Choosing your first backpack for overnight trips in the wilderness can seem daunting. With so many different brands, styles, sizes, and materials it’s enough to make your head spin. Here I’ve compiled 8 tips for choosing the right backpack to help on your way to purchasing your first pack.
1. Think about how you will use the pack
What kind of pack will you need? Are you planning on sticking to one or two night trips at your local state or national park? Or, are you more of an adventurer and looking to put in long miles and stay out for a week at a time? Will you be hiking and camping primarily in warm weather or will you also be heading into the woods in icy winter and snow conditions too?
These are the main questions to ask yourself in the planning phases of purchasing your backpack. If you are going to be taking shorter trips (1-3 nights) then a smaller capacity (30-50 liters) pack will suit you fine. But, if you will be spending extended amounts of time in the backcountry carrying lots of weight you definitely need a larger capacity pack (60-75 liters). If hiking and camping in the colder winter months, it is a good idea to go with a larger pack. This is primarily because it will allow you to carry bulkier, warmer clothing and sleeping materials.
2. The Basics
These days there are three main types of backpacks. Internal frame, external frame, and frameless (ultralight). The most popular type of pack these days is the internal frame style. These packs have a thin, lightweight metal frame inside the main bag that helps to give the pack structure and support. External frame packs are considered “old school” nowadays but are still seen out on the trail quite often. These packs have a larger, heavier metal frame that rests against your back using pads and shoulder straps. Attached to the frame are multiple pockets and compartments for storing your gear.
The final and newest type of packs are known as “ultralight”. These packs have either no frame at all or an incredibly light, thin frame. These packs typically weigh less than 2 pounds. They are often used by thru-hikers or those that traverse extremely long routes like the Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian Trail. Ultralight packs are typically not rated to carry as much weight as their two counterparts.
3. Stay away from “big box” stores when buying
Although stores such as Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart, etc. do sell backpacks, I highly discourage anyone from purchasing their first backpack from these kinds of stores. The reason for this is that the staff at these stores are less knowledgeable in the correct sizing, fitting, and adjusting of the packs.
That being said, I highly advise you to purchase your pack(s) from an outdoor outfitter. You will receive the proper attention from the staff at these types of stores and they will be able to help you choose and fit the right pack for you. A couple common outdoor outfitters are REI and Cabela’s.
4. Choose the right size
Once you’ve decided what kind and style backpack you need it’s time to get measured to ensure you purchase the correct size. As I mentioned above, this can be completed by the employees at an outdoor outfitter. They will simply measure the distance from the base of your neck down to the tops of your hips. This will dictate the proper frame length for you. Once fitted, you can then choose your favorite brand and color.
5. Get weighed down
After being fitted and choosing your favorite pack, have the store employee put at least 20 pounds of weight in the bag. Put the bag on, then have the person helping you show you the proper sequence of tightening the hip-belt and straps. Ensure that the pack rides comfortably and does not cause any pain.
6. Don’t be shy, give it a try
Now the fun part! Walk around the store for 5 or 10 minutes wearing the weighted pack. If there are stairs in the store, climb up and down them a couple times. This will help you identify any pressure points or trouble areas with your new setup.
7. Consider accessories
There are a handful of accessories that are available for backpacks. The first most common is a hydration bladder. These bladders usually slide into a sleeve inside (or on the outside) the backpack and have a rubber tube that comes up and over your shoulder. You can then drink water through this tube instead of reaching back for a water bottle. I personally just use water bottles, but this is just a matter of personal preference.
Another common accessory for backpacks is a rain cover. While some brands come with a rain cover, many do not. These covers are simply a waterproof cover that can be stretched over your backpack to prevent the contents from getting soaked in heavy rain or snow. You obviously won’t need this every time you are out hiking, but it’s nice to have it handy when it’s needed.
8. Test it out on a day hike
While this last tip isn’t really a necessity, it is a good idea just to be safe. Lay out all of your gear that you will be taking on your first backpacking trip and then pack your new bag. If possible, go to a nearby trail and hike for 30 minutes to an hour wearing your fully loaded pack. See how it feels with a full load. Get used to the location of all your straps. If there are any issues now is the time to return the pack (as long as you have the receipt and the pack appears unused). If everything checks out good then you are ready for your first backpacking adventure. So, get out there and have some fun. Maybe I’ll see you on the trail!