From school days into adulthood, we’ve all toted around our favorite backpacks, trusting them to keep our belongings safe and secure as we move about the world. And when it comes to hiking, the same sentiment is true; we need a pack that will easily carry all of our favorite gear without slowing our pace.
Whether you’re gearing up for a multi-day trek through one of the US national parks or exploring the wonders of the wilderness in your town, carrying the proper pack can be the difference between epic enjoyment and trail-induced torment. To save you and your body some unnecessary pains, we talked with gear experts and guides to help you find the pack that works for you.
Finding your fit
When it comes to choosing a pack, two things are paramount: comfort and functionality. Above all, you want a pack that fits your body well and provides comfort mile after mile.
“If your gear doesn’t fit you, you’re probably going to tap out a lot sooner. You’re probably going to think that you are limited to certain kinds of adventures because all you know is that at a certain point, you don’t feel good on trail,” says Jenny Bruso, founder of Unlikely Hikers, a nationwide hiking community that focuses on inclusivity in the outdoors. “What if the secret to feeling better on trail, stronger, more supported, is just having a better pack?”
The best thing to do is go and get fitted for a pack at a hiking or camping store like REI. But, if there’s not one local to you or you prefer looking online, there are ways to estimate the size and fit of the pack you’ll need from home.
However, even if you do try on a pack in a store, the true comfort won’t be revealed until you’re actually using it. Some packs might feel different when you test them at the store than after you’ve hiked a few sweaty miles weighed down by all your gear.
Picking your pack
With so many packs available to sort through, a good place to start is to assess the intensity of the activity you’re planning. While you might have large ambitions of one day hiking Mount Everest or trekking the Pacific Crest Trail, you want to make sure you’re picking a pack based on the adventure you’re actually taking, not the one you’re dreaming of.
“Think how long your hike is going to be, how difficult it’s going to be and also what gear you’re bringing with you and how much space you’ll need,” says Alex Schnee, a travel guide and blogger who provides tips on navigating the outdoors, including the US national parks.
Using these questions as a starting point can help you narrow down the size of the pack you’ll need. From there, you can figure out which additional features are most important to you or are best suited for your journey.
And while your tried-and-true school or work backpack might be just fine for a light out-and-back hike, it might not be as sweat-wicking, element-resistant and supportive as packs designed for hiking. But hiking packs, especially more specialized ones, aren’t super affordable for everyone; they can start anywhere around $50 and go up as high as a few hundred.
“It’s totally valid to feel like you can’t drop that kind of money,” explains Bruso. “In my experience, I have saved a lot more money getting the nicer thing instead of going through multiples of the not-so-nice thing.”
A lot of higher-priced technical packs also come with features like warranties and free repairs, large hydration reservoirs, trampoline backs and increased weight suspension that make them worth the investment for frequent hikers.
Like with any sport or activity, there are some terms and knowledge that are innate but might be unfamiliar to beginners:
- Capacity: For backpacks, the capacity or overall storage size is expressed in liters, but that can be hard to visualize, especially online. Typically, a day pack runs between 10, 25 and 30 liters, bags for weekend or overnight trips are about 30 to 50 liters and multi-day backpacking bags start around 50 liters and go upward depending on the length of your trip.
- Frames: Unlike a school bookbag, larger-capacity packs often come with internal or external frames. These reinforcements run through the pack and to help redistribute weight away from just your shoulders, allowing you to carry heavier loads more comfortably.
- Sizing: Similar to clothes, you might see some packs available in S/M or L/XL sizes. For hiking packs, these sizes are referring mostly to the length of your torso. They can vary from brand to brand, though, so be sure to double check you’ve selected the size right for you.
- Fits: Lots of companies will make male and female versions of the same packs, often with slightly different names. Female packs tend to run narrower and have shorter torso lengths with shoulder straps that are designed to better fit women’s bodies. You might also see unisex packs designed to fit an array of bodies.
Keep in mind that these are merely parameters for guidance, not hard-and-fast rules. “I have no problem putting a male in a female backpack, and vice versa, if that’s what fits their body,” says Kevin Lau, an REI InspiredGuide. “It’s gonna come down to what’s comfortable … and you’ll also see a lot of packs are just unisex.”
Don’t get too overwhelmed or wowed by specialty features either. While something like an ultra-lightweight backpack can be great, it might not always be the best choice for your activity type. Instead, try to focus on what aspects are an absolute necessity for your pack to support the length, duration and climate of your trip.
Whether you’re looking for a day pack to carry your essentials or a pack to tackle your next camping and backpacking adventure, we’ve rounded up some expert-recommended picks to help guide your shopping journey.
Day hiking backpacks
$70 at REI
Day packs are all about storing your essentials. This 20-liter pack from Osprey has just enough room to hold your snacks, keys, phone and water bottle, or use it to store your camera so you’re always ready for those scenic shots.
$135 at REI
Osprey is no stranger to hiking packs. Schnee loves the brand because it provides a lot of different layout options within its packs. “I have the Tempest, which is great for kind of longer day hikes,” she says. “I usually take it with me when I’m doing 11 to 15 miles.”
$39.95 at REI
For under $40, the REI Flash Pack is a great day pack choice, especially if you’re just getting your footing on the trails. With an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir and nifty pockets for organization, the Flash Pack is a perfect basic for first-time adventurers. If you need a little more room, you can size up for the 22-liter version too.
$75 at Cotopaxi
Another of Schnee’s favorites is Cotopaxi because its bags have great water resistance, which makes them perfect for trekking through morning dew and a little unexpected precipitation. It’ll be hard to lose this Luzon Del Día, which is made of repurposed fabrics to give you a one-of-a-kind day pack. And if you need a little extra space, it’s also available in a 26-liter version.
$180 at Osprey
The Manta Pack from Osprey integrates slight technical features into a day pack model, with a 3D-tensioned open mesh back panel. “This frame that goes around will help transfer some of that weight from your shoulders down onto your hips,” explains Lau. “So that makes carrying some heavier weight a lot more securely, you’ll feel better, it’ll be a lot more comfortable.”
$79.95 at REI
Offering more support and robust features than your traditional school backpack, this 25-liter REI pack even comes with a rain cover to help keep your favorite gear from getting affected by the elements. It also has room to carry your favorite insect repellent or permethrin spray to treat your clothes before you head out.
$30 at Osprey
If you’re looking to keep it super minimal, a waist pack can be a great option for short trails, campsite exploring or even a quick urban hike. Toss in your phone, keys, wallet, a granola bar and maybe a treat or two if you have a canine companion and be on your way.
Technical hiking backpacks
$160 at REI
If you’re a hiking newbie, a great size to start looking at is around 25 liters. “That 25 liter to 30ish liter is a great ideal size, and that happens to be about the size of your average backpack,” says Lau. The Osprey Stratos and Sirrus models have more support than regular day packs due to the weight-bearing frame, making them ideal for longer hikes when you might need more room for food or equipment.
$140 at REI
A lightweight bag that stays durable from coast to coast? Beloved for its easy-to-use design and quick adjustability, this Deuter bag can be used as a spacious day pack, a go-to for an overnight hut-to-hut trip, or a spontaneous one-nighter in the wilderness.
$139 $97.29 at REI
For hut-to-hut or extended day hikes, you want a pack that’s reliable and well organized. This pack from REI comes with lots of clip points and pockets, and it’s available in three different sizes so you can find the one that best fits your shape. Plus, the added compression straps let you customize the shape of your pack for better balance and gear management.
$165 at REI
If you’re not ready to commit to a heavy-duty backpacking pack yet, the Osprey Kyte comes highly recommended for those who want to carry pretty much everything they need for a quick trip in one place. “This is one of those packs that would kind of blur that line of large day pack that you could do an overnight with as well if you pack smartly,” explains Lau. It’s also available in a men’s version as well.
$129 at REI
Just want a solid, classic pack without too many extra bells and whistles? The Trail 40 Pack will get you and your gear where you need to go, whether it be just for a day, a weekend, an overnight stay or as a catchall for leaving home in a hurry. There’s also a women’s fit available too.
$168.95 at Backcountry
Made to be comfortable even after three or four days of trekking, this pack from The North Face even has an extra-cushy back panel to help make those last few miles feel just as good as when you started. And a top tip for making it through long-haul trips? Add some Foot Glide to your bag to help keep your feet from blistering.
$300 at REI
For multi-day backpacking trips, Schnee likes the 65-liter capacity bags from Osprey. Don’t be overwhelmed by the large capacity, though; it’s not required that you stuff your bag completely to the top, but the roominess does give you space for an extra change of clothes, thicker sleeping bag or whatever else you might need to make your trip more comfortable. You can also grab the men’s Atmos version as well.
$299.95 at Gregory
The male and female or even unisex pack models made by some companies just don’t comfortably fit all body types, which is why Bruso switched to exclusively wearing Gregory brand packs, which has a line specifically designed for plus-size hikers. “It would start digging into the muscles of my shoulders around my neck and just kind of always feel like it was hanging there in a way that I’m not having with the plus-size Gregory packs,” says Bruso.
Budget hiking backpacks
From $65.99 at Amazon
Reinforced with a steel frame and available in capacities ranging from 40 to 80 liters, these Nevo Rhino packs give you tons of options to find what’s right for you. Plus, they’re all listed for under $100 on Amazon.
$82.46 at Amazon
With over 6,500 5-star Amazon reviews, this pack is a buyer favorite for its low cost and spacious build. It’s also a great choice if you have a budding adventurer who wants to try their hand at carrying the camping load or snag a few more scouting badges.
From $74.99 at Amazon
This tactical, military-style backpack is great if you’re looking for a subtly colored but sturdy pack to assist you. With multiple loops, compartments and straps, it’s also perfect for those trips where you’ll be navigating through the bush or potentially looking for game and want your best tools handy.
From $59.99 at Amazon
Pride yourself on being the most organized hiker on the trail? This Mountaintop pack has an optional divider so you don’t have to go digging for your sleeping bag underneath all your clothes and other supplies.
$179 at Topo Designs
When your weekend adventure ends and you make your return back to work or school, you can still keep a little piece of your hike nearby with this 28-liter bag from Topo Designs. Cute and functional enough to double as a work bag, it comes with an internal laptop sleeve, water bottle holder and spacious main compartment.
$179.95 at Amazon
If your hiking location requires you to travel by car or plane, this travel backpack can do double duty. The large 55-liter compartment functions like your favorite duffel bag, and the detachable day pack means you can drop your heavier items at your lodging and be off with just your essentials in a flash.
$440 at Salkan
Planning a multi-week hut-to-hut or backpacking trip? This bag from Salkan is made from recycled yarn and comes with a day pack that can be attached to the front or back of the large bag. With an included rain cover, adjustable straps, internal support frame and even a laundry bag to store your dirty clothes in, this pack has just about everything a world-class explorer might need.
$259.95 at Backcountry
Looking to get your little ones on the trail ASAP? This Osprey carrier gives your kids a perfect view of all the nature-packed action. Plus, it still comes with pockets and storage space so you can keep all the snacks, toys, clothes and other necessities within arm’s reach.