Looking for a new backpack for your adventures but are not sure what one to get? In this article we explore the many different rucksack styles and types of backpack for outdoor activities.
Rucksack vs backpack
But first let’s clear up the difference between a rucksack and a backpack. The two terms are used interchangeably – including in this article. But they actually refer to two slightly different things.
A backpack is a bag that you carry on your back – clues in the name. All backpacks have shoulder straps and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes for different intended uses.
A rucksack is a large backpack used to carry a heavy load. Often this might be for overnight hiking and carrying all your camping gear. Confusingly a rucksack is the type of backpack used for backpacking – both the US and rest of the world meaning of the word.
Different rucksack styles
When we say styles of backpack or rucksack we are not talking about red versus blue or which best matches your jacket. It’s the shape, size, how it’s made and the intended use that is important.
This article about different types of backpack for outdoor activities covers all the major varieties of pack. It looks at backpacks by size but also style, discussing the intended use and each type and the positives and negatives of each.
We start with the smallest and most basic of backpacks gradually getting more complex, specialised and pricey. We hope this sliding scale of backpack styles will help you to decide what type of rucksack will best suit your needs.
Types of backpack for outdoor activities
Please note, this is about backpacks for outdoor activities. So bags for school, college or work etc are not included. However, the packs below would be fine for these uses.
Different backpack sizes
Before we get into the different rucksack styles, we have broken backpacks down by size. You can get most of the different styles of rucksack in a range of the sizes below. Also there is some crossover between sizes.
Micro backpack: Up to 2 Litres
This is a tiny backpack used to carry a few essentials such as keys, wallet and phone. If you are lucky there is enough room to carry a small bottle of water. Micro hydropacks including a bladder are in this category.
Uses: Running, short walks, everyday use
Positives: Small, light and unobtrusive
Negatives: Too small for most activities
Small backpack: 2 to 9 Litres
A small backpack is perfect if you are packing light or only out for a few hours. In addition to the essentials you’ll have plenty of room for water, snacks and a lightweight waterproof. But not much else.
Uses: Trail running, short bike rides, short hikes, skiing, snowboarding, travel day bag
Positives: Small and light
Negatives: Can’t fit much in and often don’t have waist and/or sternum straps.
Small daypack: 10 to 20 Litres
A daypack is an essential bit of kit for anyone who likes to get into the outdoors. For summer time, good weather activities where you don’t need much gear a small daypack is perfect. You can fit lunch, plenty of water and spare layers etc.
Uses: Day rides, day hikes, travel day bag, ski touring, splitboarding
Positives: Small, easy to handle with ample straps
Negatives: Not very versatile, at the cheaper end of the scale often fairly basic without the innovations of larger packs.
Large daypack/Small overnight: 20 to 35 Litres
A large daypack is a go to rucksack for most day activities – I love my Thule Stir 28L. Great if the weather will be varied or if you need plenty of gear. There is room to fit everything you need, usually in a variety of pockets. Typically there are more features and innovation than smaller backpacks.
Uses: Hiking, biking, mountaineering, ultra-light camping, backcountry overnighter, weekend away, day out with the family
Positives: Versatile as it is still light, but with plenty of room and useful features.
Negatives: Can be expensive for the size
Small rucksack: 35 to 50 Litres
This is the size when a backpack becomes a rucksack. Although there is of course a lot of crossover depending on your intended use. At this size you can carry enough gear for multi-day adventures, although you might struggle if you have full on camping gear.
Uses: Mountaineering, light camping, travel, multi day trekking or riding and holidays.
Positives: Room for oodles of gear but still easy to access. Usually counts as hand luggage on flights
Negatives: Too big as a daypack or to fit under seat in front on flights, buses and trains etc. Starting to get heavy.
Large rucksack: 50 to 70 Litres
When a rucksack reaches this size you are playing with the big boys! Plenty of room for full on camping gear for multi day self supported treks etc. The Osprey Aura 65L backpack used for the DofE award is a good example. Alternatively there is enough room for a years worth of clothes if backpacking around the world.
Uses: Expeditions, camping, travel and backpacking, multi day self supported treks and holidays.
Positives: Lots of room for everything you need. Usually adjustable to fit different body shapes.
Negatives: Heavy and often a pain to get at stuff at the bottom. Needs to go in the hold on flights.
Kitchen sink backpack: More than 70 Litres
Of the different types of backpack for outdoor activities these are the largest. Most very large rucksacks for outdoor uses top out at about 85-90L although you can get them for 120L and more. At the larger sizes they are often a hybrid with wheels.
Uses: Expeditions, military, travel and backpacking (for those that can’t pack light).
Positives: More room than you probably need. Some come with wheels.
Negatives: Very heavy and a real pain to get at stuff at the bottom. If full you might incur excess baggage fees on flights.
Different backpack styles
Now onto the various types of backpack for outdoor activities. Most of these styles will come in a range of the different sizes listed above. They are in a rough order of the simplest and cheapest to the most complex and expensive.
Lightweight without rigid bits this style of rucksack packs away when not in use. They range from cheap and lightweight with zero features to decent quality packs for a range of uses. Mainly used by travellers who need a larger daypack for activities as part of a longer trip.
Uses: To take travelling/backpacking
Positives: Ultra-light for a good sized pack. Often very cheap
Negatives: Less comfortable and robust than an actual daypack with fewer features.
Basic (low cost) backpack
Also lightweight with minimal rigid bits. However this type of rucksack is not designed to be packable. Coming in all sizes usually with one main pocket with top entry. They tend not have additional features at small sizes but as they get larger will usually have waist and/or sternum straps.
Uses: All outdoor activities but nothing too serious – eg an expedition or mountaineering
Positives: Cheaper than more sophisticated types of backpacks
Negatives: Usually less comfortable with fewer features and less well made using poorer quality materials.
A high quality heavy duty backpack that is built to last such as a 511 backpack. Characteristically they have thick waterproof material that won’t tear if you catch it on bushes. Often have many small pockets and are MOLLE-compatible, meaning you can add modular attachments to customise it to your needs.
Uses: Military, hunting, fishing and general outdoors
Positives: Very versatile and adaptable. Hard wearing and won’t let you down.
Negatives: Expensive and heavy for their size.
Designed for watersports and activities where you could end up in the drink. Dry sacks keep your gear dry even if the bag is submerged. Using completely waterproof material combined with a roll top they stop water getting in during the worst weather or if you take a swim (planned or unplanned!).
Uses: Watersports, expeditions, trekking with water crossings
Positives: Guaranteed to keep your gear dry
Negatives: Heavy and less versatile than other types of backpack for outdoor activities.
The ‘Bells and whistles’ backpack
Of the different rucksack styles this is the one that varies the most. It is the feature heavy kind of rucksack made to be more practical and to offer better comfort. Expect pockets for sunglasses, sweat free straps, suspended back, clips to hold keys and waterproof high visibility covers.
Uses: All activities
Positives: Useful features and more comfortable. Often lightweight (as a feature) but not always
Negatives: Expensive and more features can make them heavier
Can’t decide between a backpack and a wheelie bag? Then get both! A crossover bag has the characteristics of a rucksack with the added convenience of wheels and a handle to pull it along. They vary from a backpack with wheels (better to carry) to a wheelie bag with straps (better to roll).
Uses: Travelling, backpacking
Positives: Easier to move a heavy weight bag around.
Negatives: Expensive and less useful as a backpack as the wheels add weight.
Want to avoid carrying around bottles of water? Then you need a hydration pack. They hold a water bladder close to your back making it easier to carry. The bladder is attached to a tube you drink through without taking the bag off your back. For example this CamelBak Rogue we reviewed.
Uses: Hiking, trekking, biking, mountaineering, skiing and snowboarding
Positives: Easy to have a drink and weight of liquid better distributed and kept close to your body.
Negatives: They can be expensive, tubes can freeze in cold conditions, cleaning the bladder and tube is a pain.
Designed for carrying photography equipment whilst in the great outdoors. Photography backpacks are robust, waterproof and usually very padded. They come in many shapes and sizes and usually have adjustable interiors to suit your photographic equipment.
Uses: All activities
Positives: Safely carry your photography equipment
Negatives: Expensive, can be bulky and unwieldy
For use in terrain where an avalanche is possible, an ava pack not only carries your gear but also includes an airbag. If caught in a slide you pull a toggle to inflate the airbag which could help to save your life. Check out this review of the Pieps Jetforce ava pack for more info.
Uses: Skiing, snowboarding, heli-ski, touring, splitboarding, mountaineering
Positives: Could save your life
Negatives: Expensive, annoying to get through security when flying and extra weight to carry.
Specific activity backpack
Every activity has packs specifically designed for it. From biking to hiking, paragliding to mountaineering and snowboarding to trail running there is a type of backpack out there especially for your needs. For example, I love my Dakine Seeker mountain biking backpack.
Uses: Specific activity
Positives: Specialist backpacks haves the right pockets and features to suit that activity.
Negatives: More expensive than a generic backpack
I hope you found this guide to the different types of backpack for outdoor activities useful. Be sure to check out our adventure holiday discounts as you could save a fortune on your next trip.