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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Backpack Buying Guide

When shopping for a pack, there are four major things to consider: type, fit, capacity, and features. In this guide, gear editor Kristin Hostetter shows you how to pick the right one for you.

by: Kristin Hostetter, Illustrations by Supercorn

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External Frame Backpacks
Also used for big, heavy loads, these packs are best for walking on trails (as opposed to skiing, climbing or bushwhacking). That's because the packbag is hung off a simple exterior frame, so the load is positioned farther away from your back. And though this might result in a wobble-fest for climbers or skiers, trail walkers who carry big loads often love them. (Tip: Use hiking poles for stability.)

External frame packs have a higher center of gravity than internal frame packs, which has two advantages: It gives excellent weight transfer to the hips and it allows you to walk with a more upright posture (with big internals you have to lean forward to counterbalance the load). Plus, they offer lots of airflow between the pack and your back, great for long, sweaty days on the Appalachian Trail or anywhere that heat is a factor.

Externals are known for their plentiful pockets and ultimate trail-livability, but there are still a few tricks to loading them.

Backpacker Tip: Loading an External Frame Backpack
  • Most externals assume that you'll strap your sleeping bag outside and under the packbag. That's why it's absolutely critical that you store your bag in a completely waterproof stuffsack. (Tip: External frame-pack wearers are rolling the dice if they rely on garbage bags for water protection. Walk too close to a branch and you're sleeping on a sponge. Spend a few extra bucks and get a waterproof sack with a roll-top closure.)
  • Heavier gear (like your food and tent) belong higher up on the frame, but still close to your spine.
  • Use any available side or front pockets to organize your gear. This allows you to skip the stuffsacks and save a few ounces.

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Reader Rating: -


Mar 01, 2011

I'm a fairly new wilderness instructor. I've been in the field about 9 months. I carry a very light, 50 liter pack. I have everything I need for my personal needs. And can fit some shared staff gear in there. But I'm wondering if I should get a 65 liter pack? The reason is that as I grow in the field, I feel that I should be more self- sufficient and be prepared for whatever situation I come to. And also, because I spend so much time backpacking, it would be nice to have a few more luxury items, like a pillow! Any thoughts? Anyone out there have strong reasons for why a guide shouldn't be a lightweight? Or vise-versa- why a guide should be? thanks!

Feb 24, 2011

A week long pack should not be any bigger than 65 liters.

Eugene Colucci
Feb 22, 2011

Let me guess: You're male, between 19 and 38 years old (inclusive), 5'10" to 6'4" tall (inclusive), and weigh in the range of 170 to 220 pounds. In other words, you're a young or relatively young strapping man. It's almost always the topmost physically fit who have no problems carrying 40, 50, or more pounds in a rucksack (frameless pack). For the vast majority of the rest of us however, that is not the case.

As for where to shed weight, that argument has been raging for decades, and I'm not sure everyone ever will agree. Pack, tent, and sleeping gear are the three heaviest items people tend to carry if you don't count food, water, and clothing. Then again, I've seen some people stow enough kitchen hardware in their packs to start their own food-shopping channel.

Okay, let's assume you're going on an overnight or weekend trip so that you don't need a lot of food, clothing, water, and so on. Personally, I don't want to skimp on my backpack because it carries everything else, and I need it not to fail, or I'm potentially screwed. Also since I am not a young strapping male, I don't want my shoulders and/or back to be misshapen at the conclusion of my trip. I also don't want to skimp on my tent although these days (as opposed to say, 40 years ago)--assuming a person can afford it--there are numerous options for high quality, high strength, and relatively low weight shelters both in single-wall and double-wall variations. Sleeping gear probably is the easiest "major ticket item" for which to reduce weight, but even this depends on where you intend to sleep the night. Sleeping on a bed of pine needles pretty much negates the need for a sleeping pad, but I doubt many of us would forgo a pad if we planned to spend the night on rock. Still, opting for a down rather than synthetic bag can in itself shave as much as a couple pounds (or more). However, down is significantly costlier so there is that nasty "expensive" factor again.

Where can a person shave weight without going broke? I am not going to solve an argument that has been raging decades, but for what it's worth, one place I shave weight is by not carrying kitchen equipment. I eat the same food pretty much all the time. If it's not a piece of fruit or something I can eat out of a bag without requiring heating or cooking, I don't carry it.

Another place I save weight is in clothing. I used to swear by synthetics, but about 10 years ago, I began switching to Merino wool and now swear by it. It weighs a little more but--with a little care--wears at least as well as most if not all synthetics, breathes as well, doesn't absorb much moisture, isn't as inviting to bacteria (as most synthetics), and doesn't retain odors so one set of wool clothing now takes the place of two or more sets of synthetics. Wool tends to be pricier per article of clothing, but if you purchase and carry less clothing as a result (of not needing as many pieces), the overall cost also is less. I could go on, but I probably already angered enough people.... :-)

Dad of 5
Feb 22, 2011

It's no wonder that 85% of folks hiking the Appalachian Trail drop out in the first 200 miles when 'experts' are still advocating that week-long packs exceed 4000 cu in in size. Yikes! Has the lightweight revolution not caught up to the folks at Backpacker magazine?

Shawn Hill
Feb 22, 2011

Backpacks fall into more than 3 categories. Or maybe its more of blurring of the supposed defined line between day packs and internal frame packs.

This growing segment, typically named "frameless backpacks" including such popular offerings as Golite's Pinnacle and Jam packs which have many features of daypacks yet can carry far greater loads up to and including 4500 cu in comfortably. The packs themselves have considerably less structure to them and fewer "bells and whistles" than traditional internal frame packs but offer a huge weight savings over internal frame packs. If you are looking to cut your weight than look to the big 3: your tent, your sleeping bag and your pack. I personally shed nearly 5lbs of weight just by switching from an internal pack to my Golite Pinnacle pack and I'll never go back, and my body appreciates it!


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