Backpack and Daypack Recommendations

Part of Recommended Outdoor Gear by Mark Verber

Sections in this document:

Backpacks for Overnights  (and longer)

Choosing a backpack can be tricky, especially for someone who is just starting out.  You need to know what you are carrying  to choose the right pack, but if you are just starting out you don't know what you are going to be carrying.  The best suggestion I can make is figure out what sort of trips you expect to take (duration & conditions), and what backpacking style you will use (ultra-light, light weight, hut2hut / hostelling, medium/heavy weight).  This information will give you a good starting point.  For experienced packers, I would suggest bring all your gear in a duffel bag and try packs using your stuff rather than simulated weights.

What you are carrying effects how much volume you will need, and how substantial the suspension system needs to be. I typically tell people don't get a pack that's larger "just in case you need more room", this will only encourage you to bring too much stuff, will be heavier, and  more ungainly.  If anything, you want a pack which is slightly smaller than you need.  It is likely that over time you will find the weight and volume of your gear will go down, and the slightly too small pack becomes just right.  In the mean time, use a stuff sack which you attach to the outside of your pack with straps or under the top lid to hold the items that don't fit inside the pack.  As your food goes down move the items into your pack.

Beside the backpack being able to hold everything you need it to, the most important thing is to find the pack which is comfortable when holding the load you plan on carrying. The first issue is that the pack needs to fit you well. A great pack which is poorly fit can be more uncomfortable that a cheap pack which fits you. There is a nice video made by REI about adjusting backpack fit which will give you a good idea of what to look for. One caviet, if you are looking at packs without load lifters, or where the load lifted doesn't attach to the frame, you want the shoulder strap anchors to be slight above the shoulder top rather than slightly below. Ideally, you should go to a outdoor outfitter that employs experienced backpackers or climbers who can help you get a good fit.  Note: many of the larger outdoor stores employee people who do not have significant experience backpacking and climbing.  Make sure the person who is helping you actually knows what they are talking about. The first step to select a pack which has the the right torso length.  Typically you measure from the seventh vertebrae to the small of your back and see what size pack the manufacture suggestions.  You should place weight in the pack to simulate the sort of load you expect to carry and give it a try.  But this is not always strait-forward since packs have multiple adjustments.  That's why it is important to go somewhere that has experience sales personnel.  Finally, check with local stores to find out if it is possible to rent the pack you like for a weekend or has a great return policy like REI.  This could save you from buying a pack which seemed good in the showroom but isn't comfortable after a hard day of use.

I can't stress enough how important getting a comfortable backpack can be.  Other than your footwear, no other piece of gear is as likely to ruin a fun trip than a backpack which isn't comfortable.  My experience is that a well fitting backpack carries 20 lbs so well that I can actually forget that I am carrying a pack, and that I can carry 40 lbs+ for days without any shoulders or hip soreness or pain.  Do not scrimp on your pack.  Get a pack which is comfortable for you.

If you are looking for a pack for european backpacking / trekking, where you are going from hut to hut, or hostel to hostel, you might want to look at my notes about packing light for travel.

Internal -vs- External Frame Packs

There has been a debate running since at least the 1970s as to whether internal or external frame packs are better.  I doubt this debate will ever end. My observations are as follows:

Internal Frame Packs:  These days most people seem to use internal frame packs.  An internal frame pack uses foam, plastic, metal, and/or carbon fiber which is  located inside the pack to give the pack structure and effectively transfer weight to the hip strap.  Advantages are that internal frame packs tend to be easier to balance since they are closer to your body and are less likely to get snared on things if you are climbing or going cross country.  The downside is that your back doesn't get much ventilation. 

External Frame Packs:  What nearly everyone used 1960-1980.  External frame packs typically have a ridged  metal or plastic frame which has shoulder and waist straps on one side to allow you to carry the pack, and some sort of bag on the other side to hold your stuff. These packs are good for hauling large amounts of gear.  They also tend to be better in hot weather because they can provide better ventilation for your back, provide lots of pockets to make organizing your gear easier, and allow you to secure gear against the frame to minimize shifting of your heavier gear.  External frame packs also tend to be more adjustable so they are good for people who are growing of as packs which get used by a number of people of variable size. Over the years I have had a number of external frame packs including the original Kelty Tioga and a JanSport D2, but I never managed to find one which was really comfortable for more than 10 miles.  On the other hand, there are many people who absolutely love their external frame pack. Don't "upgrade" you old external frame pack if it is working well for you. I have met a number of people who were convinced to get rid of their external frame packs and get a "modern" internal frame pack only to find that they liked their old pack better and then were unable to find a comparable external frame pack on the market.  They ended up hunting on ebay for a pack just like the one they gave away a few months earlier.  Most external frame packs are quite heavy, but there are a few that are quite light.   Some people save weight by replacing the heavy fabric pack bag with light weight stuff sacks. This is described on Brawny's The Packless Pack System webpage.

Durability & Materials

I have seen many people (including myself) obsess on pack durability. We have all heard about, or seen packs fail in the back country and we don't want this to happen to us. All the catastrophic failures I have seem stem from poorly constructed packs made from mediocre materials. Often these packs came from big box discount stores. Most often, I have seen their seams rip out. For people doing trail hiking, a well constructed pack made from even light weight materials like sil-nylon will be sufficiently durable.  If your pack does run into something, it can typically be repaired with some tape (duct, gorilla, etc). I know several people who have thousands on miles on ultralight sil-nylon backpacks that weight less than 1lb. Some light weight packs use mesh pockets which are fairly prone to damage. If you are concerned about long term durability, especially if you go off trail sometimes, I would recommend fabric pockets. Climbers and people who spend the majority of their time bushwacking are justified in concerns about durability. They face a lot more wear and tear than a trail hiker.

If durability is your top issue, then 100% spectra is likely the way to go, but you pay a 2-3x premium for this. Next up would Dyneema and Dyneema X which mix of nylon and spectra threads.  Most of the companies that make 100% spectra packs are oriented to climbers like McHale Packs and WildThings. Also interesting is Dimension Polyant (used in the old Mountainsmith Ghost) and 1.5oz cuben being used by Zpacks. Joe has a video showing the tear strength of 1.5oz cuben. Finally there is the old standby Cordora, which tends to be heavier, but also cheaper than the other materials listed here.

What Backpacks I Use

Since I started backpacking in the 1970s I have taken at least eighteen backpack out for at least 60 miles each. I have checked out numerous other packs in a more brief manner. Out of all those packs, I have chosen to keep two. The Gossamer Gear Gorilla Pack has become my go-to pack for most trips. Actually I own two, the first version which is a loaner pack, the the 2012 version which is what I use on most trips. My other pack is a first generation Osprey Aether 60. I haven't used the Aether 60 myself since 2005, but it has worked out well as a loaner because of it's highly adjustable torso length, high carry comfort, and reasonable volume.

Ultra-light Style (Frameless)

I would not recommend novice to start out using an ultra-light style unless you are going some place with mild conditions.  There are skills which need to be developed to be safe and it takes some practice to figure out what you should take and what you can leave behind.  Ultra-light packing is minimizing absolutely everything and relies on effective use of technique to keep you comfortable and safe.  Ultra-light backpacks are frameless rucksacks (think high volume book bag) made out of a light-weight fabric.  The philosophy is that if you aren't carrying too much weight, you don't need a frame or super heavy fabric... make the backpack as light as possible and save up to 6 lb as compared to heavy weight backpacks. Some people swear frameless backpacks are the most comfortable way to carry <30lb of weight.  For me, 14lb is the cutover for most ultra-light packs.  I have found that I would rather carry a 16 lb pack with a frame, than a 14 lb pack without a frame. The general run of thumb is frameless packs are great up to 20lbs, +/-5lb given individual preferences.  I would never use a ultra-light pack with more than 30 lb because the lack of a frame makes load transfer to your hips inefficient resulting in most of the pack weight being carried by your shoulders.  Ultra-light backpacks typically use the combination of a sleeping pad and tight packing to provide a suspension.  For more information about how this works, take a look at BPL's For a more analytical analysis of the effectiveness of frameless pack suspensions, check out  Frameless Backpacks Engineering Analysis which looks at how much the pack collapses as weight is added to it.

Ultralight packers tend to carry packs weighting 10-15 lbs and will likely be ~1800cu/in for weekend trips.  Week long without resupply you want a pack which has ~2600cu/in and can carry 20-25 lbs.  If you are in locations without good water supplies, you will need to carry significantly more weight and volume and should seriously consider a light weight pack. My experience is that ultra-light packs aren't for everyone.

There are a number of companies which make high quality ultra light packs which I would recommend including Elemental Horizons, GoLite, Gossamer Gear (formerly GVP), Hyper Mountain Gear, MLD, and ZPacks. All of these companies produce high quality frameless packs. Some of these packs also offer removable stays which allow them to carry heavier weights comfortably. If you aren't finding what your are looking for from one of these companies you might want to get a custom zimmerbuilt pack BPL has released the frameless pack state of the market (2011). There was a Frameless Pack Review Summary (2004) and a Superultralight backpacks Review (2006) that you might find useful if you are looking at older packs. After trying numerous frameless packs, I came to the conclusion  that I would happily pay a 1lb weight penalty to get a framesheet or curves stays because I found packs with light weight frames significantly more comfortable than packs that merely used tight packs and foam sleeping pads for their suspension.

In many of my recommended pages I list specific models. I am not going to list any specific models, because all of the minimalist ultralight packs I have experience will are no longer made.

The following are packs that I think are interesting from a historical perspective:

Light Weight Style

Light weight packers carefully select light weight gear, and don't take a lot of luxury items... the luxury is carrying a light pack that isn't fatiguing.  I would recommend anyone starting out to follow a light weight style.  As a light weight packer you optimizes for carry comfort like an ultra-light packer, but you bring a little extra gear to give larger safety margins and more comfort in camp. Weekend pack should carry 15-25 lbs and have ~2600cu/in.  Week long trips without resupply you want a pack which has ~3600cu/in and can carry 25-40 lbs.  Light weight packs are also great for people who are otherwise ultra-light packers who want to have a bit more carry comfort or need to carry a fair amount of food or water in addition to their ultra-light gear (this is me). Light-weight packs typically weight between 1.5-3 lbs.  BPL.com has a nice summary of light weight internal frame packs (2004) and a light weight, heavy loads (2008) market survey. It would also be useful to look at their frameless pack state of the market (2011) which looks as several packs which have removable stays which make them useful to lightweight style backpackers. Packs I would recommend looking at:

There are a number of light weight internal frame packs which merit attention including:

Discountinued but Noteworthy

Mid-weight Style

Mid-weight packers are the most common / main-stream.  You select standard backpacking equipment and take enough gear to feel that you will be safe in comfortable in a wide range of conditions.  Weekend pack should carry 30-40 lbs and have ~3500 cu/in worth of space.  Week long trips without resupply means that you want a pack which carries holds 40-50 lbs and ~4800cu/in.  Mid-weight packs tend to be 3-5lbs.  Boy Scouts tend to have a mid-weight approach.

Mid-weight style packers can use light-weight style packs for shorter trips, but if you are going for a week+ a larger and more structurally sound pack should be used.  For 40lb+ plus loads I have tried packs by Granite Gear, Gregory, Osprey and ArcTeryx. I have liked most of the Osprey packs I have tried (except the Exposure for some reason), Gregory where generally ok, and there is something about most of the ArcTeryx that just doesn't work for me, though many people see to love them. I know a number of people who really like the external frame packs made by JanSport and Kelty (they also made a number of internal frame packs... none of which stand out as particulary remarkable). I have not looked at this class of pack in great detail in a number of years, though I have tried several packs recently. If I was asked to recommend a mid-weight pack I would recommend first trying:

Historical Packs (now discontinued)

Heavy-weight

Heavy weight style is when you bring whatever you are going an for an extended period of time without resupply or foraging, or if you are looking for maximum comfort for the camping or activity part of the trip (at the expense of the hiking being comfortable).  Serious camera gear, comfy camp chairs, lots of climbing gear for an extremely technical assault, wine in glass bottles, etc.  For a heavy weight, weekend pack should be able to carry 40-50 lbs and has ~5000cu/in.  Week long without resupply you want a pack which has at least 7000cu/in and can carry 70-80 lbs.  Heavy weight packs often weight more than 6lbs!

I know a number of people who carry very heavy load who swear by McHale Packs, Dana Design Packs,  Arc'Teryx Bora 95, and Mystery Ranch packs, but I have no personal experience carrying huge weights in any of these packs.  I used to carry these sorts of weights in external frame packs.  I am glad I don't do this anymore.

Summit Packs

Summit packs are used to reach the summit of a nearby mountain, often during a multi-day trek. Typically a base camp is made and the majority of the gear carried to that point is left behind  for the assault on the summit. There are a number of ways to carry your gear to a summit:

Daypacks

There are countless daypacks on the market these days. Some people use daypack for fast and light over night trips. There are three factors which should be considered when selecting a daypack.

Volume/Haul Capacity: Packs vary wildly in the size, shape, and what sort of weight that are designed to carry. My suggestion would be to take a few minutes and think about what you want to carry in pack, and then find a pack which fits those items. I often bring the items I want to carry to the store in a duffel bag, and then load up the packs I am thinking about with the items I plan on carrying. If a pack isn't big enough for the items you want to carry it isn't going to be that useful. If it is much larger, it will encourage you to carry more than you want or need (we all seem compelled to fill packs up, even if we don't need to).  My experience is that a 20L (1200cu/in) pack will hold a light jacket, a book or two, a small camera, a water bottle, and a few small items.  When traveling with my wife and daughter I have found that a 30L (1800ci) pack works pretty well for day activities, or 40L (2400ci) if I am bring for family items plus a full size DSLR, and number of lens protected by Domke wraps.

Comfort / Fit: If the pack isn't comfortable you will have a miserable time. It is important to find a pack which fits you well. This is especially true for daypacks since they tend not to be adjustable. I have found that many daypacks are too short for my torso and become uncomfortable after a number of miles. My wife who is quite short has found many daypacks are too long for her torso, likewise uncomfortable. Besides fit, other factors which effect comfort include what sort of padding / ventilation the pack provides, what sort of shoulder strap / waist straps the pack has, etc. Another issue is what is the suspension like. Is it a frameless pack (which most daypacks are), have a foam frame sheet, stays, etc? Depending on what you are carrying the suspension could make a big difference in comfort. My best suggestion here is go to a local outdoors store and try on a number of packs which have been loaded an equiv weight / bulk that you expect to carry for your activities.

Features: Various activities require different features. The question I would encourage you to ask is what is the set of activities I want to use this pack for. For example, if you are doing some back country skiing you will want lash points for the skiing a loop for an ice axe, and maybe a pocket for a shovel. If you are trail running you most likely want a hydration system (you might want this for all activities). If you use crampons a lot, you would want an extra durable patch were you lash your crampons on. If you have lots of small objects that you want to find easily you will want a pack with a number of pockets and a divide main section. Do you want easy access to all items then go with a panel loading pack or do you favor a more durable and lighter pack in what case go with a top loading pack. Do you want a fully padded hip strap for carrying extra heavy weight, or a simple webbing strap. I could go on... but I think you get the idea.

When I think about daypacks, I typically think daypacks fall into five different categories.

"Standard" Daypack: There are hundreds of "standard" daypacks in the marketplace. Most hold around 1500-2500 cu/in and weight betwen 2-4lbs. Most day packs are overbuild making use of extra heavy duty materials, lots of zippers and features, and thick padding which is normally not required for comfort. My favorite "standard" daypack was the Eagle Creek Bedouin which is no longer made (sigh). One thing I really liked was that there was a divider between the top and the bottom of the pack which could be unzipped. I have found this seperation was more useful that having several sections of a daypack which go from top to bottom. Alas, I don't know many daypacks that are built this way. It seems like companies are constantly change daypacks in this category, so I wouldn't suggest any specific models since by the time someone reads this changes will have happened. I will note that in this category I would be looking for something that is 10-20l and weights less than 1.5lb. Day packs don't need to be expensive.

Ventilated Daypack: Yet another product of German engineering, ventilated daypacks appeared several years ago. They use a light weight frame which keeps a mesh panel taut against the wearers back enabling good ventilation. The VauDe Siena 40 Daypack (my review) now discontinued, is my favorite pack of this type. Today, I typically use a Vaude Wizard Air 30+4 which we got on sale at STP. There are a number of companies that make good ventilated daypacks. Besides Vaude I would look at the Deuter (especially the daypacks using their Advanced Aircomfort suspension system) Osprey (the Aura/Atmos, Sirrus/Stratos, and Exos lines), and The North Face Alteo line.

Packable Daypack: Typically ~1000cu/in, 5-10oz backpack made of light-weight nylon with no padding. Often folds up into it's own pocket. Appropriate to carry a few pounds of stuff such as a light jacket, a cliff bar or two, a paperback, a small water bottle, and a point and shoot camera. There is nothing that gives these pack structure so you have to pack them carefully for them to be comfortable. A number of companies makes these sort of bags. Most aren't that comfortable to carry for more than a couple of miles. In the past, Kiva Designs made a nice little pack called the Kiva Pico Jazz Pack which I think has be replaced with a model I haven't looked at. There are a number of other travel oriented companies like Eagle Creek that make folding backpacks. Another options would be stuff sack / shoulder strap packs like the REI Ultralight Flash, Outdoor Research DryComp, or stuff sack / packs made by Oware. If you want to be carrying more stuff  such as insulating clothing, lots of food, a larger camera... a standard daypack size of around 2000cu/in is an appropriate size. I would suggest checking out one of the small volume ultralight packs listed above. If none of these suit you, design a custom pack and make it yourself or get someone like Moonbow. A slight variation of the packable daypack is the packable couriser style bag. I often find these more comfortable than the backpacks because they don't depend so much on fit. While not as minimalist as so, I am very fond of the Patagonia Ultralight Courier I got several years ago. The model I have is no longer made, but I believe Patagonia continues to make a bag like it.

Technical Daypack: Highly variable in weight and volume depending on the sport they are design for. The most common technical daypacks are designed for climbing (heavy duty materials, strong haul loops, etc), adventure racing / trail running (close fitting suspension system with good hydration capacity), and snow play (durable patch for carrying crampons, ice tool holders, straps to hold skis, etc). My favorite technical daypack today is the Osprey Talon 33.

Hydration Packs: Minimalist packs design to carry nothing but water, first popularized by CamelBak. I have never used any of these very purpose driven water packs. A lot of packs labeled "Hydration packs" and really basic daypack with a couple of features to make them hydration system friendly: a nylon sleeve to hold the water bladder near your back and some short of hole which lets you pass the drink tube to the outside. Pretty much any daypack can be fit with hydration system.

Packs for Kids

The general rule of thumb is that people shouldn't carry more than 1/4 of their body weight. That means that a 60 pound child shouldn't be carrying more than a 15 pound pack for an extended period of time, a 100 pound child shouldn't be carrying more than 25 pound pack for an extended period of time. I think this is still a pretty heavy load for kids, ideally they should carry less. Our goal for around 12% of body weight.

There are a number of factors which effect selection a pack for kids which aren't a factor for adults:

Daypacks:  For very young children, Eagle Creek made a really great daypack, but it has been off the market for awhile.  Hopefully Eagle Creek will start making this pack again. There are countless day pack / book bags available for kids today. A florescent Barbie or shockingly bright Barney backpack might not blend into the back country, but there isn't really a need to buy a special pack for hiking... use whatever backpack goes to and from school since they are already use to carrying that pack. In fact, kids might be happier with the bright color backpack, and you might as well since they are easier for you to see. I was very amused early on beause my daughter didn't care about any of her gear other than it's color. Originally she really liked "Red".If you wanted to purchase a purpose driven daypack, I would suggest the CamelBak Scout or look at the kid's hydration packs at REI.

Backpacks: For smaller kids, there are only a few pack which have a torso short enough, a waist strap which can be tightened enough, and has enough volume for all their gear (need at least 1800ci).  For example, 1850ci has just enough room inside it for a North Face Tigger sleeping bag, a Big Agnes Insulated AirCore mummy sleeping pad, a 1L platypus, and all my daughter's clothing, a favorite cuddly, her clothing  for a three season trip, eating utensils, toiletry kit and flashlight. Even more volume would be required if the kids is fully self supporting or carrying their fair share of group gear and food. I realize that adult ultralight backpackers can easily get down below this volume, but most kids gear will be higher volume because items like kid size 800 fill down sleeping bags are not a good investment. Most kids will not be as careful as adults, and items have a limited lifetime because the children will grow. It makes sense to purchase less expensive items such as sleeping bags made using synthetic insulation.

For young kids (say <11y) I would suggest checking out the following packs:

For average size children older than 11 years old  I would also consider Light-weight packs detailed above for that have short torso models including any of the Granite Gear packs, LuxuryLite pack, Six Moon Designs StarLite, Osprey Atmos, or packs from ULA equipment.  Other packs that would be worth looking into include:

You might find other options at Boy Scouts Stuff and kidsource

What I Look for In a Backpack

There is no right or wrong preferences when it comes to selecting a backpack. You will likely prioritize and value things differently than I. I am particuarly sensitive (and difficult to fit properly) because I have a moderately severe case of scoliosis. Here is what I want in a pack (in rough priority order):

in a pack, so my recommendations might point you in the wrong direction. Here is what I want in a pack (in my priority order):

Other Peoples Thoughts on Backpacks

There are lots of sites which have reviews about backpacks including:

Other Random Things

For amusement, you might want to take a look at tje lightningpacks which generates electricity as you hike.