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With so many options, choosing a backpacking pack in 2016 is crazy hard for a beginner. While you can survive with most any pack, consider this: Your enjoyment of a hidden backcountry gem can be influenced by the pain in your joints. Plus, a good pack is an investment — they last years, and I’ve known some that are still kicking after a decade of abuse.
Here’s how to find the perfect multi-day backpacking pack for you.
What You Need to Know About the Best Backpacking Packs in 2016
Today’s best packs either have an internal frame system or essentially none at all. Beginning backpackers should look for an internal frame pack. Why? Super ultralight frameless packs are better for backpackers who go extremely light, packing less and lighter gear than most everyone else. They know how to stuff a frameless pack for a solid experience. Newbies are far more likely to overwhelm a frameless pack and end up with a bad experience. So steer clear until you have a few trips under your belt.
There are three key elements to an internal frame backpack — the hip belt, the stiff internal frame materials (like aluminum rods or plastic frame sheets), and your shoulder straps.
The hip belt will support much of the weight of a loaded pack. An internal frame will provide overall stability as well as help transfer pack weight more directly to your hip belt with less sag or sway. Your shoulder straps don’t have to be super-padded, but we usually appreciate more padding than less. Shoulder straps are more for stability, but sometimes you’ll want to shift portions of where you bear the load from your shoulder straps to your hips or vice-versa by tightening or loosening these straps while hiking.
Fortunately, today’s major brand-name backpacks — while having slightly different systems — are all so good, durable, and light that a beginner really can’t go wrong. If you stray beyond a handful of experienced outdoor brands, you odds of having a failure on the trail quickly rise.
So here’s a tip: A good tent is important, but I think backpacks are even more important — so invest in a good pack. Once you do, your pack will take on new meaning: A great pack is a key to the backcountry, a key to adventure, to breathing fresh mountain air, seeing big mountains, big sky, and getting away from it all. A good pack will call to you, speak to you, encourage you to get off your ass and get back out there.
I’m not kidding.
How to Find a Backpack that Fits
The critical component to a finding a good pack is the torso length. Your torso is important because it ensures that your hip belt can properly bear weight compared to your shoulder straps. Nowadays, most every pack has an easy-to-adjust torso length, which simplifies your buying process and makes buying online easy. To measure your torso, take a measuring tape from the biggest bump on the top of your spine right around where your shoulders end and your neck starts (the C7 vertebrae). Measure down your spine to the top of your hip bones.
Luckily, because of the adjustability of newer packs, you can guesstimate with very little risk. If you’re a small guy, get a small or medium-sized pack for men. How about a 5’9 or 5’10 guy? Get a medium. If you’re 6′ or over, get a Large or XL version. Each pack and brand has its own size adjustment options.
Of course, sometimes short guys have really long torsos and sometimes tall guys have really short torsos. If this is the case, you might want to error up or down. Either way, a good pack will offer 3-to-6 inches of torso adjustment — and that’s a lot to play with.
There’s more, though, and that’s the hip belt. If you’re a tall and thin guy or very wide, some backpacks offer interchangeable hip belts, most notably Osprey. If this is the case with you — tall but very thin or short but very wide — you may need to order directly from the manufacturer. And some retail store gear shops will let you swap out a hip belt, too, if they have one in stock that fits you better.
Best Backpack Size
Most packs are sized by cubic liters. For example, a 25-liter pack is a small day pack. A 50-liter pack can generally handle a weekend’s worth of gear — your sleeping bag, tent, sleeping pad, food, and clothes. Your sweet spot for your first real backpack should be in the 55-to-75 liter range — which will hold enough gear for 3-to-5 nights without much trouble. One factor to consider is a bear can, which is a bear-proof canister that makes it much easier to protect your food from bears and little forest rodents. If you take a highly-recommended bear can — which is required in some backcountry locations — look toward a 60-liter pack.
Of course, what if you only plan on going on weekend trips? Why get a larger pack? Easy. A larger pack doesn’t necessarily weigh much more, but it will let you comfortably carry more weight. In addition, it’s more flexible — every modern pack has straps that will shrink and compress your gear, making it easy to pack light and still have a tidy load. Plus, what if your fiancé is backpacking with you and she gets terrible blisters from a new pair of boots? You’ll need the extra room to lighten her load. Just saying. It will happen (or something like it). So plan for it.
Meanwhile, there’s more to know about pack size — the “liter” size range for a particular model of pack is usually what the medium size is rated for. So a 70-liter pack will be a few liters smaller in the small size and a few liters bigger in a large size.
Best Backpack Materials
Don’t worry about it. All the good packs use durable, lightweight nylon or polyester materials. Same goes for aluminum or plastic internal frame materials. The same goes for padding or mesh backs. Or types of internal foam padding. Don’t worry about any of it. None of it matters until you really start pushing limits, and by then you’ll be so experienced that you’ll know exactly what you, personally, need — and you’ll have a new passion and reason to get it.
Similarly, most every pack these days is hydration bladder compatible with a small hole for a drink tube to fit through. What about waterproofing? Few packs are waterproof, but some are. If serious rain is likely, get a rain cover, which you can strap over your pack as you hike. In a pinch, you can modify a black plastic garbage bag and/or place key gear in waterproof stuff sacks inside your pack.
And that’s about it. Stick with reputable brands — and here are a handful of the best we trust: Arc’teryx, Deuter, Granite Gear, Gregory, Marmot, Mountainsmith, MSR, The North Face, Osprey, REI, Sierra Designs, and Vaude.
To help you out and save some time, here’s our top 10 backpacking backpacks — with a few extras connected to a few manufacturers. All of these packs we can easily recommend to friends and family:
Top 10 Backpacking Packs 2016
Arc’teryx Altra 65 — Arc’teryx only makes a few packs, but key one it does — the Altra 65 or 75 — is a high-quality achievement. The overall design is pretty standard, but its claim to fame is its Rotating Load Transfer Disc pivoting hip belt. Lots of comfort, but the price ($449) can be steep for a newbie.
Deuter ACT Lite 65 + 10 — This is a truly a can’t-go-wrong wonder: It’s one-size torso adjustment runs from 15 inches up to 21 inches, fitting a broad range of teenagers and adults, plus it’s under 4 lbs, under $200, and it consistently gets fantastic reviews. The only downside? If your torso is longer than 21 inches, look elsewhere.
Granite Gear Nimbus Trace Access 70 Backpack — At about 4 lbs, this top loader is packed with handy features like a zipper that gives you instant front access to all contents, top and bottom. If you want to go lighter, check out the super adjustable, 3.1 pound Lutsen 55.
Gregory Baltoro 75 — Gregory makes some of the world’s best packs, super tough and durable, capable of overloading while retaining comfort. For this bombproof construction, there is one con — the all-around excellent Baltoro 75 and classic powerhouse Palisade 80 both weigh over 6 lbs each. But hey, those two extra pounds of durability and cushy ride let you comfortably carry larger loads for longer trips.
Mountainsmith Apex Series — This line of 60, 80, and whopping 100-liter packs are capable of hauling big multi-day loads, but the Apex also features an innovative “Anvil Airway” backpanel, which balances cushion for heavy loads with better airflow for your epic treks.
Mystery Ranch Glacier — The Glacier is a burly but supremely well-designed pack that will handle years of abuse. Lots of traditional excellence here, and it comes from the founders of the legendary Dana Design backpacks. Mystery Ranch packs are so tough they’re used by firefighters and soldiers. The Glacier is a sweet-spot size that will work well for beginners to experts for a wide variety of short or longer trips — but don’t hesitate to size up to the mammoth T-100 or down to the sweet Ravine for your needs.
The North Face Banchee 65 — A solid, all-around pack that weighs in less than 4 lbs with a mess trampoline back panel and the ability to scale up to 50 lbs.
Osprey Atmos 65 AG — You can’t go wrong with any Osprey pack, but the popular Atmos is loaded with features, starting with the cool and cushy Osprey “Anti-Gravity” mesh back panel. It has plenty of pockets, straps for compression and gear, and the removable lid lets you go light or pack more. If you need a huge, bombproof pack, step up into the Aether 70 or 85. To go lighter still, you can retain the excellence of the Atmos AG by going with the 50 liter version. For women, check out the Aura AG or Ariel models.
REI Flash 65 — The REI Flash 65 weighs a little more than 3.5 pounds, and at under $200, it’s a starter pack for those who want to go fast and light. REI’s own brand delivers several others worthy of attention: The Yosemite 75 offers big volume with all the core features you need at a budget-friendly $179. For big loads with a ventilated mesh back, check out the REI Traverse 85.
Vaude Astrum or Centauri — Vaude can be a little tough to find in the U.S. but damn, we sure like Vaude packs. I’ve abused two ultralight day packs for years, plus have a smaller multi-day pack. Never a tear, barely a scratch. Tough. Better still, if you buy previous season Vaude packs through Sierra Trading Post — especially using a coupon code (use the Sierra Trading Post link under “Cool Deals” at the right of this page) — you can sometimes score a strong, no-frills, lightweight workhorse Vaude pack at an astounding price.
Still Need Help Choosing the Best Backpacking Pack for the Money in 2016?
I’m an Osprey fan. Why? Osprey packs start with excellent price-to-value ratios — you get a strong, well-built pack at a decent price. Next, I like the Osprey designs — they tend to offer a sweet blend of traditional features with trim lines. So which one? Get the can’t-go-wrong Atmos 65 AG (for men) or the Aura AG 65 (for women). These are the packs I’m recommending most these days.