You need a reliable backpack for your hiking adventures. Whether it’s a short hike or a multi-day one on the trail of your dreams, having the right pack on your back containing all the essentials will make your trip safer, more convenient, and more enjoyable. Having said that, a hastily-bought hiking backpack can quickly make the hike unpleasant and ruin your overall experience.
Yet, one problem is that the market is flooded with so many options, making it downright confusing to pick which is the best hiking backpack for you. You need to take many aspects into account as you might be wearing your backpack for extended periods and in a wide array of conditions. With that, you must also ensure that your backpack can endure all the rigors of your chosen journey.
To help out, here’s our guide to make the search smoother and easier. Read ahead and use all information in your decision-making process to ultimately lead you in finding the best backpack for your hikes. Let’s get started!
Factors To Consider When Picking A Backpack For Hiking
One of the primary steps you need to take is to figure out how much capacity or pack volume you need. You must know the length of your hike. The longer your trip, the more supplies you’ll need when you’re out and about. Your hiking backpack should be able to carry all the necessities so you can spend a day or several days outdoors without any embarrassment.
If you’re onto a short hike, perhaps for a day to two, a backpack with a capacity of 30-50 liters will already suffice. For three to five long-distance overnight hikes, you will need a pack volume of 50L to 80L. If you’re going on a more serious adventure lasting for more than five days to more than two weeks, your safer bet is to go 70L or larger. To give you more insight, see the breakdown below:
Weekend Trip (1-3 nights): 30-50 Liters
If you’re only immersing in nature on a 1- to 3-night hike, you’ll do better by bringing lightweight, less bulky gear. Get a backpack within the 30L to 50L range. Just note that packing light entails careful, thorough planning and strict self-discipline. Don’t worry, if you’re able to manage, your reward is an easy-to-carry pack that won’t weigh and slow you down and rather helps you avoid unnecessary aches and pains.
Multi-day Trips (3-5 nights): 50-80 Liters
Backpacks with 50- to 80-liter capacity are an excellent choice for multi-day hikes lasting for 3-5 nights. They are the most popular ones you’ll see in the market as these packs can cater to most trips and eventualities. The additional space is handy, especially if you plan to pack a little more luxurious than average vacationers or if you need to carry extra gear for multisport activities.
Extended Trips (5+ nights): 70 Liters or Larger
Trips of over five days generally require backpacks of 70 liters or more. They are ideal for longer trips in the wild or expeditions in harsh environments, as you’ll be able to accommodate more supplies and equipment. These backpacks also suit winter treks lasting for more than a night, given that such a trip usually means having to bring extra layers of clothes, a sleeping bag, and a tent. If you’re backpacking with children, you should also aim for 70L or more capacity to carry more of the kits.
Note that a good habit is purchasing your pack after you’ve finished buying or gathering the rest of your gear. That way, you’ll know that you’re shooting for a backpack with the appropriate carrying capacity. Another reminder, don’t overload your pack. A half-full large pack is always easier and more comfortable to carry than a small, crowded bag.
The next thing to take into account when picking a backpack for hiking is the weight. Truth to be told, there’s no standard rule in determining the ideal weight of a backpack. Factors such as your trip duration, the type of activities you intend to do, the weather, and the backpack’s maximum total load can all affect your choice. To give you a clearer view, check the list of backpacks, their corresponding weight, and general specifications below:
Ultralight Packs: Ultralight backpacks weigh more or less half a kilo and are specifically designed to support up to 9 kg. These backpacks have fewer features and usually don’t have frames, hip belts, or back padding.
Lightweight Packs: Lightweight backpacks typically weigh between 0.5 to 2 kg and can carry up to 18-20 kg. With a 40-80 liter capacity, these packs are the most ideal for hikers engaging on weekend or multi-day trips.
Standard Packs: Standard backpacks are the more complex and sophisticated types, allowing them to carry and support heavier loads. They are best suited for extended trips, winter treks, or other extreme hikes that involve carrying extra gear.
A general rule of thumb is that you should only be carrying 15-25% of your body weight. So, if you’re 80 kg (176 lbs.), the load in your hiking backpack should only be between 12 to 20 kg. Yet, there are a few exceptions, such as desert hiking (more water) or winter hiking (extra layers of clothes and bulkier gear).
Just don’t carry a load that is more than what you can handle. After all, you don’t want to get exhausted easily and risk your health. Try to lay down all the items you’ve gathered and prune out all the unnecessary things. Once you’re done, try to pack your gear and test your backpack at home before your trip.
3. Comfort & Fit
Before buying a hiking backpack, make sure that it fits your body correctly and comfortably. Your torso length and waist width are two main factors you should devote focus to finding a well-fitted pack.
To find your torso length, stand straight, tilt your head forward, and find your C7 or your first thoracic vertebrae. It’s the lump that seemingly sticks out when you run your hand down on the base of your neck. Afterward, locate the top of your hip bone. The measurement of the line between your C7 and the top of your hip bone is your torso length.
Packs usually come in torso sizes that range from small to large. Sizing can vary brand per brand, so make sure to refer to the size chart of the packs you’re interested in before settling on a backpack. Generally, XS backpacks are for a torso length between 15-17 inches, small for 16-19 inches, medium for 18-21 inches, and large for 20-23 inches.
While hip width won’t determine your right backpack size like having your torso length does, it’s a crucial step in knowing if the backpack’s hip belt will fit your hips. Your hips are higher than your waist. As such, the measurement will be relatively close to the size of your pants.
Once you’ve found a pack using your torso length and hip width, test it first and see how the backpack feels. Be mindful that you should feel the weight on your hips and not on your shoulders. You can add jackets, clothes, and other things into the backpack so you can properly check how it feels. The pack should also feel snug and stable on your back without any uncomfortable spots.
Though the capacity, weight, comfort, and fit of the backpack are all crucial factors, the features are often the deciding point for most hikers for a purchase. It’s little wonder as the majority of these features are vital for certain trips and will bring ease to the entire adventure. Just remember that not all of them are for everyone. So, be sure to assess which feature you actually need depending on your trip. Below is the features of hiking backpacks to look out for:
A. Frame Type
There are three different frame types for hiking backpacks, and each of them has advantages and downsides.
Internal Frame Backpacks: Most packs that you can see in the market feature an internal frame. Their structure is hidden inside the back panel, and they are designed to the shape of your body and disperse the load’s weight. Thus, helping you remain stable even on uneven terrain. As most of the weight should be on the hips, certain backpacks add load-support technologies to transfer the load weight to your hips.
External Frame Backpacks: As their name suggests, these backpacks’ structure supporting the load is visible on the outside. The hardware, usually made of aluminum, extends beyond the pack, making them a suitable choice if you’re carrying heavy, slightly irregular loads, such as an inflatable boat, an oversized tent, or other abnormally-sized equipment. These packs are pretty uncommon, but they offer excellent ventilation and many organization options.
Frameless Backpacks: Frameless backpacks are the best ally for weight-conscious hikers. If you want to hike fast and light, these are the perfect solution, as the removable frame or lack of frame at all means considerable weight savings. However, be careful, as frameless backpacks tend to be pretty uncomfortable under heavy loads.
B. Suspension System
Suspension systems effectively transfer the weight of your backpack’s load to your hips and prevent it from falling onto your shoulders and causing pain. Aside from the frame, the suspension system has many other components. To select the proper backpack suspension, it pays to know each of them and their specific purpose.
Hip Belt: This is the most vital part of a backpack’s suspension system. It is designed for carrying a load weight of over 10 kg. A well-padded, relatively rigid hip belt that fits anatomically on your hips is essential for a great hiking experience, allowing you to stand upright and carry a heavy load with ease for extended periods. Smaller backpacks tend to have minimal padding as they carry a light load. Some even smaller packs built for very light loads don’t have padding at all.
Shoulder Straps: Like with hip belts, the bigger the backpack, the beefier the shoulder straps are. But they are not as thick as hip bets, as most of the weight should still be supported by your hips. Nevertheless, the shoulder straps must be comfortable to wear sans any pinching or chafing. They should also be curved so that they can run neatly under your arms without twisting. While thick padded straps offer the best comfort and support, some hikers aim for thinner shoulder straps for more freedom of movement.
Sternum Straps: Also called chest straps, sternum straps are attached to the shoulder straps and sit across the chest. While they can feel restrictive, they keep the pack steady and prevents the shoulder straps from slipping. Both the length and the position of the chest strap should be adjustable for varying the points of pressure. But ideally, they should lie just below your neck to avoid placing pressure on your chest.
Load-lifter Straps: These straps may seem small, but they are integral to carrying them as comfy as possible. They connect the shoulder straps to the top edge of the backpack. Adjusting the load-lifter straps allows you to change the distance and angle of the pack while keeping it balanced over your hips. Their primary purpose is to prevent a heavy backpack from pulling away from you. Thus, keeping most of the weight on your hips.
Back Panel: It is the portion of the backpack that presses against your back. This should be contoured and padded for the utmost comfort and to prevent the contents of your pack from poking you.
C. Hydration Compatibility
Staying hydrated is essential regardless of whether you’re hiking in spring, summer, fall, or winter. Thankful, most backpacks today feature an internal sleeve to hold the hydration reservoir or water bladder. A tube and mouthpiece are then connected to it, allowing you to efficiently and conveniently access your drink and sip whenever you feel thirsty along the way. If you’re not using a hydration system, water bottle pockets are handy. What you’ll love about water bottles is that they are relatively easier to fill with a water filter and are less prone to failure. For better hydration, some hikers even use a combination of both.
D. Removable Daypack
When hiking, you may designate a base camp and then engage in side trips. If that’s the case, it isn’t practical to haul your backpack on every short hike or a quick visit to the town. Some packs come with a removable daypack that easily converts into a lightweight backpack or a hip belt pack, which is super convenient for carrying just your daily essentials.
E. Sleeping Bag Compartment
Today, more and more manufacturers are adding a sleeping bag compartment to their backpacks. It is usually a zippered stash pot that sits close to the bottom of the backpack. Such a feature is incredibly useful as you can take your sleeping bag out of the pack without unloading the other items. Plus, it already functions as a stuff sack so that you can keep your sleeping bag without its designated stuff or compression sack. If you’re not bringing a sleeping bag, you can utilize the space for other gear you’d like to access quickly.
A sweaty back is common, especially if you’re carrying an internal framed backpack on your hiking trip. While it can be totally avoided, you can somehow lessen it by opting for a pack with a competent ventilation system. Some backpacks feature a “tension-mesh suspension” that allows better airflow and boost back ventilation. Others have foam channels, also called “chimneys,” that aim to remedy the same issue. Check with the manufacturer or store what ventilation system the backpacks you’re eyeing have, especially if you’re planning to have multi-day hikes or hiking in the summer.
G. Pack Access
Most of the backpacks have the standard top-loading openings, meaning there’s a large opening at the top from which you can access all the items inside. It can be somewhat inconvenient, particularly if you just randomly pack your items. Expect that you’d be fishing out whatever you need. As such, you should pack efficiently by placing more essential items close to the top and overnight gear at the bottom.
Some packs feature panel access, allowing you to unzip the main bag without unloading the items from the top. Just note that extra features like this will add weight and cost. Some backpacks fold open like a suitcase. While they are convenient, they are pretty rare and are more common in travel packs.
Pockets are very handy in a backpack, but not all hikers love them. Some find it better to have more pockets, while others prefer fewer as they see pockets as a hassle. If you’re a pocket-lover, then it’s a feature that you should evaluate when picking a backpack for hiking. To give you an idea of what pockets you need, see the list below:
Lid Pocket: Some packs have lids pockets, which are typically small and are meant for storing small items. It’s great for keeping your sunglasses or a headlamp or for stashing your toque or gloves if you’re hiking during the colder seasons.
Front Pockets: Front pockets may come with a buckle closure or a zipper. Either way, it’s a great sport to store your dry jacket, map, or any larger items you need to access quickly. Some front pockets even have smaller compartments for storing smaller items. Others are even constructed using waterproof materials so you can separate your dry gear from your wet gear.
Side Pockets: Side snacks can hold your snacks, water bottle, fuel bottles for your backpacking stove, and other items you need to keep outside the pack. These pockets are commonly elasticized, but they can be a problem during winter as they lose elasticity in the cold. Not to mention that they also collect snow, which can be quite a hassle.
Hip Belt Pockets: These pockets are an excellent spot for keeping your smartphone, GPS, chapsticks, or snacks. You can quickly find and get what you need without having to take off your backpack.
I. Attachment Points
Being able to carry all your gear inside your pack is great. Yet, there are items or equipment that you cannot simply fit into your backpack due to their length and size, such as hiking poles and ice axes. A great solution to that is choosing a backpack with attachment points.
These loops or straps are situated on the front or on the side of the hiking backpack which allows you to attach tools to the exterior of the pack. Some examples of attachment points include daisy chains for helmets, wet gear, and other tools and hip belt gear loops for clipping skis and other oversized items.
J. Integrated Rain Cover
Another feature to check on a hiking backpack is an integrated rain cover. It’s especially handy when you’re hiking in a wet climate or should there be a sudden rain shower. While backpack fabrics are usually applied with waterproof coating, water can still seep through the zippers and seam. Plus, the fabric may also absorb rain, adding some weight on your load. Thus, making integrated rain covers handy. Some packs have permanently attached rain cover. That’s more convenient as you will never forget to pack it and you don’t have to fret about it sliding or slipping from your backpack.
Last thing you need to consider when picking a backpack for hiking is the price. Some backpacks can go as high as $600 or more, but you can already find decent backpacks at around $100. Never get cheap backpacks under $100 as they usually won’t last long and are not suitable for longer hiking trips. While you save up in the initial cost, you’ll spend more money in the long run having to constantly buy replacement backpacks.
If possible, choose backpacks that are worth $150 or more and opt for reliable brands. The more you spend, the better hiking backpack you can get. Think of your backpack as an investment and find the best value for your money.
Summing it all up, these are the necessary information you need to bear in mind when looking for a backpack for your hiking adventure. Again, the single “best” backpack doesn’t exist as each hiker’s need, preference, and travel style immensely varies. So, take time to evaluate all the listed to find the backpack that suits your necessities and liking. Once you’ve found the right backpack for you, pack it up and start hiking!