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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.
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What size pack do you really need? Get a pack that’s too big and you’ll be sure to fill it with non-essential junk and end up tired and sore. But go too small, and you might not be able to fit the stuff you do need, like safety gear.

Backpack sizes are listed either in cubic inches or liters, which can make comparison-shopping a bit tricky, especially for online shoppers who aren’t able to actually see the packs before they buy. That’s why we’ve done the conversions and broken it all down for you. The below lists are very general rules of thumb, and will depend on the sizes of the items you’re packing, of course.

Size: Less than 2,500 cubic inches or 40 liters
Will hold:

  • Water
  • Lunch and snacks
  • Camera
  • Shell and/or warm layer
  • Several trinkets like emergency kit, small first aid kit, GPS

Weekend Packs
Size: 2,500 to 3,999 cubic inches or 40 to 65 liters
Will hold: All of the above, plus:

  • Small tent
  • Sleeping bag and pad
  • Ultralight stove and cook kit
  • A few more clothing items
  • A weekend’s worth of meals

Weeklong Packs
Size: 4,000 to 5,999 cubic inches or 65 to 95 liters
Will hold: All of the above, plus:

  • Extra food, fuel and kitchen gear
  • A few luxury items like camp chair, camp shoes, pillow
  • A bigger tent
  • A warmer sleeping bag and cushier sleeping pad

Expedition Packs
Size: Greater than 6,000 cubic inches or 95 liters
Will hold: Winter-worthy versions of all of the above, plus:

  • Mountaineering gear
  • Bear canisters (essential for carrying food in bear country)
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