There’s a lot to take into consideration when choosing a pack, including the type of trip you’re planning, your hiking and camping style, and how long you’ll have between resupplies.
While it might be tempting to look for a 70-liter pack with tons of features and padding, that might not be the right choice for you. Conversely, a trendy, ultralight pack that’s more akin to a shopping bag than a backpacking pack only works in very specific situations.
Over the years, I’ve experimented with every style of pack under the sun. I started my illustrious backpacking career with a 50-pound pack weight, including a backpack that weighed six pounds empty. It was slow going, and my back, knees, and hips felt the strain.
Then I swung in the opposite direction and swore off carrying pretty much anything. That was also not my style. I flopped around camp on a half-sized, closed-cell foam pad, and my shoulders ached from the minimalist pack.
Turns out I like my pack somewhere in the middle, where most people fall. I appreciate a hip belt, camp shoes, and my inflatable pillow. I save weight where it doesn’t matter to me — I never carry a stove or cook set — but I like to be comfortable at camp, so I always take a lightweight base layer to wear once I get there. My base weight is around 12-13 pounds, and I carry a 40-liter pack.
Here are the main styles of packing and backpacks, broken down into three categories for simplicity’s sake.
Examples: Osprey Aether, Gregory Deva, REI Traverse 65
Pack capacity (estimate): 60-70 liters
Pack weight (estimate): 4-6 pounds
Best For: This size and style of pack is best for hikers with a 20-pound (or more) base weight, or who expect long water carries or significant time between resupplies.
These packs have luxurious padding, plenty of pockets for organizing gear, and spare no weight with burly buckles and attachment systems. The fabric is usually ultra-durable, and the packs often come with their own pack covers. The features typically include a zippered brain (or top lid) with a top and bottom pocket, smaller pockets, and mesh pouches for organizing small items. Hikers love the thick hip belts, load lifters, and multiple ways to adjust the suspension. These packs often include mechanisms to keep hikers’ backs cool, and do an excellent job of distributing weight.
Pros: They’re really comfortable! Plenty of organization for people carrying a lot of gear, or carrying extra items for family or group members. Also, you’ll never lose an item in your pack with all of the interior and exterior pockets.
Cons: The weight. Just carrying these packs empty can set you back five pounds or more. While part of the weight is offset by the padding and load distribution, they’re nonetheless hefty. Plus, you run the risk of overpacking simply because you have the extra space. Having a 70-liter pack doesn’t mean you need to carry 70 liters worth of gear, but it certainly makes it tempting.
Pack capacity (estimate): 40-50L
Pack weight (estimate): 1-3 pounds
Best For: These packs are best for hikers carrying around 12-15 pounds as a base weight. These hikers are usually strategic in their gear choices, but not enough to fall into the truly ultralight category.
These packs have some amenities and extra features for comfort, but a streamlined design to save weight and materials. These packs can comfortably carry around 30 or so pounds, and often have generous hip belts and suspension options. They save weight by foregoing some organization options like top lids and zippered pockets. Some models might have less padding on the shoulder straps, and slimmer buckles and webbing. The fabric usually won’t be quite as tough as a heavier pack. Some packs in this category are made out of Dyneema, a fabric that reduces weight and helps with weather resistance but costs a pretty penny.
Pros: These packs are comfortable, distribute weight well, and you get enough features for organizing and carrying your gear without huge weight penalties. There are plenty of options for size and amenities, and brands often offer options for adding on features that don’t come with the pack.
Cons: It can also be hard to decide what features matter most to you, because you won’t be getting all of them. When I switched to this style, I had to choose between a model with a top lid and a model with hip belt pockets. Ultimately I went with the model with the hip belt pockets, but I definitely miss having a top lid.
Examples: Pa’lante Pack V2, Zpacks Arc Scout, Gossamer Gear Kumo, SWD Long Haul 40
Pack capacity (estimate): 30-40 liters
Pack weight (estimate): 1-2 pounds
Best For: Experienced hikers who have pared down their gear list to a sub- 10-pound base weight, and enjoy moving fast and light in the backcountry.
These ultralight packs are for the most experienced backpackers who don’t need a ton of at-camp or on-trail amenities. These aren’t the packs to carry if you enjoy carrying an extra set of hiking clothes, or you really can’t leave your camp shoes behind. They have a smaller capacity, often forgo extra padding, frames, or a hip belt, and are best for carrying no more than 20 or so pounds. These are sleek and simple, specialized for ultralight hikers who carry only the essentials.
Pros: Lightweight and simplified. You can’t carry more than you absolutely need on the trail. The lower weight will allow you to cover bigger miles with less strain. The smaller capacity makes it impossible to overpack. These packs are often made by smaller, cottage-industry companies with extensive, specialized backcountry experience.
Cons: You have a real weight limit here, and if you overpack, you’ll feel it. Since many of these packs either don’t have a hip belt, or it’s a simple piece of webbing, overpacking will put strain on your shoulders, which can also hurt your back.