Buying a new pack is the backpacker equivalent to buying a car. You go to several stores, try them all on, compare the specs and then try them all on again. You think about what features you absolutely need and what bells and whistles you really want. But when you boil it all down there are a few major things you need to take into consideration when buying a pack.
Volume : Volume when talking about backpacks refers to the capacity in liters squared. A typical day pack could be anywhere from 20-30L with a weekend bag around 30-55L and a long trip pack anywhere from 55-80+L. A general rule of thumb is if you are going for a week to 10 days, a 40-45L bag will suffice. If you are going for two weeks or more 55-75L should be enough, keeping in mind if you are trekking in winter you will need a larger pack for bulkier clothing and a thicker sleeping bag.
Comfort : Comfort is probably the most important thing to look for when purchasing a pack, especially your first one. The two main points to look at are:
back plate style // Padded, mesh, & vented are the three main types I’ve come across. Padded has the most support but will cause your back to sweat in hot climates. Mesh keeps your back much cooler but has less support and due to the space needed for the airflow these usually causes the weight of your pack to be set a couple inches behind you, not ideal for really long hauls or steep hikes. Vented or “channeled” is a good option because it provides solid pads for support with grooves or channels that allows air to circulate.
hip belt // Hip belts are critical for distributing the weight of your pack away from your shoulders. If you plan on carrying your pack further than the tuktuk to your hostel room make sure you have a proper hip belt. Is there enough padding? Do the pads come around the front of your waist? Do the pads sit comfortably or do they dig in to you? Make sure you try the pack on in the store and ask if you can fill it with some gear, walk around for a bit and see how it feels. Many packs have an adjustable torso or come in different lengths to account for short, medium and tall people so make sure the hip pads are set properly so the weight will be evenly distributed when you are carrying a full load.
Pockets - Pockets are the next most important thing. Some people prefer to have glorified cargo pants on the backs with pockets and zippers at every turn to keep everything in its place. Some people prefer a more streamline style with one main compartment and a few small inside pouches. This is entirely personal preference so try and consider what you are bringing on your trip and where it will all fit in the bag. If you are still not sure, refer to tip #4 in this article.
Access – There are two main styles of pack: top loading and side access. Almost all packs will be top loading, which means there is a lid or “cap” that covers the top of the pack, under which is the main compartment where you will place all your gear. Side access pack are often top loading as well but will have a zipper running the length of the pack or in a large “U” shape so when laying flat, the pack can open like a suitcase. Having side access is a major asset and I highly recommend it so you don’t need to tear apart your entire pack when you want to get something from the middle or bottom of the bag.
Extra Features - There are many other features to look for when purchasing a pack, some of which may be included and you don’t even know as they can be tucked away, so don’t be afraid to ask.
rain guard // this is a thin parachute-like material that can quickly and easily be pulled over your whole bag to protect it in the event of sudden downpour, usually hidden outside of the bag in a small pocket at the bottom under the hip belt. If your pack does not include this, I highly recommend you buy an external one, usually around $30, and keep it handy.
loops/straps for hiking poles // These are sometimes tucked into a small slits near the bottom of the pack, ask if your pack includes them.
water reservoir pouch // This pouch is usually on the inside compartment attached to the back plate and comes standard in most packs nowadays. You will need to buy the plastic liner separately that has a tube attached and runs through a small hole in the side of the bag by your shoulder and sits on the shoulder strap for easy water access on the go. This is a good option for long hikes so you don’t need to carry a water bottle in your hand.
Colour - When it comes to performance gear like backpacks people will always tell you “don’t worry about the color, just worry about what the bag can do”. But lets face it, you are going to be spending the next few months/years with this thing attached to you so you better make sure you like the way it looks. I’m not going to be wandering around Southeast Asia with a bright orange bag on my back, it would clash with my eyes. So it may not be the most important feature, but make sure you are happy with the color. The bonus is many packs come in at least 2 colours so you can have an option.
To recap size and comfort are the most important things to take into consideration when buying your pack. Remember, this is the polar opposite of buying a tuxedo or wedding dress, this thing will be attached to you every day so make sure its comfortable and will suit your needs.