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How to choose a backpack

25 April 2023

Are your pockets overflowing with awesome gear? Keep your hands free and carry everything you need with ease by using a backpack. Regardless of the activity, a backpack is the perfect way to comfortably keep your essentials close at hand. 

At first glance, all backpacks may seem similar, but there is actually a lot to consider when choosing one. Let us guide you through the process of selecting the perfect size and features depending on what activities you’ll use your backpack for.


But first, what is the difference between a backpack, a daypack, and a rucksack? 

A backpack is the common name for all bags that can be carried on one’s back with shoulder straps. Sometimes you might also hear backpacks referred to as rucksacks or daypacks, but are these three synonyms, or are there differences between them? 

What is a rucksack?

The name rucksack is a loanword from German, and just like in English, it literally means a bag you carry on your back. It is used as a synonym for backpack in English-speaking countries, but many also use it to describe a more rugged backpack made of canvas. Rucksacks commonly have a large main compartment that is opened from the top, with smaller pockets on the outside and loops to attach other gear. 

What is a daypack?

A daypack is a small, lightweight backpack for carrying daily essentials. The name is used to distinguish smaller backpacks for single-day activities from larger backpacks used for backpacking and trekking over multiple days. 

What size backpack do you need? 

The size of a backpack is measured in liters, and it’s a measure of the backpack's capacity or packing volume. All the closed storage compartments, including the main compartment and pockets,  makes up the total volume of the backpack. The volume measurement does not include open pockets that cannot be closed with a zipper.  

On some larger and more technical backpacks, there may also be different back lengths or an adjustable carrying system based on the length of your back. This makes it easier to carry really large and heavy backpacks. 

Small backpacks, under 20L:
Best used for carrying your essentials, like personal items and tech. 

Medium backpacks, 20-30L:
Best used for school, work, and the gym, where you need to carry the essentials and some bulkier items. 

Large backpacks, 30-40L:
Best used for school, work, and travel when you need to fit a larger laptop, more items, or several changes of clothes. 

XLarge backpacks, over 40L:
Best used for backpacking or travel. Backpacks with a capacity over 40L are often large and less comfortable for daily carry. 

So, how do you determine which size backpack is best for you and your intended use? Consider the activities you plan to undertake and what items you'll need to bring along. It might be helpful to gather these items and assess how much space they require. Opting for compact and lightweight gear can save you space, and it may be a wise investment if you'll be carrying it frequently. 

Which Explor backpack suits you best? 

Activity18l (cubic inches) 30l (cubic inches)
HikingDay hike 1-2 days
Work/School16” laptop 17” laptop
Airplan TravelPersonal itemCarry-on
TravelOne nightWeekend

Are you looking for a bigger travel bag? Check out our Duffel Bag 40 L.

What features should you look for?  

Backpacks come with many details and functions that may sound like gibberish if you are unfamiliar with the different terms. Here, we have compiled a guide to the most common features you might encounter when looking for a new backpack. 


Frames in backpacks are structures that help distribute the weight from your shoulders to your hips. They can be helpful when carrying larger loads over longer periods of time. 

External frames: For external frames, the structure that supports the load is often made from aluminum tubing that attaches to the outside of the backpack. This also ensures good ventilation by creating an air pocket between the pack and your back. 

Internal frames: Backpacks with an internal frame have the structure hidden inside the pack. Some have aluminum stays to help support the load, allowing them to handle heavier weights. Other packs have a thin plastic frame sheet that helps it keep its shape and rest correctly on the back when worn. The frame sheets add a lightweight structure that can help distribute the weight more evenly, but they do not support heavier loads as well as sturdier frames made of aluminum. 

Frameless: Many backpacks for daily use are frameless. This makes them more lightweight and multifunctional. However, without the structure, they cannot support weight as well as backpacks with frames and are therefore best suited for lighter loads.

Access Points 

The way in which you access the main compartment in your backpack can vary. The most common way is through the top, but other designs may be more useful for different activities. 

Top Access: You can access the main compartment from the top of the backpack. The top lid can be closed with a zipper, cinched with a drawcord, rolled or buckled. 

Front Access: Backpacks with front access have a U-shaped zipper on three sides of the front panel, making it open like a flap. Accessing the main compartment this way is easier, as it is more like opening a suitcase. This access type can also be called clamshell, as one side acts as a hinge and the pack opens to lay flat. 

Side Access: Some backpacks have an access point from the side, often in combination with top or front access. Side access allows you to sling the backpack to the front of your body and access your belongings without having to take off the pack. 

Bottom Access: There are also backpacks where you can access the main compartment from the bottom, often in combination with other types of access points. This makes it easier to reach items at the bottom of your pack without having to unload everything. 

Back Access: Back access allows you to open the backpack from the back panel. It often functions like front access, splaying open and laying flat like a suitcase, making it easier to access your gear. 


When it comes to pockets, there are various options available, ranging from streamlined backpacks with only the main compartment to tactical backpacks with multiple storage options. Here are some pockets you should keep an eye out for: 

Main compartment: The largest pocket in the backpack is usually referred to as the main compartment. This is where you store most of your belongings, including bigger, bulkier items. 

Side pocket: Side pockets are located on the outside of the pack and are often used to store water bottles, umbrellas, or snacks. Side pockets are easily accessible even when you're on the go, without having to take off the backpack. 

Lid-pocket: Pockets in the lid can be internal or external. They provide easy access to personal items that you might need quickly, such as sunglasses and maps. At the airport, the top-lid pocket is perfect for storing your bag of liquids, giving you easy access to it at the security checkpoint. 

Hip-belt pocket: Many packs also have pockets on the hip belt, which can be zippered or open. These pockets are easily accessible while wearing the backpack and are perfect for storing sunscreen, lip balm, phone, or snacks. 

Laptop compartment: A special laptop storage pocket can usually be found in the main compartment. Sometimes it can also have its own access, making it possible to get to the laptop without going through the main compartment. 

Zippered internal or back pocket: Internal pockets or pockets on the back panel that can be zipped closed are perfect for storing valuables such as your wallet, passport, or other travel documents. By hiding the access inside the backpack or at the back, you prevent someone else from accessing your belongings. 

Hydration sleeve: Hydration bladders are a convenient way to carry and drink water without stopping to pull out your water bottle. Many backpacks have internal sleeves for hydration bladders with portals for putting the tube within easy reach.  

Straps and Attachment Points 

With attachment points such as straps, daisy chains, and loops, you can store bulky items on the outside of your pack that would otherwise not fit inside. This can significantly extend your pack's capacity, but you still need to consider weight and weight distribution to comfortably carry a heavier load.

Rear Loading Straps: Rear loading straps are typically located at the bottom of the pack, allowing you to attach sleeping pads, tents, or sleeping bags to the outside of the bag. They are usually adjustable and secured with buckles, making it easy to attach different types of gear. 

Gear Loops: Gear loops are designed to attach long gear such as trekking poles, axes, or ice picks. They are also suitable for attaching carabiners. 

Daisy Chains: Some packs also feature daisy chains, which are lengths of webbing stitched to the outside of the pack. These can be used to attach tools, helmets, and wet clothing with carabiners. 

Compression Straps: Compression straps reduce the size of your backpack when it is not fully loaded. These adjustable straps often have buckles or hooks and can also be used as loops for attaching gear. 

Sternum Strap: Many backpacks come with a sternum strap to prevent the shoulder straps from sliding off your arms while moving. It can also help alleviate strain from your shoulders by distributing weight better and improving the stability of your load. 

Load-Lifters: Load-lifters, or stabilizer straps, are adjustable straps that connect the upper part of the backpack with the shoulder straps. They pull the backpack forward, providing more support for your shoulders and making it more comfortable to carry heavy loads. 

Shoulder Straps: Shoulder straps distribute the weight of the backpack evenly. It is important to have adjustable shoulder straps to position the pack correctly on your back. Shoulder straps can also be straight or curved, with curved straps being better for hauling heavier loads or using your backpack for longer periods, as they reduce rubbing and pinching. 

Hip Belt: To redistribute the weight of the load from your shoulders to your hips, many backpacks come with a padded hip belt. The belt should rest just above your hip bone to be most effective and help you carry larger backpacks with heavier loads. Smaller backpacks may have a waist belt that attaches around your waist, but these do not redistribute the pack's weight like padded hip belts. However, they can help you carry a bit more weight with greater comfort by stabilizing the backpack and keeping it close to your back. 


Padding makes the backpack more comfortable to wear, and it is even more important with heavier loads that exert a lot of pressure on your body. Look for padding in the lower back, hip belt, and shoulder straps, as these are the areas where you are most likely to experience sore spots. 


Ventilation is an important aspect that you might overlook when shopping for a backpack. It helps to combat a sweaty back and is essential for comfortably carrying a backpack for long periods of time or in hot and humid climates. Backpacks with an external frame often create an air pocket between your back and the bag, allowing air to flow between the two. 

Backpacks without a frame or with internal frames are often worn directly against the back. They usually have ridges or ventilation channels in the back panel for better airflow. Some backpacks also have a suspended mesh back panel, which allows the main part of the pack to rest a bit away from your back. Both solutions provide more airflow and reduce the surface area in contact with your back. 


Keeping your gear dry is essential during rainy weather. Most backpacks are treated with DWR (Durable Water Repellent) to make them more resistant to rain, but this does not make them completely waterproof. During long and heavy downpours, water will seep through. Adding an extra rain cover over the backpack can be a good idea to keep your gear dry in heavy rain. 

Don't forget to reapply the DWR treatment to your backpack to maintain its water-repellent properties.