How To Buy A Backpack


The keys to buying a backpack are fit and capacity. While fit should be determined by your body type, capacity (the types and amount of gear a pack is capable of carrying) should depend on intended use and length of trip. Here is what to look for to determine what backpack is right for you.

First of all, there is no such thing as the perfect backpack for all activities. If you are serious about Hiking or other Outdoor Activities then you will probably end up buying multiple backpacks, each targetted at a specific activity and trip durations. You will first have to determine what volume you need to be able to bring the things you will need for your hike. Overloading a small backpack by connecting equipment at the outside of the pack is a bad solution as it disturbs the center of mass and the load distribution. You should determine your needed volume for internal storage inside the backpack.The general rule is that the heavier the load you will have to carry, the more technical features your backpack should have. Take a good look at our list of the different backpack features. For heavier loads, you will definitely need a hip belt and the combined workings and adjustability of the shoulder harness, sternum strap, and the stabilizer straps.

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Six Steps to a Great Fit

Once you've selected a pack with the right Torso length and hipbelt size, you need to get properly fitted. REI's pack-fitting experts recommend these steps to help you enjoy a comfortable fit every time.

With all straps loosened, place hipbelt directly over your hip bones and tighten it.

  1. Snug shoulder straps just enough so that they are not bearing weight.
  2. Snug load-lifter straps so that weight is off of your shoulders.
  3. Adjust sternum strap to a comfortable height across your chest.
  4. Adjust load stabilizer straps along sides of hipbelt to bring load closer to your back.
  5. Go back and loosen shoulder straps to take some tension off of them.

Backpack Fitting


Your goal is to have 80% to 90% of the load weight resting on your hips. To achieve this, start by putting about 10 to 15 lbs. of weight into the pack to simulate a loaded pack. Follow the steps below in front of a mirror. Get a friend to help if possible, or visit an REI store for more assistance.

Step 1: Hipbelt
  • First make sure all the pack's straps and hipbelt are loosened.
  • Put the pack on your back so that the hipbelt is resting over your hip bones.
  • Close the hipbelt buckle and tighten it.
  • Check the padded sections of the hipbelt to make sure they wrap around your hips comfortably. Keep at least 1" of clearance on either side of the center buckle.
  • Note: If the hipbelt is too loose or tight, try repositioning the buckle pieces on the hipbelt straps. If this doesn't solve the problem, you may need a different pack (or hipbelt).
Step 2: Shoulder Straps
  • Pull down and back on the ends of the shoulder straps to tighten them.
  • Shoulder straps should fit closely and wrap over and around your shoulder, holding the pack body against your back. They should NOT be carrying the weight.
  • Have your helper check to see that the shoulder strap anchor points are 1" to 2" inches below the top of your shoulders.
Step 3: Load Lifters
  • Load-lifter straps are located just below the tops of your shoulders (near your collarbones) and should angle back toward the pack body at a 45°.
  • Gently snug the load-lifter straps to pull weight off your shoulders. (Overtightening the load lifters will cause a gap to form between your shoulders and the shoulder straps.)
Step 4: Sternum Strap
  • Adjust the sternum strap to a comfortable height across your chest.
  • Buckle the sternum strap and tighten until the shoulder straps are pulled in comfortably from your shoulders, allowing your arms to move freely.
Step 5: Stabilizer Straps
  • Pull the stabilizer straps located on either side of the hipbelt to snug the pack body toward the hipbelt and stabilize the load.
Step 6: Final Tweak
  • Go back to the shoulder straps and carefully take a bit of tension off of them. Now you're ready to go!
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Types of Backpacks

Backpacks come in different sizes, styles, colors, materials and available features. Many backpacks have been developed for specific use and have many different features. Knowing the basic Backpack Types are a step in the right direction for Choosing the Correct Backpack for you or for your need. Generally speaking, backpacks can be divided into the following categories:

Waist PackWaist Packs / Hip Packs / Fanny Packs / Lumbar Packs (Up to 610 Cubic inches)
These are not officially backpacks but they can replace your traditional backpacks for smaller day hikes. The simplest versions consist of just a pouch and belts. The pouch and the weight of the waist pack is located in the curve of your spine near your center of balance. This makes these packs very easy to carry as they put virtually no strain on your body. Some more advanced versions feature shoulder yokes that increase the stability and maximum load. Waist packs that are overloaded will start to sag at which time you are better off moving to a day pack. A typical waist pack has side pockets where you can keep your drinking bottles for easy access.
Hydration PackHydration Packs (Up to 610 Cubic inches)
Hydration Packs consist of a bladder with a drinking tube around which the actual backpack has been built up. Some hydration packs consist only of the bladder and some shoulder straps while others might have a casing and side pockets which make them real backpacks. Larger backpacks generally do not have a fixed bladder but have a special compartment to facilitate the insertion of a bladder and have a hole for the drinking tube. Camelbak is one of the best known producers of hydration packs.
Day PackDay Packs (915 - 2,135 Cubic Inches)
The name Day Pack already gives away its intended use: Day Hikes. Day Packs are typically small-sized backpacks with shoulder straps and no hip belt. Some day packs might have a chest strap to keep your shoulders from being pulled back by the weight of the pack. As the day pack increases in size and expected load, the necessity for a hip belt increases and some larger day packs feature smaller hip belts.
Nidsize BackpackMidsize Packs (2,135 - 4,577 Cubic Inches)
Throughout the years, improved technology has caused Hiking Equipment to reduce both in volume and weight. This has resulted in a need for midsize packs that can be used for multi-day hikes with a small inventory. These smaller packs are also ideal for people who go on day hikes but want to carry a lot of stuff like cameras or books. Midsize packs will mostly have all the features of expedition packs which are handled next.
Expedition BackpacksExpedition Backpacks (3,660 - 6,600 Cubic Inches or even bigger)
As your need to carry equipment increases so will the size of your backpack. Full-sized Expedition Backpacks can carry enough gear to keep you on the trail for weeks. Expedition packs use a broad hip belt to redirect the weight to the hips instead of the shoulders. A lumbar pad protects the base of the spine from the added stress of a heavier pack. The heavier the pack, the more important its balance and snug fit become.
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Backpack Parts

Internal or External Frames
Front of Backpack with parts labeledIn larger backpacks a sturdy frame structure gives better support. In the old days most larger backpacks had external aluminum tubing as frames that could be seen from the outside of the backpack. Nowadays most backpacks have internal frames hidden in the fabric sheaths that consist of a combination of tough but lightweight materials.
Shoulder Harness
Back of Backpack with parts labeledA general rule for the shoulder harness is that the number of technical features increases as the load increases. Simple shoulder straps will do for lighter loads but for heavier loads go for curved, broader and more padded shoulder straps that prevent the straps from cutting into your shoulders. Look for a Chest/Sternum Strap that help prevent your shoulders from being pulled back and further help to distribute the load. Look for upper stabilizer straps.
Chest Strap
These straps are often connected across your chest using a clip-lock. By connecting and tightening them you prevent your backpack from pulling your shoulders back.
Waist Belt
A waist belt is the way to move the strain of a backpack from your shoulders down to your hips and closer to your center of gravity. All people will find that a waist belt helps to make a backpack's load more bearable. However, it differs per person when a waist belts become a necessity. As the weight load increases the effectiveness of the waist belt becomes more important. Look for a waist belt that goes full circle under the lumbar pad and not just side straps from the base of the backpack. Make sure the waist belt has soft and broad padding to avoid pressure points that could quickly become very painful. Heavier loads will cause the waist belt to slide down so look for high-friction fabrics.
Inner and outer pockets allow for a better seperation of your provisions, gear and other backpack contents. Outer Pockets are mostly used for items that have to be available while Hiking. Outer Pockets should not be over weighted to prevent a shift in center of mass.
Many backpacks have either built in water bladders (hydration packs) or have a special pocket for a water bladder and a hole to facilitate the drinking tube.
Rain Cover
Backpacks are generally not 100% waterproof so some backpacks have a built in or seperate splash cover which is basically a waterproof cover that you can use to cover your entire backpack. It effectively places your backpack in a waterproof bubble. This feature is very handy during rain storms, to cross rivers and to keep your backpack protected from dew during nights.
Spindrift Collar
Most larger backpacks have a top compartement which can be flipped backwards to give access to the backpack's inside pockets. Access to the backpack is protected by the spindrift collar which is a large cover that can be shut with a drawstring
Equipment Straps
Most backpacks have either bungee cords or equipment straps or a combination of the both that provide you with the means to fix equipement to the outside of the backpack. Hiking Poles, Ice Axes and Crampons and good examples of gear that can often be attached to the outside of your backpack.
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Pack styles and uses

The more weight you carry, the more supportive your pack needs to be.

Internal frame

External frame

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Daypacks are ideal for carrying light loads over short distances.



Sport specific packs

Many daypacks have sport-specific features to accommodate specialized equipment.

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Hydration packs

Hydration packs are designed to provide an ample supply of water while you're on the move.

Styles and uses


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What to look for

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The capacity of a backpack is measured in cubic inches. The size you need depends on what you'll be doing and the amount and type of gear you want to carry.

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Fitting tips

Detailed "How to fit a backpack"

Your height has little bearing on what size pack you should wear; it's your torso length that matters.

Determining your proper pack size

Torso Diagram

Determining your hip belt size

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