What Size Pack Do You Need?

Big red packPeople often wonder how to choose the right pack size. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as asking yourself what size pack you want. It’s not just a matter of preference, like picking a flavor of ice cream. There are multiple factors that will help you determine which pack size is right for you.

Picking the right pack size can be tricky. You don’t want to have too little space, but you also don’t want to have too much space. You have to try and find the right size that will work for the majority of your trips. If you only do day hikes, or if you only do week-long expeditions, your decision will be easy, but if your trip lengths vary, you will have to do a little more thinking when choosing your pack size.

Obviously, a pack designed for a day won’t be able to carry all the gear you need for a week, and a pack designed for a week is overkill on a day hike. So unless you’re planning on getting both a pack for day trips and a pack for long trips, you should be careful about buying packs on the extreme ends of the spectrum.

The amount that a pack can carry (or its volume) is usually measured in liters or cubic inches. Liters is probably the most popular unit of measurement, but cubic inches is used frequently as well. Many pack manufacturers will use the pack’s volume in its name, making it easy to know the size. For example, the Deuter ACT Lite 40 + 10 is a 40 liter pack with a feature that allows the pack to extend and add another 10 liters. Now, unless you work in a pack shop, you probably can’t visualize what a 40 or 50 liter pack looks like and know how much stuff you can fit there.

So how do you hone in on what volume you need?

Consider what you intend to use the pack for. You don’t want to buy a lugger if you exclusively go on day hikes, and you don’t want a pint-sized pack if you’re usually out for days at a time. Figure out which type of hiking you do most frequently and get a pack that lends itself to that.

Consider what type of packer you are. Some people want to pack their entire wardrobe for a weekend outing. Others are content packing a single set of clothes for a week-long trip. Your tendency will be a big factor in choosing your pack size. Overpackers will probably want to size-up whereas minimalists can size-down.

Consider the size of your gear. – Do you have a super compressible down bag and compact ultralight gear, or do you have a giant synthetic-fill bag and clunky inherited camp gear? The size of your gear will dictate the size of your pack.

Consider the season you hike in. Winter gear takes up more space than summer gear, so you need a pack to accommodate the season.

Here’s a rough guideline for choosing your pack size based on the number of days you will be on the trail.

  • You probably don’t want a day pack much bigger than 30 liters. Otherwise you’ll end up spending the day walking around with a half-filled pack, or bringing things you don’t need. Some folks just need a water reservoir with a pocket.
  • Once you get to the two and three-day range, most folks need to up their pack size. Overnight trips need room for a shelter. Three-day trips require extra food and water. You probably need a pack with a volume between 30 and 50 liters.
  • Trips over 3 days require extra space to accommodate food and clothing. If you’re planning to be on the trail for a 1/2 week to a week, you should look for a pack around 60 to 80 liters.
  • Anything over a week, you need at least an 70 liter pack or larger.

Of course, the pack size depends on plenty of factors. Think through everything before making your purchase.

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