How To Choose The Right Hiking Backpack
Since you will be wearing the backpack almost constantly throughout your trip, choosing the appropriate backpack is one of the most crucial decisions you will make.
Each range of backpacks has unique features that can be useful for your adventure. Compression straps, waterproof stash points, top-loading openings, panel access, elasticized side pockets, a pocket for your sunglasses, attachment points for your rope, helmet, or sleeping bag… Some bags have inventive suspensions that help you achieve a comfortable carry while maintaining airflow behind your back. Others are lightweight and have a straightforward design with basic features. Some are minimalistic to keep you fast and light, while some are built to haul a kitchen sink.
Our recommendations are meant to help you narrow down your choices based on how you plan to use the pack, how long you need to use it for, and perhaps most importantly, how to find the most comfortable pack for you, as so much of the selection is based on personal preference.
Everyone has a different motivation for venturing into the backcountry. Which type of hiking are you interested in? You can start to weed out models that won’t meet your needs and concentrate on the features that matter the most to your particular needs by considering how you’d like to adventure with your pack.
Are you the kind of hiker who prioritizes a comfortable camp setup and a few novelty items to pass the time rather than worrying too much about weight reduction? Do you want to be able to take extra comforts into the woods, even if it means carrying more weight, such as a deck of cards, a flask, a pillow, an extra tarp, camera equipment, and a kite? If you don’t intend to hike as far or as quickly, you’ll probably lean toward a Backpacking Pack that is a little bit bigger, has a respectable weight-carrying capacity, and has a good selection of exterior pockets.
On the other hand, would you prefer to give up luxury items to lighten your load and enable you to move quickly? If you enjoy challenging your body and take pride in completing big-mile days, a lighter Day Pack with a smaller capacity is a better fit for you.
Check out our article Backpacking Packs vs Daypacks. for a more in-depth comparison between these two options.
1. Backpacking Packs
Backpacking packs typically have capacities between 50 and 80 liters and are made to carry heavy loads (30 to 50 pounds) for several days. Backpacking packs are generally built with an internal frame and a suspension system with numerous adjustment points to allow you to carry the weight comfortably.
The daypack is a crucial component of our equipment lineup and the ideal companion for any outdoor enthusiast. Hiking with a comfortable and effective backpack allows us to bring along trekking essentials like water, snacks, and extra layers, as well as some extras like a camera or summit beers.
The right daypack can be useful for both large and small hikes, as well as a range of other activities like canoeing or fishing.
Hiking Backpack Volume
Prior to anything else, you must decide on the type of hiking you will do and the length of your journey. You need to think about the weight and size of each piece of equipment you will need to carry. The appropriate size for your backpack can range from 30 to 80 liters, depending on the equipment you have and the number of days of your adventure.
1. Backpacks For Day Hikes
Less Than 25 Liters
For short-length trips, 10 to 30 liters is right on the money. Within these parameters, you can comfortably bring everything you’ll need on your journey. For a couple of hours on the trail, you typically only need water, an extra piece or two of clothing for unexpected weather, some nutrition, and perhaps hiking poles.
2. Backpacks For Overnight Hikes
1 Night; 25-35 Liters
When heading out for a night, there is no need to bring everything. Pack light and it will make the hike to and from your camp more enjoyable. These packs can also be used for extended day hikes.
3. Backpacks For Weekend Trips
1-3 Days; 30-50 Liters
On 1- to 3-night trips, efficient packers should really keep things light by using a pack in this size range. Be aware that traveling light necessitates self-control and forethought. However, the light-on-your-feet rewards are fantastic if you can pull it off.
4. Backpacks For Multi-Day Trips
3-5 Days; 50-80 Liters
The most popular backpacking packs for journeys lasting three days or longer are the 50 – 80 liter range. These are suitable as well for shorter trips where you pack a little more opulently or multisport activities like backcountry skiing.
5. Backpacks For Longer Treks
5+ Days; 70+ Liters
Packs of 70 liters or more are typically needed for trips lasting 5 days or longer. These are also typically the best option for multi-night winter treks. (Larger packs can more easily fit extra clothing, a warmer sleeping bag, and a 4-season tent, which usually comes with extra poles.)
How do I choose a pack that is a good fit for my body?
It doesn’t matter how much gear you are bringing – if a pack does not fit your body correctly, you will not be comfortable on the trail. When picking the right size pack for your body, there are two measurements that you should understand. The first is your torso length and the second is your hip size.
Finding your Torso Length
The most crucial factor in choosing a backpack that will fit you well is your torso length. A pack that is too tall or too short won’t have proper weight distribution, resulting in discomfort and hot spots. Tilt your head forward and measure the distance from your C7 vertebra (the most prominent bone where your shoulders meet the base of your neck) straight down to your iliac crest (the point of your back that is parallel to the top of your hip bones).
Choosing the proper hipbelt size is crucial because your hips (not your shoulders) should support about 80% of the weight of a backpack. A flexible tape measure should be wrapped around the top of your hips, not your waist, to determine your hip size. Hipbelt size typically differs from pant-waist size because this measurement is a little higher than your beltline.
For a more in-depth explanation, check out this video tutorial on how to properly fit a backpack.
Pack Anatomy & Proper Adjustment
Knowing how to use your pack’s features may not have any impact on your initial purchase choice. However, it does enhance your hiking experience and enable you to use a pack comfortably and effectively while carrying various loads and equipment.
Your adventure will benefit from knowing how to quickly fasten your detachable daypack, secure your skis or trekking poles to the side, or correctly adjust the load lifters. An easy diagram of a pack’s components is shown below.
Padded Hip Belt: An enjoyable hiking experience can be made or broken by a hip belt that fits properly. The weight of your backpack should be evenly distributed to prevent strain on your shoulders. Larger hip belts and more padding are typically found on bigger backpacks (50L and up). On the other hand, daypacks aren’t always equipped with a hip belt.
Padded Shoulder Straps: Similar to hip belts, the size of the backpack directly affects the padding’s type and thickness. While thinner straps offer greater flexibility, thicker padded ones offer comfort and support.
Chest Strap: The sternum strap, also known as the chest strap, fastens the shoulder straps. By keeping the shoulder straps in place, it adds an additional level of stability. Along with a hip belt, this is a must-have item for me. You’ll feel the benefits in your back, shoulders, and hips.
Padded Back Panel (with Internal Frame): The back panel should be padded and contoured for maximum comfort. To prevent any back pain, it should support the natural arch of your back. The best backpacks are also the most ergonomic, and they have an internal frame. This adds another level of support while assisting in keeping everything in place.
Load Lifting Straps: The shoulder straps are attached to the top of the back frame by these adjustment straps. You can adjust the distance between your body and the backpack using them. It is a crucial feature that keeps a bulky backpack from slipping off.
Testing the Fit of the Hiking Backpack
If you’ve found a backpack that fits your body properly, you can try it on to get a sense of how it feels. As was previously mentioned, you want the weight to rest on your hips rather than your shoulders. Put some weights, a jacket, some clothes, or really anything into the backpack to test how it feels with weight inside.
- First, make sure the waist strap is snug around your hips but not so tight you can’t breathe.
- After that, tighten the shoulder straps. The backpack should feel snug against your back and not hanging off your back.
- Fasten the sternum strap on, then wobble around. Do the twist, then begin jogging lightly.
Hiking Backpack Features
The characteristics of a backpack can frequently influence a purchase. For some trips, certain features are necessary, and they make the entire trip more comfortable. For travel in more humid climates, features like integrated rain covers are ideal. Hydration-compatible backpacks reduce the need for frequent water breaks and are excellent for all types of travel, particularly in hot, dry climates. The hose on your hydration bladder may freeze if you are traveling in below-freezing temperatures, so it’s important to keep these things in mind.
The backpack weight can sometimes be about tradeoffs. A pack’s weight directly relates to how much weight you are carrying on your back and, generally speaking, how quickly your hips, back, and shoulders might become sore. But many packs have a tendency to weigh more because they have more features (such as pockets, cords, clips, etc.), provide more comfort (such as more padding, a more durable suspension, and frame), or both. You must decide which is more important to you: enhancing creature comforts or lightening the load on your back.
A Note on Pack Weight: In the last decade, the technology of backpacking materials has advanced significantly. Similar packs that once weighed 8 pounds can now be half that size. The comfort and weight savings they bring should pleasantly surprise you if you upgrade from an old-school pack to a newer one with an equivalent volume and load rating.
However, the pack itself is not where to start if you’ve made the decision to reduce your overall pack weight. In other words, don’t sacrifice comfort features to shed a pound when your pack’s contents account for the majority of its weight. A lighter pack will reduce your overall load, but sometimes that comes at the expense of suspension or padding that would ultimately make your trip more comfortable. Because of this, it’s preferable to lighten the rest of your kit first, concentrating on what you bring but never use. If you haven’t used something in two weeks, it’s a good idea to send it home.
There are three frame types for hiking backpacks and each will have its pros and cons.
1. Frameless backpacks: Due to their flexible construction and lack of “heavy” aluminum rods or plastic framesheets, frameless backpacks are very lightweight. A 40-liter, high-quality frameless backpack can weigh as little as 20 ounces (600 grams). Because a rigid construction is necessary for this, the drawback of frameless backpacks is that they are less effective at transferring weight from the shoulders to the hips (via the hip belt).
As a result, they cannot handle heavy loads and typically have a capacity of no more than 40 liters. However, due to their light weight, frameless backpacks are particularly helpful for day hikes and quick, light mountain ascents.
2. External-frame backpacks: These are now rarely used for hiking since external-frame backpacks are heavier, bigger, and less portable than the other two types of backpacks. An external-frame backpack consists of an aluminum frame, a pack, shoulder straps, and a hip belt. To provide effective load support, the aluminum frame is totally rigid. However, the large, sturdy aluminum frame also significantly adds to the system’s weight; a 50-liter external-frame backpack typically weighs more than 70 ounces. External-frame backpacks have the benefit of typically having highly adjustable harnesses. Furthermore, they can also be customized – you can easily replace the pack with a bigger or a smaller pack without replacing the frame or harness.
3. Internal-frame backpacks: The internal-framed backpacks’ rigid design makes it possible for the weight to be efficiently transferred from the shoulders to the hips (via the hip belt). This improves your performance because the hips are supported by more muscle tissue than the shoulders. Internal-frame backpacks are typically heavier than frameless backpacks as the rigid structure adds some extra weight. However, some internal-frame backpacks have detachable frame sheets or rods that allow you to lighten the weight if rigidity is not necessary (when carrying light items, for example). Internal-frame backpacks with a capacity around 40 liters are the most common type of hiking bags.
They may include a variety of load-support technologies that all work to transfer the load to the wearer’s hips and are intended to keep a hiker stable on unsteady, uneven terrain. Let’s discuss some of these load-support technologies:
- Aluminum Stays: To give the pack shape and stiffness, these thin support rods are positioned along its length. The majority of packs have one or two down the sides of the pack frame.
- Framesheet: This is a thin, semi-rigid piece of material that lines the back of a pack to maintain its shape and shield the wearer from sharp objects. Some models feature detachable frame sheets, while others already include this component. To provide support, packs frequently use an aluminum stay as well as a frame sheet.
- Perimeter Frame: On the backside of these packs, there is a very small amount of aluminum tubing that contours around the outside of the pack. In order to prevent sweat from collecting on the back, this feature can also help create an airflow design that elevates the pack off of the back. As the weight is forced farther away from your back, this style typically provides less support for heavier loads.
Access to the bag
Make sure the bag has a good opening. The opening should be large enough to fit your body inside and allow you easy access to all of your equipment without having to remove things or move them around too much. Make sure the bag has a good closure. This is especially important if you plan on using the backpack while traveling, as it will help keep your belongings safe from theft or damage.
Make sure the bag has a good handle. A comfortable handle means that you can carry the backpack with ease, even for long distances; this makes hiking more enjoyable! Finally, make sure that you’re comfortable carrying your new backpack around before purchasing so that it’s not too heavy or bulky for you personally — otherwise, it may end up being more trouble than what’s worth!
If you plan to carry the backpack for a long time, comfort is key, so look for sufficient padding. A padded hip belt is necessary because the majority of the pack load will rest on your hips. Try the backpack on and pay close attention to any sore spots or uncomfortable areas. Another crucial feature is padded shoulder straps. After a long day, a heavy load with thinly padded shoulder straps could cause sore shoulders or back muscles.
Whether you go hiking in the summer, fall, or winter, staying hydrated is crucial. Hydration-compatible backpacks make it simple and efficient for you to stay hydrated while avoiding unnecessary water breaks. Typically, the water bladder will have a hose attached to it that you can conveniently attach to one of your shoulder straps. Having a thirst while traveling? Take hold of the hose and start drinking.
Compartments and Storage
Pockets! They are needed and loved by us. For some hikers, a backpack with more pockets is preferable. Others may find more pockets on the backpack to be a hassle. If you enjoy having pockets, this will be one of the key characteristics you should consider when selecting a hiking backpack. Ideally, you would want to have a backpack that can store the following items and separate them from each other:
- Compartment for water: You’ll want a separate space for storing your water bottle so you don’t have to rummage around in the main compartment when it’s time for a drink.
- Compartment for clothes: This could be anything from an internal sleeve pocket or mesh bag (for dirty clothes) to an external pocket on the back of the pack where you can store jackets or ponchos.
- Compartment for food: If you plan on packing along snacks and trail mix while hiking, consider buying one or more side pockets specifically made for snacks. Some packs come with these built-in already; otherwise, they’re easy enough to add yourself by attaching some small pouches onto those straps right above your hips (that’s where they’ll sit comfortably).
Hip Belt Pockets
Hip belt pockets are great for storing small items like snacks, chapstick, a phone, or a GPS. You don’t need to stop or remove the backpack to find what you’re looking for because your items are nearby and stored conveniently.
Backpacks typically have side pockets that are elasticized. For convenient hydration, these pockets are the ideal place to store a water bottle. Keeping a pair of sandals nearby is also practical. When you arrive at camp, there’s nothing better than taking off your hiking boots and donning some sandals. Obviously, if you are hiking in the cold or in the snow, this isn’t the case.
Whether there is a single large zippered front pocket or a pocket with buckle closure, this is a good place to store a map or a dry jacket. Smaller internal pockets for organization can be found inside some front pockets. Others will be made of water-resistant materials and designed to keep your dry gear separate from your wet gear.
Some backpacks come equipped with lid pockets. These pockets are typically quite small and made to hold flat or small objects. If you’re traveling in colder weather or crossing a ridge, this would be a great place to store a toque or some gloves.
External Hooks & Loops
It’s a big advantage to be able to carry items outside of your hiking backpack. In general, a backpack’s bottom, as well as its sides or front, will have sturdy straps thatare perfect for securing tents and larger rolled-up sleeping pads made of foam. Hiking poles and ice axes are better attached to the side or the front of the backpack. You don’t want to have these attached horizontally using the straps at the bottom of the bag as you risk getting caught on obstacles along the trails.
To keep your gear dry while hiking in wet or rainy conditions, look for a pack with an outer layer that is waterproof or water-resistant. Finding a backpack with a rain cover is the best way to make sure it stays dry. A separate piece of fabric called a rain cover will cover the outside of your pack and protect it from precipitation. As an alternative, try looking at bags with water-resistant coatings or roll-top closures (although these aren’t entirely reliable)
An alternative is to bundle your gear in waterproof stuff sacks internally. Strong gusts can easily tear a pack’s cover off in windy conditions, so lighter stuff sacks may be a better choice.
When you’re testing out a backpack, make sure to check the straps. Check out if you can adjust the shoulder straps so that they fit snugly but not too tight; you’ll want them to be comfortable and not digging into your skin or causing pain. This will ensure that you have a firm grip on your pack while hiking, rather than it slipping off your shoulders and onto the ground!
The waist strap is also important—it helps distribute some of the weight onto your hips rather than just on your shoulders, so having one is important if you want to keep things comfortable while hiking!
Cost And Durability
The priciest bag isn’t always the best option for you! However, the quality of the materials used and the features a backpack has tend to determine the price of the backpack.You don’t need to spend a lot of money on a top-of-the-line, technical pack if you only take occasional short hikes. However, if you are an expert hiker and go on hikes that last at least a few days, the investment would be well worth it. While more expensive than a polyester pack, a tough nylon pack is significantly more durable. A comfortable backpack would also have mesh on the back, shoulder straps, and hipbelt for ventilation.
So that you can use your hiking backpack for as long as possible, keep in mind to take good care of your it by regularly cleaning and maintaining it.
Now that you have all the knowledge necessary to select the ideal backpack, all you need to do is choose a color! Enjoy your travels!
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