All about Backpacks for Backpacking

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Finding the right pack for backpacking is a little more involved than just picking up any bag. It’s got to fit your body right, and needs to hold tons more weight that you’ll ever pack on a day hike.

Getting the right fit

Most backpacks come in standard S/M/L sizes to choose from. These sizes take into account your torso length, and hip belt measurements. There usually are also separate women’s and men’s packs too since body structures are so different.

Other brands allow you to mix and match the torso length and hip belt sizes for a more custom fit. For example you can purchase a pack with a long torso, but a small sized hip belt, or a medium torso with a large sized hip belt.

So how do you measure yourself for a backpack?

How to measure your torso:

  1. Bend your neck forward and find the bony vertebrae protrusion at the base of the back of your neck(it’s the C7 vertebrae for all the anatomy geeks out there 😉 ). This is the top point to measure.
  2.  Find the space directly inbetween the top of your hipbones(iliac crest) by putting your hands on your hips, thumbs pointed horizontally towards the center of your back. The point in the middle of your back where they point to is the bottom point to measure.

*It can be helpful if you have someone at home help take this measurement for you.

How to measure your waist:

  1. Your backpack will be distributing weight on top of your hips, so you want to measure your waist across the top of your hip bones, and below your belly button.

Backpack Capacity & Weight Limits

The next thing to know about is that backpacks come in all different size capacities measured in Liters. You’ll see smaller ones for day hiking around 15-25L. For backpacking it’s usually 40L, 45, 55, 60L on up. This size capacity will depend on how much gear you’re taking with you and how bulky it all is.

I recommend starting out with a 60L pack for beginners. As long as you can purchase light enough equipment(not necessarily ultralight), you’ll have plenty of room for all you need, even a bear canister!

Another thing you have to be mindful about when choosing a backpack, in addition to the capacity, is how much weight it can comfortably carry. This should be mentioned in the listing. Because of this it’s important to know how much all of your other gear weighs before choosing a backpack.

The rule is you shouldn’t be carrying more than 20% of your body weight in your backpack. A good “base weight” (meaning all your items except for food and water) to aim for is around 20lbs.

You can use a small kitchen scale to weigh your items, or jot down the weights from websites that you buy them from(a lot of places have the weights listed-they’re usually not entirely accurate, and sometimes omits things like stuff sacks and tent stakes, but it at least gives you an idea). Then add the info to a spreadsheet or you can use a website such as lighterpack to calculate the totals for you.

Adjusting your pack

After you have your own backpack, you’ll need to adjust it on you properly. The rule of thumb is that only 20% of the weight of your pack should be on your shoulders. 80% goes on your hips.

Once you have your pack on, you’ll need to adjust it by cinching the hip belt straps, shoulder straps, and also load lifters if your pack has them. Load lifters are located at the top of your shoulder straps, and help with balancing the load forward or backwards.

Start by wearing your backpack with all your gear in it, and buckle your hip belt. Make sure it’s snug but still comfortable. The middle of it should go through the top of your hipbones.

Next adjust your shoulder straps. If you have the right size backpack, the should straps should end right around the top of your shoulders, there shouldn’t be any pinching which you might feel if it’s too tight, or too short. If the torso is too tall on you if there would be too much wiggle room above the strap.

After you have the hip belt and shoulder straps feeling ok, you can adjust the load lifters. You should retain proper posture with your backpack on, and not be leaning backwards or forwards. These straps can help balance that out.

Lastly, you can buckle the sternum strap. This strap helps more if you have a heavy load that wants to move from side to side if you’re hiking. It’ll keep your pack centered on you.

Backpack Options

If you’re a beginner, don’t get too caught up in trying to go ultralight all at once. One thing to note about backpacks is if you do purchase a lighter weight one, it can be comfortable for light loads, but bigger loads can be a lot more comfortable with a heavier backpack that’s designed better for more weight.

Because of that I like to focus on “light weight” instead of “ultra light”. Make sure your backpack has a frame and enough padding to be comfortable, along with a hip belt.

The following all have recommended loads of 35-40lbs or less, which is a good max carry load for most people:

  • Outdoor Vitals Shadowlight 60L – I personally own this backpack, and really love it! I’ve taken it out on several trips now so gave it a thorough testing. It holds up well, is comfortable, and there’s no much I’d change about it. It’s also a good price and only weighs 2lbs!
  • Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60L – I also own this pack but have not tested it as much as the Shadowlight. However they’re both very similar packs in many ways. This pack also weighs 2lbs, but does not have the big middle zipper. Instead it’s got a big single mesh pocket on the back that you can potentially stuff larger items into.
  • ULA Equipment, Circuit 68L – This pack is recommended by tons of long distance section and thru-hikers.
  • Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider – Another pack often used by thru-hikers. This is a minimalist style pack made with DCF fabric and seam sealed, so it’s got a lot more water proofing/resistance than other material all by itself.
  • Osprey Backpacks  – Osprey has a wide range of styles and sizes to choose from. I recommend them because they have a great warranty policy. If something goes wrong on your pack chances are very high they’ll fix and/or replace it free of charge! The Osprey Eja and men’s Exos version are 2 of the lightest options.

There are honestly tons of brands and style of backpacks. It can be hard to choose!

Also, if you’re worried about buying online before purchasing, you can go to your local REI if you have one and try a bunch on. They will help fit you and put weight in them so you can feel what will work best for you!

The closest REI to where I live is about 2.5hrs away, so I took a chance and ordered my packs directly online. Thankfully I had no problems and they fit me well!


One very important thing with your backpack is that you’ll need to put all the stuff that needs to stay dry(clothes, sleeping bag, sleeping pad) inside in a pack liner. Some people use trash compacter bags you can find in the store. These are heavy duty garbage bags that prevent leakage. You can also buy special made Nylofume pack liners. A pack liner weighs very little, and is pretty much a necessity for backpacking!

Pack liners are backups to a pack cover-which doesn’t always completely help when it rains. For instance your straps will still get wet, and water can get inbetween you and the back of your pack. Many people don’t use pack covers at all and just rely on their liner and any waterproof stuff sacks their gear is in.

A few backpack brands come with a pack cover included. If not and you want one, you can purchase an inexpensive pack cover that’ll fit your sized bag, which is what I did.

Some backpacks come with tons of pockets and all the bells and whistles. Others are very minimal, to save on weight. If you do get a minimalist pack, you can always outfit it with accessory pockets for water bottles, or your phone. Or even get extra bungee cords to attach things to on the outside of your pack.

I like to carry my camera with me, so I figured out a way to attach a lightweight camera bag to my pack.

Do you use a different backpack that you’d recommend for beginners? Or even experienced backpackers? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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