How to Choose the Right Backpack

Boy Scouts of America - Troop 401 - Steubenville, Ohio

Step #1 -- Consider the Kinds of Trips You Want to Take

The key to choosing the right backpack is finding one that matches the trips you plan on taking. Consider: The length of trips you have in mind The times of year that you want to backpack The kind of terrain you want to explore The activities that you will be participating in while you're out there in the wilderness

Step #2 -- Decide on a Basic Type of Pack

Soft packs/Rucksacks

These are small- to medium-sized fabric packs with no internal structural support.


Less expensive and easier to access than larger pack types.

Lighter and less bulky.


Too small for anything but the shortest overnight trips.

The basic suspension systems can't handle large, heavy loads comfortably.

External frame backpacks

These have rigid external skeletons that distribute the weight of your equipment comfortably between your shoulders and hips. Pack bags and suspension systems (shoulder straps and hip belts) attach to these external skeletons.


Great load carriers on easy-to-moderate terrain and trails.

Lots of storage space inside. Most have useful compartments, dividers and external pockets to help keep gear organized.

Better air circulation between the pack and your back than with internal frame packs, keeping you cooler and more comfortable.

Considerably less expensive than similarly-sized internal frame packs.


Tend to be wider, heavier and bulkier than similarly-sized internal frame packs.

When fully packed, external frame packs can have relatively high centers of gravity, making balancing difficult on rough trails, more challenging terrain, or when participating in activities like skiing or climbing.

Internal frame backpacks

These have structural support systems built right into the pack body that help you distribute weight loads efficiently between your hips and shoulders.


Designed to fit your body snugly and hold your equipment load in close to your natural center of gravity.

Easier to maneuver in and easier to balance than external frame packs.

More streamlined profiles than externals, allowing for more freedom of movement and easier passage through tight spaces.

Very comfortable, with highly adjustable suspension systems.


Most have only 1 or 2 main storage compartments and few external pockets. This can make keeping gear organized a challenge.

Require careful packing so gear is easy to access and the pack is comfortable when worn.

Tend to be warmer on your back than externals -- little or no room for ventilation between your back and the pack itself.

Generally cost more than similarly-sized external frames.

Step #3: Decide on a Size

Find a pack that's big enough to hold your necessary gear, but small enough that you can carry it comfortably day after day. Remember -- backpackers tend to fill up whatever bag they are packing, no matter how huge it is. Avoid a great big monster pack unless you really need one.

Common Sizes

Storage capacities are measured in cubic inches (cu. in.). They range anywhere from a few hundred cu. in. for a small day pack to over 7,000 cu. in. for a giant, expedition-sized backpack. Most backpackers opt for medium-sized packs between 3,500 and 5,500 cubic inches.

Things to keep in mind

Sleeping bags are usually stored inside of internal frame packs (gobbling up anywhere from 450 to 2,600 cu. in. of space in the process). But they can be strapped to the outside of most external frame packs.

Different manufacturers measure capacities differently. So one manufacturer's 3,000 cu. in. pack may be a bit bigger or smaller than another's.

Your body size and your physical strength will limit how big a pack you can handle. Be sure to talk to an experienced salesperson to choose a pack you can handle mile after mile.

Step #4: Consider the Design Features

Once you've decided on the right type and the right size of pack to buy, it's time to compare and contrast specific models. Consider these factors:


You want a backpack that's easy to organize, pack and unpack. The factors that affect accessibility most significantly are:

The number of main storage compartments

The compartment design - Is the pack a panel loader, a top loader or a combination of the two?

The number of pockets and how they're arranged


Most modern backpacks have capacity-altering features that help you handle a variety of different gear loads.

Look for things like compression straps (to hold smaller loads in place), extending collars (to swallow more gear on longer journeys), external attachment points (for lashing extra gear to the outside of the pack) and detachable day packs/pockets.


You want a pack that will last for years. Look for durable materials, good stitching (especially around the main access zippers), reinforced bottom panels and reinforced shoulder strap anchors. Also, ask about the reputation of the manufacturers (and the specific models) you're considering.


Scouts will grow so be sure to purchase a backpack that has plenty of adjustment so the backpack will grow with the scout. These adjustments should allow vertical movement of the shoulder straps, pack frame and hip belt. In addition the hip belt needs to be able to chinch down to the scout's waist size.

Step #5: Make Sure It Fits!

Finding a backpack that fits well is extremely important. Always test the fit of a backpack with weight inside. Adults should use 20 to 30 pounds, with the heaviest part of the load centered between your shoulder blades, as close to your back as possible.

Try on a number of different packs before deciding on a single model. Test them with the assistance of an experienced salesperson whenever possible so that you can learn how to make minor adjustments yourself.

What to look for

You want a pack that matches both your body shape and your torso length. Concentrate on:

The Hip Belt - Arguably the most important part of the backpack, the hip belt transfers most of your pack weight to your body. It should be comfortable and sized correctly.

Shoulder Straps - The other half of the "suspension system." These should also be comfortable and easy to adjust.

Proper Torso Length - Torso length is the distance from the top of your shoulders to the top of your hip bones (roughly). A properly fitted pack allows you to make minor adjustments with your shoulder straps to shift load weight back and forth between these 2 weight-bearing areas.

Return to Camping Skills

Return to Table of Contents

Last updated on November 13, 2002