Help Me Find Good Backpacking Backpacks
February 28, 2015 6:15 PM   Subscribe

The two of us are interested in getting into backpacking, and are each looking to purchase a nice backpack. Help us find a good one!

We are one man and one woman, both relatively fit/strong and average height (5'5 and 5'11). We enjoy camping and hiking, and regularly hike 8-10 mile trails during the fairer-weathered months, but we have never ventured into overnight backpacking or hikes longer than day trips. This question is not for a particular trip we are planning, but just to have in general for future trips ranging from one night to one week.

What brands and/or styles do you recommend? We are interested in long-lasting quality, and price is not much of an issue, although as beginners we probably don't require top-of-the-line.

Please note if the recommended backpack requires a specific size of sleeping bag, and if you have recommendations for light-weight tents or sleeping bags, please feel free to recommend those also. And if its obvious that I'm forgetting something (never having owned a proper backpacking backpack), I would appreciate if you would supply more information.

Thank you!
posted by likeatoaster to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The REI Half Dome is a classic two person backpacking tent. I bought a similar REI tent in 1995, and it is still going strong. You definitely want to try on backpacks in person, whether at REI or at your local independent outfitter. I've had great luck buying sleeping bags (and other outdoors things where perfect fit is less important than value vs price) from Sierra Trading Post
posted by hydropsyche at 6:35 PM on February 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

What Exogenous said. Get thee to an REI (or some other outfitter) and try a bunch on while weighted down. I've found that mediocre ruck that is comfortable under load is far, far superior to a top of the line that doesn't fit quite right. A big city REI will have a decent selection, and lots of other good advice too - and a great return policy.

Your choice of gear sort of depends on how much you want to carry, where you are going to go with it, and how rough you like to rough it. For example, a bivvy is lighter than a tent with a sleeping pad and bag, but I vastly prefer having a tent.

Cabela's or Sportsmans Authority is good for some stuff, too - but I usually only go there when I am willing to cheap out on something. Sierra Trading Post is great if you don't need to try it out first.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 6:38 PM on February 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I just spent that last 12 months or so making this same transition from day hiking to backpacking. In my case it was to fulfill a "bucket-list" item of hiking across Grand Canyon, which I completed last October, unfortunately bitten by the bug I'll be back there in three weeks for another 30 mile 8 day adventure.

My main advice would be to decide what you're putting in the bag before you decide what bag to buy. Basically the size bag you need will mostly depend on your shelter and your sleeping system. So a tent; larger sleeping bag and sleeping pad will push you to a larger pack. After a few long hikes you will have had a lot of time with that weight on your back to decide that smaller/lighter gear might have been a good investment.

The first backpack I bought was the REI Crestrail (2.2kg, small size, 60L). It is an excellent backpack and not super expensive. The online reviews were very positive. This is the bag I took to Grand Canyon, it was fine. I had a small 2-person tent (REI Dome-2; actually a bit small for 2 adults). It's an older (2006) tent I used for car camping, takes about 10L of space and weighs 2.5kg. My sleeping bag was a 15 degree bag (1.4kg) that also took up about 10L. My sleeping pad was an REI InCamp (1.2kg) which probably took up about 6L. With 3L of water and food for 6 days the bag weighed about 18kg (~40lbs). Which is actually not really that bad compared to "the bad old days". Most of the online advice for buying a backpack seemed to suggest that ~65L was a good size to buy.

However, after returning from Grand Canyon and planning for the next trip I decided to down size significantly. I'm not going to take the tent; I'll use a piece of Tyvek (5x9', 0.27kg) as a tarp/ground sheet. I purchased a new 36 degree sleeping bag, Sea to Summit Spark Sp II an unbelievable 0.46kg and packing into just 3L and I purchased a new sleeping pad Big Agnes Q-Core SL (0.56g). With this fairly major upgrade in gear I was able to get a much smaller backpack, after a lot of time online I selected an Osprey Talon 44 (~1kg, 44L). I expect with 8 days of food and 3L of water this will all come in at about 13kg (29lbs).

Both bags I purchased are pretty good. I recommend getting as light as possible from the start.
posted by Long Way To Go at 6:48 PM on February 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

I adore my ULA Circuit. They come in various sizes with different strap options. They're light and they're well made and they hold enough stuff. Also, I find mine very, very comfortable.

Light weight was important to me. Over the years I've cut down a lot of weight both by removing items from my kit and by upgrading to ultralight versions, and it's made a big difference to me. All else being equal, you should probably always buy the lightest gear you can afford. Nothing sucks the fun out of backpacking like having a pack that's too heavy.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:53 PM on February 28, 2015

Head to REI at the end of the day, when you're tired and achy. Then have a sales person load up a pack, and see how it feels.

Many REIs have rental gear - you could use it for an overnight or two, and see what you do and don't like of all the various bells and whistles.
posted by Dashy at 7:07 PM on February 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nthing the suggestions to go to REI and have someone fit you. Some considerations - what sort of backpacking? We do a lot of desert hiking and often don't take a tent for that. Mountains or east where it's wetter will mean you want a tent - which takes up space. Because we're middle aged with slightly crankier backs we take full length sleeping pads - you can save some weight with 3/4 length pads... Some packs have integrated rain covers - if you're planning a lot of hikes in wetter areas that could be a nice feature. I carry an Osprey Kestrel which has that but haven't needed it often.

Having someone knowledgeable fit you is key. Different packs fit differently and adjust in different ways so getting fitted is huge. REI will let you return gear that isn't battered so you could buy a pack, load it up and go for a long walk to make sure it will work for you. And be sure to get advice from them about how to load a pack since doing it right will make a huge difference to your comfort. Don't go too big either because the temptation is to fill it up and that way lies misery. I'm a small woman - 5'1" and I try to avoid carrying more than 35 pounds. Talk to the salesperson about the kind and length of trips you're considering.

I like having a hydration system and most modern packs are built to accommodate them - Camelback or Osprey. Re sleeping bags - down bags now often have down that's been treated to retain loft even when wet - this is an upgrade worth paying for to my mind because down is lighter than synthetic and down that doesn't get messed up from being wet is a big advantage.
posted by leslies at 7:44 PM on February 28, 2015

And with whatever you get, be sure to understand all the adjustment parts with the staff or on your own on some small milk run hike. Sometimes you might want more on your shoulders if, for instance, you tripped going to the bathroom the previous night and bruised a hip. Unlike a day pack, a larger backpack will grip your waist and interact with your clothing more, so sweat or a lousy seam can really aggravate things if they don't match well on a really long hike.
posted by nickggully at 8:08 PM on February 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Some general thoughts from me, guy who owns more backpacks than a lady owns purses, who lives in a national park and does backcountry camping, hut camping, car camping, backpacking overseas and other stupid things like ultra-light backpacking.

Sheridan Anderson wrote that "backpacking is the art of knowing what not to take.". What guides me when selecting a pack is: capacity, comfort, and budget.

Backpacks are measured in volume, using litres (L) as the carrying capacity. A day pack will be between 10-25L, an overnight pack usually between 25-45L, multi-day pack between 55-85L, anything bigger than that is for expeditions or those who don't know what not to bring. Those are rough figures, but a pretty good benchmark. Also, some packs can be over packed at the top by 10-20L.

The defining change between capacity is that there is usually an internal frame of some sort as the backpack gets higher up the 25-45L mark, shoulder straps get bigger, padded, and a harness around the waist goes from being a simple strap to being something padded because as weight increases you want to move it off your shoulders and onto your hips, which can easily cary 80-90% of the load.

Some features worth considering
  • Hydration storage: this used to be a feature, but now nearly all backpacks have a sleeve for holding a 1-3L camelback or other similar hydration system, and a hole for feeding it out the back of the pack and attaching it to a shoulder strap.
  • Access: Most backpacks give access to storage from the top, but it's really nice when your bag is big if you can also access it from the side via a second zipper, or from within a pouch. Ask if you don't notice secondary access. It might not be obvious.
  • Pouches/pockets: A lot of backpacks don't have pouches on the outside, and for good reason: they can get caught on things, they shift weight to the outside and away from the body, and they let you bring more junk than you need. They are nice to have, but should never be a defining feature. Don't rule out bags that only have secondary storage on the top pouch. Learn to love your top pouch, I keep all my key items in there: map, flashlight, knife, toiletries, a cliff bar, first aid kit. That said, a real nice feature is a small pocket on the hip strap for holding a small camera/phone/gps/compass. Nobody wants to take a backpack off just to take a picture or get a bearing.
  • Secondary pack: Protip: a lot of larger backpacks will let you take the top part off and turn it into either a fanny pack or a day bag/summit bag. This can be real handy if you want to leave camp for a day and not carry a second bag with you, or just for keeping in the tent with your main bag outside.
Key Storage considerations
Keep in mind there are three things you'll be carrying no matter what:
1. sleeping bag
2. mattress/pad
3. tent/shelter
Food, water, clothing, toiletries and cooking gear can be adjusted, but these 3 items not so much.

If you own these three things already, then as soon as you've picked the backpack you'll want to try loading them in the bag and seeing how much room you have left. Some thoughts:

Sleeping bags should be stuffed inside, ideally using a compression sack. Often a good backpack will have a separate section at the bottom for your bag, keeping your bedding away from the rest of your gear. I urge you to never keep your sleeping bag on the outside, it'll get wet easier, and bob around causing fatigue. If your sleeping bag didn't come with a compression sack, buy one to make it as small as possible when packing it into your bag.

Mattresses/pads can either go inside or outside, depending on how flexible they are. Mattresses can take a lot of space internally, so it's common to keep them on the outside, either strapped to the bottom, or between the storage and top flap.

Tents can be expensive, heavy, and take up a lot of space, but you're in luck since you can split the tent between the two of you. Find a balance between weight and size, e.g. one person take the tent and pegs, one person take the fly and poles. If you only have a car camping tent then go buy something light and small, REI will have lots of suggestions, but the reference 2 person backpacking tent is the MSR Hubba Hubba. Backpacks often have exterior pockets on the sides below the compression straps, these are perfect for holding tent poles on the outside.
posted by furtive at 9:49 PM on February 28, 2015 [10 favorites]

One small thing to consider is if you'll always be travelling as a couple. Some things you'll need would be redundant if you both carried them, so that might let you go smaller, size wise.
posted by backwards guitar at 6:07 AM on March 1, 2015

If there is any possibility of renting first, take that. As mentioned REI rents gear, as do many college outdoors programs (which are often available to community members as well as students). I will also add that I've had more trips ruined by carrying too much stuff than by carrying too little -- less is generally more.

Lastly, for her, look for brands like Osprey that do careful women-specific design. Women's proportions are different in important ways but some brands just make a smaller version and call it a women's style.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:28 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding Osprey packs. I've been around the world with my 65L Atmos pack and love the size, the fit, and the warranty. Many (all?) of their men's and women's models come in multiple sizes.
posted by xbonesgt at 7:54 AM on March 1, 2015

The size of a backpack is anti-proportional to the travel experience of the traveler. Please keep this in mind.

I was just traveling. I call it "drifting" for 30 days. You start but you don't have any plan. I went to snowy mountains in China and ended up in the Philippines scuba diving. I only have a little back pack. During my travels I saw people with tremendous backpacks on their back and additional big ones on the front. I guess it helps the balance if you have two. But the amount of stuff they were carrying puzzled me. Even if I were to leave to travel perpetually, I would not even carry half their stuff. Maybe a third or a quarter.

Travel light! buy a small back pack!
posted by yoyo_nyc at 8:08 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I haven't read the rest of the thread so forgive me if what I mention has already been covered. Keep in mind though that hiking and backpacking is one of those areas where two people will have wildly different opinions and both will be correct. There are wrong ways to do things but there are plenty of right ways.

I'm just going to ramble off a bunch of thoughts in no particular order.

Keep in mind that buying hiking gear, especially something as critical as a backpack, is like buying a guitar when you're just starting lessons. If you enjoy it and stick with it then after you have a couple years behind you you'll then have a better idea of what you prefer and you'll want to spend a bit more money and a bit more time looking for your next one. So don't worry about getting it absolutely perfect the first time out, but you should certainly shop around and buy quality.

As furtive has mentioned you are primarily concerned with carrying your sleeping bag, pad, and shelter so whatever you get you want to fit these things inside or lashed on. Most modern internal frame packs are designed to carry the sleeping bag inside. Depending on your pad and tent these will either be lashed on (there are usually straps included for this) or stuffed inside. I try to get as much inside as I can as anything on the outside of the pack can and will get snagged on trees or rocks.

You will of course have a ton of other stuff (clothes, cooking, emergency stuff, toiletries, etc) so get a pack large enough. I find most packs are too small for what they claim they're good for. I'm not a minimalist, I like my comfort, but I have reduced the size and weight of what I carry over the years and I still think packs are too small.

Your sleeping bag should be rated for the type of weather you'll be sleeping in. Summer in New England? A 40 degree bag will be fine most of the time. Fall or winter? Then you need to get a warmer bag. So if you only plan to do summer hiking for now then your sleeping bag will be somewhat compact and thus you probably won't need as large a pack to put it in.

Almost all packs these days come with waterproof pockets for a hydration bladder. This is a game changer and is much better than having to stop and take a swig every few minutes. Make sure the bladder pocket is segregated from the rest of the pack in case you spring a leak.

As others have said, go to REI or a similar outdoor store. Avoid your camping section in the local department store. Almost all of the brands at REI will be decent, including their house brand.

Wear whatever clothes you expect to wear hiking, especially whatever belt you're going to use. A pack that feels good in blue jeans at the store might chafe like hell on the trail with a rough belt made out of nylon webbing.

Find a pack that is big enough for where/when you expect to be hiking. A pack built for climbing Denali is different from one for an overnight in California. A New England weekend would be somewhere in between.

Ask them to size it for your torso. They'll get the right size pack and adjust the straps on it. The weight should be on your hips with the shoulder straps there mostly to stabilize the pack. More padding on the hip belt isn't necessarily better. Fit and how it conforms to you is better.

Ask them to fill it with weight. They have sandbags and things at the store and they are used to this. Throw the pack on and keep shopping for a while. Do laps around the store. Walk up and down the boot ramp. Jump around. Jostle from side to side. You want the pack to feel like it's a part of you.

I prefer simple packs. Mine has a main compartment with a smaller top pocket and one or two on the back. Straps are minimal. Every time you add a strap or a zipper you're adding something that can potentially break. I would stay away from gimmicks like packs that convert to chairs, packs that covert into smaller packs, packs with solar panel phone chargers or anything that looks kind of neat in the store but would probably break the second time you used it.

Really all you need is a well-fitting pack that can carry all your shit. Anything beyond that can be solved by lashing on a smaller pocket or with some stuff sacks.

That said, things that are nice to have are:

Pockets on the low sides that you can access by reaching back with the pack still on. These are usually for water bottles and/or snacks.

Places to lash hiking poles when you're not using them. My winter day pack has these straps that let you clip your poles onto the pack while you're still hiking. It's genius.

A small pocket on the waist belt for a map, a knife, and or maybe a camera. I now bring my dSLR so I have a special clip to carry it on my shoulder strap.

A hydration bladder pocket.

A small pocket under the top compartment or elsewhere that isn't easily accessible. This is where you keep things like car keys, your phone and your wallet that you will not need on the trail but that you DO NOT WANT TO LOSE. Make sure there is a place to clip your keys. Don't buy any pack that doesn't have a key clip because this is such a vital thing to have that if they left that out they probably left out other important features.

Plenty of lash points. Even if you never use them it's nice to have a place to tie up a wet shirt to dry while you hike, or maybe your friend gets injured and you have to carry some of their gear. You really want to be able to tie things to your pack if you need to.

That's some stuff that is nice to have. Continuing...

With the main compartment filled up, stuffed with crap, make sure you can fill the outer pockets. I once bought a Gregory (any relation?) pack that was the best feeling pack I've ever worn but then once I filled the main compartment I found the outer pockets were useless as the main compartment had expanded into them. I took the pack back and bought my current one which doesn't feel nearly as good but at least I can use all the pockets.

If you think there's a chance you'll eventually be doing some winter backpacking then make sure you have places to lash on snowshoes, ice ax, and a snow shovel. Never say never. This is how it starts, in the summer, and then you're going in fall and then it snows on you one night and then the next thing you know you're digging out the side of a mountain so you can set up your tent. Ask me how I know this.

The Lexus of backpacks used to be Dana Designs. I'm not sure they're around any more but if you're looking for used, that's a brand you want to look for. Osprey, Gregory, REI, Arc'teryx, Kelty, Mountainsmith are all decent brands that you'll find stocked at any decent outdoor store.

There are some specialized ultralight packs now. I have no experience with them but be cautious. Some of them have to be packed a certain way, with the sleeping pad used as part of the frame, so maybe stay away from these until you have a better idea what you're looking for.

If you're looking for a new tent I love my Big Agnes. So easy to set up and it weighs 2 lbs. My last backpacking tent was over 6lbs. They've come a long way.

That's all I can think of right now. Buying a pack is like buying boots in that nobody can say "go buy THIS one." You really need to buy the one that fits both your body and your needs. You and your ladyfriend may end up with totally different packs, and that's fine. No need to match.

Good luck, and feel free to memail me if you need any further advice.
posted by bondcliff at 11:14 AM on March 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

Forgive me for saying "you and your ladyfriend." I had mistakenly thought your man friend posted this thread and didn't notice until the edit window had closed.
posted by bondcliff at 11:30 AM on March 1, 2015

Coming in here to nth going to REI and trying out backpacks. Also, I recommend the Outdoor Gear Lab as an excellent source of reviews for all sorts of gear, including backpacks and tents. They go into pretty good detail on why they're recommending a backpack, and also give advice regarding which of several ones to go with depending on how you expect to use the gear.
posted by Jaclyn at 7:34 PM on March 1, 2015

Response by poster: Thank you so much for the advice, everyone! Sounds like the thing to do is to try a bunch and explore renting first.
posted by likeatoaster at 7:08 AM on March 2, 2015

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