The right backpack: A good fit is essential to comfort, safety on the hiking trail

Internal frame and external frame packs both have a place on the trail. Photo: Howard Meyerson

Internal frame and external frame packs both have a place on the trail. Photo: Howard Meyerson

By Howard Meyerson

Walk into any quality outdoor gear store these days and it’s likely you will find an overwhelming selection of packs for backpacking. There are big ones, small ones and middle-sized ones, too.

Making the right choice isn’t simply a matter of size. Fit is essential; so is getting the right pack for the job. That means knowing what clothing and gear you want to haul and what type of terrain you will travel.

A winter trip has more bulky gear; a summer trip can be very lean. A four-season tent takes up more space than a tarp and trekking pole. A 3-pound solo or two-person tent falls in between.

“The most common mistake we see is that the pack was not properly fit or that someone bought the wrong size,” said Ryan Dean, hard goods manager for Bill & Paul’s Sporthaus in Grand Rapids. “A lot of people don’t know what they want, and 70 liters tends to be the default size.”

“Liters” refer to the approximate volume of the pack bag. Backpacks are made to carry 30 liters, 40 liters, 60 liters, 70 liters or more.

Ultra-light, fast-packers who want to log miles, or experienced backpackers who have refined their gear choices, are likely to get by with smaller packs on longer trips. But lux campers who prefer a few more comforts, a bottle of wine and fresh produce, or family campers with children in tow, often find a larger pack is the right choice for a weekend. A reasonable guide for beginners is to pick 30-45 liters for a minimalist overnight, 50-70 liters for two trail nights, and 60-85 liters for longer trips.

How big should it be? 

“It’s a tough question,” said Jim Misiewicz, who works at The Outpost in Holland. “The 70 liter is great for everything except when you are carrying a friend’s stuff or on extended trips.

“When people ask us what kind of pack to buy, we ask what kind of tent they carry and do they have a big stove? After that, the only thing that changes from a weekend to a 10-day trip is the amount of food you carry.”

And that will change a lot.

A 70-liter pack stuffed to capacity for a Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore weekend might be too small for a week in the Porkies unless something changes: fewer clothes, smaller sleeping bag, sharing the tent load, cooking utensils, food, fuel and stove.

Hiking with families

“The 70- to 85-liter range is good for families. Me, I hike with a 90-liter pack when I go out with my kids and they carry a school pack,” Misiewicz said.

Internal frame packs are best where the terrain is uneven and its lower center of gravity helps with stability. Photo: Howard Meyerson

Internal frame packs are best where the terrain is uneven and its lower center of gravity helps with stability. Photo: Howard Meyerson

Dean goes smaller when hiking with his family, more like a 70-liter backpack for four days with three kids on South Manitou Island, but his wife carries a 55-liter pack.

Most backpacks sold today are sleek, internal-frame designs. They fit close, hug the body and are designed with a lower center of gravity, which makes hiking with them more stable in uneven terrain. Their narrower profile also is less prone to getting snagged by branches or rock outcroppings.

Gear is organized within the large, open sack by using colored nylon stuff-sacks and by stuffing must-have gear in the lid compartment, or near the top-entry or side zipper, if it has one.

External frame packs have their place too

External frame packs, though a rarity in stores today, still have an important place in the mix. They allow for more comfortable, upright walking on open trails and rolling terrain. They excel at taking the load weight off shoulders and shifting it to the hips, where it belongs.

“Today’s internal frame packs are not a ton of a lot better than they were (60 percent of weight on hips/40 percent shoulders), but some are better than others at pushing the 80 percent range,” Dean said.

“We recommend the external frame for the guy who is going out west hunting, or the father with kids (who) is carrying a huge load. There’s no question you can load them down. If you are not going to squeeze through tight spaces, the external frame pack is half the price of an internal frame pack and a good choice economically.”

External frame pack bags also often are favored by those who are fussy about gear organization. They have compartments and interior dividers. Keeping the sleeping bag dry is no more difficult than stuffing it in a quality, waterproof compression sack that is lashed to the frame.

Sleeping pads can be kept dry just as easily by putting them in a waterproof stuff sack, or slipping a plastic garbage bag inside the nylon sack it comes with and lashing that to the frame, too. Internal frame pack owners often stow them inside.

Do your research

Choosing a backpack is a lot of fun, but don’t skimp on research or the time it takes at the store to ensure a good fit.

Try them on, have a staff member adjust the suspension and hip belt, or swap out the hip belt for a better size. Then, load them up with 20 pounds of simulated gear and carry them around the store for a while.

If the sales staff won’t do it or seem uncertain about how to adjust the pack, go somewhere else to buy it. Once you are on the trail loaded up, having traveled to get there with family or friends, there’s no turning back. Out on the trail, you want it to fit right.


This column appears on MLive Outdoors 

© All rights reserved.

About Howard Meyerson

After more than 30 years in the outdoor writing business, you would think I'd know better.
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1 Response to The right backpack: A good fit is essential to comfort, safety on the hiking trail

  1. mfs686 says:

    Back packs sure have come a long way since my scouting days.


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