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Your selection of a backpack depends on materials, construction, and features. Find out what’s best for you.

How To Buy A Backpack

The keys to buying a backpack are fit and capacity. While fit should be determined by your body type, capacity (the types and amount of gear a pack is capable of carrying) should depend on intended use and length of trip. Here is what to look for to determine what backpack is right for you.

Pack styles and uses

The more weight you carry, the more supportive your pack needs to be.

  • A waist or lumbar pack or small daypack is best if you are taking a short hike with little gear
  • If you’ll be carrying a bulky or heavy (10 pounds or more) load, or if you plan to be out for more than a day, consider an internal or external frame pack
  • Both internal and external frame styles have a harness system comprised of shoulder straps and a hip belt; compression straps pull the pack and load closer to the body

Internal frame

  • Refers to a support system that is built into the interior of a pack
  • Internal frames transfer a large percentage of the pack’s weight onto the hips, which can bear far heavier loads than the shoulders. This frame style is comprised of a hip belt that works with an internal suspension system.
  • The internal frame suspension system usually consists of one or more aluminum or carbon fiber stays that curve to fit your spine
  • The stays extend from the top of the pack to the hip belt, and their job is to stabilize loads and transfer weight to the hips
  • Many models also include a framesheet, often made of high-density polyethylene, to stiffen the back of the pack and allow for better weight transfer
  • Internal frames offer better balance because of their low profile and close-to-the-body fit

External frame

  • The first generation of framed packs
  • They feature a rigid support system, or framework (usually constructed of tubular aluminum), to which a pack and harness attach
  • External frame packs transfer weight and stabilize loads, but are much more rigid than internal packs
  • Usually have a wider profile than internal frame packs. On an open trail where balance isn’t a critical factor, this should present no major problems, but in the backcountry, the frame could snag on branches or get tangled in brush.
  • Because the rigid frame keeps the pack away from your back, such models tend to be comfortable when used in hot weather
  • Usually less expensive than their internal frame counterparts because their design and production is less complicated


Daypacks are ideal for carrying light loads over short distances.


  • General purpose daypack capacity range is from 500 to 2,500 cubic inches
  • In daypacks of 3,000 cubic inches or more – for ski touring or a long day of hiking–look for models with a framesheet and at least one internal stay
  • A padded hip belt and padded, contoured shoulder straps are also nice to have


  • The features you choose should be based on your intended activity
  • Outside mesh pockets are handy for carrying water bottles, snacks, field guides, or wet shoes or clothing
  • Easy-access pockets are good for storing cameras, GPS receivers, or other items you want to keep protected, yet accessible
  • A daisy chain, nylon webbing that offers multiple lash points, is good for securing small items
  • An external bungee cord is handy for securing a jacket or rain gear to the outside of the pack

Sport specific packs

Many daypacks have sport-specific features to accommodate specialized equipment.

  • Back-counrty skiing
    • A model with loops or straps for hauling skis will probably be more comfortable and useful than a general-purpose pack
  • Inline skating
    • Packs with a larger cargo area to hold your skates or an outside loop to attach your skates
    • Plenty of room for helmet and protective gear
  • Bicycling
    • These packs generally sit lower on the back to provide a lower center of gravity
    • A special pocket or compartment to stow a helmet
    • Outside mesh pockets to accommodate cycling shoes or water bottles
  • Snowboarding
    • Extra-durable rear pocket, usually made of Hypalon, Kevlar or heavy-duty Cordura, to accommodate a snowboard, snowshoes or avalanche shovel
    • Streamlined, narrow-profile design that won’t hinder balance and maneuverability in the backcountry or on the slopes

Hydration packs

Hydration packs are designed to provide an ample supply of water while you’re on the move.

  • A bladder, or reservoir, usually made of food-grade plastic holds the water
  • This is placed into a specially designed waist pack or low-profile day pack
  • Users drink the water via a hose equipped with a non-leaking valve

Styles and uses

  • Hydration packs were originally used by long-distance bicyclists and runners who required lots of water, free hands, and who couldn’t juggle lots of water bottles
  • Now they are commonplace among skiers, snowboarders, hikers, inline skaters, climbers, triathletes and adventure racers
  • Daypack styles offer the largest bladder capacity as well as varying degrees of storage space
  • Waist pack styles generally have smaller bladder and storage capacities


  • Reservoir capacity
    • Generally run from 1 to 3 liters
    • Your choice depends on intended use
  • Insulation
    • Recommended to keep water cool in warm weather and to prevent freezing in cold weather
  • Fill weight
    • Measure of what the bladder weighs when filled
    • Most indicated weights pertain to empty reservoirs
  • Wide-mouth reservoirs
    • Accept ice cubes and make for easier cleaning
  • Moisture-wicking fabric on shoulder straps and back panel for added comfort
  • Sculpted shoulder harness for better fit
  • Reflective trim


  • The most popular–and durable–technical pack materials are found in the nylon family: Cordura nylon, ballistics nylon, ripstop nylon, and nylon packcloth, which are all:
    • Very durable
    • Strong and abrasion resistant
    • Many feature water-repellent or waterproof coatings or treatments

What to look for

  • Backstitching and bar tacking in high-stress areas, such as around zippers, pockets, and external loops and webbing
  • High-abrasion areas, such as pack bottoms, should be reinforced with a strong material such as Kevlar, Hypalon, or heavy-weight Cordura
  • Back panels made of reticulated or compression-molded foam covered with a breathable, wicking fabric to disperse perspiration and enhance airflow


The capacity of a backpack is measured in cubic inches. The size you need depends on what you’ll be doing and the amount and type of gear you want to carry.

  • For a warm-weather weekend trip (two or three days), look for a pack in the 3,500 to 4,500 cubic inch range
  • For a week-long trip or more: 5,500 to 7,000 cubic inches
  • Avoid using a pack that is too big. Most people tend to fill available space, which makes for a heavier than necessary load to haul.

Fitting tips

Your height has little bearing on what size pack you should wear; it’s your torso lengththat matters.

  • If the pack is too long, it will sag onto your rear end
  • If it’s too short, it won’t support your lower back

Determining your proper pack size

  • To determine your torso length, measure from the seventh vertebra (the bony protrusion at the base of your neck between your shoulders) to the small of your back (level with your hipbones)
    • For torso length less than 18″ (45 cm.), your suspension size will likely be Small
    • For torso length between 18″ and 20″ (45-50 cm.), your suspension size will likely be Medium
    • Torso length over 21″ (52.5 cm.), your suspension size will likely be Large

Determining your hip belt size

  • The hip belt should cup your hips and when cinched tightly, the pads should not touch
    • Women with straight or narrow hips may prefer a standard hip belt
    • Women (and men) with more curve to their hips should choose a women’s-specific model
    • Shoulder straps should anchor to the backpack just below the seventh vertebra and the crest of your shoulders. They should wrap comfortably, yet securely, around the shoulders and should be at least 5″ below the armpit.