Ask anyone, “what is the best…(it doesn’t matter what word follows “best”)” and you will receive a wide variety of responses. Best is a subjective term and the answers that follow are always influenced by personal opinion. How do you determine what YOU need in a sea of suggestions that are likely tainted (hehe, taint) with biases? Perhaps the best way to look at backpacks is to objectively discuss their design and narrow down the choices based on a few key features. Think of this buyer’s guide not as a suggestion of one pack design over another but rather as a guide to make you a more educated consumer. Oh, in the interest of full disclosure: I’ve been a Kifaru fan and sponsored outdoorsman for well over a decade. They are the ONLY backpacks I use in my personal and professional life. I’ll include my Kifaru recommendations for each category of the pack I recommend but I’ll do my damnedest to provide objectivity first.
When you think of a backpack, what size is it? Better yet, change the word “size” to “capacity” or “volume”. Bags are measured in either cubic inches or liters. Those on the smaller end of the spectrum have less volume and are intended for day to overnight use. Think 30-50 liters. Those with more capacity upwards of 80 liters are better suited for weekend/multi-day use. The largest of the packs you’ll find with 80 liters plus are expedition packs meant for a week plus use. Keep in mind, that you can always not load a bag to capacity but you will struggle to add capacity to a smaller bag. Also remember you may find a pack you can attach additional organizer pockets, stuff sacks, and bedrolls to the exterior. I like a slick pack and avoid dangling objects on the outside of my bags when I’m rambling through the woods. No matter what size you choose, remember there will be some space for gear that rides permanently in your pack and some for consumables like food and water. By narrowing down the pack you need by capacity, you already chip away at the field of potential bags that will work for your needs.
My choice: Kifaru Shape Charge with a Sherman Pocket
My choice: Kifaru .22 Mag with 2x Medium belt pouches mounted to back.
My choice: Kifaru Reckoning
Not all bags are constructed equally. Bag construction can be broken down into additional subcategories based on the fabric and the type of stitching used. Very rarely will you find mass-produced waxed canvas or plain-Jane canvas used today and sold in stores unless you look at the fancier packs that are trendy with college kids and hipsters. For more technical packs, you’re going to have to decide how durable the nylon fabric needs to be. 500D Cordura is plenty for most and there are some packs with 1000D or double 1000D for extremely hard use. Keep in mind, that the heavier the nylon, usually the heavier the pack. Look to see how the pack is constructed in stress areas. If you only see a single line of stitching, you may want to look for double-stitched seams and properly reinforced stitches in high-stress areas. Also, part of construction you need to consider is how the pack is designed to be loaded and unloaded. The most common types are top-loading packs and panel-loading packs. Panel loaders are great for access but they have a possible weak point with a zipper running the length of the bag. That zipper also can let water in. Top-loading packs are incredibly durable with fewer seams however they may only have a single access point and may be difficult to organize your gear from the top down. The field of potential packs should be incredibly narrowed down at this point.
As you continue to narrow down your pack, you will probably notice the suspension used to support the bag. Traditionally, bags were either frameless (just a piece of foam sewn inside), or external or internal frames. The external frame was most obvious with an aluminum or polymer frame visible from the outside and these bags worked well for flat trails. Some were used in technical climbing but given the nature of the bag and the fact they kept the weight away from the body to keep the user cool, they didn’t move with the climbers and were replaced with internal frame bags. Now, the internal frame could be a piece of rigid plastic and have illuminum stays that are meant to work with the movement of the user. The vast majority of larger bags have this construction today. The suspension of your pack also includes the various straps that pull the bag tighter to your body. A lot can be said about a good set of shoulder straps and despite what you may believe, thicker pads are not ideal. Thinner straps will make it easier to shoulder a rifle without going too deep into the weeds, the foam used in shoulder straps will vary in comfort and quality.
Any good backpack store or manufacturer should have plenty of pack-fitting experts. When I worked in outdoor retail, we had stuff sacks with various weights we could add to a pack when it was shouldered to simulate the load you plan on carrying into the backcountry. We also had regular in-service training on how to work the straps on the pack to custom fit them to the user. If you want to get a great backpack, make sure it is appropriately fitted to you. If you measure from your C5 (the most prominent bump on your spine between your shoulders) to your pants beltline, you can usually provide the manufacturer with your torso size and they can get a ballpark idea of what packs will work for you. There are plenty of folks who wear packs that are too long and it is comically obvious when a pack is too short for a torso. Depending on how you adjust the shoulder straps, compression straps, waist belt, and so on, you can make a pack feel like it is working with you instead of fighting you and your balance.
Many little details will help you narrow down your pack even more. You will find packs built from every color of the rainbow. Some packs will look sleek and others will be more turtle-like. You will find slimline tall packs and short fat ones. Some packs will look civilian and others will be clad in MOLLE giving off a military-like appearance. Little details include internal clips for keys, pocket placement, the ability of the pack to dock with larger or smaller packs, the hardware used, and internal tunnel pockets for hydration bladders with openings for their corresponding drinking tubes. Once you narrow down the big details about a pack objectively, you’ll find plenty of room for your subjective taste to step in. If you work from your subjectivity to objectivity, you may end up with a pack that looks good for show but not forgo. Work from logic and reason first and then customize your needs. By the way, there is no such thing as the “One best pack for everything” so get ready to perform this pack selection process a few times. You’ll be happier with the right pack than trying to make one pack do it all.