Find the Perfect Outdoor Backpack – Part 1

Besides your hiking boots, the most important piece of equipment that must fit right is your outdoor backpack. If you are on the trail and the pack you just purchased fits you all wrong, then your body will suffer and you will tire out faster.  It can turn the most perfect hike into a miserable experience.

Your Honor, I Was Framed:

There are two basic styles of backpacks, Internal Frame and External Frame:

External Frame: The external frame is the old timer.  It is comprised of a ladder type frame, usually plastic or aluminum.  Everything is then attached to it:  the hip belt, shoulder straps and of course the “bag” part.  These have locations where added equipment can be attached to the frame.  Because of this, the bag part has less volume than an internal frame.  This type of pack is falling out of favor.


  • Cheaper than an internal frame.
  • The extended frame allows you to attach other items (like a sleeping bag) to the outside.
  • Because of the design, there is an air space between your back and the backpack bag.  This can keep your back from sweating so much.
  • The design also carries the weight higher on your back.  This allows you to stand up straighter while hiking.
  • Best for a heavy load.


  • Because the pack is not resting on your back, it may tend to be less stable or sway when you walk.
  • The higher center of gravity can keep you off balance more on steeper hikes.
  • Because of the external nature of the frame, when hiking in tight places (bushwacking), it may get tangled and catch on branches easier.

Internal Frame: The Internal Frame is, as Will Smith would say, “the New Hotness”.  Just like the name states, this outdoor backpack has an internal frame.  The frame is actually a spine that all the straps (belt, shoulder, load and stabilizers) attach to.  Spines are made from a variety of materials including; aluminum stays, plastic, carbon fiber or a stiff foam structure.


  • Because of the design, the pack can be more conforming to your body.  This can allow for more mobility and better balance.
  • Can handle a heavy load.


  • More expensive than the external frame.
  • Unlike the external frame, the bag actually rests on your back.  This can cause your back to sweat more.
  • Less configurable, the volume is the volume, because you cannot add a lot of items to the outside.
  • You may have to bend over more when carrying this backpack, because of the lower center of gravity than the external frame.

Variations on a Theme of Paganini. No, Variations on a Theme of Backpacks :

  • Day Packs:  Some so called Day Packs don’t provide a full frame, but rather rigid plastic sheeting.   Another name for these types of packs is a frameless assault pack.  There are so many variations to these, they need their own post.
  • Women’s Packs:  These are backpacks designed for a woman’s body (insert cat call here).
  • Youth Packs:  Like the Woman’s pack, these are designed for a smaller, less developed frame.   These also come with the ability to adjust as the child grows.

Are You Sizing Me Up?

So, what size pack do you need?   You first need to decide on what kind of hikes you are going on.  Outdoor backpacks are measured in either cubic inches or liters.  Liters are quickly replacing the cubic inches as the measurement of choice.

  • Day Hikes: Day Packs up to 33 liters or 2,000 cubic inches (specialized packs, like climbing packs may be larger).
  • Multiday (2 to 4 days): 57+ liters, 3500+ cubic inches.
  • Week Hikes (5 to 7 days): 70+ liters, 4300+ cubic inches.
  • Extended Length Hikes (8 days or longer): 90+ liters, 5,500+ cubic inches.

This is a rough guide.  If you are hiking during colder months, then a larger pack may be necessary to carry bulkier clothing and equipment.  A male’s pack can normally be larger than a female’s.  If you  are the leader or are carrying “group” equipment or a child’s equipment, then a larger pack will be necessary.

On to Part Two:

This article has turned into a monster, so I have decided to break it up into three parts.  You have just completed Part 1 – Outdoor Backpack Styles and Sizes.  Stay with me here, you do want the Perfect backpack?  Patience Grasshopper.

Part Two is How to find the Backpack that Fits You Properly

Part Three is Backpack Features and Options

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