Selecting a Backpack

The objective of a backpack is to get your gear from here to there and back in something that is reliable and comfortable.

A backpack is one piece of gear that I would not recommend you rush off and buy.  A new one can be relatively expensive and, with all the different styles and sizes, you could end up with one you might be unhappy with.  Try borrowing one at first one—or several of different styles and sizes—to get a feel for what is right for you.  Obviously, if you buy the pack, you aren't exactly stuck with it.  But realize that when you resell it, it will probably be at a substantial discount.  So, my advice is to first gain experience regarding what you like and need before you take the fiscal plunge.

Alternatively, for a starter, consider buying a good quality used pack from someone who has outgrown, upgraded, or no longer uses theirs.  Be careful though, to not get a pack that is too dated because pack technology has advanced quite a bit in the last few years, especially with regard to straps that increase comfort and help control your load.  Many older packs, for example, don't have sternum straps, load control straps, compression straps, and integrated water bottle holders, etc.  Some don't even have a padded hip belt!

With that in mind, most of the following observations for buying a pack are also applicable to renting or borrowing one.

The objective is to get your gear from here to there and back in something that is reliable and comfortable.  The big choice to make is whether to buy an external (left photo) or internal (right photo) frame pack, although that decision is becoming less important these days.  Internal and external frame pack designs seem to be converging, with external frames sometimes taking on nearly the same profile as internal frames—tall and narrow with a bottom (sleeping bag) and internal frame adding many external pockets and places (web daisy chains and lash points) to hang things off the top, sides and front outside of the pack—areas where external frames have traditionally excelled.  External frames have also become more flexible (using materials other than steel or aluminum).  Both have added mechanisms to adjust position, a feature first found only on a few external frames.  General purpose external and internal frame packs have also merged functionally (specialized climbing and "contour" packs are exceptions) and it is now difficult to distinguish some an internal frame packs from external frame.  For this reason, focus on function, not style, when looking at backpacks.  However, if you still want to make a fashion statement, you can do it with a $1,000.00 custom-made, neon-pink, space-aged cloth pack with carbon fiber stays, heat-treated titanium frame, carboplast buckles, and silk-lined shoulder straps! As for the rest of us, we'll settle for a functional pack and use the rest of the money to go on an backpacking adventure!

I researched loads of web sites for data on selecting a pack and have assembled some what seems to be the prevailing wisdom:

It fits your build now—and later.  Adjustability is particularly important for novices who haven't quite figured out how to make a pack comfortable or who may change height or weight (e.g., a still growing Scout).  Check the range of adjustments for torso length (shoulder straps and/or hip belt adjustment) to ensure the distance between them can be changed.  Try not to be at the outer end (high or low) of the range of adjustment.  You'll likely to be most comfortable if you fit somewhere close to the midpoint of the adjustment range.  All packs are different and manufactures use different measurements to distinguish between "small," "medium," and "large" (there is no industry standard) or between "adult" and "junior (Scout)" size.  In general, however, if you are shorter than 5'4" you may want to check out "small" sizes first.  A "medium" may be your size if your height is between 5'2" and 6'0".  If you're taller than 5'10", look at "large" sizes.  For a more precise fit look to the pack manufacturer's stated "torso length" range.  What is torso length, you ask? The experts say that if you run your hand down the back of your neck until you feel a lump very near the top of your shoulders (generally about the 7th vertebra) and measure down to the top of your pelvis (hip crest), you'll have your approximate torso length.  Start then, by choosing a pack size that has this measurement near the midpoint of its torso range that matches yours. Some manufacturers also have packs specifically designed for women and young men (e.g., the Kelty Tioga, Jr.) but as most packs are adjustable over a small range of sizes and many overlap in size ranges any small pack will generally fit a petite woman or Scout (are we getting too confusing?).  Still, there is no substitute for trying on the pack you buy (with weight in the pockets and compartments) or for borrowing one that is similar in size, construction, and manufacturer to the one you are considering buying.

Straps and belts:

Other factors to consider:

So, what should you pay for a pack? Junior packs may be had for as little as $75.00.  You can pay a lot more, but it probably isn't necessary for normal backpacking activity.  External frame packs tend to be cheaper than internal frames because of the extensive sewing and reinforcement necessary for internal frames to carry the same volume and weight.  At the lower price end of this range are some JanSports models.  In the intermediate range you might find Kelty, Eureka.  Gregory, and North Face.  Some Lowe models are considered premier packs—and command a premier prices—and are probably too premier for all but the most serious backpackers.  I would defer your purchase until you determine how serious you are about backpacking and have had first hand experienced with several types so you can better assess your wants and needs.  A few good sources to look at include (but certainly not limited to):

Don't buy on impulse.  Local stores offer fine selections, but prices can vary immensely so be prepared to spend some time doing price comparisons.  Stores often have special prices on last year models, floor models, and returned-for-repair items (look for ones with a guarantee).  Some examples from Fall 2008 catalogs are shown below.

Source Brand Model (cu. in.) Style Condition Price
Campmor Kelty Yukon Youth (2900) External New $89.99 (Sale)
Campmor Kelty Trekker (3950) External New $109.99 (Sale)
Campmor Kelty Super Tioga (4900) External New $139.97 (Sale)
Campmor JanSport Klamath 85 (5200) Internal New $109.99
Outdoor Outlet Lowe Alpine Appalachian (4900) Internal New $129.99 (Sale)
Outdoor Outlet Kelty Junior Tioga (2050) External New $99.99
Outdoor Outlet Kelty Yukon (2900) External New $109.99
Outdoor Outlet Kelty Trekker (3950) External New $139.99