How to Choose Outdoor Backpacking


If you want to go backpacking in the great outdoors, then a backpack is one of the most essential pieces of gear you need to have (duh; backpack is in the name! )With so many options out there, it can be confusing to buy a backpack.  What is all comes down to is this: volume, torso length, hip size, comfort, compartments, and extra features.  Here I will go over all of these features of backpacks so you can get the perfect one for your backpacking tri

Types of Backpacks

There are a lot of different types of backpacks out there.  To clarify, here we are talking about backpacks for a trip where you will be spending at least 1 night in the wilderness and will need to carry ALL of your gear with you.  This means your backpack needs to have room for your sleeping bag, food, clothes, and probably a tent, cook set and some extras too (unless you’ve got a strong friend who is going to carry all of this for you).

  • Day Packs: These are smaller backpacks which are meant for day trips. I use my daughter’s backpack for day trips.  You might want to bring a day pack along with you on your backpacking trip so you don’t have to carry your huge pack with you when walking trails.
  • Travel Backpacks: There usually isn’t that much difference between a travel backpack and a backpacking backpack. However, since you don’t need a tent, sleeping bag, etc. when traveling through cities and sleeping in hostels, these backpacks will probably be missing some features.
  • Backpacking Backpacks: This is what we are talking about in this post!

Finding the Right Backpack Volume

Backpacking backpacks list how much they can hold in liters.  The volume you need depends on how much stuff you plan on bringing with you on your trip, as well as the size of your stuff.  For example, if you’ve got a big sleeping bag, you’ll need a bigger backpack to hold it.  If you’ve got a nice ultra-compact sleeping back and other compact gear, then you can get a smaller bag.

Backpack Volume Guide for Traditional Backpackers

Liters Activity
15-30 Day hikes
30-50 liters 1-3 day backpacking trips
50-80 liters 3-5 day backpacking trips
70+ liters 5+ day backpacking trips


Backpack Volume Guide for Ultra-Light or Ultra-Minimal Backpackers

Liters Activity
20-30 liters Overnight backpacking trips
30-50 liters 2-3 day backpacking trips
40-55 liters 2-5 day backpacking trips
55+ liters 5+ day backpacking trips


If in doubt, always get a bigger volume than you think you need.  If you get really into backpacking, chances are that you’ll end up buying several different backpacks of varying volumes. 

Backpack Torso Length

Why is torso length so important?  Because the weight of a backpack should sit on your hips.  If you get a backpack which is too big or small for you, it will cause the weight to bear down in the wrong place.

  • Too short torso length = weight on shoulders and you’ll get tired quickly
  • Too long torso length = backpack will pull you backwards and you’ll lose balance


Measuring Your Torso Length

Torso length is measured from your C7 vertebra down to the iliac crest.  The C7 vertebra is the most noticeable protrusion on your upper spine.  Your iliac crest is the “shelf” of your hips. You can have a friend measure this for you.  The torso length must match the distance from the backpack’s shoulder strap to the hip belt.

*Do NOT buy a backpack online without first measuring your torso length!!!  Make sure it matches the torso length listed for the backpack!

Here are the general guidelines for backpack size and torso length.  Keep in mind that your torso length doesn’t always match your height.  You can be short or tall and have a “regular” torso length!

  • Extra Small: Up to 15 ½ inches
  • Small: Torsos 16-17 ½ inches
  • Regular/Medium: 18-19 ½ inches
  • Large/Tall: 20 inches and up

Adjustable Torso Length Backpacks

A lot of modern backpacks have adjustable torso lengths.  This means that the distance between the shoulder strap and hip belt can be adjusted.  Buying one of these backpacks means that you’ll be able to share the backpack with someone of a different torso size.  Adjustable torso lengths are also good choices for kids because you can adjust it as they grow.  The only downside is that adjustable torso backpacks tend to be slightly heavier.

adjustable torso length backpack

This backpack has an adjustable torso length. The straps come out and can be repositioned.


Backpack Hip Size

Hip size isn’t as important as torso length, but it is still something to keep in mind (especially when buying a backpack online and you can’t try it on).

To measure your hip size, measure around your waist at the top of your hip bones.  Note that you measure at the highest point of your hip bones – not wear your pants normally sit (unless you are still stuck in the 70s and are wearing high-hipped pants ).

Some backpacks have adjustable hip belts.  For example, this adjustable hip belt shown below.


adjustable hip belt backpackThe backpack has an adjustable hip belt

adjustable hip belt backpack

Backpack Comfort Factors

Since you are going to be wearing your backpack for a lot of time, you want to make sure that it will be comfortable.  There are four major things that contribute to comfort: the back panel, shoulder straps, load lifter straps, and sternum straps.


Back Panel

Backpacks usually have some sort of padding on the back for extra comfort.  Some have mesh panels which hold the backpack off your back a bit and keep you from getting so sweaty.  Others have internal frames which make a curved contour so it fits the shape of your back more.

black diamondn infinity 60 backpack

The backpack has a contoured back for comfort. But it sits flat against your back, so expect to get sweaty.


backpack back panel

The padding on this backpack creates an air space against the back so you don’t get as sweaty.

Shoulder Straps

The backpack shoulder straps should be padded so they don’t dig into your shoulders and cause you pain.  If you are a woman, look for a backpack which is specially designed to fit a woman’s contours!


Load Lifter Straps

Most good backpacking backpacks have load lifter straps.  They attach the top of the back frame to the top of the shoulder straps.  They should sit at a 45 degree angle between the straps and your pack.  Their job is to prevent the upper part of your backpack (where you will probably keep your tent or other heavy items) from pulling away from your body.


load lifter straps

Load lifter straps on the backpack

Sternum Strap

The sternum strap connects the two shoulder straps across your chest.  This prevents your back from moving around, and greatly improves stability.  Note whether the sternum strap location can be adjusted.


It is also nice to have lots of other compartments and pockets on/in your backpack.  That way, you can easily keep your dirty (aka stinky) socks away from your food.   Here are some of the compartments you should look out for when buying your first backpack:

Top Lid: The “lid” of the backpack will help keep rain out and also has a compartment in it.  Put gear here that you need to access easily, like your rain jacket.  You’ll also use the top lid for holding your tent on top of your pack.

External Sleeves and Pockets: These are great for holding your hydration pack, water bottle, snacks, toilet paper, shovel, and other gear you need to access often.

Sleeping Bag Compartment: This will be at the bottom of the backpack.  It makes it easy to get your sleeping bag without having to dig through all of your pack.

Hip Belt Pockets: These are nice for keeping small items like a compass within easy reach.

Multiple-Access Points to Main Compartment: Some backpacks have multipole zippers so you can access the backpack contents through the top, front, side, etc.


Post time: Mar-01-2019