The Beginner’s Guide to Choosing the Right Backpack for Backpacking

Osprey Daylite Daypack from Campmor

Choosing the right size backpack might be the most important thing to consider before you set off to camp in the domed hills of the Adirondacks. Of course people who are still nursing blisters from a week of trekking with boots that rub wrong, or are currently reading this on a smart phone trying to gain an insight into waterproofing a tent, may disagree. However, I stand by my claim.

To someone who spent a good deal of his childhood being coaxed up various Adirondack peaks by methods ranging from scavenger hunts all the way to just being stuffed in a pack and carried, it is hard not to recommend my trusty 12″x9” Tyrannosaurus rex day pack as the ultimate tool for schlepping all things necessary up mountains.

However, time does tend to change ones perspective on things, and as the need to carry a bit more than some Legos and a Hershey Kiss or three grew, I quickly started to appreciate having the right size camping backpack on my back.

The Problem with Big Bags

Mother Nature doesn’t like a void. She has a tendency to go to great pains to fill them. It is possible that some of this is reflected in our tendency to stuff our packs, regardless of the capacity. Thoughts like “Why yes, this bottle of wine would slide quite nicely into that cranny there” or “Wouldn’t it be just great to have this coffee cake that fits so nicely in this pouch, for breakfast one rainy morning” are not foreign to me.

Of course, when you get out on to the trail and have gone just a very short distance (amazingly there seems always to be some sort of ledge or vista at this exact point) while resting and taking in the view the extreme silliness of these ideas fully sets in. For some, this induces a short impromptu trailside concession to give away the silly ideas. A pack that is too large indulges this dangerous thinking.

Little Ones Aren’t Always the Solution Either

No one is more unhappy than the person who has just been struck by the realization that their pack is too small. The discovery that you have consumed all your water and you do not have a water filter; leaving your rain gear on a day that is forecast to be fair and discovering that the Adirondacks do not respect forecast; or discovering that the veil of darkness arrive quicker in the mountains and you left the headlamp at home. If you are finding yourself rooting around fruitlessly in your tiny sack, hoping to discover that you stuck the one thing that would solve this problem in at the last minute, you just might have a pack that is too small.

The Simple Solution

This problem, along with many other problems, hiking-related or not, was resolved by a three step process my father taught me. To determine how big your pack should be, grab a pen and paper and follow these simple steps:

Figure out where you are going

Are you planning to hike up Mt. Marcy?  Will you be taking the straight-forward Van Hoevenberg trail or the scenic route around Lake Arnold?  Knowing your route will help you determine how much gear and food you will need.

Figure out what you are going to take

A terrific amount of writing has been done about camping gear and food selection. A quick Google search reveals a prolific 5 million results. I’ll stack my two cents on that mountain another day but for now, here is a good start.

Fit it in

Now here is the key part. Put it in a pack. If all of your gear fits, and you aren’t trying to validate stashing an extra pound of spicy sausage in the top compartment just because you have a little extra room, you are probably in good shape. But, if you are thinking about leaving your flashlight behind because you can’t quite squeeze your zipper over it, and you aren’t planning on being out in the dark anyway, you need something a little bigger.

It’s as simple as that. If you recently bought a bag and it fails this test, bring it back to exchange it for one that suits your needs better. My only personal advice is that the 5 year old me might have been on to something. It’s better to have a little extra room for a baggy of Legos and Kisses if you can spare.  You’ll be happy to have a snack and something that keeps you occupied, if you end up spending an unplanned night in the woods.


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  • peppermintpatvt

    So true! We were planning to be on the trail for two weeks, and packed WAY too much!! You do not need 10lbs of gorp, yup that’s right 10 lbs! 5 pair of shoes is a little extreme too. Don’t forget you have to carry this up mountains!! And yes we have give away stuff on route, much easier than lugging up Mt. Mansfield. Be careful how you pack, a little extra room is not a bad thing.