Finding the Right Pack for You and Your Trips

I sold my first backpack to a friend for $50 dollars. It was a High Sierra Sentinel 65.

Admittedly, it was a bit hard to let go. But, it was time.

The pack served me well. It was a good size for shorter trips, fairly durable and comfortable. It was reasonably priced too, especially for a college freshman.

The pack did have its faults, though, at least for me. It was too bulky, but all in all, it was a great starter pack.

Knowing what I know now, I’m going for something with a simpler design (fewer straps), but it still has to be durable.

Now that I’m in the market for a new pack, I’ve been doing my research. When I went exploring for a pack the last time, I didn’t spend as much time reviewing all of my options.

Here’s what I recommend and look out for when buying a new pack. 

Using Your Pack

I used my pack the most for shorter trips, lasting just under a week. I also like to pack fairly light, so I would often end up with extra space in my pack. I’m not sure what it is, but I felt that space had to be filled instead of conserved.

So, I would fill it — sometimes. But, even if I wouldn’t, it’s still additional space that I wasn’t using.

This is where I start when buying a pack. How am I going to use it? It seems almost too obvious, but I think it’s all too easy to get carried away with the bells and whistles.

The pack should fit you and your trips.

The pack’s capacity is one of the biggest factors I take into consideration when buying a pack. I chose a 65 liter because I thought it would be the best route. And, to a certain point, I think I guessed right.

This size is good for three- to five-day trips to the backcountry, depending on how you pack. It held up well when I went to Voyageurs.

But, my packing habits tell me I could go down to a 50-liter pack. I tend to pack light, but I would also like to take longer trips in the future.

How to choose the right backpack

If you’re taking trips stretching one to four days long, I recommend choosing a pack between 35 and 50 liters. If you’re taking the bare bones, go for the lower end of the spectrum, and vice versa.

Now, if you’re after the extended stays, being more than a week, I wouldn’t go smaller than a 60-liter pack. If you’re headed out there – and I mean out there – you should consider going up to about 80 liters.

Keep in mind too that some packs have small, medium and large variations. The pack I bought didn’t have the variations, as many don’t.

“Correctly sizing a pack is vitally important to your comfort and the pack’s function,” wrote McKenzie Long and Ian Nicholson from Outdoor Gearlab. “If is is too large or too small, weight will not be evenly distributed and will put pressure on different parts of your body, making hiking and moving difficult and painful.”

To help fit the pack to your body more precisely, measure from the back of your neck to the base of your hips. That measurement tells you what size pack you’ll likely need.

“When selecting a size from a typical scale of small, medium, or large it is your torso length, not your height, that puts you in the correct range,” the article said.

Basically, you should pursue a pack after measuring your torso. Some packs have features, like adjustable straps, that help further tailor the pack to your height and build.

Hoist It Up, Get Moving

After you’ve decided on the size, put the pack on. Some outfitters let you test the pack out. If possible, load it up.

It’s one thing to put the pack on when there’s nothing but air holding it down. It’s another when you’re yanking up a 50-pound pack with straps flapping in the wind.

After you’ve packed the bag, fit it to yourself:

  • The weight should rest on your hips, not your shoulders.
  • The pack shouldn’t tug your shoulders back, either.
  • Adjust the hip belt and load-lifters to a comfortable point.

Unlike your school bag, the weight should not drag your shoulders down. Carrying the weight is left to your hips. So, make a mental note to really look at the hip belts when choosing your pack.

Even though I don’t like very many straps, they come in handy at times. Load-lifter straps help make bearing the weight a little easier by condensing the pack and bringing your gear together.

All the Bells and Whistles

If you’re just starting out, it might be easier just to ignore the bells and whistles. But, if you spend a lot of time on the trail, keep an eye on the specs. Some packs have many organizational pockets. Features like these can make a difference in terms of versatility.

For hikers who are trying to save their backs, the construction is going to be important, like the material, airflow, and suspension.

Then, you can get into things like straps for camp pads, trekking poles or an ice axe. Or, maybe you’re looking for a built-in rain cover, additional compartments, and similar features. You can get more and more in-depth with features.

Some of the best advice I can give is to spend a good amount of time looking at a variety of packs, from a variety of companies.

At the end of the day, though, it’s based on what’s best for you and your trip.


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