How to Choose an Outdoor Backpack

How to Choose an Outdoor Backpack


Warmer days are coming and with it, the need to spend more time outside. Camping and hiking are great ways to enjoy the warmth spring and summer bring, but the wrong backpack can quickly put a damper on that. Choosing the right outdoor backpack is essential. Too big of a bag is a problem because the weight will cause your back and shoulders to ache. Too small of a bag and there’s just not enough room to bring everything you need. Then there’s the fancy frames to worry about. Luckily, this guide will answer any questions you might have in choosing the right outdoor backpack.

Image from Instagram: @_smarshall23


The type of backpack to get will first depend on how long you plan on camping/hiking. A day or overnight camping trip will only require a day pack. A week long trek will require a multi-day or extended trip pack. This is just a rule of thumb though. If you embrace the minimalist lifestyle, you can afford to go down a pack size.

Length of Trip Type of Backpack Volume of Pack (L)
1 day/overnight Day pack 15-30 L
2-3 days Weekend pack 30-50 L
3-5 days Multi-day pack 50-80 L
5+ days Extended trip pack 70+ L

A day pack is perfect not just overnight camping trips, but for everyday use. The small size makes is a great option for students or commuters, and will transition nicely into a hiking pack for one day.

The weekend pack is bigger to accommodate extra clothes, sleeping bags, a portable stove kit, etc. The longer you spend camping, chances are the more supplies you’ll need to bring, hence the increase in volume for each pack.

If you’re unsure of whether to go up in volume or down, it’s generally best to go down. You’ll learn to pack what you need. If you end up not fully packing a larger backpack, the gear inside will be free to fall away from the back, transferring the weight to pull on your shoulders.


Now that you’ve chosen what kind of backpack you need, the next question is how to fit said backpack. Backpack size has to to with torso length, not your overall size. A short person and a taller person could use the same size backpack if the torso lengths were the same. Some people have shorter torsos, others have longer ones. To measure the length of someone’s torso, you need to use a flexible tape measure. Measure from the C7 vertebra to the top of the iliac crest. To find the C7 vertebra, bend your neck down, your face parallel to the ground. The bone that pokes out at the base of the neck is the C7. The iliac crest is the top of your hip bones. Using your thumbs, find the top of your hip bone on either side. Bring your thumbs behind you, drawing a straight line with your thumbs to the small of your back. From the C7 bone to that point on your back is the length of your torso.

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Notice how the iliac crest line is above the waist. Image from

The torso length will determine what size backpack to get.

Backpack Size Torso Length (in.)
Extra small Up to 15.5 in.
Small 16-17.5 in.
Medium/Regular 18-19.5 in.
Large/Tall 20+ in.

Outdoor backpacks come with adjustable straps to allow a perfect fit. There are also uni-sex, men’s, and women’s sizes. Women’s sizes will feature a modified fit that will better conform around a woman’s body.

A backpack designed for women is narrower and better conforms to the hips and chest than a unisex or men’s backpack. However, if a unisex backpack fits more comfortably, stick to that. Comfort is most important


The most important thing to keep in mind when fitting outdoor backpacks is COMFORT. If the backpack is uncomfortable to start with, it won’t get any better when you’ve stuffed it and are halfway through your hike. A well-fitted backpack allows the weight of it and the gear it carries to be close to your body’s center of gravity (COG).

Notice how the COG is closer to the hips, not the back.

Try the backpack on in store and adjust the straps where it’s needed. If possible, bring some of your own gear or ask the employees to borrow some gear and pack the bag. Some backpacks will feel comfortable when empty, but when the bag has some real weight to it that comfort level could change. If the bag feels uncomfortable with gear packed in it, adjust accordingly or try a different bag.

The shoulder straps should be tightened so that the pack doesn’t hang low on your back. This will pull on your shoulders, creating that dreaded ache associated with heavy bags. By shortening the shoulder straps, the backpack will be higher up on the back, taking the majority of the weight off your shoulders and therefore closer to your COG.

Shoulder straps are snug, but not pinching.

The hip belt is essential to make a fully packed bag feel lighter. Around 80% of the pack’s overall weight will be assigned to the hips, and a proper fitting is important to ensure that. The hip belt should rest above the hips, not at the waist. The belt should be snug and the padding needs to hug your hips all the way to the front. That way, the weight will be supported from the front of the hips instead of just the back. The pads on either side shouldn’t touch or overlap. It’s rare that a hip belt won’t fit if the backpack fits your torso, but it still helps to make sure the belt is the right size before buying.

The hip belt rests above the hips, not at the waist.

Most outdoor backpacks come equipped with load-lifting straps and sternum straps. Each are designed to adjust the weight in relationship to your body and COG. A sternum strap will keep the bag close to your back. A backpack that isn’t close to the back will result in stress on the shoulders and neck. It should be snug, but not so tight it pinches. Load-lifters are straps that start from the top of the backpack and connect down to the the shoulder straps. By pulling on them, it angles the backpack 45 degrees to the body. It should also be snug with tension, but not tight. A load-lifting strap that’s too tight will pinch the shoulders.

Sternum strap is snug but not too tight. Load-lifting straps are angled at 45 degrees.


Some backpacks will feature a frame either built into the inside of the backpack (internal frame) or is visible on the outside (external frame), or no frames at all (day packs do not have any frames since they are not designed to carry a ton of gear or weight). The difference lies in what kind of hikes or activities you’ll be engaging in when camping.

Internal frame backpacks are for hikes over difficult terrain or rock climbing. Basically, anything that requires a ton of movement in your back. You wouldn’t want an external frame to dig into you every time you bent over. Because the frame is within the backpack, the bag will mold to your body better and keep the load closer to your back. Because internal frame packs are molded to the back, many will feature a padded ventilation system to help with sweating. Internal frame backpacks also carry more gear that fits inside a top-loading bag. With a top-loading bag, heavier things go on the bottom, and items you might need constant access to, like sunscreen, should be packed closer to the top. Top-loading bags also have fewer pockets, so it can be harder to find your things.

With an internal frame backpack, the structure is inside the wall of the backpack. It is not visible unless you were to cut open the back wall of the bag.

External frame backpacks are for long hikes over flat terrain or with a pre-established trail. The outer frame carries the bag further up on the body, so the COG is also a little higher. This allows you to hike long distances in an upright position with good posture. The metal frame on the outside also allows for the load to be taken off your back, and because the load isn’t on your back, the ventilation is definitely there. External frame backpacks are front-loading bags and feature more pockets, so it’s easier to compartmentalize and find your things. With front-loading backpacks, heavier objects should be packed closest to the back, regardless of frames. With external frame backpacks, they can be loaded with bulky or awkwardly shaped gear that wouldn’t fit inside the pack. Tent poles, fishing rod, a sleeping bag, etc.

With an external frame backpack, the frame is visible on the outside of the backpack.

The bottom line: internal frame backpacks are top-loading bags best for hikes with difficult terrain, and external frame backpacks are front-loading bags best for long, level hikes to allow you to walk in an upright position.


Packing a backpack properly is important. Just stuffing it with whatever you need will make the load feel heavier than it is. Backpacks have two kinds of openings: from the top and from the front. For top-loading backpacks, gear that you won’t need until much later, pajamas, sleeping bag and pad, should be packed at the bottom. Bulky or awkwardly shaped gear like shoes should also be at the bottom. Closer to the middle of your back, the heavier items are next. From there, anything you need constant access to like sunscreen or deodorant, should be closer to the top. For front loading bags, the heaviest items are against your back, and moving out to the front of the backpack, lighter items/items you reach for the most.

For a front-loading bag: heavier items close to the back, like a laptop. Towards the front of the bag, a notebook or a jacket.
For a top loading bag: most reached for items at the top, like a map and a water bottle. Items not needed until camp like a sleeping bag will be towards the bottom.

If there is a water reservoir that you plan on using, fill that up before you pack. That way you’re not wrestling one last item in a fully packed bag. Any huge and bulky items like tent poles or fishing rods should be latched onto the outside of the bag.


Check the label or the company’s website on how to clean and care for your backpack. It’s important to care for the backpack properly. Good backpacks cost good money, and with good care, they’ll last a long time. Waterproof/resistant backpacks have a special coating on them that could be damaged if chucked in the washing machine. If you’re not sure, then mild soap and warm water will do the trick. Use a soft bristled brush, a toothbrush for example, to scrub out any stains or mud.

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For tears in the backpack, it will depend on the material whether you can patch it up yourself, if you need a special adhesive, or if you can just send it to the company for repairs. Stay safe, and just check the company website on how to fix tears, broken zippers, etc.


US Outdoor! We have a range of backpacks in different styles and types to satisfy your camping need. Now that you’ve been guided to your perfect backpack, all that’s left for you is to tackle the outdoors!

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We’d love to see you! Pop in for a visit or find your new gear at 219 SW Broadway, Portland, OR 97205!

Still have questions? No problem! Here at US Outdoor, our in-house experts will answer any remaining questions. We know the outdoors!