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Choosing a Bug Out Backpack

Choosing a Bug Out BackpackChoosing a backpack is tough. Choosing a bug out backpack is even tougher. The wrong bag could leave you holding the bag… or dead.

Choosing a Bug Out Backpack

I’ll admit it, I am a backpack junkie. I have more backpacks than many women have purses. The good news is that since I’m a preparedness blogger and camper I can rationalize that all day long. Finding the perfect backpack is a journey not a destination. You’re going to buy and try many before you find that perfect pack, and even then it may not be perfect for all circumstances.

How big of a backpack can you carry? Are you a large person, a petite person or a 7 foot tall giant?

How do we solve this dilemma? Let’s figure out what factors or metrics are the most important in a backpack. Then and only then can we begin that search.

Volume: Cubic Inches or Liters?

When choosing a Bug Out Backpack, I’ve noticed much confusion about the capacity of backpacks. Many packs claim the exact same capacity, but we find that one backpack holds much more gear than the other. It is somewhat confusing, more so, because the process for measuring backpack capacity has been standardized for many years.

The standard for determining the capacity of a backpack entails using 20mm plastic balls as the filler. Packs are loaded up, then emptied. The 20mm balls are then dumped into a measuring device. According to the standard, capacity measurements should not include any compartments that are not entirely sealed by zippers, such as shovel pockets, bottle holders, compression pockets, etc. We suspect that some of the overstated backpack capacities, that we see, must include the additional capacity of these pockets. This makes online backpack selection very frustrating, since we lack the ability to compare the sizes in person.

Why is that some backpacks are measured in cubic inches and some are measured in liters. Many companies state their capacities in liters, but its in no way a universal thing.

General Sizing (in no way an exact science)

  • Daypacks will be under 2,500 cubic inches or 40 liters
  • Weekend packs are typically 2,500 to 4,000 cubic inches or 40 to 65 liters
  • Weeklong packs range from 4,000 to 6,000 cubic inches or 65 to 95 liters
  • Expedition packs are 6,000 cubic inches or 95 liters and up

Sample capacity data for reference:

Internal Frame or External Frame

Internal frame backpacks
Internal frame backpacks are fairly popular because they use a hidden metal (usually aluminum) or composite frame that supports the backpack from the inside. The frame is used to help place the weight on your hips, which is where your body can most effectively carry it.

An internal frame backpack typically has a narrower profile and is  generally positioned behind the shoulder harness.  The frame does provide some stiffness, but it still offers an amount of flexibility, which will allow the pack to move as your body moves. Internal Frame backpacks are slimmer providing you more room to maneuver your arms for climbing and other activities.

An internal frame backpack should hold the load closer to your center of gravity, which is key to maintaining your balance.

External frame backpacks
An external frame backpack is pretty much a backpack on an aluminum tube frame.

External Frame backpacks are rigid and strong. They are generally heavier than internal frame backpacks, but with increases in technology and plastics, lighter weight models have become readily available.

A feature that I enjoy on the external frame backpacks is that I can expand the load more easily by strapping items, such as tents, sleeping bags and other items directly to the frame.

There is typically more space between the frame and your back too, so you don’t get all gross and sweaty on your back. We’re already feeling miserable so why have a sweaty back?

Freighter Frame Packs

Some external frame packs have the option of being used as a “Freighter Frame”.  Freighter Frames, like the frame on the ALPS OutdoorZ Commander, allow you to remove the backpack from the frame and use the frame to carry loads of heavy items (think deer, loads of water or automobile batteries). This is a same concept that the ALICE pack uses with the ALICE Pack Shelf system.

If you do opt for an ALICE pack, make sure to do the HellCat mods to make it more comfortable

Materials and Construction

This is where seeing a bag in person, makes it so much simpler. You can typically tell by a quick visual inspection and by touch if a bag is cheap material, that may rip or tear easily. This is why a great seller like Amazon.com, makes all the difference. If the bag arrives and is cheaply made, or the zippers totally suck, you can put it back in the box and ship it back to Amazon. Plus reading the reviews from other purchasers makes Amazon the king in my book!


If you’re only concern is camping or commuting, then choose any color you desire.

If you plan to use it for a bug out bag or wish to be a bit more stealthy then natural, subdued or neutral colors might be best.

You may want to avoid going with a camouflage or tactical bag, because people may identify you as a person who may have stuff they want.

Neutral colors, greens, greys and browns blend in well but shouldn’t label you as a prepper or secret special forces wanna-be.

Water resistant or rain cover

You might have a bag that is fairly water resistant and that is great, but a rain cover can an additional layer of protection.

Having a couple different rain covers will allow you to quickly change the look of your backpack. You could have one cover for blending in as a regular camper or commuter and a 2nd rain cover in camouflage and/or black for stealth use.

Better yet, what about a reversible rain cover? The Eberlestock Reversible Rain Cover, is the best of all worlds. It gives you a bright colorful look, that can be reversed in a moments notice to its camouflage side for blending in with the forest.

Selecting a Size

These are some very general examples of packs that work for Average Sized and Petite individuals.

Average Sized Individuals

A 6 foot tall individual will probably be able to carry a 55 – 75 liter pack or a large/expedition pack with no problem.

Petite Individuals

An individual who is 5 feet tall and weighs 105 lbs (give or take) would probably be fairly comfortable with something in the 55 liter size or smaller range.

  • Teton Sports Scout 3400 Internal Frame Backpack (Measures 17 X 33 X 12 inches, 3400-cubic-inch / 55-liter cargo capacity; 4.5 lb weight).
  • 5.11 Rush 12 will also works for most people with a more petite frame. One of the biggest complaints I hear from the petite prepper ladies, is finding backpacks that fit them!

General Sizing

If you have to prep for your family, including small children, then get the largest pack you can carry comfortably.

I have a wife and 3 young daughters so carrying food, shelter, sleeping bags, cook gear, bug repellant, clothes, and etc for more than 1/2 of the family so I need something almost expedition class which is why my minimum is 3950cu inches and probably more reasonably around 5250 Cubic Inches (ALPS OutdoorZ Commander Freighter Frame Plus Pack Bag).


Choosing a Bug Out Backpack is a journey not a destination. As long as you keep that in mind, you won’t freak out and kick yourself every time you find a better bag than your last one. You’re going to buy and try many before you find that perfect pack, and even then it may not be perfect for all circumstances.





  1. Oriin M. Knutson


    This is excellent information, with more minute details than I have in my book that was just published, “SURVIVAL 101:How to Bug Out and Survive the First 72 Hours”, available on Power4Patriots.com.

    Of course, I was writing target writing to total “Greenhorns” and you to more experienced outdoor types and proactive preppers, although they seem to like my book as well.

    Thanks for a well written and concise blog,

  2. I don’t mean to be rude, and I apologize if this comes of as such. However, as someone who has worked selling Outdoor Products Firefly External Frame Packs among others. You should remove it from this list. The advantage of an external frame pack is the rigidity and load bearing capacity. You can generally pack they how every you want inside and not have to be worried about a distorted frame. In your typical external frame setup the pockets and organizational features on it then make it difficult to balance the load to your center of gravity. Generally not too much of a problem if the frame stays as rigid as it should. However the plastic frame on this Firefly torques and the hip belt is then not attached to a solid frame and starts to slide down leaving you having to constantly adjust it also putting more pressure on one side than the other fatiguing you faster. It also weaves pressure on your shoulders rather than your hips at that point making the bag feel much much heavier. I am a fan of internal frame packs but I see the use of an external especially when carrying loads over 40 LBS. If you do opt for an external I would suggest something with a solid metal frame. For example, the Kelty Trecker 65 or the Kelty Tioga 5500. Sure they are a little more expensive (still well under $200) , but the quality and load carrying ability is night and day. In terms of maneuverability you are much better off with an internal frame. I also suggest not getting too crazy with the size. People tend to pack the bag with as much as it will hold. A 95 Liter pack packed full can be 80 lbs. 80 lbs on your back is a liability. It means burning more calories which means you need more food to function, it hinders how quickly and efficiently you can move and it sticks out like a sore thumb. Note that you should never pack more than a 3rd of your healthy body weight. That doesn’t mean an overweight person can pack more when you are at or around your healthy BMI 1/3rd of your body weight. Other than your boots the most used piece of gear you have is your pack. It is not the the place to skimp.

    I enjoyed the article thank you.


  3. I’m disabled and low income. If you have an internal frame backpack or 2 that you are not using and fare wiling to donate than to me Ki would appreciate it.

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