Small Backpacks, How to Pick

Why everyone should start looking at smaller backpacks, not larger backpacks.

I really like smaller backpacks (sub-18L) for a couple of reasons:

  1. They are less cumbersome to tote with you, and when it is hot they don’t cause as much coverage on your back, which in turn keeps you cooler.
  2. They force you to carry less, which means a lighter bag, and a happier outing. Carrying too much is a disease, next thing you know you’ll be saving all your files to your desktop.

The issue though, is that it’s even more important to get your bag sizing correct when you are getting a smaller backpack. Bags below the 18L mark can look goofy on certain people (I know, I’m 6’-3”), or they can be laid out in a useless manner, and all manner of other flaws are exacerbated on a smaller bag. Larger bags tend to hide flaws about the bag itself, because the extra volume makes them feel far more useful than they actually might be.

This is why I talk a lot about finding smaller bags and specifically the GORUCK Bullet Ruck 10L. I have a ton of experience with the GORUCK 10L Bullet Ruck — it’s one of the best small bags you can buy. What’s amazing about this bag is that it looks fine on my back at 6’-3” and fine on my wife’s back at 5’-10”, and it’s still a compact 10L. If you go to the GORUCK Echo, at 16L, it looks absurd on my back. A bag which is 60% larger, looks much smaller on my back and is less comfortable to carry.

Which is why I have one very important metric when I look at smaller bags (or any bag): the height of the bag. It’s not the depth or width of bags which will make or break them, but rather the height. The Bullet Ruck measures 19” tall, and by comparison the Echo is 16.5” tall. For my body, I’ve found that a bag needs to be at least 18” tall to work (which is the height of a 21L GR1). Anything smaller and I start to run into problems with it looking too small for my back, and it becomes far less comfortable for me to wear.

The Only Rule: Look at the Dimensions

The thing about small bags is that the actual liter count doesn’t matter (remember, I still think we should measure volume with marbles), what matters is the dimensions of the bag. Take a look at three bags: Bullet Ruck 10L and 15L, and the Echo at 16L:

  • Echo: 16.5”H x 4.25”D X 11.5”W
  • 10L: 18.5”H x 5”D x 8.5”W
  • 15L: 18.5”H x 5.5”D x 10”W

The size of the Echo comes almost completely from the width of the bag. It is squat. The volume for the Bullet Rucks comes from the height — long and skinny. This is the only metric that matters when you are talking about smaller backpacks.

Measure the length of your torso, and then you’ll know what you need for sizing a small bag. Well, kind of, because the other factor is how the bag wears. GORUCK bags are made to ride high on your back, with the top roughly being at the top of your shoulders, while other bags are made to be worn a bit lower. In order to work this out, just look at photos of the bag being worn.

Taller people need taller bags, shorter people have far more options. Most people will be able to wear an 18” tall bag without any issues (tall or short).

Use the volume calculation of the bag to guide whether you should look at it, and the footprint of the bag to determine how it will actually fit on your body. Some bags will look too large on one person and tiny on another. The scale is important not only for visual aesthetics, but for comfort as well.

At Your Feet Bag

People have asked me why I like small bags so much, and the big reason is that they do not ever get in the way. How many times have you gone somewhere and needed to put your bag at your feet, only to be annoyed by your own bag being in your way? A smaller backpack greatly lessens this issue.

Not only is it easier to stash the bag at your feet, but accessing it in cramped areas is easier. Moving through crowded areas means there’s far less chance of smacking someone inadvertently with your bag as well. This is the most obvious thing out there, but even for me it took a while for this notion to click with me. A lot of frustrations I had with bags when I used them, was because of how cumbersome they became once I took them off my back.

On the other side, not using a bag (or using a pouch) often causes you never to have enough hands, and never knowing where you can safely set your stuff down while you dine, or whatever.

Small But Not Useless

Enough room for what you need, without getting you stuck moving through crowded places — that’s the goal of a small bag. A lot of people tell me they carry way too much stuff to use this small of a bag. And to some extent I understand that, but in many cases I find that the truth is simply they are over packing.

If I’m gone for an entire day and going to the gym, then yes I certainly am going to need far more space. But for the vast majority of what I do, and what many people do, 10-15L is all the room they will need for the essentials. That even includes devices and chargers.

I can pack in these bags, but most people likely cannot. What I can do is spend a day at the state fair with a 10L backpack and be glad I took it without ever being burdened by it. I can go out for a day of working and running around with a 15L bag and have everything I could need. And so can most people.

Whether or not a bag fits what you want to carry is less dependent on the volume of the bag, and more-so on the organization of the bag and your willingness to be honest about what you need to carry with you.

Some Bag Options

Here’s some smaller bags you might want to consider:

My Most Used Bag

My 10L Bullet Ruck has, for a while now, been one of my most used bags. However, since getting the 15L Bullet, I am confident it will quickly take over being my most used bag. The 15L doesn’t add much to my back, while also adding a ton of extra space.

For most people 15L is going to be a sweet spot for bags like this, but 18L will likely be all the bag many will need for all non-clothes packing usage. Smaller backpacks are great, and they really make life easier, jump in.

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