How to Pick a Pack
A comfortable pack can make all the difference in how much you enjoy your time on trail. A well-designed, well-fitting pack makes your load feel lighter and the miles a bit easier. Before you buy your first pack—or upgrade an old one—here are some tips to find one that will serve you well for years to come.
How do you plan to use it?
Before buying any pack, think carefully about how you want to use it. Is it for day hikes? Longer backpacking trips? Would you like to go backcountry skiing or snowshoeing?
More traditional trekking packs will have a number of loops for tools—such as trekking poles or ice axes. Day packs will usually be smaller and have fewer loops for storing items. Pack capacity is measured in liters. For a standard day hike, you’ll probably be good with about 20 to 30 liters. Packs in the 40- to 50-liter range are a good choice for lightweight backpackers or parents who are carrying items for their children. Traditional backpackers will probably want a pack that’s 50 to 60 liters.
How do you get the right fit?
When buying a new pack, especially if you’re new to hiking, it’s always helpful to try it on in person. Visit your local outdoor store, where you can try on a number of packs. Be sure to try a variety of brands to see what fits your body best. It’s also vital to try on the pack with weight similar to what you will carry on the trail. Once you have your pack on, with weight, feel how the pack distributes the weight. You want a good distribution of weight. The load should settle on your hips and shoulders comfortably. This is a matter of body shape and personal preference. If you’re in doubt whether your pack is fitting right, ask for help from a knowledgeable store employee.
If you’re planning to buy a pack online, see if you know anyone who has the same model so you can try it on. Or carefully read the company’s return policy to ensure you can return it if the fit is wrong.
What features do you need?
If you’re day hiking, keep it simple. For more specialized packs, consider a few key features.
- Access: For larger packs, consider how easy it is to get to all of your gear. Side zippers or other access points can make things easier. Packs that only load from the top do require you to take everything out to get an item toward the bottom.
- Carrying options: If you want to carry skis, an ice ax or other gear, make sure your pack has loops or straps to make that easy.
- Rain covers: Especially in the rainy Northwest, a built-in rain cover can be extremely convenient: They’ll never get lost and they slip on easily.
Looking for used gear?
Consider buying a used pack if you’d like to save some money. Here are some things to look for when selecting a used pack.
- Look for wear: The bottom of the pack often gets the most abuse. Look for signs of heavy wear or abrasion here. Also check the sides of the pack, which may have rubbed against rocks or trees.
- Straps: Check shoulder straps specifically to ensure they will have sufficient padding—particularly at the weight-bearing points. Also check the cushioning on the hip belt.
- Seams: Check all seams, especially at points where the pack is likely to get pressure, such as where the top straps attach to the pack.
- Buckles: Don’t worry too much about a faulty buckle, as these are almost always easy and cheap to replace.
- Zippers: Check all the zippers, especially zippers that take a lot of strain or get a lot of use.