How to Choose a Backpack?

How to Choose a Backpack?

Author: Tina Eckerlin

Maybe you are a seasoned backpacker looking for a new pack. Or perhaps, you are a new backpacker looking to purchase your first backpack?

Like most gear, your backpack needs to be as unique as you. The most important features are the size, fit, volume, and framed versus frameless. You will also need to decide what, if any bells and whistles you need.

Recently, I spent a weekend in Algonquin Park with a few friends. For one of them it was her first backpacking trip. 

We planned and went through her gear, lending what was missing.

She really wanted to get one of our Free Range ultralight packs. To be honest, I would have loved to see one of our packs on her, I know how comfortable and durable they are. The problem was that I didn't feel right. Her gear was going to be too bulky and heavy for an ultralight pack to be comfortable. I knew she had to much gear, and would be over the weight capacity. We were also loaded down with our evenings' cocktails!

I want to see everyone with a lighter load and one of our Free Range packs! But maybe, I am just a bad sales-person?

You see, when you are just starting out your gear tends to be bulkier and heavier. There is nothing wrong with this! It is actually completely normal. As you grow as a backpacker, you tend to swap out gear for lighter and more compact items. Pretty soon your gear is dialed in with exactly what you need.

An ultralight frameless pack without a weight bearing hip belt may work for some newbies, but for most it is recommended to start off with a standard framed pack with a load bearing hip belt. 

Most new hikers have base-weights  over 20 pounds (base-weight is the weight of all of your gear without food, fuel and water). Generally ultralight and lightweight packs are recommended for base-weights of 15 pounds or less.

So as a compromise, I set her up with one of my old first frameless packs. It had a larger volume capacity and a fixed and padded hip belt to bear the brunt of the weight.

We did however, shake down her gear. We went through what she really needed, switched out many items for lighter ones, ditched most of the stuff sacs and used a trash compactor bag as a pack liner. We lightened her load by quite a  few pounds.

Ultralight and lightweight backpacking is not about being as light as possible or minimal. It is about trying to lessen the weight of your pack while making sure that you have all the items you need, and repurposing as many of those items as possible.

If you a a new backpacker, take notes about what gear worked, what gear you didn't use and how to change things out in the future.

When choosing a new pack, the most important things are fit and capacity. Everything else including fabric and bells and whistles are secondary.

There are a lot of packs to choose from, so you need to determine what is right for you!

Pack Size

It doesn't matter how nice your pack is, if it does not fit your body it will not carry comfortably and you will suffer.

To determine your pack size you need to first measure your torso length. Your torso length is not based on your height or your clothing size. It is unique to you and your body.

Torso length is the measurement of distance between the C7 vertebra and the iliac crest. The torso size determines where the pack will fall or sit at your lower back.

It is best to have someone measure this for you. You will need a Tailor's measuring tape or a string and a ruler.


  1. Tilt head forward
  2. Find the bony bump of the C7 vertebra, this is the top of the torso
  3. Place hands on top of hips, at the crease where where you bend side to side
  4. Slide thumbs towards center of back, this is the iliac crest and the bottom of the torso
  5. Measure from the top of torso at the C7 vertebra down to the iliac crest at the bottom of torso keeping the measuring tape or string tightly fitted to the body
  6. This measurement is your torso length.

Check out our simple video on how to Measure your Pack Size. Also, note that each pack manufacturer will have their own sizing based on their designs. So a medium with one company is not necessarily a medium for another.


There are two approaches for choosing a packs capacity.

Firstly, purchase a pack and buy gear to fit into that specific pack. Conversely, purchase your gear and find a pack to fit your gear. The second is what we recommend to most new backpackers.

I have seen many hikers buy 80 litre packs for their first trips, because most think that bigger is better. The problem is that if you have a lot of extra room in a pack, you will likely fill it with extras that you don't need - and that means extra weight for no reason. Plus it will not carry properly.

Most packs will list their capacity in litres. However, double check the details as many packs do not list the internal capacity and external capacity separately. So this means that a pack that is 45 litres may only have 30 litres internal capacity and the extra 15 litres are measured for external pockets.

Ideally, you should know the capacity of the inside of your pack and the external pocket capacity as well to make a good decision based on your needs.

Notable Pack Features

Framed vs Frameless

A framed pack may have an internal frame that is inside the pack or an external frame outside of the pack.  A frame will keep the pack ridged and will stand up on its own. It is meant to distribute the weight over your body. Framed packs generally have greater weight capacities.

A frameless pack does not have an internal or external frame. They generally fold up easily and use your gear and the way you pack it to create a frame. Frameless packs may or may not have hip belts and generally have lighter recommended weight capacities.

Frameless packs tend to have fewer bells and whistles like extra pockets, compartments and zippers. They generally have a roll top closure, a single large internal area plus a few external pockets.

We recommend less compartments and zippered pockets as they add unneeded weight to a pack, and are an extra a component to fail and break.

Load Shifters/Load Lifters

Many packs have load shifters or load lifters. They are a tensioning strap above the shoulder straps that lift and pull to adjust the pack load closer to your body. 

The weight of your pack should always be tight to the center your back, otherwise it pulls the pack away from your body creating an imbalance. 

Hip Belts

Hip belts are designed to distribute the weight of the pack from your shoulders to your hips. For larger and heavier packs, hip belts are essential. 

If you are gearing up to be lightweight or ultralight, you may find that a hip belt is unnecessary. Often a stabilizing belt to hold the pack secure and prevent shifting is all that is needed.


The sky is the limit when it comes to pack fabric. Older packs were made of canvas then Cordura®. The great thing about new technical fabrics is that they available in many colours,  made from ultralight waterproof recycled or bio-based fabrics, such as: Ecopak and Dyneema® Composite Fabric.

Your pack needs to fit your gear and your needs, while being comfortable. Chances are that your pack needs will change over your hiking career. You will likely find that as you become seasoned, you will hone your skills and gear.

Happy Hiking!

 What are your favorite pack features?

Share in the comments below!


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1 comment

Excellent article!

Perry Schippers

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