Backpack Buying Guide

Whether you’re looking for a backpack for long term expeditions or you’re just looking for something to see you through a Sunday stroll, buying a new backpack can sometimes seem daunting with all of the options out there on the market. To help you wade through our backpack brands, and find the one that’s perfect for you, we’ve compiled the top factors you should consider in this handy guide.

Here’s the rundown of what we’ll be covering:

  • How to measure your torso length – for those of you who are looking for a larger, full body length, rucksack make sure to check this out.
  • Matching a backpack size to the kind of trip you’ll be going on.
  • We’ll walk you through the different frame types available and what kind of escapade each one suits.
  • There’s a little note at the end about backpacks for women, which some of you might want to read first before you decide on everything else.

multiple backpacks in boot of car

Measuring your torso length

First things first, you need to determine how long your torso is before you start shopping for a new backpack. This is less important for smaller day backpacks, but with your larger packs you could potentially cause yourself a lot of discomfort during what should be a great time in the outdoors.

To measure your torso at home, follow these steps:

  1. Put your hands on your hips and use your thumbs to feel for the top of the iliac crest. Draw an imaginary line between your thumbs. Where this line intersects your spine is the start point of your measurement.
  2. Tilt your chin down so that the C7 vertebra at the base of your neck protrudes. This is the end point of your measurement.
  3. Have a friend drape a string or tape measure along the contours of your spine between the two points. You now have your torso length. (Most adults have torso lengths that fall between 16 and 22 inches).

graphic on how to measure your back for a backpack

What kind of trip are you going on?

The backpack you need will be different depending on where you’re going and how long for. The longer you’re going for, the more items you’ll probably have to take with you. Here’s a breakdown of trip durations and the suggested backpack size for each.

Daypacks
Size: Less than 2,500 cubic inches or 40 litres

Will hold:
Water
Lunch and your favourite snacks
A trusty camera
Shell and/or warm layer
Wee bits and bobs like emergency kit, a small first aid kit, your GPS and compass

Weekend Packs
Size: 2,500 to 3,999 cubic inches or 40 to 65 litres

Will hold: 
All of the above, plus…
Small tent
Sleeping bag and pad
Ultralight stove and cook kit
A few more clothing items
A weekend's worth of meals

Weeklong Packs
Size: 4,000 to 5,999 cubic inches or 65 to 95 litres

Will hold:
All of the above, plus…
Extra food, fuel and kitchen gear
A few luxury items like a camp chair, camp shoes, pillow
A bigger tent
A warmer sleeping bag and cushier sleeping pad

Expedition Packs
Size: Greater than 6,000 cubic inches or 95 litres

Will hold:
Winter-worthy versions of all of the above, plus…
Mountaineering gear
Bear canisters (essential for carrying food in bear country).

Backpack Frames

Considering the right frame for you is again, more important if you’re going on long haul treks or carrying a lot of heavy gear. Some backpacks are lined with metal or plastic frames which differ depending on the type of bag as discussed above.

backpack frame comparison
 

Daypacks
Perfect for urban exploration or short trips in to the outdoors

As the name suggests these backpacks are for those done-in-a-day adventures. In general, daypacks are soft-backed or frameless which means they have less structure and support. For this reason, you may want to consider getting a daypack with hip belts to ensure the bag doesn’t move around on your back. Daysacks are often neat and simple in design, with a single, large internal pocket and a few small ones for items such as a phone or a water bottle. The size of your daysack completely depends on what sort of activity you need it for. If it is for summer hikes and short excursions, then something like a 20-30 litre pack should be fine. If you’re going to be heading out into the hills and mountains in winter, then you may need something closer to a 40-litre pack, as these trips can require more kit.

Internal Frame Packs
Good for weekend packs or excursions including a lot of high paced activity.

Having an internal frame in your backpack is perfect if you’re going to be carrying more stuff and a heavier weight. Internal frames are usually aluminium, plastic or Delrin rods located in the lining of the backpack which hug the contours of your back. This takes the majority of the weight on your back and brings it in close to your spine and transfers the weight to your hips. Internal frame backpacks will have padded hip belts as well to support you while you carry this extra weight. This type of frame is generally narrower and close fitting to the body which makes them great for dynamic activities such as climbing or skiing which you need a tight centre of balance for. For hot weather activities, try looking for a ‘trampoline style’ internal frame which will allow air circulation around your back without you losing any stability.

External Frame Packs
Ideal backpacks for travelling for weeklong or extended expedition goers.

External frames are also great for carrying heavier loads but are better suited for trail walks rather than climbing or skiing. An external frame backpack is positioned further away from the back giving them a higher centre of gravity than internal frame packs. Having a higher centre of gravity allows you to walk with an upright posture as the frame acts as a counterbalance, transferring weight onto the hips. For those of you going on long trails on hot days, an added bonus is the airflow between the pack and your back. External frame bags are a popular choice for those who are going backpacking, especially in warmer climates. External frame packs normally come equipped with a large internal section and multiple smaller pockets for storing gear you might want to access more easily. For the items that won’t fit inside you external frame pack there are normally straps on the outside of the backpack that you can attach roll mats, camp chairs and other camping luxuries too.

man and woman on top of canyon

Backpacks for women

Backpacks listed as being specifically for women can have subtle but important differences in the way they fit. The shoulder straps tend to be closer together, thinner and curve outward at the chest more than men’s backpacks. The hip belts on women’s packs are curved and sit slightly higher than they would on a men’s pack to better suit a women’s hips. Some brands will also shorten the length of the backpack, which is handy if you’re looking for a petit expedition or weeklong pack.