I want to help teach you how to buy the right backpack and ensure that you find that right pack for your backpacking life is a big decision as this is part of the big three gear which will make up a large portion of you base weight. This is why it is one of the first things you will want to purchase and one of the ones that you may understand the least if you jump into the purchase without understanding the points below.
To choose the right pack you need to know your planned trip length before resupply, you need to know your overall gear weight and space as this will let you know how many Liters your pack should have available. For an ultralight packer you should aim for an overall weight of less than 3 pounds and prefer closer to 2 pounds if finances allow.
Since the main options were explained above lets dive in and expand more on each part of the pack, why it is there and why you may or may not need it for your hiking. My hope is in the end you are much more knowledgeable on your pack and choices and will have an enjoyable trip. Please comment below if you gained good insight or it has helped you change your mind on a pack!
There are a few things which every backpack has which are important to spend some of your focus on as they will drive how you perform later. These considerations range from the overall weight and volume your back can carry to the longevity and quality used in the manufacturing.
There is a multitude of different frames available on backpacks that can help or hinder your hike. Take a few minutes to understand the basic three frames and what your starting choice would be. Most current-day backpacks are either internal frame or frameless for hikers of all skill levels.
As you may expect this backpack frame exists outside of the backpack outside cover which leaves it exposed. This is very typical of your parent's older style backpacks and typical of very heavy loads. I would suggest avoiding these unless you want to experience how your parents hiked.
The most common type of pack today is the internal frame backpack. This means the supports to keep the pack upright are located inside the pack materials so they aren't in the way outside or inside of the pack. Having a frame will increase the pack weight based on the material used to provide the supports.
A frameless backpack is frequently the style used for ultralight backpacking due to the obvious lessening of overall weight when you remove support rods. You will see this a lot in the Dyneema based Nero packs from Zpacks and the 2400 Windrider from HMG.
How much space you have inside of your pack to fit all the internal gear required for your trips. This should be carefully managed as going to high sometimes helps you decide to add more items than you actually need to "fill it up". If you don't do this and your backpack is under-filled now your pack itself is making you carry extra unnecessary weight.
Backpacks are designed to carry a specific weight only which means just because it may look like it can carry more you want to know this number. You will want to ensure that your food and other hiking essentials doesn't go over this weight.
This weight is determined typically for the pack to be worn comfortably without issues along with the lifespan of the pack if you overload a pack you are more likely to have gear failures like seams bust, rips, tears and total failure on the trail when avoidable.
What is the pack built out of, does it have a lot of mesh or outside features which can get caught on brush, thorns or other obstructions. Are you traveling on one of the big 3 trails where more maintenance happens to keep your pack safer?
What are the main components of the backpack made out of? Nylon, Dyneema and others can all be part of many packs you will find online. These materials all handle pressure, water, and other things differently and this can make a specific type of pack a "make or break" for a type of trail hike.
When you look to buy the right backpack you want to dive into additions that some packs feature but since not all additions are standard these become beneficial or wasteful. Many may find some of these a deal-breaker that they need, others may find they aren't something they would require from their backpack purchase.
Many times I feel the more features listed the heavier the pack will tend to be as it helps the manufacturer fluff out the sales pages, not always of a benefit to the hiker.
This is typically a mesh or fabric that moves the backpack away from direct back contact. This allows for your back to breathe and to cut down on sweat and irritation like chafing and blisters from the constant sweat and motion.
There can be other points of ventilation on a pack and obviously the more ventilated ports exist on the pack the more you want to pay attention to your rain cover to ensure nothing inside gets wet that shouldn't as you will cross streams, rivers sometimes and then the most obvious being rain.
Now, most packs have primary top access where you get into the main content of your backpack. What you want to pay attention to hear is the number of secondary pockets and whether you would have a use for them, remember every part of a pack you don't utilize is just more dead weight for your carry.
Additional access points that you may like or dislike would be a sleeping bag pouch on the bottom of the backpack for ease of putting away and taking out, you may love this or not depending on how you pack your pack.
Additionally, everything fancy outside of your pack is one more thing that can have a mechanical failure and break leaving you scrambling on how to continue working with it until you can reach someplace to repair it or replace it.
Need to figure out what level of convenience pockets can be, maybe to carry a cell phone, snacks or water. You will want to evaluate what kinds of pockets could be of assistance to you while hiking.
There are also sometimes large pockets on the back of the backpack that you can use for rain gear, toilet paper or other gear you would like to have quick access.
This is what is on many backpacks, it is the pouch that goes over the top of the sack and typically has a large pocket or maybe two. This can be helpful for storing specific items, though think about it and do shakedowns as many remove it to save extra weight and space within their pack.
This is a space internally which can store a water bladder and run a line out for you to drink on the go. I don't like this system as I can't tell the level of water remaining and prefer to have my water bottles available to keep an eye level on my remaining water.
These will help to hold an ice axe or maybe trekking poles. These aren't entirely necessary and will depend on the type of hike you are wanting to go on. If you are going, for example, on the PCT, then you would want to have a way to hold an ice axe as you will encounter portions within the mountain where you would like to have it out of your hands but quickly available.
As we covered in the ventilation section above you want to pay attention and put consideration to the rain cover as you want to avoid getting your pack and contents wet. Rain covers aren't typically that heavy nor expensive so the choices are quite open here, sometimes the simplest is the best, don't get too fancy.
Many times a pack will come with an integrated version of a rain cover, others may offer a perfect fitted rain cover that is available to purchase with your pack and then there is off the shelf generic covers.
If you want to get a good fit it can be of benefit to visit the store and have someone professionally help you get the pack fitted. Though there are also resources available on YouTube which can show you how you can do this with any pack you choose.
Some brands feature a specific woman or man packs which are typically better tailored to each typical frame. This doesn't mean you can't use a woman's pack if you're a man or the other way, find the right fit and style for yourself.
Use straps from the waist to shoulder to sternum straps to get the load nicely balanced on your body. You want to aim for the hip straps to rest or hit your iliac crest.
I hope that you have learned some useful and interesting information on how to buy the right backpack. I wanted to make sure that each part of your needs and thoughts would be covered efficiently. Please let me know where you are going and when I'm excited to run into people out in the real world and will always keep my eyes open wide!
Please share this with anyone you know who may be looking at getting a backpack and needs some help with making the best decision possible, I love to help out!