Buying a kid’s backpack is very different from buying an adult backpack because kids have smaller physical proportions. They also grow very quickly so you want to make sure that you purchase a backpack that can be adjusted over time. In addition to bringing them close to nature, the accomplishment they feel at being able to carry everything they need on their backs over miles of backcountry terrain is a great confidence builder. However, a well-chosen, properly-packed backpack is probably the single biggest difference between misery and enjoyment on the trail.
Here are the top 10 backpacks we recommend for kids. All of them have adjustable-length torsos to account for their growth as they get older.
|Make / Model||Kids Specific||Price|
|REI Tarn 40||Yes||$100|
|Osprey Ace 38||Yes||$160|
|Gregory Wander 50||Yes||$200|
|REI Tarn 65||Yes||$165|
|Osprey Ace 50||Yes||$190|
|ULA Spark 41||Yes||$230|
|Teton Sports Scout 3400||No||$80|
|Deuter Fox 40||Yes||$130|
|Gregory Icarus 40||Yes||$130|
|Amazon Basics 55||No||$70|
1. REI Tarn 40 Pack – Kid’s
2. Osprey Ace 38
3. Gregory Wander 50 Youth Backpack
4. REI Tarn 65 Pack – Kids
5. Osprey Ace 50
6. ULA Spark Backpack
7. Teton Sports Scout 3400
8. Deuter Fox 40
9. Gregory Icarus 40 Backpack
10. Amazon Basics 55
How to Buy a Kid’s Backpack
Kid’s Backpack Volume
Avoid buying a backpack that has too much volume. Overpacking is tempting; it’s a natural tendency to fill the pack all the way, resulting in a far heavier pack than necessary. Almost as bad is an under-packed backpack, with its contents bouncing jauntily at every step and the top pocket flopping loosely even though its straps are fully tightened. The 40 to 50 liter capacity range makes a great choice for the young backpacker, big enough to hold their personal gear and a share of group gear for a weekend trip.
Appropriate Gear Weight for Kids
Ensure that the load your child is carrying is appropriate for their size and stature. A 20-pound pack is a much more difficult burden for a 60-pound child than a 100 pound one, no matter what physical condition the child is in.
Torso Length Adjustability
Look for adjustability in the pack in a couple of key areas. The torso length adjustment allows the pack to accommodate growth. A nice feature on a pack is the ability to adjust the torso length while it’s being worn. This lets you dial in the fit of the pack with much less trial and error. Where the waist belt sits on the torso needs some experimentation to find the right spot, and that often necessitates ongoing torso length adjustments.
Hip Belt Padding
Young backpackers lack the amount of, shall we say, padding around the waist. This gives a couple of important considerations. Less prominence to the hips and waist means that a low-slung pack will not transfer weight to the lower body as well as on an adult. As a result, most kids will need to wear the hip belt higher than an adult would. There isn’t as much cushioning between skin and bone as with adults, so ample padding in the waistband prevents raw spots and bruising. The hip belt should be able to be worn comfortably but still be tightened further; if it is fully cinched down in the store, it will be too loose on the trail.
Complaints of Backpack Discomfort
Hit the trail with the expectation that the pack may need to be adjusted frequently, especially for a new backpacker. Sometimes I swear my children have grown a couple of inches overnight! A few minutes ensuring the proper fit can make for a far happier trip. If your child is complaining about hurting, take the time to find out where they’re feeling pain or pressure, then take steps to alleviate the situation. (Hint: I’ve solved a lot of complaints simply by grabbing the carry strap on the pack, raising it up, tightening the hip belt, and loosening the shoulder straps a touch.)
Ultralight Backpacks for Kids
While the temptation is there to purchase an ultralight pack and save weight on a child’s body, very few ultralight packs feature the adjustability needed for a kid’s pack to last longer than a year or so. I hope that will change when ultralight backpacking companies discover the youth market, but today’s ultralight backpacks aren’t built or priced for kids with rapid torso-length growth spurts.
Pay attention to where the shoulder straps hit. They will be too far apart on many adult packs, pulling the points of the shoulders backward. The straps should ideally rest where the trapezius muscle meets the shoulder blade. This keeps the strap on the meaty part of the shoulder rather than the bonier end of the shoulder blade. The pack should be supported with the shoulder in a natural posture rather than having to pull forward or up, which causes muscular fatigue.
Many kid’s backpacks come without load lifters. While I likely wouldn’t consider a non-ultralight adult backpack without load lifters, it’s not a requirement in a kid pack because torso length adjustment serves the purpose. A good test to make sure shoulder straps without load lifters are set properly is to have the wearer shrug their shoulders. If the shrug has more than minimal resistance from the weight of the pack, the straps are likely too low.
While it’s tempting to buy an inexpensive pack, beware of poor quality discount packs. Look for reinforced stitching at weight-bearing points, especially where the shoulder straps and hip belt meet the bottom of the pack. The buckles, especially the hip belt buckles, should feel beefy and substantial without any flex—if you don’t feel like you can tighten the buckle vigorously, it likely will not hold up to the stress of backpacking.
With younger backpackers, it’s also important to pay attention to proper packing techniques. There’s a temptation to hang a tent and/or sleeping bag from the straps or tie points toward the bottom of the pack. This throws the balance off by pulling the wearer backward from the shoulders. Relocating the hanging item between the pack body and top pocket transfers the weight to the hips and legs instead.
While investing in a good-quality backpack with the full knowledge that your child will likely grow out of it in a few years may feel daunting, most will have good resale value to offset some of the cost when they move to larger packs and adventures. The investment in a proper fitting pack now will contribute to happier miles, for both of you.SectionHiker is reader-supported. We only make money if you purchase a product through our affiliate links. Help us continue to test and write unsponsored and independent gear reviews, beginner FAQs, and free hiking guides.
As the article points out, pack weight is even more important for kids than adults. Unfortunately, most kids’ backpacks are extremely heavy. My pack is not ultralight, it’s a 60 liter Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor that weighs 42 ounces and can easily carry 40 lb loads. But it weighs considerably less than every 50+ liter pack on this list. Even most of the 40 liter packs are heavier; the only ones that are lighter are the ULA Spark (33 ounces) and the Gregory Icarus 40 (36 ounces). Speaking of the Icarus, the article should at least mention that it doesn’t have hip belt pockets.
I try to keep my daughter’s pack weight under 14 pounds (20% of her body weight), and it’s annoying to have a backpack take 2-3 lbs before I even put something in it. I recently gave up and sewed her a frameless pack, since she isn’t carrying heavy loads anyways.
Unfortunately, I think this list really is the 10 “best” kids’ backpacks, even though none of them are all that great. The kid backpack market is simply decades behind the adult market.
I wish it was that simple. Most parents can’t afford to buy a new backpack for their kids each year as they grow, so adjustable torso length is a must have. That feature can add a lot of weight to a backpack, even in the case of the Ultralight Spark which is over 2 lbs in weight. While the weight of a pack is important, perhaps more focus should be put on the contents of the backpack instead. That’s where the bulk of the weight is.
With regard to volume of a kid’s pack, I’d also warn not to go too small. Kids tend to have synthetic fill sleeping bags that take up more space, without being particularly heavy.
I bought my son a Deuter Fox 40 after he tried multiple packs with weight at the outfitter, and he declared that was “the one”. His sleeping bag alone takes up 2/3 of the space in the bag. On scout outings he can’t fit his both his 2 person tent and sleeping bag inside the pack.
I also suspect the Fox 40 is closer to 30 liters, at least in the main compartment. My pack claims 46 liters of internal capacity, and the Fox 40 isn’t even close to the same volume.
I’ve learned a lot of lessons, generally the hard way, while taking my grandkids and their friends backpacking. I’ve been taking my grandson backpacking since he was four. He can now, quite disgustingly, dunk a basketball over Grandpa… but I still clobber him at the free throw line!
One of his first backpacks was a cheap school pack, which came completely apart on one trip and I spent much of the rest of that outing trying to keep the thing together. I then bought him an REI Flash 18, which worked for a year or two until he outgrew it and it became his sister’s pack. I replaced the Flash 18 an REI Flash 22, which worked until he outgrew that and I now use it as my day pack. Both of those REI packs are rather inexpensive and quite lightweight. My grandkids are adult size now so they use some of my spare adult packs.
One of the most comfortable adult packs I own is rather heavy. What I do when we have an expedition of the kiddos and their friends is weight limit the packs. Depending on who’s carrying it, the heavy pack may get a lighter load than the more lightweight packs. I decide on an appropriate pack weight for each hiker and divvy up the load accordingly.
The point about the synthetic bags is one I learned the hard way. When my grandson was four, I bought him a Marmot 30º down bag and he spilled his hot chocolate inside it the first time we used it. Afterwards, I bought him a child size synthetic bag, which he used until it he outgrew it and it became his sister’s bag. By the time they outgrew the smaller synthetic bag, they were mature enough to properly care for the more delicate down products.
Kids grow, and unfortunately, the budgets sometimes fail to keep up. When I stress over the cost of camping gear, I think of the cost of motels and the fact that the camping gear only gets paid for once. Saving a couple days in a motel will buy a nice piece of gear.
The kid will also need a backpack for school. With books, lunch, etc., it may weigh more than what (s)he takes backpacking! The hip belt and frame are especially important. You’ll be saving future back problems for your child/teenager by using the supportive backpacking backpack for school, even though it will wear out sooner. At least you won’t have to worry about reselling it. Also, style is important to children of any age, so be sure to enlist his/her help in choosing the pack.
This is a very helpful list – especially if you’re looking to outfit your kid(s) but aren’t sure they’ll be “all-in” on the hiking/backpacking experience. I’m gradually trying to get my 12-year old son to go with me:
2021: I had him use an old Kelty external frame that I used as a kid. Pro’s: Good stability and frame, but too rigid and he out-grew it any way.
2022: I was at EMS in Peterborough and the associate was super helpful and had him fitted for a Gregory Wander. But I balked at the price and ended up getting him an REI Tarn used but in almost-new-condition. It was still pretty heavy on its own and the lid was overkill although the torso adjustment was super easy. Of note, since he is so light, he doesn’t really have much center-mass and when he tried to tug down on the shoulder straps and hip belt to tighten them, I had to hold him steady so he could get leverage. Kind of funny to see him spin himself around trying to tighten his pack. He used that pack on a few overnights, but hit the wall on some uphills and offered verbal resistance that became a steady insurrection about continuing hiking. Too heavy! was his refrain.
2023: I ended up getting him a new Waymark Mile 25L on sale with just the web belt ($140.00 total). It is super light, the perfect amount of storage, has a mostly water-proof zipper pocket so he can store his electronics. I agree with Mr. Werner in that it makes more sense to invest in lighter gear if possible so I got him an REI Magma 15 degree bag that he can grow into. It packs down small, keeps him warm and is only 1 lb 13oz. We shall see how he manages this spring and summer. I don’t want to turn him off from hiking so I figured I would try to lighten his load. (And if when grows out of the pack, it can still be a great daypack for a child through adult).
Finally – I really appreciate sectionhiker.com and all the knowledge and expertise that Mr. Werner and team provide. Such a phenomenal resource!
I love your site, thanks for the information, Hopefully you can help me, I am a 175 pounds man, I am going for a 4 days hike, is there a specific model you would advice since I have a very sensitive lower back. thanks in advance for your time….Eric
This should work. It has a ventilated mesh backpanel which will largely eliminate any weight on your back.