Outdoors / Buying Guide

Carry On: Choosing the Backpack That's Right for You

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Whether we wear them when trekking to school, work, camp, or the summit of the mountain, backpacks are a long-standing staple of supply and gear transportation. The ability to carry your belongings on your shoulders and back, with the weight of the burden evenly distributed, provides several advantages over alternatives: comfort, balance, better posture, greater load-bearing capacity, reduced strain on the body, and hands-free transport. These benefits have made the backpack an enduring piece of equipment, and have led to the development of numerous variations on the design for different applications. So, how do you choose the right one for you?

JanSport Women's Agave 32L Backpack

Daypacks

For everyday travel to school or work, a daypack is the most sensible solution. They come in various dimensions, but are generally all compact or mid-sized and pretty lightweight so as to afford all-day comfort. A large, zippered main compartment houses most of your goods, and many of these also feature an interior laptop sleeve. If you are carrying a computer, make sure you choose a bag that has one of these, ideally a padded one, because it will protect your investment and keep it from bouncing around. Almost all of these packs offer a front accessory pocket with a built-in organizer and/or smaller interior pockets for things like pens, change, keys, and wallets.

JanSport Fox Hole 25L Backpack

Many daypacks also have a secondary storage compartment, smaller than the main one, but sizable enough to hold a couple of extra books and some folders, or your lunch. (If you’re like me, your lunch requires an especially large compartment, or you end up stuffing a couple of snacks or extra sandwiches into other pockets.) Often, these sections have their own smaller pockets, and sometimes organizers, giving you another place to keep additional supplies. If you’re carrying lots of different things, you’ll want a bag with a secondary compartment like this, as well as a small accessory pocket, to make your life easier. If you only have a few things and don’t plan on expanding your cache, a more basic “old-school” option with one large, non-partitioned compartment may do the trick.

High Sierra Access Backpack

Like virtually all modern backpacks, day bags almost always feature a top handle in addition to dual shoulder straps. This comes in handy when you’re traveling only a short distance and don’t want to throw the cargo on your back. Maybe it’s really hot out and you’re starting to sweat, or you’re wearing a suit or fancy blouse and don’t want it to get wrinkled. Or, maybe you have to carry two bags.

It’s recommended that you choose a pack with padding in the straps; this applies to any backpack, not just a day bag. You’re going to be wearing it a lot, and you don’t want to get sore or uncomfortable. Straps and back panels made of mesh or other breathable materials are strongly suggested if you’re doing a lot of walking, unless you live in Siberia or Antarctica and are unfamiliar with the experience of sweating outside of a heated gym. The primary materials that make up daypacks are tough ballistic or ripstop nylon, polyester, and cotton canvas; some have a water-resistant TPU (polyurethane) coating, too.

High Sierra XBT TSA Backpack

Hiking Packs

For the outdoorsy types, the hiking pack is an attractive and highly effective asset. These bags are typically much larger than the daypacks, since they’re designed to carry everything you’ll need for one or more days in the great outdoors. Many feature internal, contoured aluminum frames that help maintain shape and structure, to afford stability and comfort over rough terrain. While some of the more robust day bags feature sternum straps for extra stability, these straps, along with waist belts and compression straps, are standard on hiking packs. These bags are made from ripstop or ballistic nylon and polyester, and some are TPU-coated for water resistance.

Gregory Men's Baltoro 65L Small Backpack

Numerous extra pockets complement the spacious main compartments, and on some models, a secondary lower compartment holds a sleeping bag or bedroll. Additionally, certain models are equipped with a removable daypack and hydration reservoir, or a top lid that converts into a sling pack. This is a huge benefit, since once you’ve made it to camp, you can set down your big bag with all your sleeping gear, cookware, and anything else you won’t need until evening, and strap on the much lighter, smaller pack that houses just the essentials for several hours of hiking and exploring.

TETON Sports Scout3400 Internal Frame Backpack

Depending on the environment and climate in which you’re hiking, and what your other outdoor plans entail, you may want a pack with loops for trekking poles, skis, or even an ice axe. Hey, maybe you’re the next Sir Ranulph Fiennes, once described by the Guinness Book of Records as the world's greatest living explorer, and you aspire to summit all four of the highest mountains on earth. Even if you don’t have such grandiose dreams, there’s still a good chance you’ll want access to these tools if you’re an avid trekker or climber. And whatever environment or climate you’re in, unless it’s the desert, it’s always good to have the removable rain cover that you’ll find on select hiking packs. 

Kelty Redwing Reserve 50L Backpack

Rolling Bags

Great for traveling, a wheeled backpack can function as either a standard bag or a rolling one. If your work takes you on lots of business trips, or you’re going on vacation, this is an ideal choice because it combines the benefits of a backpack and a compact suitcase. The telescopic handle is easily pulled out for dragging as you’re walking to the airport terminal, cab, or hotel lobby; once you’ve gotten settled in your room and removed some things to lighten the load, the handle is just as easily retracted so you can pick up the bag and carry it on your shoulders. When you’re rolling it, the corner guards and rub rails protect it against abrasion and bumps.

High Sierra Freewheel Wheeled Backpack

As these wheeled backpacks are designed for trips, they’re substantially larger than the average bag and contain enough room for clothing, toiletries, virtually all of your electronics, and more. It’s not uncommon for them to be equipped with a padded compartment for a 15-17" laptop and a smaller pocket for a tablet. The roomy, divided main compartments are supplemented by ample secondary and organizer compartments with interior pockets and slots for smaller items. Like many of the backpacks discussed above, these wheeled ones are crafted from ballistic or ripstop nylon. 

High Sierra XBT Wheeled Backpack

Waterproof Packs

Do you often find yourself fishing, traveling, rowing, or cruising around in a boat? Are you an adventurer and nature enthusiast who loves hiking through the rain forests of Brazil, Costa Rica, and the Congo River? Whatever your passion and wherever it takes you, you’re going to want a waterproof backpack to keep your gear and supplies dry. These bags will protect your stuff against heavy rain and splashes, and many will float if dropped in water. Additionally, some models are built to withstand quick submersion at depths of a few feet, which is really helpful if your canoe capsizes or you trip and fall into a river while hiking.

OverBoard Ultra-Light Pro-Sports Waterproof Backpack

The packs are often made from PVC tarpaulin, TPU, and/or nylon and polyester, and they commonly feature welded seams with roll-seal and buckle closures on top to ensure that water stays out. A second advantage of such a sealing system is that it creates a sturdy carry handle. Other convenient features on select models include internal waterproof pockets, allowing you to separate and store wet and dry things in the same bag, and exterior mesh side pockets for extra storage.

Aquapac 15L Wet & Dry Backpack

Hunting Packs

If you love the thrill of the hunt and the satisfaction of being self-sufficient when it comes to finding food, consider these hunting packs. They’re equipped with carrying systems for your bow and firearms, and some even offer a means of attaching small game for easy transport. Select packs feature built-in shooting platforms, straps for securing tripods, and/or rain covers, as well. Additional useful features of certain models include detachable daypacks and compatibility with hydration reservoirs. The hunting bags are crafted from durable polyester and tricot fabric, which is water-resistant, in some cases.

Slumberjack Rail Hauler 2500 Hunting Backpack

Do you have any favorite packs, in particular? Let us know in the Comments section, below.

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