How to Choose the Best Backpack, According to Science

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Backpacking is one of the most popular travel trends today. Young adults taking gap years and retirees looking for adventure are wearing their travel gear and exploring all different parts of the world. These trips aren’t just week-long trips to a resort in the islands either; more young travelers are taking trips that last over two months, with an average length of 58 days.

With longer trips becoming more fashionable, it’s more important to have long-lasting travel gear. Buying a backpack should come with more consideration and thought, especially for travelers who are not looking to buy a new bag after one or two trips (or worse, buy a replacement bag while they are halfway through their journey.) There are many brands and retailers that offer backpacks, but not all backpacks are suitable for every journey.

In order to choose a backpack that will be right for you, do the proper research. Look up different brands and models that are made for the type of travel that you enjoy. Once you’ve narrowed your options down to a handful of backpacks, try them on at a local retailer. You will only know how good a backpack really is once you’ve tried it on and walked around the store with it. Then you can make your final purchase!

Use these tips to buy a backpack that will last a lifetime, and help you make lifetime travel memories.

Types of Backpacks

Some travelers buy backpacks to hike through the Himalayas; others buy backpacks to travel from city to city and the backpack rarely sees the light of day. Make sure that you have the most appropriate backpack for the activities that you are undertaking.

Daypacks: If you are only going on a one- or two-day adventure, you may want to skip oversized bags and just go with a daypack. A daypack is a lightweight backpack that will fit less than 35 liters. Daypacks are less of a load, can be used as carry-on luggage for frequent fliers, and are more versatile. These smaller backpacks may be used for recreational travel, but some models are made for business travel, or to be a fashion statement. Among these bags, you can find flimsy bags that you can throw over your shoulder for a few bucks, or leather bags with designer labels that will cost you hundreds, up to a thousand, dollars. Climbers, hikers, and sightseers may also find themselves looking for specific daypacks that fit their needs, and they certainly exist on the market. When you are looking for a daypack, consider the activities that you will be using the daypack for.

Hydration Packs: These backpacks are typically smaller, holding no more than 10 liters. Cyclists or hikers don’t purchase hydration packs for storage; they purchase them for the 1-3 liters of liquid storage that allows the traveler to drink water on the go. Long-term travelers may consider bringing a hydration pack in addition to their large backpack for day trips and short hikes. Some larger backpacks have compartments that are made for storing a hydration pack, keeping it separate from other items that may be damaged by moisture.

Hiking and Traveling Backpacks (Rucksacks): Larger backpacks are also known as “rucksacks.” These can hold from 40-80 liters, and often are designed with specific travels in mind. It’s common to see pockets that are meant to hold hiking poles or helmets, even if the traveler does not have those items on their packing list. These rucksacks are also used by long-term backpackers who are spending months or years away from home.

Additional backpacks are specially made for activities like skiing, snowboarding, climbing, or hiking. These backpacks have extra pockets or straps designed to hold different types of gear, along with other features that are relevant to the particular sport or activity.

Health Risks With Backpacking

Backpacks are extremely useful for traveling or commuting, but there are dangers present with carrying a backpack. In 2015, over 14,000 Americans went sought medical treatment for backpacking-related injuries. Know the importance of choosing a backpack that distributes weight evenly. A poorly packed backpack, or one that is fit incorrectly, puts you at risk of the following:

Poor Posture – When backpacks are too heavy, the wearer will compensate by leaning forward. Spending too much time in this position will lead to hunched shoulders and poor posture. Proper posture is necessary for keeping the spine aligned and in balance. Once this balance is comprised, muscles have to put in extra effort to keep the body upright and carry heavy items on the back. Muscle strain and fatigue are common symptoms of poor posture. This poor arraignment of the spine may also lead to constriction of the blood vessels, limiting the body’s ability to transport oxygen and nutrients.

Nerve Damage- Even nerves around the shoulder and neck area are at risk. Excess strain on these areas can impair the nerves’ ability to send information from the brain to the muscles. Affected patients in a study from Tel Aviv University reported numbness and tingling in the limbs due to this type of nerve damage. Damage over time can limit a person’s ability to operate machinery or drive.

Aggravating Past Injuries – Poor posture or a heavy load may not cause a herniated or slipped disc, but if you have past injuries, you should be extra careful about carrying a backpack. Even if the injury happened many years ago, adding weight onto your back or slipping into poor posture can bring back old symptoms.

The best way to reduce the risk of these injuries is to choose a proper backpack that fits your body.

Rucksacks: Find The Best Fit

There are a lot of straps, compartments, and buckles on backpacks to make carrying a heavy load comfortable for longer treks and trips. In order to get the best backpack that will allow you to carry the weight you need, you will have to look at the size and suspension of the backpack.

The Right Amount of Space For Your Trip

Do you need a 80 liter bag for a week-long trip? The amount of space in your backpack can be crucial if you are bringing a lot of gear, but can quickly become a hindrance if you allow yourself too much space and end up walking around with a bag that is too heavy for your needs. Before you buy a backpack, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What bulky gear (helmets, tents, sleeping bags) will I need for my travels?
  • How will I be traveling (car, plane, train, bus)?
  • How long will I be traveling for?
  • What is the weather going to be like where I am traveling?

The general rule of thumb for storage is that hikers on a 1-3 day trip will need 40-60 liters; hikers on a 3-7 day trip will need 50-75 liters, and hikers on a trip that lasts longer than a week should consider a bag that holds over 65 liters. Take into consideration that this recommendation is just for hikers; climbers may need more space for additional gear, and travelers hopping from city to city will be fine with less.

If you are taking a plane, consider the size restrictions of the airline. Many rucksacks and larger backpacks will have to be checked underneath the plane, but most daypacks and some rucksacks can be used as a carry-on item. Usually, 45 liters is the largest backpack that will fit in the overhead compartment, but larger backpacks that are not completely full may be carried on as well. Before you carry your backpack onto the plane, fill up the bag with your items and compare the size of your bag to your specific airline restrictions. Different airlines have different requirements, and many charge a fine for bags that are too large to be carry-on bags, so be cautious when you decide what luggage to carry onto the plane.

How Much Weight Will You Need to Carry?

Weight restrictions may only make a difference if you’re boarding an airplane, but for travelers who are carrying your backpack for long periods of time may want to check the weight of their bag for health and safety reasons. Experts recommend carrying no more than 10-20% of your own weight on your back. Carrying less than 10% of your weight considerably reduces your risk of injury, and should be the limit for travelers who use their backpacks solely for day trips.

Consider the weight of your backpack without any items. Most rucksacks will range from 2-3 pounds, and while that doesn’t seem like much on its own, an extra pound or two can make a big difference an hour into your trek. However, going with the lightest pack isn’t always the best option; a lighter pack may be less durable than its heavier counterpart. Know the strength of the material alongside the overall weight and size of the backpack.

If you want to carry a lot of weight, consider how you will pack your backpack. Proper weight distribution is key to maximizing your ability to bring the right amount of gear on your back in a healthy and safe way. Weight distribution is affected by the following factors:

  • The weight of the items in the bag
  • Where the heavier/lighter items are placed throughout the bag
  • The fit and size of the backpack

The Right Size for Your Body

Carrying even a few pounds on your back for a long period of time can put a strain on your entire body. While muscle exercises and periods of rest can help to build strength, the best way to prevent back pain and injuries is to pack light and choose the correct backpack for your body.

Shoulders: Shoulder support is important, although most of your backpack’s weight should rest on your hips. (Your legs are stronger than your arms, and can take more weight for a longer period of time.) Straps should feel comfortable and not too tight. In order to get a good gauge of whether or not the shoulder straps are right for your body, try on a backpack and look at your side in the mirror. If the backpack is hanging off of your body with a lot of space between the pack and your back, you will need to tighten the straps or find a different pack.

Shoulder straps connect the larger straps to your main pack, and can adjust the fit of your straps. Pulling the straps in will bring the pack closer to the body, which is good for proper weight distribution. When you are looking sideways at yourself, these shoulder straps should rest at a 45-degree angle (give or take a few degrees.)

Torso Length: Measure your torso by finding your C7 vertebra (the most prominent bone near the bottom of your neck) and your iliac crest (the top of the shelf between your hips.) This distance is your torso length, and should equal the height of your backpack (from the top of the shoulder strap to the bottom of the bag’s hip belt.) When you are shopping for a backpack, make sure you look carefully for the height of the backpack; some varieties come in different heights.

Hips: A hip belt can help to distribute the weight of your backpack and take pressure off of your shoulders. In order to reduce shoulder strain, over 80% of your backpack’s weight should be held by your hips. Padded hip belts will help to support this weight; the more padding, the more weight your hips will be able to support.

When choosing a backpack, wrap the hip belt around the center of your hips and buckle the belt. Tighten the belt so that the padding feels comfortable but secure on the hips. Measure the space between each section of padding (where the belt is buckled.) If the space is too long or too short, your hip belt will not be able to properly support the weight of your backpack. Hip belt should only have 3-6 inches of space between padding. Belts that are too tight will cut off circulation throughout the body.

Hip belts unfortunately can restrict movement, so more active backpackers should move around and test out backpacks with hip belts before taking the backpack on a climb.

Additional Features to Consider Before Buying a Rucksack

Frame – If you plan on carrying over 10 pounds in your backpack, you will want to carry a backpack that has some sort of internal framing. This framing consists of rods that distribute weight toward the hips. The more rigid and prominent the framing, the more weight it will be able to distribute downward.

Straps – Don’t let the straps and cords on a big rucksack confuse you. All straps are placed on a backpack for specific purposes, and they can help to redistribute weight or make packing a lot easier for speciality travelers. Be sure to go through all of the straps online or with a sales associate in order to learn what your backpack can do for you on your trip.

Compression straps attach from the top of your backpack to the bottom. When tightened, the straps will compress the inside of the bag to reduce the height and condense the backpack’s weight. These will come in handy if you are trying to bring a backpack onto your flight as a carry-on.

Some backpacks also have sternum straps that connect and tighten the shoulder straps. This strap is rather small, but is preferred by backpackers who really enjoy a snug fit.

Additional straps are designed to hold important items rather than compress the bag. Straps on the bottom of the bag may be able to hold a sleeping bag, for example. Keep a list of the items you want to pack with you when choosing a backpack, and look for straps or compartments that will be able to hold some of the most important items.

These straps may be padded, especially ones that sit on the shoulders or close to the body. A wider strap is better for carrying the load of the backpack, and is less likely to break or fray. The padding is typically made out of a foam that will allow air to pass through. Pay attention to the padding of the straps and the edges; if the edges do not look durable, they may fray easily and cause irritation when they come in contact with your body.

Too many unnecessary straps could put your bag at risk of getting caught as you are walking. When you are examining the straps on a bag, learn what each strap is made for and how you can use it while you are traveling. If you cannot find a good use for the strap, make sure it is buckled up and tucked away where it cannot get caught on hooks, doors, or other items.

Air Channels – The part of your backpack that presses against your back should have padding for comfort, but this padding can often leave the wearer sweaty and eventually uncomfortable. Some backpack brands have mesh air channels in this back panel area so air can easily flow as you are hiking or traveling with your backpack. This detail may not seem like a high priority to some, but if you are hiking for long periods of time in high temperatures, air channels may save you some discomfort (and possible damage to your bag.)

Pockets and Organization – Finding the correct backpack for your body isn’t enough to keep you safe on long trips. The organization of your items, heavy and small, can make your backpack feel heavier as you travel. Examine the pockets on your backpack and the potential for organizing your load appropriately on the go. Having more control over where your stuff goes in your backpack will not only lighten the load on your back, but you will also have easier access to important items while you travel.

Even More Factors to Consider Before Purchasing a Backpack

If you still need to narrow down your decision to the perfect backpack, consider the features of the backpack. Even the smallest details, like a whistle on the strap, can make a big difference on your trip. Remember that your backpack is an investment; while some of these additional factors will come with an extra price tag, they may pay off in the long run (and after a few backpacking trips.)

What Is Your Backpack Made Of?

The evolution of backpacks have called for different uses, different users, and different materials necessary to get the job done. Specific fabrics will make a difference in the weight of the overall backpack, its durability, and how easily it can be damaged by moisture or weather.

Cotton Canvas – This material was traditionally used to make backpacks. The material is rather heavy and does not dry easily, although manufacturers typically waterproofed the material with wax. If the material does get wet and was not properly protected, you run a high risk of getting mold on your backpack.

Synthetic Canvas – In order to make the material lighter and less expensive, manufacturers started blending synthetic materials with the traditional canvas fabric. Blended materials are typically not waterproof, and may come in a range of strengths.

Nylon – Nylon is a synthetic material that comes in many different forms. This type of plastic is used in many backpacks, and has become a popular choice due to its waterproof qualities and inexpensive production costs.

Kodra Nylon and Cordura Nylon bags are considered some of the more high-quality materials used for backpacks, and are highly recommended for long-term travelers. Ripstop Nylon is more durable and waterproof than other types of nylon, while still maintaining lightness. Ballistic Nylon was developed originally as a body armor for military personnel. (It has since been replaced by Kevlar.) Ballistic nylon is also typically very durable, and is woven to prevent punctures and other tears.

Polyester – Polyester material is not as durable as nylon, and is not recommended for backpacks that need to carry heavy loads for a long period of time. Polyester backpacks are, however, typically less expensive and more aesthetically pleasing for younger backpackers. Polyester backpacks may also be called “pack cloth” backpacks.

Leather – Travelers who want to look sharp may opt for a leather backpack. Leather backpacks and rucksacks typically don’t come in sizes fit for long-term travelers, but suit many business travelers and people who want to bring a backpack to the workplace. If you are looking to buy a leather backpack, make sure it has been treated properly and will not shrink upon contact with moisture. A high-quality leather backpack is extremely durable and can last for years, but a leather backpack that has been shoddily made will not be worth the price.

How Strong Is Your Backpack?

Different materials guarantee different durability. In order to test and compare the strength of your backpack, you can look at the denier count. This is a unit of measurement used to determine the weight of textiles, and can be applied to clothing, backpacks, or anything else that is made with fabric.

The denier count comes from the weight of 9,000 meters of a specific fabric. 600D nylon is a nylon that weighs 600 grams for every 9,000 meters of material. 1200D nylon is twice as heavy as 600D nylon. Know that the denier count can be compared only to the denier count of the same fabric. 900D nylon and 900D polyester will not withstand the same weight.

Ballistic nylon is, on average, 1050D; Cordura nylon is typically 1000D. This number will change based on the manufacturer of the nylon and what it is being used for.

The denier count doesn’t directly correlate with the strength of the fabric, although lighter materials are typically less durable than heavier ones. Another level of measurement is tenacity, which measures grams per denier. The tenacity of a backpack is how easily it will continue to rip after it has also already been ripped. For example, a backpack may be made out of Type 6 nylon or Type 6,6 nylon (also known as Type 66 nylon.)

Thread count also measures the potential strength of the backpack. The thread count is determined by the number of threads that are woven into one square inch of fabric; a higher thread count is more durable.

The easiest way to find this information, as it pertains to potential backpacks, to look online at the individual make and model of the backpack you want to buy.

Is Your Backpack Safe from Potential Theft?

Unfortunately, many backpackers and travelers run into theft if they travel through cities or other densely populated areas. Over 400,000 incidents of pickpocketing occur across the world every single day. While many of these cases involve a purse or a smaller daypack, thefts can also happen if you are carrying a larger backpack and cannot feel someone touching your bag behind you. If your travel insurance or warranty does not cover theft, you will have to take extra precautions to make sure that your backpack, as well as the contents inside, are secure.

Zippers – If you are not careful, a pickpocket or thief can easily reach into the contents of your bag by unzipping a zipper. Travelers heading to countries with high theft rates should consider buying padlocks and buying a backpack that is compatible with your padlock. Backpacks should have pairs of zippers where you can fit a padlock. Additional hidden zippers also provide extra places for users to hold valuable items that thieves cannot find.

Tip: If you do not have the proper zippers, a waterproofing cover can also provide extra protection against thieves who want to open your backpack as you are walking or traveling.

Slash-Proof Material – Thieves also steal items from backpacks or purses by slashing them open with a knife. This method is usually used on small daypacks in crowded areas. Many backpacks boast anti-theft or anti-slash materials that are more sturdy than normal canvas or cloth backpacks. Reports of bag-slashing aren’t too high that this material should be your number one priority, but it can certainly make a difference if you are deciding between two different backpacks with similar features.

RFID Blocking Technology – Do you want even more protection? Look for a bag with RFID blocking technology. In recent years, thieves have developed an ability to steal personal information through scanning wallets and bags for sensitive information from credit cards, passports, or driver’s licenses. Some backpacks offer RFID blocking panels for an extra layer of protection. Accessories for wallets may also be purchased to protect your information from digital pickpocketing.

In addition to these factors, a backpack with a more unique pattern may deter potential thieves, as it is easier to identify in a police report or on public transportation where you may store your backpack.

Tip: Even if you take all of the proper precautions and choose a bag that protects you against pickpockets, be sure to pack your bag mindfully. Do not bring important documents and large wads of cash out with you; if you have cash, place it in multiple pockets in your backpack and throughout your person.


The following factors may not be the first thing you look for in a backpack, but can certainly make a decision when you are making a final choice.

Price – Backpacks are an investment for long-term or frequent travelers. A broken backpack in the middle of a trek could quickly turn into a disaster. Finding a replacement backpack could unnecessarily set your budget back (if you can access a store or wifi connection.) Consider the trips that you could potentially embark on in the next few years, and factor these future trips into the money you are willing to spend. Conversely, getting the best value will allow you to stretch the budget for your trip once the backpack has been purchased.

If you are looking for a daypack, expect to spend $50-$100. Polyester backpacks may be cheaper, and name brand leather backpacks may end up costing you up to $1000 or more. Rucksacks that are specially made for backpackers and travelers are typically on the pricier side, between $100-$300. This is just for the backpack itself; budget out any accessories or travel insurance that you will need to protect the backpack as you travel.

Time Magazine has reported that October is the best time to buy camping gear for a decent price. Black Friday and Cyber Monday specials may also swing you a good deal on backpacks and other gear, although many outdoor stores and retailers have opted against Black Friday sales and closing their stores for the day. Check ahead of time to see what your preferred retailer will be offering during the holiday season and if they have other sales throughout the year.

Army and military surplus stores, as well as thrift shops, may be your best bargain for a backpack. A second hand store will not be able to give you as much information about the thread count, and may not come with a warranty or any protection, but if the backpack is gently used, you may be able to get a great deal and use your budget elsewhere.

Appearance – If color or pattern is important to you while you travel, you will have more options while looking at daypacks. Most rucksacks come in single colors, with limited options. Choose a backpack that you will be able to recognize if you leave it on a train or check it on an airplane. Many long-term backpackers sew patches onto their backpack to show off where they have traveled, and distinguish their rucksack from others in hostels or on trains.

Warranty – Accidents happen. Bags may be torn, lost, or stolen as you travel. In some cases, these accidents will take the cost of a new backpack out of your travel budget. If you want to guarantee that you won’t break your bank on a new bag, purchase a backpack that has a good warranty. Warranties vary; some will last a few years, and some last a lifetime. Some warranties cover physical damage to the bag, and others will cover accidents like misplaced baggage or theft. Be sure to carefully review a brand’s warranty (and keep proof of the warranty after you purchase your bag.)

Machine Washable – At some point, you are going to want to wash your backpack. Backpacks may be able to be machine washed inside of a laundry bag, although much larger packs will do better with a hand wash. The bag may need an additional layer of waterproofing material after it has been washed. Different materials will dry quicker than others, so consider how you will wash and dry your bag while you are traveling. Rucksack liners and backpack covers are also available to prevent the bag from getting stained, and may be worth the extra investment.

Charging Capabilities – That’s right. Recent advancements in technology have created backpacks that can charge your mobile devices while you’re on the go. Day bags are more likely to have built-in chargers than large rucksacks, but some newer models may have a space to put a separate solar charger that can charge your electronics as you’re hiking.

Waterproofing – Whether you are backpacking for a few weeks or for a few years, you may encounter some rain or humid weather that threatens the life of your backpack. Even one bus trip with a damp storage compartment could have a serious impact on the outer material. Since most backpacks are made out of fabric, too much water can lead to mold and a bad smell. Some brands make a speciality backpack that has an extra waterproof layer on the outside of the bag to keep the inside items safe. Other brands will offer accessories that slip neatly over your backpack and can be removed when the sun is shining. Backpacks cannot be 100% waterproof, so consider purchasing accessories that provide additional waterproofing to the items you are bringing.

Reviews – Look online or ask around for reviews of potential backpacks. Backpacker forums or social media groups can provide unbiased, firsthand experience with specific brands or models. At the beginning stages of your search, reviews can help to narrow your options to a few choices that can give you great confidence for your trip. If you are having a hard time deciding between two packs, looking over the reviews can help you make the final choice.

Before You Buy, Ask Yourself the Following Questions.

Are you almost ready to make a decision? Do a final check to make sure that this backpack is the right one.

If you haven’t tested your backpack out, this should be a top priority before purchase. Atest run, with weighted pillows inside the backpack, is the best way to see how a backpack will feel as you are traveling. Buying a backpack in a physical store is the best way to have a proper test run and ask any specific questions that you may have about the backpack.

After your test run, and before your purchase, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have I tried this backpack on yet?
  • Will this backpack be able to fit all of the items on my packing list?
  • Are there any accessories that I need to buy with the backpack?
  • How will I protect the backpack from weather and moisture?
  • Will I have access to my most important items with this backpack?
  • Can I carry this backpack on a plane, or easily store it while I travel?
  • How long do I need this backpack to last?
  • What will the manufacturer or brand do if my backpack is stolen, lost, or broken on my trip?
  • Why is this backpack better than the other packs that I have looked at or tested out?

Once you are confident with your answers, you are ready to make your purchase. Happy traveling!