Backpacking involves getting off the beaten track, away from civilization, carrying everything you need to survive; including food, clothing, shelter and a sleeping system. But if you are looking to buy a backpack that is good for backpacking, but have no idea where to begin, then you can join the long line of people that stretches out the door, down the road and all the way to the next state.
There are so many things to consider – how durable the materials must be, if you need a place to store your ice ax, crampons or trekking poles and that is without even considering the capacity that you require.
So, what size backpack is good for backpacking? To ensure your backpack is good for backpacking, it needs to be large enough to hold everything you need for a few days in the wilderness at the very least. This means your backpack should have a volume of at least 40 liters for the shorter expeditions, while you should be exploring larger options in the 60 – 90 liter range if you intend to disappear for a couple of weeks into the backcountry. This will vary from person-to-person, depending on their size, strength, caloric requirements and required equipment.
Read on as we look at different trip lengths, offer some guidance into what size of pack suits these trips, as well as giving you some brand and model recommendations.
Choosing a Daypack
Most daypacks sit within the 10 to 35 liter range, and your purchase should be based upon a couple of different factors. You really need to be considering the climate into which you are heading. In colder environments, or where there are likely to be large fluctuations in temperatures, you need to be thinking about packing different layers of clothing with you.
You will need more space in your pack than someone who is hiking in warmer conditions or where the temperature is unlikely to change much throughout the day.
A good example is someone climbing a peak and undergoing large gains in elevation throughout the day. You may begin your hike at the warmth of sea-level in shorts and a t-shirt, but by lunchtime you have climbed to 4,000 feet, the temperature has dropped 60 degrees and there is a cold wind blowing from the end of the earth.
Your daypack must be large enough to hold enough food and water to keep you going, as well as a jacket and enough layers to stave off the cold. This is where many people get into trouble in the mountains. You will be better off with a larger daypack in the 35-liter range, whereas someone going for a half-day stroll in warmer climes may only need a pack of 20 liters.
Our top picks for a day trip…
Osprey Talon 22 / Tempest 20 (small daypack)
It even has Osprey’s signature Stow-on-the-Go trekking pole carrying system, so you do not need to drop your pack when the terrain becomes more manageable.
Arcteryx Brize 32 (large daypack)
Arcteryx makes good packs. FACT. This clever pack is useful for extended day hikes, and features an easy access zip at the front, just in case you need something quickly that was stashed at the bottom of your bag.
Side pockets are great for holding water bottles and snacks, while a separate top pocket and hydration pack compartment are thoughtful touches.
Choosing an Overnight Pack
Things change a little the second you decide to stay out overnight. If there are no shelter options where you are staying, you will need to take with you a tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat, and therefore you will need a backpack of at least 40 liters. For the larger individuals that will require larger sleeping bags, mats and clothing, other popular sizes are 45 liter and 50 liter packs.
As well as the food you will need to keep you on your feet during the day, you will also need something for dinner and breakfast the next day. This may mean you need to carry with you a cooking stove and fuel, as well as whatever cooking utensils you require.
If you are in colder climes, then you will also need to be thinking about what is going to keep you warm when those overnight temperatures begin to plummet, so extra space for thermal base layers and comfortable sleeping attire need to be considered.
Our top picks for an overnight trip…
Hyperlight Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest
Weighing in at a feather-light 30 ounces, this exceptional pack is a go-to for ultralight-weight enthusiasts.
The Southwest is constructed with 100% waterproof Dyneema® Composite Fabrics, meaning that without an additional waterproof cover, this is one of the most water-resistant backpacks in existence.
Osprey Levity / Lumina 45
The Levity is for men, while the Lumina is the lady’s equivalent. Featuring a 3.5mm light-wire suspension and weighing only 1.89 pounds, this is another ultralight pack that ticks all the right boxes.
It has external space for your water bottles and also has a stretchy front pocket, the perfect place to store all your wet weather gear.
The pack is covered in compression straps, and therefore has many places to fasten stuff to the outside.
Choosing a 3 Day / Weekend Backpack
The ultralight-packing freaks among us will still be able to get away with a 40 liter backpack, even after adding a few days onto the expedition. They will still find room for the extra food they need, and will probably suffice with wearing the same clothes over and over again.
For the less freakish, those not willing to sacrifice some luxury items (Snickers Bars and a change of underwear), then look to take something with a little more volume. Something in the 50 liter to 55 liter range is a good place to start.
The additional food required, as well as things like extra socks will start to eat away at your available space, and therefore backpacks with clever external storage space will begin to be more appealing.
Our top picks for a 3 day trip…
Osprey Rook 50
This backpack comes with a sleeping bag compartment, a built-in rain cover and weighs in just short of 3.5 pounds.
The ventilation system will keep your back dry and sweat-free, and features all those things you come to expect from an Osprey pack, such as zipped hit pockets and a comfortable carrying system.
Z Packs Arc Blast 55
I’m not going to lie, this is an expensive backpack, but you get what you pay for.
Well, not in terms of weight. If this pack was any lighter it would blow away in a gentle breeze. And that is why it is so expensive. It is ultralight and durable.
The carrying system is revolutionary, breathable and comfortable, while the roll down top keeps the weather out.
Choosing a Long Term / Thru Hiking Pack
Now we are beginning to get into serious territory. This is for people needing to get into the wilderness for long periods of time, often needing to carry enough food and water for days (sometimes weeks) on end, before coming across a town to top up on supplies.
This means they will need extra space for cooking equipment, sleeping systems and medical kits, not to mention different types of clothing to tackle a variety of different environments and terrains.
If you are attempting a long-distance backpacking trip or a thru-hike, you will also need to seriously cut down on unnecessary extra pounds, so you may wish to consider purchasing an ultralight backpack that does not compromise on space. I would recommend taking at least a 60 liter backpack, although a 70 liter – or even larger – can be used as well.
I have a large frame, so a few extra pounds in backpack weight is not an issue for me, therefore I always thru-hike with my trusted Osprey Xenith 88 Liter backpack, although many will balk at the 5.2-pound weight of this pack.
Our top pick for a long term thru hike…
Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60
Serious hikes require serious gear. Enter the Marisposa, with 7 external pockets and more features than you could ever imagine, this ultralight (1.9 pounds) pack is perfect for those longer backpacking expeditions, where weight is a key concern.
And you do not even need to worry about overloading it – it will hand 35 pounds just fine.
Can a backpacking backpack be a carry on?
Most airlines have different policies, although as a general rule, the maximum size your backpack can be and still qualify as carry-on is about 40 to 45 liters. If you are planning a short backpacking expedition, then you may be able to take your smaller pack on the plane with you. There are, however, certain things that may hamper this.
If you want to take items such as a multi-tool, like a Swiss Army Knife, then you will need to check your luggage. You are not going to be a happy hiker if you forget about this, only to have your trusty tool confiscated at security.
Recommended carry on friendly pack: Gregory Mountain Products Zulu 40 – Check with the airline beforehand for peace of mind, but the Zulu will make its way onto most aircraft as hand luggage. It has ventilated suspension, handy water bottle holders, hip belt pockets and a hydration pack compartment.
What is the difference between a daypack and a backpack?
A daypack is a small backpack that can hold enough things to see you through the day. They are normally between 10 to 35 liters, depending on what type of things you will need to carry with you. A backpack is generally much larger, between 40 to 100 liters, and can be used for budget traveling, hiking, trekking and backpacking.
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As a travel writer and photographer, Gordon spent the better part of 2018 visiting 13 different countries as far apart as Chile, Morocco and Vietnam. He is in New Zealand in 2019, writing a third travel book, while exploring pretty much anything that forms a bump on the Earth’s surface.