The first thing you need when you’re planning a backpacking trip is definitely a pack. You’ve got to have something to carry all of your stuff, whether you’re just going on a day hike or you’re planning a week long trip.

When picking out a pack, there are a lot of considerations to take into account, and oftentimes just walking into the pack section of an outdoor store can be overwhelming. They’ve got packs with metal sticking out of them, they’ve got packs that are tiny, waterproof, have all kinds of pockets, and they’ve even got packs that might be bigger than you!

So how do you know which one to choose? We thought we’d break it down just a bit for you, to give you a better idea of what you should be looking for. Here are a couple of things to think about when you start looking for the perfect pack for your trip:

How long will you be gone?

Most packs are broken up into four major categories, based on their size, or volume. Depending on how long your trip is, you’re going to need more or less volume to lug around all of your equipment. Here are the most standard backpack categories:

Day packs – 15-30 liters, made for one day hikes or school

Overnight packs – 30-50 liters, made for one to two night trips

Weekend packs – 45-55 liters, made for two to three night long weekend trips

Extended trip packs – 55 liters and up, made for trips longer than three nights

It’s important to remember that you may have to adjust the volume of the pack you purchase depending on what type of backpacking you plan to do the most. For example, if you plan on only doing weekend trips, but you want to do some winter backpacking trips, you’d be smart to size up to a larger volume pack, to ensure your pack can handle the extra gear you’ll need in the winter.

It’s also good to know that some experienced backpackers choose to go the ultralight route – which means they travel with the absolute minimal equipment. Since that’s more for experienced backpackers who are very familiar taking extended trips without much gear, we haven’t included ultralight suggestions in this post.

In choosing your pack, make sure you have room for everything you’re going to need on your backpacking trip. Things you’ll absolutely need on the trail:

  • Your tent
  • A sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad
  • Camp stove
  • Food
  • A change of clothing in case you get wet

Now, this is a very short list of the absolute basic items you’ll need. For a more extended list, check our Ultimate Hiking Gear Checklist for Beginners.

Once you finally decide what volume pack you need, it’s time to find a pack that actually fits.

Fitting your Pack

Backpack fits are measured by the length of your torso. To determine your size, first find your C7 vertebra. It’s that bone on the back of your neck that sticks out the furthest. Then find your iliac crest. It’s the line that crosses directly above both of your hips on your back. Once you’ve found both of those, find a friend who can take a cloth tape measure to see what the distance between those two points is. Then you can match that length to a pack size:

  • Extra-small = 15″+
  • Small = 16″ to 17″
  • Medium = 18″ to 19″
  • Large = 20″+

It’s worth it to say that some packs have adjustable torso lengths that can ensure a perfect fit, and there are others that don’t. If you’re not sure exactly how a pack should fit, it’s in your best interest to go into an outdoor gear store and have a professional fit you. This doesn’t mean you have to buy a pack at that exact moment, but a proper fitting will help you see what brands fit your torso the best, and what size you really need.

Additional Fit Considerations

Hip Belt

If you’re going on anything longer than a day trip, you’ll want a pack with a padded hip belt. With a correctly fitting pack, as much as 80% of the pack weight should rest on your hips, protecting your shoulders and spine. This means you need a hip belt that absorbs a lot of that pressure so it doesn’t dig into your hips.

Shoulder Straps

The best type of straps for a pack should curve to fit your body. While padded shoulder straps are nice, you don’t need a ton of padding, since most of the weight should be resting on your hips. To check a pack’s shoulder strap fit, stand in profile in front of a mirror. The pack’s straps should rest flat on the top and back of your shoulders, leaving very little space between your pack and your body. If the strap padding ends about two to three inches below your armpits, it’s a good fit. If it ends before that, then you’ll need either longer shoulder straps or another pack.

Load Lifter Straps

These straps are more and more common on backpacks today. You’ll see them stitched to the top of shoulder straps, buckling to the back of the pack. They exist to keep the upper portion of your pack from pulling away from your back, which keeps the pack riding high, and not falling on the lumbar region. These are great for heavier loads and longer backpacking trips, and help to keep your pack sitting comfortably.

Sternum Straps

These are the straps that buckle in between shoulder straps high on the chest. They function to increase stability and keep your pack snug on your back. They’re best used for hiking uneven terrain when an unexpected drop or sudden move could cause your pack to slip and throw you off balance.

Women-Specific Backpacks

It’s also good to know that a variety of brands carry women-specific backpacks. These are made to accommodate a woman’s frame, which means the hip belt is typically designed for a female form, and shoulder straps are shorter. Women-specific backpacks also tend to feature shorter and narrower torso dimensions, which make them great options for younger backpackers of either gender.

Once you have these general fit and size concerns out of the way, you’re free to choose a pack that best suits your needs. Maybe you want a pack that offers a lot of pockets to store items on the outside, or maybe you need an option that’s waterproof. So long as your pack holds the items you need on the trail and fits you properly, you can choose whichever pack strikes your fancy.

There are so many options out there from Osprey packs to the North Face, and in the end it comes down to personal preference. Don’t be afraid to go into an outdoor store and try on a bunch of different pack options from a variety of brands. Each pack is likely to fit a bit differently, and offer different features. An outdoor outfitter will be able to help you find the pack you need, that fits you properly.

If you have more questions about fitting a pack for your next backpacking trip, don’t be afraid to stop in and ask the experts at Earth’s Edge. And if you’d just like to see a few more options, make sure to check out our entire line of name brand packs online!