notice a trend here?), and a large daypack could absolutely work as a backpacking pack for shorter trips if you pack efficiently. In fact, my wife carries a 36-liter pack on all our backpacking trips, which average out at about 3 days. This size is perfect for her smaller frame, and accompanied by my 50-liter pack, we can carry more than we really need. In turn, I’ll also use my Osprey Atmos 50 for day hikes. It compresses to a much smaller size when not fully loaded, and the hydration compatibility, light weight, and comfortable carry work well for me.
Packs for backpacking share a lot of features with daypacks. They have heavily padded hip belts, padded or mesh back panels, sternum straps, hydration compatibility, and tons of lashing points. They differ from daypacks in three areas: size, frame, and suspension. Sizes of backpacking packs can vary greatly, anywhere from about 35 to 80+ liters. The size of the pack that’s right for you depends on many different factors including your size, your average trip, and your fitness level, or the amount you can comfortably carry. On average, I would say a typical pack is between 45 and 65 liters. Because of the larger size, a frame is needed to help the bag hold its shape and position while fully loaded. Frames can be either internal (sewn within the bag itself) or external (a visible frame with the bag components attached to it), but most modern-day packs use internal frames. While the internal frame does offer significantly less customization, they are made to mirror the body shape and are generally more comfortable.
So now you’ve got a big bag made out of super lightweight material with an internal frame to keep its shape. You load it with 40 lbs of gear, food, clothing, and beer and set off to hit the trail and you notice something. 40 lbs get’s heavy—fast. That’s where the suspension system comes in. All backpacking packs have some sort of suspension system that keeps the load of the pack sitting on your hips where it should be, and not pulling on your shoulders. The suspension can be as simple as adjustable straps that help you place the load, or something like Osprey’s AG (Anti Gravity) system that uses an elastic mesh back panel that integrates into the hip belts and straps, allowing the pack to contour to the exact shape of your body.
The size of backpacking packs changes how you get into the pack as well. While some daypacks will mirror the system backpacking packs use, many will stick to the zippered main compartments and zippered smaller pouches. Backpacking packs will still have zippers for some internal and external compartments, but the main compartment is typically accessed by opening a top flap (that generally also offers some storage, and is a great place for a first aid kit for easy access) that is buckled down and then opening up a draw string that allows access. This system keeps the pack securely closed over miles of rough terrain. Some larger packs also offer side or bottom access via a zipper. These zippers can be great when you need to quickly get something that you’ve packed on the bottom of your bag. The outside of your pack will usually have some small zippered compartments, zippered pouches on the hip belts, and often have a large catch-all pocket or lashing system on the front.
Great backpacking packs:
- Osprey Aura 50
- Osprey Aura 50 AG
- Osprey Atmos 50
- Osprey Atmos 50 AG
- Osprey Atmos 65
- Osprey Atmos 65 AG
- Osprey Ariel 65
- Osprey Volt 60
- Osprey Viva 50
- Osprey Ace 50
- Osprey Exos 58
- Osprey Exos 48
- Arc’Teryx Altra 50
- Arc’Teryx Altra 65
- Arc’Teryx Altra 75
Travel/Storage - The last category for our packs are mostly not packs. These are the bags that you would use to travel with, or toss in a boat, or hold a bunch of your gear while you’re not using if. While large packs can absolutely work for this, we’re definitely getting into the realm of the duffle.
Duffle bags offer a ton of storage space in an easy to access and relatively easy to handle package. Keep in mind, this is not a bag you’re going to carry for hours on end. You’re going to move this bag every once in a while, but most of the time it will just be sitting there, graciously holding your belongings. Duffles also tend to offer a ton of organizational opportunities with loads of internal and external pockets. Capacities for duffle or travel bags vary greatly, but bags from 50 to well over 100 liters are not uncommon.
Duffle bags can also take features that wouldn’t work on lightweight backpacking packs, and use them. Since these bags are not continuously carried, the weight of the materials and accessories is not as important. What is important is holding a lot of stuff, and keeping it safe. With that in mind, many bags such as Patagonia’s Black Hole Duffle have watertight zippers to protect your gear. The Arc’teyx Carrier Duffle takes it a step further with a waterproof polyurethane coated nylon, waterproof zippers, and watertight taped seams. This does come at a cost though, as organization is limited to one large compartment. However, the Carrier Duffle makes a fantastic boat bag for several-day rafting excursion or for keeping your fishing gear dry while you drift down the river.
Travel bags aren’t necessarily confined to the realm of duffels though. There are also huge, more traditional packs with capacities of over 80 liters as well as rolling travel bags, and then there are the bags that have both like the Osprey Convertible Wheel Bag. This bag has wheels for easily rolling it on smooth ground, but converts to a pack complete with straps and a hip belt when you get to tougher terrain.
Some great travel bags:
- Osprey Ozone Wheel Bag
- Osprey Ozone Convertible Wheel Bag
- Arc’Teryx Carrier Duffle 50
- Arc’Teryx Carrier Duffle 70
- Arc’Teryx Blade 30 (great for electronics)
- Patagonia Black Hole Duffle 60
- Patagonia Black Hole Duffle 90
Specialty Bags – Specialty bags may or may not fit into the above categories, but they always offer some sort of specific functionality. Think Maxpedition or 5.11 bags. You could absolutely use a bunch of the bags in their line up for everyday use, day hikes, traveling, or even short backpacking trips, but they offer specific functionality in their MOLLE system. MOLLE is an acronym for Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment. These bags are covered with little sewn on straps for attaching all sorts of other pouches or items, making these bags convenient and customizable. That MOLLE system and accessories do add weight through, so therein lies the trade off.
Waterproof bags are another type of specialty. These bags are made from a waterproof material, and keep the water out in one of two ways. The first is via a roll-top construction. The bag rolls down on itself several times making it tough for water to get in. Super waterproof, but not convenient when you need to quickly grab something. The second way is via waterproof zippers. While not completely waterproof, these zippers use a heavy polyurethane sleeve to cover the zipper teeth when closed to keep the water out. Waterproof zippers are great for easy access, but do stand a chance of letting water in. Waterproof bags also typically don’t offer much in the way of organization. Adding pockets means more seams, and every seam, even taped, is another opportunity for water to find its way in.
Some great waterproof bags:
- Arc’Teryx Ascent
- Arc’Teryx Carrier Duffle
- Arc’Teryx Astri 19
- Arc’Teryx Lunara 10
- SealLine Boundary Pack
Today, there are a ton of different types of bags on the market, with different strap configurations. Just like everything else, each system has its pros and cons, and I’ll try to outline them here.
Two straps: The traditional backpack has two straps. You’ve probably been carrying one of these around since you were in grade school, and you’ve probably still got one in one form or another. Why? Because the system works. Backpacks with two straps more evenly distribute the load on both shoulders. Add a hip belt and it moves the load to your waist and uses your shoulders to stabilize the load. This system works well because of balance. Two straps is just a natural way to carry things that is generally easier on the body. Unfortunately, that stability and balance comes at a price. That price is accessibility. In order to get anything out of your pack, you’ve got to remove the strap from at least one shoulder. Depending on the size of the pack and the access type, you may have to take it off entirely.
One Strap: This can found on sling and messenger type bags. The one strap excels at quick access. Simply rotate the bag from the your back to your front, open it up, and you’ve got whatever you need. The drawback here is in the comfort. For some people, wearing a bag only on one shoulder for extended periods of time can be uncomfortable. The constant weight only pulling on one shoulder causes uneven stress on your back and shoulders, causing the muscles to work to counteract this, and eventually fatigue. To combat this problem, some sling bags offer ambidextrous carry. The shoulder strap can be clipped to one of two points on the bottom of the bag, allowing you to carry it on either shoulder.
Hip Belts: Hip belts are found on most daypacks and backpacking packs, as well as some everyday use bags. Some are better than others, but the idea is to take the weight of your pack and sit it squarely on the top of your hips as opposed to your shoulders and back. The muscles in your legs fatigue much less quickly then the muscles in your shoulders, and if packed correctly, the bag applies almost no weight to the shoulders at all. The downside here is cost. While there are budget friendly options, it’s going to cost you more money for a bag with a decent hip belt than without.
- Compression Straps - Straps along the outside of the backpack used to compress the load in the pack and bring it closer to your back.
- Load lifters - Straps located on top of the shoulder straps of a backpacking pack. These straps are used to bring the load toward the back and shoulders, placing it over the hips and allowing the hips to take the weight, not the shoulders.
- Sternum Strap - A strap that goes across your chest between the straps on a backpack. This strap is used to pull the straps inwards to allow comfortable carry on the outside of your chest.
This goes hand in hand with application, but it’s not quite the same. Some people need to carry large amounts of gear every day, but that doesn’t mean a 65 liter backpacking pack is the answer. When thinking about your needs, whether looking for a backpacking pack, every day bag, or daypack, make sure you have an idea of how much you plan to carry. If you need to, take all the things you need to carry and put it in a pile. This will give you an idea of the size bag you need. Remember, the more stuff you plan to carry, the heavier it is going to be. That’s pretty obvious, but that extra weight doesn’t necessarily mean discomfort if you get the right bag.
If you’re going to be carrying heavy loads a hip belt is a must. This takes the weight off your shoulders and places it on you hips. Even light loads become heavy over long distances, so people planning to cover some ground with a smaller pack might be wise to look for one with a hip belt. If you’re planning on multi-day trips in to the backcountry, there are some general rules you can follow on pack size. Keep in mind, these are general guidelines for size, and depend completely on how much you like to pack.
Daypack: 20 – 35 liters
1 to 2 nights: 35 – 50 Liters
2 to 3 nights: 50 – 65 Liters
3 to 5 nights: 65 – 80 Liters
More than 5 nights: 80 Liters+
Again, these are general guidelines and depend entirely on your style and how much you pack. If you’re more of a minimalist, a smaller pack will obviously work. People have hiked the entirety of the Appalachian Trail with packs under 50 liters. If you like all the comforts of home, these sizes or maybe even a size larger would be best for you.
If you were anything like I was when I was in elementary school, you probably had a backpack that you pretty much fit inside. I remember walking from the bus stop to my house, my JanSport loaded with books and folders, weighing probably almost as much as I did, and having it slap me in the back of my knees as I walked. That was the style in the 90s, but that backpack definitely did not fit.
If you’re looking for an everyday use bag, you just want something that you can carry comfortably. You probably won’t carry it all day long, but you’ll probably have it on your back at some point. Really, whatever works for you in this situation if fine so long as it’s not causing discomfort.
On the flip side, when you get into long day hikes and backpacking trips, the only way to avoid discomfort is to have a pack that fits properly. What you’re really looking for is something that matches the length of your torso. Just because you’re tall with long legs doesn’t necessarily mean you need a large pack. Your long legs could run right into a short torso (Trust me; I know from experience.), and a smaller pack might be needed to comfortably fit the area between your shoulders and the top of your hips.
When we’re talking about pack sizes here, we’re not talking about their volume. We’re only talking about the distance between the hip belt and the shoulder straps. On many packs, it is completely adjustable and customizable, but on other packs this length is fixed. In order to comfortably carry a load, you’ll need the hip belt to rest on the top of your hips, while the straps just hit your shoulders with almost no pressure, but also without air in between. Remember, the shoulder straps in a properly fit pack only add stability. They do not carry the weight.
To properly fit a pack, follow these steps:
- Start by loosening everything up a bit and placing the pack on your back. The hip belt should fall just below the top of your hips at this point.
- Buckle the hip belt and tighten it up until it is comfortably resting on the top of your hipbones. If you can’t close the buckle, or can’t tighten the hip belt enough, you’ll need to look for a different pack or hip belt.
- Tighten the shoulder straps until the pack is held closely against your back. Remember, you should feel the weight of the pack in your legs, not your shoulders. If you feel weight in your shoulders, you may need a larger pack, or to adjust the length. If you have a gap you can’t close, you’ll need a smaller pack. A good rule of thumb is to have the strap anchor points (where the shoulder straps meat the back of the bag at the top) one to two inches below the top of your shoulders.
- Pull the load lifters (straps located on the top of your shoulder straps near your shoulders) to move the load of the bag closer to your back and therefore over your hips.
- Buckle the sternum strap and tighten it until the shoulder straps are comfortably pulled towards the center of your chest. Here, you want a free range of motion in your arms, and don’t want the shoulder straps in your armpits, or running down your sternum. Somewhere on the outside of your chest is the sweet spot.
While style isn’t everything, it can definitely be an important factor in the choice of your backpack, especially if you’re going to carry it every day. Weather you’re looking for an old style rucksack like the Mountain Khakis Rucksack, an on the trail look like an Osprey pack, a sleek minimalist look like the Camelbak Quantico, or the tactical looks of a Maxpedition or 5.11 pack, having something that you like the looks of is legitimately important. If you don’t like it, you won’t carry it. If you’re not going to carry it, what’s the point in owning it? If style is important to you, make sure you get a bag that fits that style.
Finding the right backpack can be a daunting task due the almost infinite amount of options. It’s up to you to determine what is most important for you in a pack, but if you keep these things in mind, it should accelerate the process. When it’s time for that new pack, don’t hesitate to give us a call or stop by the shop. We’re more than happy to run through all the options with you, fit you for a pack, and make sure you leave with a bag that will work best for your application.